Flash Fiction: “Post-Mortem, Pre-Mortem Report”

Resurrection is great if you’re living in a video game.  Maybe not so great if we ever put it into practice.  But who knows until we try?

 Post-Mortem, Pre-Mortem Report, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 656

Eyes open to a blinding light.  Someone mutters an apology and the light dims.  I blink and look up at the plastic ceiling.

“You’re back!” Kensington smiles and passes his med-scanner over me.  “Vitals checking out, neural activity seems fine.  Name and birthdate?”

Though my lips are tingling, I manage to say, “John Aaron Cross.  February 11, 2198…”

“And the last thing you remember?” the nurse prompts.

My eyes close.  I search my memory.  These backups are so unsettling.  Always hard to tell my last moments from my remembered dreams.

“Water.  Waves closing down on me.  Something wrapped around my neck.”  I touch my neck, but of course it’s fine.  The clone tissue is still tingling, but it’ll pass.  I’m grateful to breathe normally again.

“That’s fine for now.”  Kensington puts away his med-scanner and wheels over a breakfast tray to my bed.  “Just relax, Johnny.  CitySec will be in a little while to get your statement.”

When he leaves, I try to sit up.  It’s always a pain to come back.  Having to relearn walking, eating, going to the bathroom.  So what if it keeps medicine profitable?  And every time I come back and rehabilitated, I’m always one step behind the Exchange.

Eventually, Detective Wayne shows up at my bedside.  He’s Vulpine-American, an uplifted red fox wearing a CCPD badge on his harness.  Wayne sits at attention while an antenna perks up on his back.  All this to record my statement and feed raw data to the processors back at his precinct.  When I tell him every thing I can, Wayne yips in encouragement and races out of my room with his nose to the ground.

Days pass.  I get through the rehab course and am declared fit to return to work.  When I get my recording equipment back, I find that someone had deleted all my evidence.  I toss the stuff into a trash bin on my way out the hospital.  About time to get something less obvious for my next investigation.

But it’s bad news when I get into the cab outside.  The driver ignores my instructions and takes me to an empty lot behind the hospital.  Someone outside the cab pulls me out and jams a syringe into my neck.  Choking violently, I fall onto the pavement and look up at Ronny’s familiar face.

“How many times are we gonna keep doin’ this?” he asks me.  I see nothing but his dark suit and sunglasses as he crouches beside me.  “You leave the Exchange alone, Johnny boy.  It’s not good for yer health.  Keep hasslin’ us and I’ll make sure yer next backup’s loaded into a turkey that’s about to be my dinner.”

I can’t answer him, even if I wanted to.  So I don’t fight the poison that’s slowly shutting down all my freshly grown organs.  Ronny should know better.  You don’t become a journalist by letting a few setbacks or violent deaths stop you from running leads.

He even made a mistake this time.  While I’m dying, Ronny is still looking down at me.  Unlike the last three deaths, I have enough time to activate the optic-cam inside my right eye.  With rapid-fire blinks, I get snapshots of Ronny’s face and the license plate of the cab that drove me.  My last conscious thought—in this short-lived body, anyway—is to tag those photos and send them straight to Detective Wayne.

Ronny seems impatient.  He slams his shoe against the side of my head.  I gasp and feel myself fade away into the soothing black—

Eyes open to a blinding light.  Someone mutters an apology and the light dims.  I blink and look up at the plastic ceiling.

“Back so soon?”  Kensington smiles and passes his med-scanner over me.  “I don’t know how long you can afford to keep this up, John.”

I crack a bitter smile.  “As long as it takes, Ken.  As long as it takes.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A Fame Worse Than Death: Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Copyright by Cory Doctorow.

Once you took backup-and-restore, the rest of the Bitchunry just followed, a value-system settling over you.

Those who didn’t take backup-and-restore may have objected, but, hey, they all died (Doctorow 320).

