Five Things: June 4, 2020

It’s only June 4, y’all. Here’s today’s five:

James Mattis stabs Trump in the eye: And courageously says what everyone already knows, which is that Trump is awful and divisive and wants to use the military on American civilians so he can feel big and tough.  And yes, I’m giving Mattis a bit of stick here — his insight here is not, shall we say, a new or surprising one — but it does matter that Trump’s former Secretary of Defense is saying it and that in doing so, he’s giving cover for other military folks to come forward and say the same thing (usually when retired). And it has at least put up a roadblock for Trump siccing the military on civilians without pushback, so that’s something. And of course Trump’s petulant response on Twitter takes him look even smaller, if possible. On that score: Mission accomplished, General Mattis.

New York Times writers revolt over Tom Cotton’s op-ed: You know, the one where he, like the good soldier he is, supported Trump’s position on unleashing the military on civilians to make President Trump feel big and strong. I would say that Cotton, a graduate of Harvard Law and a former US Army captain with a Bronze Star, should know better, but if the (heh) cogent example of Ted Cruz shows us anything, being educated and knowledgable takes a back seat when lickspittlery, and early positioning for a presidential run, is involved. At the very least Mattis’ comments stuffed Cotton’s op-ed into the trash where it belongs.

I’m not personally as outraged as others are about the Times publishing the Cotton piece because I think one of the purposes of the op-ed pages are to let people make fools of themselves in public so you can’t say later on that you didn’t know who they showed themselves to be. However, I also acknowledge I am a straight white dude who isn’t out protesting — or reporting on the protests — in an era where the police have declared open season on both protestors and journalists. I’m perfectly happy to cede that I’m probably not the one to be listening to on this particular matter. There’s the theory of how op-ed pages work, and there’s a practical matter of what effect an op-ed will have in the real world. The NYT journalists are rather reasonably concerned about the latter.

It’s hot and humid and our air conditioning is on the fritz: Because of course it is, why wouldn’t it be. The diagnostic guy was here and apparently our outside unit is leaking coolant and they won’t be able to fix it until a week from today, and between now and then we have a bunch of days in the mid/high 80s and low 90s, with humidity to go along with it. This is not great, and also a reminder that the vast majority of humanity had to live without air conditioning and I honestly don’t know how they managed. I wouldn’t do it. Heat sucks. Heat with humidity sucks the will to live.

2020 Time Travel: The first one, which came out a little over a month ago, has comedian Julie Nolke visiting her January self from April. The second one (which came out earlier today) has her April self visited by her June self. Both are worth your time, but if you have to pick just one to watch, watch the second. You’ll have enough context to go on.

When you’ve lost The Rock, you’ve lost America. Yeah, even Dwayne Johnson is all “WTF, dude” anymore. Did I mention it’s just June 4? 26 more days of June, folks. We’re gonna feel them all, looks like.

The Big Idea: Jeremy Szal

War changes people, and in Stormblood, some wars change people more. Author Jeremy Szal is here today to explain how, and why.

JEREMY SZAL:

Blood is thicker than water. Does that still apply when your blood is infused with alien DNA?

Let me explain.

The central idea for Stormblood is that a far-flung, interstellar society has began injecting humans with stormtech, the DNA of an extinct alien race. This biotechnology fuses with a person’s muscles, nervous system, bloodstream, ultimately making them permanently addicted to adrenaline and aggression. So when an interstellar war broke out, they shot their soldiers up with this untested, unknown alien DNA, turning them into Reapers: living bioweapons with super-strength and enhanced abilities, literally addicted to their own body chemistry and literally addicted to killing. When Reapers were dumped on the frontlines, the outcome was inevitable. The war was won. The galaxy’s saved.

Except, it wasn’t.

Because these Reapers who’ve been jammed back into a society they no longer recognize still have an alien organism kicking around inside their bodies, demanding adrenaline, demanding danger and demanding prey. Because stormtech has leaked onto the drug market, with millions of citizens addicted. Because there’s now a drug epidemic spreading across the galaxy.

