Poppins and Pennywise

I came across this Facebook post that made a convincing argument that Mary Poppins and Pennywise the Clown (the monster from Stephen King’s It) were members of the same species. In my head, the story immediately started writing itself:

“Spin your little nightmares all you like,” Poppins said. “But I expect my charges back in their beds by 9 o’clock.” She rapped Pennywise on the head with her umbrella. “Intact, mind you.”

“Oooh,” Pennywise said, his eyes widening to the size of saucers. “And what if I took one teensy weensy BITE, Maaary? A spoonful of sugar, and all.”

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Wordle Is Humane Technology

I listen to a podcast called “Your Undivided Attention” by a group called The Center For Humane Technology. Their core premise is that technologists should be using technology to help people achieve their own goals instead of hacking behavioral science to addict them to devices and programs.

It made me think of the game Wordle that is sweeping through our feeds. It’s an example, I think, of Humane Technology. By limiting its play to once a day (for 5-15 minutes, usually), it resists aiming for success metrics of constant engagement. It’s not about ads. The way you share your results isn’t even a direct means of promotion–there’s no link or tracker. (It’s telling that this was created by a software developer for his girlfriend.) It succeeds by being a short, daily delight.

It went viral on its own merits, and it isn’t greedy about getting engagement. It doesn’t (appear to) have any ulterior motive other than to delight. I’m sure there are boardrooms where executives are gnashing their teeth, trying to monetize this Thing People Enjoy. There are app developers who have tried to sell apps to replicate or even skin this game. Happily, the Apple App Store has, so far, taken them down.

In an Age of Surveillance Capitalism, this little web game feels downright subversive. Maybe that’s part of the delight. It’s a throwback to when the internet was a playground, filled with labors of love.

Wordle has refreshed my interest in little short-session, “taking a break” games that aren’t engineered to dominate your time and attention. Some of my go-tos:

All the Best Stories Are Endings

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”

“Closing Time,” Semisonic

“There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.”

The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

Sometimes, someone articulates an idea that has been rattling around in your brain with such simple clarity, that it unlocks a new way of looking at familiar things. That’s what Darren Mooney did in The Escapist Magazine when he said that all of The Lord of the Rings is one big ending.

There is an apocalyptic, or at least fin de siècle, mood I find in my favorite fantasy and science fiction stories. There was a time before the story–an age of legends, of miracles–suffused with an air of wonder and long-lost magic. Much of that era is lost. The time period of the current story is one in decline, and even under threat. But heroism and sacrifice can change the trajectory toward a new Golden Age. To extend on Mooney’s claim, perhaps all stories are endings. And all stories are beginnings, too.

The Lord of the Rings referenced the bygone glories for elves, dwarves, men, and Ents, and subsequent (and posthumous) texts elaborated on this history. When the original Star Wars trilogy came out, the Jedi of the Republic and the Clone Wars were only tantalizing references. The Wheel of Time teased readers with a prologue set millennia in the past, and littered the landscape with artifacts of history-that-became-myth. A Song of Ice and Fire referenced a past age of heroes, magic, fae folk, and dragons, when magic was strong. In all these stories, there is a hope that by bringing the current, moribund Age to an end, there will be new possibilities for wonder in the future–even if the main characters won’t be there to see it. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, but it was for Joshua to bring them into Canaan. Frodo boarded a ship in the Grey Havens to sail into the West, but baby Eleanor inherited the new pastoral paradise of the Shire.

In an article for the fan site Dragonmount, I wrote about how various stories used prologues and epilogues–the stories around the main story–to enrich the world and give the readers and viewers a place to imagine around the periphery, to collaborate on the world-building.

Most of the past and future glories of these stories exist in the audience’s imagination alone. (Or they did, before franchise expansion filled every gap.) These contextual stories were crafted as “head canon” (as opposed to written canon) through just enough detail for the engaged mind to fill in the gaps. The story never really ends so long as there is opportunity for headcanon. And, as The Wheel of Time contends, there is no one beginning either. Stories are only windows into a world, and the worlds we love convince us that there is more to see beyond the borders of the window pane. (My biggest gripe with Star Wars VII-IX was that it overturned The Return of the Jedi’s ostensible end-of-an-era. The First Order was no different from the Empire in any way that mattered. Luke’s victory and Vader’s redemption didn’t matter at all.)