Cory Doctorow is slowly becoming one of those authors whose works I start to devour with a passion, much as I did with William Gibson’s novels a year or two ago.  At the moment, having absorbed the hip modern sensibilities of his short story “When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth,” I feel compelled to discuss one of his actual novels, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

The speculative story is set in the distant future, where the Singularity has taken hold and we live in a post-scarcity economy known as the Bitchun Society.  In this world, Julius finds himself in a bind.  On the one hand, while he enjoys a good lifestyle in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World with his girlfriend Lil, he also feels an obligation to his old friend Dan, who’s fallen on hard times.  Things get worse as intrigue builds up regarding a takeover of some of the park’s classic attractions, culminating in a tragic fight between the status quo and the cutting edge that ultimately leaves Jules in the dust and ready to start over.  Of course, this being the super-accelerated future where mind uploading and rejuvenated youth are common and cheap, he manages to recover fairly quickly.

It takes a while to realize it, but Jules is ultimately a tragic character.  In a world where social capital determines everything, he represents a clash with the changing tide in the Magic Kingdom, desperate to protect his friends and beloved rides like the Hall of Presidents and the Haunted Mansion.  His best friend Dan is an interesting counterpart, level-headed and wise, though not without his own passions and principles that occasionally get him into trouble.  Dan at least recognizes where he stands in relation to the ever-changing Bitchun Society and can freely choose to either adapt or bow out.

But the real core of this story is the future that Doctorow envisions.  The Bitchun Society is a civilization built on free energy and resources, where anyone can grow young again or resurrect themselves from a backup mind.  Money has given way to a system called “Whuffie,” based on reputation points accumulated by every social interaction over the course of one’s lifetime. Governments and corporations have given way to “adhocracy,” as people organize themselves into leaderless groups for specific purposes–like taking over the Haunted Mansion ride at Walt Disney World.  To Doctorow’s credit, as utopian as the Bitchun Society sounds, he does a good job of highlighting the problems such a society would have, like a lack of permanent structure and a reliance on a highly subjective reputation system (in other words, all the good and bad that comes from real-life Internet collaboration).

While this didn’t hit me as viscerally as “When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth,” I think it’s still a pretty cool novel.  Furthermore, Doctorow deserves a lot of praise for making this the first novel to ever be released under a Creative Commons license, encouraging its noncommercial distribution by readers.  It was a bold move in 2003, but it’s a good sign of trust between an author and his audience, and we need more of that forward-thinking attitude in the world at large.

Only then, maybe, will we on our way to having a truly Bitchun Society.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  It can also be downloaded as a free audiobook on Cory Doctorow’s website.

Bibliography: Doctorow, Cory.  Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  New York: Tor Books, 2003.

Cyborgs And SWAT Teams In Paradise: Appleseed by Shirow Masamune

Copyright © 1985 by Shirow Masamune.

You might know Shirow Masamune as the creative mind behind the popular Ghost in the Shell manga, which inspired some highly-acclaimed anime that I’ve already reviewed.  But he also broke ground with another manga series with heavy cyberpunk themes and elite security forces: Appleseed.

The story takes place after the nuclear climax of World War Three, as civilization rebuilds itself with cybernetics and genetic engineering.  Two old-style SWAT Team officers, Deunan and Briareos, are drafted to join an ESWAT Team in the utopian city of Olympus.  From there, as they begin to integrate with the new society, they also get caught up in its problems, as the interconnected postwar world means that there are more political hotspots and terrorist attacks than ever before, resulting in a lot more work for ESWAT.

Copyright © 1985 by Shirow Masamune.

Despite the classic cyberpunk imagery of full-body cyborgs and human clones known as “bioroids,” the overall tone of the story is very post-cyberpunk.  Instead of being outcasts in a desolate landscape, Deunan and Briareos serve in a legitimate law enforcement unit.  Instead of corporations ruling everything, there’s a strong impetus to enforce the rule of law, both within the city of Olympus and around the world by the empowered United Nations.  And there’s also a healthy debate between baseline human beings and bioroids, as the latter are designed to have less imperfections and be in better shape than their human counterparts.  It’s a series that enjoys its cybernetics and gene-splicing, but doesn’t automatically claim augmented beings as “superior.”

