I recently read Ira Levin’s 1974 thriller, The Boys from Brazil, mostly because I had a silly idea for the Bastet universe that has since grown into something else entirely.

The one thing I was hoping for, and the one thing The Boys from Brazil is emphatically not, is a technothriller. It is, instead, a very Jewish thriller, in the sense that Levin concocts a genuinely horrifying milieu for Jews, and then sets the 60-something hero racing against the clock to stop his even older but better-kept foe from succeeding.

Ezra Lieberman is a Nazi Hunter, and he learns that Josef Mengele has dispatched assassination teams to six countries to murder 94 retirement-age low-level civil servants, all men. Information gathering was primitive in 1974 compared to today, but Lieberman has a friend at Reuters sift through death reports to locate deaths that match that description. He meets with several widows and their children, and then realizes it is not the men who have anything in common, and not their all-suspiciously-younger wives, but their sons, only children, all 13 years old, who all look similar. Not similar: exactly alike.

Josef Mengele has created 94 clones of Adolph Hitler, and distributed them to 94 couples who couldn’t otherwise have children. He then intended to make sure those 94 adoptive fathers died during their 13th year to ensure the “traumatic experience” that made Hitler Hitler was repeated in the boys’ lives.

As I said, this book is not a technothriller. Mengele has a chapter where he walks us through the remains of the laboratory, which is now a burned ruin. Levin tells us nothing about the techniques used. Which is actually to the better; we don’t need to know and, in 1974, cloning was a huge conversation in the popular and SF press. Levin, startingly for the time, refuses to buy into genetic determinism, and accepts that it’s likely the boys will not be anything like Adolph Hitler, and even if they are, they’re not going to be as successful as Hitler. As Lieberman says in a conversation later:

“I say in my talks it takes two things to make it happen again: a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that’s not true. It takes three things: The Hitler, the conditions, and the people to follow the Hitler.”

And don’t you think he’d find them?”

“No, not enough of them. I really think people are better and smarter now, not so much thinking their leaders are God. The television makes a big difference. And history, knowing… Some he’d fine, yes; but no more, I think— I hope— than the pretend-Hitlers we have now, in Germany and South America.”

On the one hand, I, and most biologists, do agree with Levin’s view that biological determinism cannot result in clones having the same desires or talents as their progenitor. aOn the other hand, as we’ve seen today, Levin was incredibly, sadly wrong: not that many people joined the NSDAP (The Nazi Party), but enough did that the complacently satisfied and silently cowed population allowed the Nazis to overrun a fractured, defensive democratic opposition.

Which is where we are today: a loud and committed authoritarian populace, making up no more than a quarter of Americans, is attempting to silence and destroy the factured, defensive democratic opposition. That opposition is committed to the elevation of the United States as an intellectual and moral powerhouse, something Trump and his people cannot do as it is literally not in their nature, but is so factured on questions of tactics and outcomes that it has struggled to unify in the face of Trumpism.

The one thing that blows my mind about this book is that Josef Mengele is the villain of this book, presented as a mass-murderer who’s willing to commit murder even today to accomplish his goals. But the fascinating thing is that when Levin wrote this book in 1974, the real Josef Mengele was still alive. He was hiding out in Brazil, and his real life was far more boring and mundane than the burgeoning Nazi revival project depicted in the novel. But what was he going to do? Come out of hiding to protest that the book was a maligning, slanderous misrepresentation of his life and work?

Mengele died in 1979, and it’s fair to say he died badly: paralyzed by a stroke while swimming, he died of drowning, unable to save himself.

The book ends with one of the 18 boys whose fathers were successfully killed by Odessa. The boy is already a talented artist who loves to draw comic books and already knows about storyboards, and he dreams of being a filmmaker someday. As he draws a crowd scene for the movie he’s plotting, he hears

… the people cheering, roaring; a beautiful growing love-thunder that built and build, and then pounded, pounded, pounded, pounded.

Sort of like in those old Hitler movies.

I just loved Effie Calvin’s new Inyatha book, Daughter of the Sun. It’s light, fluffy, silly-and-knows-it, D&D-inflected PG lesbian romance, which is totally a thing, and my thing, and I can’t help but hope that Effie Calvin puts out another one soon.

