Over the past 5 years, I’ve been living with with my latest novel. Originally conceived as a social satire about two robots who accidentally bring about the downfall of mankind, it has grown and evolved in ways I couldn’t predict.
In the past 5 years, I started a new job, got married, took on more household chores as my wife completed both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work while working full time, purchased a house, and grappled with a lack of direction with my own existence. Through all of that, the book and these characters strapped themselves in for the ride. What started as a social satire evolved into a tale about a mid-level robot disillusioned with his lot in life. He feels useless, rudderless, and unimportant, grappling with the idea that the world would exist just fine with or without him.
My wife and I watched Wild at Heart recently on a recommendation from my past self. I remembered liking this film so many years ago, when I had first discovered the world of David Lynch. It was weird, surreal, and sardonic. A ride that pleased me but for which I had little recollection of.
On rewatch, however, this was not my experience, and I was a little embarrassed at having talked up this film to my wife. Wild at Heart is all over the place tonally. It zigzags from scene to scene, scatter-brained and without purpose. Many of the ideas in Wild at Heart are perfected in later Lynchian works, but in this package, they’re lost and half-formed.
The end of the film is supposed to tie an idea together, but it feels tacked on and cheap. This wasn’t the whimsical, Lynchian romp with Wizard of Oz themes I vaguely remembered. It was dishonest trash.
When I opened the draft of my robot novel the next day, I was taken aback at how unenthusiastic I was for my project. This wasn’t the whimsical science fiction romp with real-world themes I remembered. It read like drivel. The plot meandered. Certain scenes felt hokey and old-timey in a silent film slapstick sort of way. Sure, there were moments of brilliance, but these moments were rare.
Like Wild at Heart, my work-in-progress felt like cutting room floor tidbids I Frankensteined together. It was dishonest, and I couldn’t find myself staring back at me from the computer screen. I was a little embarrassed. This is what I had been spending so much time on?
For months now, I’ve been slowly writing another book. The working title is “Rocket & H.I. 97 Destroy Everyone”, and it’s meant to be as kitschy and weird as it sounds. My aim is to create something expansive and unique that people can have fun with. I love science fiction. I love its unique ideas, its bizarre flights of fantasy, and the pulpy, dime-store novel nature that’s been associated with the genre. Science fiction is freeing. You can go places without having to worry about being grounded, and if you’re lucky, other people will want to tag along.
With this latest project, I’ve been writing by hand once again, so the process has been long and meditative. I really like writing by hand. It forces the brain to slow down and adjust to the physical, mechanical nature of writing, making my brain hang on every idea, plot device, or character description. Frequently I’ll plan out part of the narrative weeks in advance, and when my hand finally reaches that point, it’s not what was originally envisioned weeks before. The structure’s changed. It’s embedded itself deeper in this world.
I’ve talked about my obsession with robots previously. Since that time, I’ve put together a completed draft of the book and have enclosed just a taste below. Fair warning, this “taste” is still a work-in-progress pulled from a second draft. It may not reflect the finished product at all.
Having said that, I hope you enjoy it, and I welcome any comments you may have.
Over the past month, I’ve been consumed by this game called Pac-Man 256. Essentially, it’s one never-ending Pac-Man level with enhanced, upgradeable power-ups for battling ghosts and making your way further and further along this level. Patterns repeat, enemies multiply, and the further you go, the more time you lose wading through arcade limbo. There’s no ending. There’s no way out (except for death). All you can really do in Pac-Man 256 is accumulate a higher and higher score.
It helps to have friends for this game, friends you can compete with on the leaderboards. In my case, I’ve spent over 18 hours battling one friend for the top spot.
That’s me right at the top. Doc Nonsensical. Feel free to add me on Xbox Live.
It’s a hollow victory, especially when you realize you’ve spent 18+ hours playing the same Pac-Man level over and over again, but it reminds me of my day job. I’ve spent four years writing and editing for an entertainment company that confuses “family entertainment” with schlock.
I used to justify my job by telling myself that it was making kids happy. But the company made it abundantly clear I wasn’t.
They decided to move the office to Florida and give me an end date. What contributions I made were filed away in a folder for anybody else to pull from when writing about company property, often copied and pasted by people who didn’t craft sentences for a living but tried anyway. Seeing their hackneyed blurbs sometimes left me ill. It must have been how the mother of Frankenstein’s monster felt when she heard her son was a piece-meal monolith terrorizing the countryside.
The office culture was great, though. I’ve never been in an environment as united as the ragtag group of marketeers I was apart of. Caught in an unending battle between the sales and brand departments, we were an assembly of artists, coordinators, and editors that remained productive in a corporate structure that bred only chaos. Upper-level executives exerted control by making bizarre changes to company protocol, and in a classic chess counter-maneuver, other upper-level executives exerted control by undoing as many of those changes as they could.
And there we were, in the thick of it, filtering all these demands from competing departments into one harmonious composition. We got good at it, too, learning from our victories and our losses.
And then life intervened.
I thought I was hot shit. I thought I was the best editor the company had ever had, playing my part and slowly building a copy empire by assimilating as many editorial tasks as possible. I thought this because somewhere along the line, I convinced myself that this was my destiny.
I was like that guy at the beginning of the first Mad Max. The Night Rider. Barreling down the highway screaming about destiny and my place of dominance in the world. And like the Night Rider, Max was waiting just down the road, revving his engine. Sooner or later he’d catch up and remind me of my place.
