Dangerous to those who profit from the way things are

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"What is your writing about?"

On New Year’s Eve, a stranger asked me this question. And although it caught me off guard, in retrospect it was actually pretty pertinent in terms of questions one should contemplate at the end of one year and the beginning of another — mostly because I didn’t have a straight answer.

Of course, it didn’t help that Karl was standing right beside me. That’s a bit like explaining your Master’s thesis to a peer reviewer while your supervisor looks on, listening to your every “um” and “uh.” Luckily, he was willing to help:

“Well,” I started, “it’s, um…uh… It’s pretty violent.”

“True,” Karl said.

“And, there’s, uh, a lot of teen sex,” I said.

“That too,” Karl agreed.

“And robots killing each other!” I said. I looked frantically at the Rank & Bass figurines assembled nearby in the hope that one might spring to animated life and help me out, perhaps in the form of a stilted jingle about self-confidence. No such luck. “Uh, yeah, that’s about it. It’s, uh, full of bad things happening to bad people.”

The stranger looked a little mystified. “Well, it’s my understanding that if you’re part of the workshop, then your writing must be good.”

“Well, I mostly I just try hard not to suck. Really I’m like the clumsy student in an old kung fu movie. Always falling down.”

I like your writing,” Karl said.

“But you’re never around to say so,” I said, plaintive as a child of divorce, thinking What? Why?.

And as though he’d read my mind, Karl grinned like the kid whose mom once collected poisons, and said: “Madeline’s stuff is creepy.

I’m still trying to parse that one, and wondering how it might help me answer the stranger’s question. Mr. Ashby had an interesting take: “Your stories are like somebody picking at a scab.” When asked, Dave said that my stories make people uncomfortable, that they get a little dark sometimes, and impart a certain sense of futility and helplessness. (Keep in mind, Dave and Karl and Mr. Ashby see all kinds of stories that you don’t; editors reject the dark stuff like clockwork, so you don’t get to read it.) So I suppose my answer to the stranger’s question should have been: “My writing is about things that make people squirm.” Why they squirm is their story, and why I persist in trying to make them squirm is mine, and I don’t have a solid motive other than “I can’t stop.” If there is one, it probably lies in another conversation Karl and I had once:

“We have a gift,” he said, “to share our experiences with others.”

“You have a gift, buddy,” I replied. “I have a disease.

 

So just for that, here’s a slice:

Singh licked his lips. “You miss her very much, don’t you?”

Jarod missed a lot of things. Gaming. Refined sugar. Doors he had the power to lock. Those things were so far from what he felt for Leigh that they were mere dots on the horizon. “You ever have that dream where you wake up and your hands are gone?” he asked. “Like you’re up and moving and everything’s fine, but you look down and there are these stumps, these fucking useless things leaking blood, and that’s right when someone asks you to carry something heavy? And you can’t, because you’re crippled, you’re maimed, you’re blind with pain, but you’ve just gotta try anyway?” He flexed his fingers. “You ever have that dream, Singh?”

“…No.”

“Yeah. Well.” He moved down the line. “Good for you.”

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  1. “Well, it’s my understanding that if you’re part of the workshop, then your writing must be good.”

    Ew.

    Your writing is *better* than most of the workshop’s. You’re certainly better at running with the bleeding edge than I am, anyway.

    • I would like to think that it’s good, but I would feel more assured if some editors could agree with me on a more regular basis. EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE, PLZ.

      I’m glad that it suits your taste, though, as your works suits mine and I’d like to return the favour.

      If by “bleeding edge” you mean science, it’s because I’m trying to become more of a fan of science. It’s my way of engaging with the world, and that’s what I was educated to do. But it often means relying on Death Ray to explain things for me in greater detail. It means I’m more apt to extrapolate from pop-sci, rather than peer-reviewed articles, because I just don’t have the background necessary to understand scientific writing of a certain calibre.

      More and more, though, it feels that becoming interested in science is akin to making a moral statement of some kind, and that’s a statement that I’m interested in making. And honestly one of the reasons I like hard sf YA (what little of it I’ve read) is because I’m intrigued with the possibility of interesting more kids (especially the Twilight crowd) in sf.

  2. I wouldn’t say creepy. Then again I don’t find snakes, sea cucumbers or masses of insects creepy. It provokes the same visceral reaction though some deep breaths help it pass.

    • I’ve noticed that some of my phobias are passing as I age. (Which, let me tell you, is a very good thing.) I’m just better able to look at allegedly-creepy things and examine them from an objective viewpoint. Thank goodness.

  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, Tor.com, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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