Poor, utterly clueless Orsina is a young paladin with magical evil-detecting tattoos on her arms, sent on a quest to find and locate a vaguely defined Great Evil™. She finds a lesser evil— Aelia, the Chaos Goddess of Poor Decision Making— has taken over a small town. Orsina vanquishes Aelia in the first chapter, running her through the stomach with her blessed sword. There’s some running and chasing thereafter, but eventually she and the townsfolk corner Aelia in a barn and find a body to put to the pyre.

A day later, Orsinia finds a somewhat airheaded woman bathing naked near a lake, recovering from a mostly-healed stomach wound and trying to clean her sword-cut dress, absolutely soaked in blood, and decides that the woman was the victim of domestic abuse and needs help. Aelia is so wounded and drained of power that Orsina’s evil-detecting powers don’t register her. Thus Orsina and “Elyne” start their adventures together.

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out what happens next. Orsina trusts those tattoos too much, so Calvin has some hilarious scenes where Elyne is naively dropping clues left and right about her true nature and Orsina just doesn’t pick them up at all. There’s a really nice twist toward the end about Orsina’s quest that I admired, too.

It’s just adorable from beginning to end. Not quite sweet enough to give you cavities, but close.

Calvin’s writing style is light-hearted and generous. Her theology is a little weird and I’m not sure it works all the way through, but it’s fun in the way the Greek or Norse gods are fun. There are so many loose Gods wandering around the mortal plane, but if one low-level paladin is regularly vanquishing them left and right and banishing them to their plane “for ten years,” then there must be a host of gods, like, a thesaurus of them: if Aelia is the Goddess of Caprice, is there also a Goddess of Eccentricity, and a God of Whimsy, and a God of Kink, and a Goddess of Vagary, etc. etc.?

The world of Inyatha is still a queer paradise: there are men, women, “neutroi,” and maybe enbies, and people marry each other for love rather than hardware compatability reasons. Orsina has two dads, who we get to meet.

Aelia’s adventures as a mortal are fun. She makes a good foil for human foibles. It’s completely PG. There are a few lovely kissing scenes, but that’s about it. I loved it all.

Kit Rocha’s Beyond Shame is a very sexy, very hot introduction into a series about… well, that’s still much in the air.

You see, there is a City, filled with technological and educational wonders, ruled by a stringent moralist council straight out of 1984. There are clans within the city, and strict rules about who can fuck whom and when and where. Surrounding the city is a vast undercity, the Districts, a place of crumbling buildings and street gangs fighting to secure their territory, and the City only involves themselves when gang wars threaten its stability. Further out are the Farms, where people work themselves to death.

Nicole, the daughter of a City councilman, was cast out of the City for the crime of being excessively horny. (No, literally, that’s the catalyst moment of her arc.) She finds herself in the district of a gang lord named Dallas, and soon finds herself in the hypermasculine arms of Dallas’s right hand man, Jasper.

And then there is a lot (and I mean a lot) of incredibly hot, well-written, teasing sex. It was love at first sight between Jasper and Nicole, but neither is any good at monogamy, and Jasper knows Nicole doesn’t know herself so needs time to explore, so there are threesomes and foursomes scattered throughout, lots of bondage play, and Jasper and Nicole don’t really go "all the way" until very late in the book because both characters are figuring out what they want.

From a writer’s perspective, this is an awesome book on the fine romance art of mask and essence, only part of the mask here is Nicole’s head-first plunge into the kinky, sexually liberated world she always thought she wanted, then wasn’t sure she wanted, then realized it was exactly what she wanted (of course; did you think the book would go any other way?) as long as she got her man™ along the way.

It’s just super-hot.

The book’s sexual orientation is the same as pre-Internet porn shops: girl-on-girl is hot, guy-on-guy is not. The men are manly, manly men, all burly muscles and grunting. Jasper and Dallas are portrayed as "exceptional" because they’re able to think through their testosterone poisoning, unlike many of the men around them.

The setting, though… There’s a subplot that isn’t resolved in book one (naturally) about how Dallas’s district is getting too rich and neighboring ganglords may (or may not!) be conspiring with the City to take him down. Nicole, being the disowned and exiled daughter of a councilman, may (or may not!) be making the political behind-the-scenes bit more complicated.