On the whole, I like the story’s ambition and sense of grandeur, though it’s on a lot of the specifics that I take issue.  For most of the second half of the manga, it’s almost nothing but ESWAT missions against extremists from the Sacred Republic of Munma and other high-class criminals.  While the dialogue and the attacks do reflect a lot of detail and research about real-life special forces, it does make the story a bit repetitive after a while.  There were a few times I had to confirm which chapter I was on and who was supposed to be the enemy.  It was also a little hard to appreciate what Deunan’s story arc was, though it mostly has to do with her relationship to Olympian society and to her partner Briareos.

If you want to see a lot of good cyberpunk visuals and some kickass special forces in action, I’d recommend Appleseed.  It’s like Ghost in the Shell, but nowhere near Tokyo and without Major Kusanagi’s defining presence.

The English translation of the Appleseed manga is available through Dark Horse Comics.

Bibliography: Appleseed (manga).  Written by Shirow Masamune.  Published by Kodansha, Seishinsha, and Media Factory (Japanese); Dark Horse (English). Super Manga Blast (English magazine).  February 15, 1985 – April 15, 1989.

Green Is Not Your Color: “A Study In Emerald” by Neil Gaiman

As I’ve mentioned before, I love Sherlock Holmes stories.  I also happen to like some of the writings by British SF&F author Neil Gaiman, known for such stories as The Sandman, Good Omens, Stardust, and American Gods (some of which I’ll probably review later this year).

So, naturally, put the two together and what we get is a crazy little story called A Study in Emerald.  How crazy is it?  It’s Sherlock Holmes meets The Call of Cthulhu.

The Story: Bring One Man Justice And Glory To The Old Ones!

The narrator is a veteran soldier from the Anglo-Afghan War who returns to London.  He takes up an apartment with an eccentric but brilliant detective, who gets called upon to consult for the case of a strange murder involving a German prince.  The narrator and his new companion are soon taken to see an audience with “Queen Victoria”–a terrible, inhuman thing who has ruled over England for seven hundred years.  They are charged with solving this murder and soon piece together the identity of the culprits–a tall man and a sadistic doctor, both belonging to the Restorationists, a group opposed to the “natural” rule of the Old Ones over the human race.

The Cast: Heroes As Seen By The Terrors From Beyond

The narrator and his “companion” are never explicitly named in this story, although several hints are dropped as to their true identities (and considering how villainous the world has become under the Old Ones, it should come as no surprise as to who they truly are).  Inspector Lestrade also shows up, although he seems to be the same as in the original Conan Doyle stories.

The mood of the story shifts dramatically when the narrator and the detective receive an audience with Queen Victoria, who is not shown directly and speaks in an unnatural buzzing tone.  She is more mysterious than magnificent and even the narrator–loyal subject of Albion that he is–can’t help but feel strange when she causes his shoulder wound from the war to begin healing itself.  She does not appear in the story again, but she doesn’t have to.

The Style: Just Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (By Way Of H.P. Lovecraft)

Almost word for word, this story matches the writing style of A Study in Scarlet, with all the appropriate idioms and vocabulary of the Victorian era and the right voices for both main characters.

There’s also some clever inserts throughout the stories: a series of fake Victorian-style advertisements for different products and services.  I love that all these ads are for products just as fictional as Sherlock Holmes, with “exsanguinations” by Vlad Tepes and a miracle potion by Jekyll that’ll let out “your true self.”  It both adds some depth to the world and reveals how much darker it’s become after centuries of inhuman oppression.

Final Verdict: Clever And Cruel

The story is a brilliant pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and a clever way to weave something as grandiose and horrific as the Cthulhu mythos into an everyday setting.  The twist ending is nicely set up and the ad inserts breaking up each section of the story were fun.  All in all, another nice and irreverent little tale by Mr. Neil Gaiman.

A Study in Emerald can be read for free on Neil Gaiman’s website.