Of course, that’s only half the idea.

I’m interested in the personal, intimate side of my characters. Their relationships. How the stormtech changes that. Which is why I wrote Vakov Fukasawa, my protagonist, in first-person. He’s a broken, wreck of a man who’s desperately trying to do the right thing, even when it hurts. The only way he and his Artyom survived growing up on a backwater planet with an abusive father was by leaning on each other, by showing love and support in their darkest hours. And when Vakov left his brother behind to become a Reaper, that same sense of kinship was transferred to his squadmates. How they were the only people who understood what it’s like to have an alien organism sniffing up your backbone and into your skull. How you got excited when enemy gunfire started chewing your cover away.

Stormblood isn’t set in wartime, but through character, I used it to build upon the central themes of loyalty and brotherhood. How friendship helped these men and women stand together against this terrible darkness. How the desire to do right by the people you love is the most human thing you can do, even when you’ve got a non-human organism twitching in your flesh, your blood, your sweat. These soldiers aren’t just fighting a war; they’re fighting for their humanity. And the battle only became winnable when they stood side by side. I’ve always loved the tropes of a found family, forged by trauma, bonding as they march through hell and back together, so I transferred that passion to my protagonist.

But it doesn’t end there, of course. Because when the war’s over, Vakov is enraged to discover that his former squadmates slowly being killed off, deliberately overdosed by their own body chemistry, and knows he has to find out whoever’s doing it.

Only, the prime suspect is his first brother: Artyom.

I said earlier that I’m interested in the personal and intimate side of stories. I want to get close to the bone, into that little vulnerable area in the heart where things really hurt. And for it to be real, I need to put a bit more than is comfortable on the page. Friendship and brotherhood and loyalty are everything to Vakov, because they’re everything to me. In the war, Vakov promised he’d do right by his Reaper brothers, as they would for him. But he promised he’d protect Artyom, too.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pour myself into Vakov, his heart slowly tearing as he struggles to navigate his loyalties as a brother, a Reaper, and the friends that help him investigate the murder. I allowed Vakov’s emotional arc to drive the narrative, and the more time I spent in his body and head, the more surprised I was by the themes that developed on the page, and how much they meant to me. Not least of all seeing how he emotionally adapts to his body as the danger ramps up, becoming more and more aggressive, to the point where he’s afraid of hurting the people he cares about most. Whether he’s ever in control, if the alien organism’s been manipulating him this whole time.

And keeping that balance wasn’t easy. Not only is Vakov a soldier, he’s bursting with an alien organism that plays havoc with everything from his sweat and saliva to his taste buds and mood swings. That, and he’s got the patience of a cocaine-addled fruit-fly with ADHD. Not sure it’s much of a surprise when I say he doesn’t like playing by the rules. Or listening to authority. Or taking the procedural route. So, when interrogating an alien drug dealer, Vakov’s more inclined to skewer the creature’s face with his fist than have a talk. But afterwards when his friends rub him the wrong way, he’s got to literally force myself not to hurt them. Mapping out Vakov’s internal struggle as he forces himself not to tear apart anyone and anything that rubs him the wrong way was difficult, but it was fun. It also let me get away with some very morbid humour.

Stormblood is a space opera wrapped up in a murder mystery, but it would be nothing without the emotional core of the narrative. What we owe to each other. How the war to maintain your humanity and empathy is a never-ending one. How when we feel broken and worthless, brotherhood and love can pick us up, can make us want to always do better. Putting my characters through hell and making these important to them showed me what’s important to me. I guess I’m saying that parts of this book are autographical. Because, at the end of the day, that’s why we consume stories, right? To see ourselves on the page, broken and messy and utterly human, having wild adventures while trying to figure ourselves out, trying to do the best we can?

Maybe that’s why we write them, too.

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Stormblood: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Book Depository

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