If I have one quibble, it’s with the details about the wider world. There’s not enough here. Rocha is 100% 54321 when it comes to the beds Nicole finds herself in, but not so much about the wider world. Some places, like the bar Nicole works at, are fairly well-described, but a disastrous outing to "the Market" could have used a lot more grit to describe the state of the roads, the decay of the buildings. Several scenes have this quality of happening in a grey, poorly-defined room, and I felt Rocha could have spent just a little more time telling us. Nicole is a perfect character for this, being the classic fish-out-of-water, and it was a missed opportunity.

That’s not enough of a quibble to stop me from reading the next one, though!

"You’re far too self-aware to fall victim to the Brain Eater."

That’s what my therapist told me the other day when I was angsting about watching yet another of my favorite artists fall victim to their own id and swerve deep into unpleasant territory. And what with the Louis CK discourse of the day, this makes me immensely sad and a tiny bit paranoid about dipping my toes back into writing.

The artist was Higi Shou. Shou famously wrote Prism, a shoujo-ai series about high school girls. It’s corny and touching and surprisingly sensitive, the dialogue is amazing, and if it veers off into teenagers having sexy times well, teenagers do that and it’s not actually played up as being titillating for the reader. Shou also got busted because his swipes were a little too photo-realistic; in many cases it seems that he was picking a wham moment out of his Tumblr collection and tracing it, and tracing photographs is a huge prohibition in comic art. He disappeared from the comic scene. The other day, I saw his name on a new series and looked. I wished I hadn’t; Shou is now doing hard-core loli.

Louis CK’s latest comedy set apparently includes an attack on the student activists from Parkland who have taken being shot at and transformed it into activism. They’ve done something, and they’ve earned a kind of moral penumbra that he finds… what? Offensive? Annoying? Trite? He then pivots to complaining about people choosing their own pronouns, and how that annoys him as well, and his audience laughs because it annoys them too.

John Scalzi describes the Brain Eater as a form of envy that ultimately takes over the whole of a person. Scalzi wrote that the Brain Eater happens when a mid-list writer envies what top-list writers have, and start to ascribe their failure to break into the best-seller list as someone else’s fault. "I’m brilliant!" the artist shouts, "So why don’t I get the accolades while JK Rowling owns her own island?" Even great writers fall victim to it, as Alice Walker’s recent downfall reveals.

Envy is the worst of all sins; unlike arrogance, greed, gluttony, lust, anger or sloth, envy has no upside and there is no time when envy can be satisfied. But if we’re going to ascribe envy to Louis CK, or Higi Shou, how would you do it? A lot of felons, at least the ones incarcerated for violent offenses, are narcissistic or sociopathic, and a lot of them believe that everyone is just like them, it’s just that the system is against them, or they just got caught, or dumb luck. Maybe CK and Shou really believe that the majority is just like them, they just haven’t been caught yet.

But what if it isn’t envy? What if it’s arrogance? "Hiding my feelings hasn’t done me any good, so I’m gonna let my freak flag fly!" And part of their feelings is that it’s okay to punch down. They’re both straight males at the top of the food chains in their respective cultures, they’ve been told they’re apex predators, they feel constrained that they’re not allowed to act like one, and there’s no reward anymore for being noble about anything.

For CK, it’s certainly sloth. "Kids these days" is about the laziest comedy trope you can go with. I think part of the problem is that there are only two routes for a man like Louis CK: bitterness or redemption. And redemption requires contrition and repentence. More than that, it takes work. To continue as a comedian, Louis CK has to dig deep into himself and find something funny to say about how being an asshole isn’t funny, and that takes more than one or two rough drafts.

Which brings me back to the beginning: what would I write about? I don’t have many freak flags I haven’t flown yet, which makes me wonder if I’m a bit tapped out. I could pander to the Furry audience, and I do have a couple of stories set aside where Ken & Aaden teach Wish about [redacted], but I like stories with premise and theme to them, and as I said earlier, these days my themes are anger and disgust at a world gone awry, hurtling into the abyss.