When I signed my end-date paperwork, the crash hit. I felt betrayed. Four years of music, four years of rhythm was at an end, and I had no idea what I was going to do next. All I knew was the anger bubbling within, the hatred, the rage. I wanted to make this about them, the upper-level executives, when it was really about me.
Keeping a live entertainment company afloat wasn’t my destiny. The writing I accomplished wasn’t my own ideas or my own words. They were fluff pieces, marketing materials, PR spin. They were junk.
As that rage surfaced in my everyday interactions with people, so did my realization that all of this was out of my control. It always had been, but as I tricked myself into believing I had control, I grew soft, focused solely on work, and let my own personal writing slide. My homegrown ideas festered and rotted. Flash pieces went unfinished. Novels remained half-started.
I was being a fool.
Work was bread and butter. Entertaining people with my own, original work is my destiny. Like the Night Rider, I wanted to lay down a rubber road right to freedom, but in my comfort zone, I fell asleep at the wheel and hadn’t realized I was heading the wrong way. I became angry when life tried to turn me around, struggling against a direction that had always been inevitable.
I breathed easier today than I have in a month or so now. A new Literary Orphans issue is out, celebrating a woman whose work I’ve used as motivation for years. A new job opportunity is on the horizon. Two new flash pieces of mine are awaiting judgment, and I’m hard at work writing a novel about robots.
Life is meant to be pulse-pounding, and it’s exciting to just… go with it.
Back on April 13, 2016, I saw a comic book on the shelves that bewildered me. It was a special one-shot for Marvel’s Star Wars line called C-3PO: The Phantom Limb, and it explained how everyone’s favorite protocol droid acquired his mismatched red arm in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The $4.99 cover price killed any passing interest I may have had, and I imagine, judging by how big that stack of copies was week after week, I wasn’t alone. I mean, it’s C-3PO — who honestly wanted to read a threepio-centric comic book? Let alone pay five bucks for it?
It made me think though. Some editorial decision was made to tell this tale. Someone convinced a group of executives that people cared about C-3PO, that this one-shot would muster sales. If The Phantom Limb‘s number four slot for April 2016 sales is any indication, that someone wasn’t entirely wrong, either. Sure, it sat on the shelf at the comic shop I frequent, but that doesn’t mean my shop is indicative of the national comic book market. It just means my local comic patrons and I weren’t interested. Why?
Because C-3PO is a 60-year-old protocol droid that was built by a child on a backwater planet.
Think about it. By the time the events of The Force Awakens roll around, Threepio is pushing 60 years of active service, if not more, and he’s still considered useful. That idea doesn’t make sense. As an effective droid, Threepio was outmoded the day he was built by a child. As we see in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, little Anakin Skywalker doesn’t have much to work with. The kid’s pretty handy when it comes to building machines, but he’s living as a slave on a backwater planet where everyone trades in hand-me-downs and used tech. There are no factories, no R&D laboratories, and no science facilities on Tatooine. The parts of the planet that aren’t unending stretches of desert populated by moisture farmers, jawas, and sandpeople are nothing more than cutthroat spaceports. Tatooine is so hostile and backwards, the Separatists would rather put a droid factory on Mustafar, a planet that’s really just one gargantuan active volcano.
The point is, C-3PO was never an elite model to begin with, and after 60 years of existence in a galaxy where technology is most likely in a constant state of flux and progression, Threepio never really stood a chance. There are thousands, millions, billions of stores across the expanse of the Star Wars universe packed with newer models that have way better specs than what C-3PO’s packing. They’re also developed by companies and professionals who specialize in robotics. Not kids. So why keep him around? Why not toss that old hunk of junk in the trash?
THE BIG FLAW
The big flaw in our thinking when it comes to robots in science fiction epics is that we place too much emphasis on them. Since we don’t have robots as cool as the ones seen in the movies, we think they’re important. But they’re not. Robots are nothing more than glorified smartphones, and in a universe as rich and vibrant as Star Wars, for example, they’re wholly disposable. We see this with the way the Separatists’ droid armies are wantonly slaughtered. The attitude among the Separatist leaders is to keep pushing forward, no matter how many dumb droids it takes. They can always build another one.
When you crack your phone, what happens? You buy another one. When a more powerful laptop comes out, what do you do with the old one? You sell it, toss it, or donate it. These machines hold no sentimental value for us, and as soon as they stop performing at peak efficiency, we get rid of them. Part of this is due to how our society works. When a new piece of technology comes out, it starts off super expensive, but as more companies try to duplicate it and as our ability to cheaply and affordably build it improves, the market price drops. It becomes second-nature to just go out and purchase a new one. We don’t stop to think about all of the good adventures, fun nights, or memorable moments we shared with those devices. The outdated nature of the technology overrides any connection we may feel. Why would robots be any different?
One movie that takes this idea to heart is I, Robot. In the film, there are robots everywhere, many of which are performing the menial labors we can no longer be bothered with (like walking the dog or taking out the trash). When a new model rolls out, the older ones are dumped into a shipping crate somewhere and forgotten about. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s a cruel sentiment, especially since the machines in I, Robot sport human-looking faces, but it’s one we collectively share every single day.
Let me ask you something. What happened to your first iPod?