Bibliography: Gaiman, Neil.  “A Study in Emerald.”  Shadows Over Baker Street.  New York: Del Rey Books, 2003.

The Sum Of Our Scars: “Blade of Tyshalle” by Matthew Woodring Stover

Copyright © 2001 by Matthew Woodring Stover.

Everyone knows I’m a Matt Stover fan and that I love the way he wrote Revenge of the Sith (the novelization, although sometimes I wish he’d done the screenplay, too).  Some of you readers may also know that one of my first reviews for this site was about Heroes Die, the first novel in Stover’s Acts of Caine series.

Well, its sequel Blade of Tyshalle is easily my favorite non-Star Wars novel that Stover’s ever written.  Basically, take everything that he wrote in Heroes Die, push the heroes through a blender of pain and drama, slowly break down their beliefs and make them confront the most painful truths of life, and what you get is a very dark but very fulfilling epic tale.  This story gives you humanity at both its very worst and its very best.

The Story: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, Mr. Michaelson

Years after his victory in Heroes Die, Hari Michaelson is married and a father, in charge of the Studio running the adventures on Overworld, crippled below the waist, and depressed as hell–and believe me, the more you read this story, the more you will be, too.

We follow Hari as he, his family, and his few friends try to halt the outbreak of a plague on Overworld–the same plague that once ravaged Earth–and discover that they’re up against more than just a conspiracy of heartless aristocrats.  Good people die, innocent people are traumatized, and our protagonist will have to decide which life he would rather lead–the empowered fighter Caine or the family man and Administrator Hari Michaelson.

The Cast: Actors Become Elves, Men Become Heroes, And Gods Become Bastards

Hari Michaelson/Caine is our protagonist, essentially deconstructing the whole “Happily Ever After” tag on most fantasy stories.  He didn’t live happily ever after, although he’ll be damned if anyone tries to keep his daughter Faith from her own happiness.  His marriage with Shanna is also tested, as she now enjoys a lot of power and new personality traits in Overworld as the goddess Pallas Ril.

We also get a deuteragonist, Kris Hansen, who becomes known in Overworld as an elf named Deliann.  He provides a more sensitive counterpoint to Caine’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later style, although he’s no slouch with casting fireballs.  He also suffers a lot for being such a nice guy, although he does what he has to do to help the good guys ultimately win.  And I suppose we have a tritagonist in the form of Raithe, a Monastic adept on Overworld who wants to avenge the death of his mentor (one of the casualties in the last book) whose upbringing mirrors Hari’s and whose path mirrors Deliann’s.

The Style: Sorry For That Lecture, How About A Nice Bloodbath?

This novel is long and complicated, but essentially has two modes of pacing: long segments of exposition or introspection, and gory fight or torture scenes.  Now, if this were a Hollywood film, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s like some pretentious summer blockbuster where they have dialogue interspersed with random fight scenes.  But there’s nothing blockbuster about this book.  The exposition and introspective moments are relevant, providing deep and thought-out themes.  And every action scene is pragmatic, brutal, and short, although usually it involves Caine narrating in medical terms how he’s snapping his opponent’s arm or crushing his balls.

Final Verdict: It’ll Chip Away At You, Too, Dear Reader

There are so many spoilers that it makes this review a little difficult.  It’d be easier to say that [name deleted] gets her head cut off at the halfway point or that [name deleted] sacrifices himself in the climax, and that both those deaths aren’t meaningless.  But rest assured that this story is good, and while there’s a good sequel series, Acts of Atonement, in progress, I’d dare say the ending is satisfying enough for Caine’s story to end right there.

It’s a story that shows how good Matt Stover is in building and sustaining his own worlds, just as he adds on to the ever-expanding world of Star Wars.  There is so much good philosophy and fighting for both my inner scholar and my inner child (not that all fighting’s childish, least of all Stover’s real-world variety).  It is powerful and I encourage fantasy readers everywhere to pick it up, though it’s not for the faint of heart.

Bibliography: Stover, Matthew Woodring.  Blade of Tyshalle.  New York: Del Rey, 2001.