I think, if I write much in 2019, I’ll try to write either deeply personal stories about people being nice to each other, or I’ll try to hit the noblebright and hopecore high points instead. (I know people call it ‘hopepunk,’ but I don’t think the -punk suffix works here; maybe I’m just an aging fuddy-duddy and that’s the Brain Eater talking.) The world needs more hope and nobility. Here’s hoping we get it.

I decided to do the Writer’s Thirty Questions!

Is there a specific drink you like to have when you’re writing?

Coffee, hot, with one level teaspoon of sugar and one tablespoon of milk.

What time of day do you think is the best to write?

I used to write best at night, but these days the best writing seems to happen first thing in the morning.

Where do you write best?

Oddly, I write best on a train. Since I take a train into work, that’s where I’ve, er, trained myself to work the best.

Do you do word sprints? If so, for how long do you do them, and what’s your average word count?

My writing time is constrained by my commute. In 35 minutes I can almost do 800 words.

Do you write when you travel? If so, where is the farthest away from home that you’ve written?

I have tried to write when I’m on the road, but it never seems to work. Business travel takes so much energy out of me that I just stare at the screen and can’t convince myself to do more.

Do you share your work before it’s finished?

Not usually.

Which character that you’ve written is most like yourself?

Duh. Shardik literally started as a Mary Sue.

Which character is your favorite to write? Why?

Good question. Obviously, Shardik was my favorite for the long time, but these days I kinda dig trying to get into the heads of other people. I don’t currently have a favorite.

How long is your current work in progress (words or pages)?

The newest WIP has about 50,000 words in it. I say “about” because there are several chapters that are redundant.

Do you have a specific philosophy that you go by when you write?

You don’t know what the story’s about until you reach the end. Then you know the premise of the story. Once you know the premise of the story, you have to figure out how you can promise that to your reader. Once you know that, you can figure out how to deliver on that promise. Then you re-write, knowing that this time keeping the promise of the premise solves the muddle in the middle.

What were your favorite books as a child?

All the SF classics: Asimov, Clarke, Niven at first, then Heinlein.

Do you read while writing, or try to split it up?

I split them up, and audiobooks in the car have been a huge bonus.

Which authors or styles do you try to emulate in your writing?

I think there are TV writers who have an ear for dialogue that blows my mind. Dick Wolf (Law & Order), JM Straczynski (Babylon Five), and so forth really nail it, and I read my work aloud to make sure the conversations crackle the ways they do in those shows.

Would you want your books to be made into a TV show or movie? Why or why not?

No, not usually.

How do you plan your writing?

Usually I just come up with two characters, a problem, and maybe a solution. I sit down and write the rough draft, then go back and re-write it with a more clean plan about what the story is trying to say and do.

Do you write on a computer or on paper? What program, or what type or paper/pen?

I use a boring text editor, one that doesn’t let me play with fonts or bold or anything like that, in complete full-screen mode so I can’t see the other OS menus, and with almost all notifications disabled. (The one I allow is “Hey, your battery’s about to die.”)

Is there a specific category or genre your writings generally fall into? Which?

Science Fiction & Fantasy, Erotica.

Would any characters from one of your works go well with your others?

Probably.

Do you write multiple works at the same time?

Yes! If I get stuck, I often switch to a different story, trying hard to make progress in at least one of them. It takes me a few “stuck” moments before I realize the story isn’t working.

What color scheme is your current work in progress?

What color scheme? Black, I suspect.

Do you create aesthetics for your writing, ie. on pinterest or tumblr? If so, what’s the board or tag?

Nah.

Do you listen to music when you write?

Usually. Mostly soundtracks, stuff without words.

Do you make playlists for your works in progress, characters, or scenes?

No.

Do you prefer first or third person? Why?

Hmm. I used to prefer first person, but third person has been working for me a lot recently.

How do you defeat writers’ block?

Usually by starting something new. Sigh

How often do you write?

Every weekday, usually.

Have you ever done NaNoWriMo?

Not in a few years.

What’s your inspiration for writing?

“I can do better than that.”

Which style/era of writing do you most fit in with?

1980s science fiction.

What’s your favorite part about writing?

Fan mail.

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