I wrote an experimental short story, “Epilogue to a Lost Epic,” around the notion that a story–in its entirety–can be but an ending. It is written as an epilogue. Its preceding epic is unwritten, but the story drops enough tropes and details to let its readers construct a headcanon, and provides hints of the future epic. In this way, it’s also a prologue. The story itself is a liminal stretch–but to its protagonist, this is the story that’s important. It’s his closure, even if the world goes on. I wrote another story, “The Old Ones, Great and Small” published in Diabolical Plots, where the backstory was a war against Lovecraftian monsters–a war that humanity won. Now, the monsters are in a zoo, and the protagonist is an old man who remembers what it was like when there was terror–and the flip-side of that coin, wonder–in the world. Another epilogue to an unwritten epic.

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

The End of the Affair, Graham Greene

Every story is ultimately a decision about boundaries on a boundless timeline. How we view the same story can change as we grow older, and assume responsibilities for the next generation. Are we Frodo or Bilbo? Or Gandalf? Luke, or Obi-Wan, or Rey? Rand or Moiraine (or Tam)? Neo or Morpheus? The best stories reward multiple perspectives, and grow with us. Beginnings. Endings. It all depends on which way you look next.

The Wheel of Time Season One Finale Predictions

Season one of Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time has two episodes left. The show has departed in significant enough ways from the books that I don’t know how the season will end–and that means that it’s time for SPECULATION THAT I ALWAYS GET WRONG. That’s how I have fun with this stuff–seeing how well I can glom onto what the showrunners are doing. There will be SPOILERS for season 1, episodes 1 through 6 of Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time, and some spoilers from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. (This post will be updated with what I got right and wrong after the episodes air.)

[UPDATED with the results of Episode 7]

[UPDATED with the results of Episode 8]

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Butterfly (Do You Remember Being the Worm?) (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fantasy-tinged fiction, 3,500 words)

Before we stopped talking, my best friend Davis saved my life three times from the Sirynz. It’s funny that I still call him that. “Best friend” is a concept I put away with other childish things when I left Marysville, but the obligation it carries lingers like a photograph standing in for a memory, a thing twice removed from the original. Still, it’s an idea that has pull. At least I owe him a call. But I keep coming up with excuses.

The first time Davis saved, they weren’t Sirynz yet. Tina, Jacqui, and Kayla had just started playing as a band called The Mantics. That afternoon at the Peony Park pool, they were three girls wearing two-piece bathing suits during a summer of great hormonal awakening. It was one of those summer days between fifth and sixth grade that you remember like a postcard picture: blue-skied, perfectly framed, hot only by implication–without the sweat, sunburn, bug bites, or grit at the bottom of the pool lacerating your bare feet. Idealized memory. 

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Epilogue to a Lost Epic (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fantasy, 3,600 words)

Sajun drew rein at the foot of a hillock, where a footpath switched back and forth up to an unexpectedly ordinary whitewashed cottage. He could imagine Tankrit already standing at the top, her night-black hair and robes waving in an unfelt breeze, expecting him through some arcane prescience. But her kind of magic disappeared from the world, and if the one-time necromancer did live here, he would have to knock on her door. As if she were an ordinary woman.

Sajun knew better. He hadn’t steeled his nerves and ridden these leagues seeking ordinary.

Years after writing his history of the War for the Light, Sajun still felt himself living out a tale, if no longer one that any would care to read. The compelling part was over. Sajun was neither poet nor harper, but he had written the story as he and his remaining companions remembered it, and granted himself liberties only where none alive could say otherwise. He’d tried to be honest about his own small role, with neither false heroism nor modesty. The story had an ending. In the way of tales, the grander movements came full circle. Yet–with heartbreaking exceptions–life went on. The last twenty years felt like a story told too long.

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Scared of Bees (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fiction, 3,400 words)

Aryeh Levin picked up the newspaper from his driveway to see how the world would disappoint him today. “Rockets Break Cease-Fire.” Well what else would they do? When your only tool is a sword, every problem looks like a neck. Sarah saw vindication in the headlines, never a sign we ought to do better. But on this side of the world, the morning street was quiet. The big houses lining it were variations of his own, with tidy lawns, shady trees, and gardens dappling the green with a Crayola box of blooms. A summer breeze carried their scents. Here, there was enough room to live and let live. He had resisted moving here. Places like this were walled gardens in a complicated world. He encouraged his students to start their adult lives and careers outside such walls. But Aryeh came to agree with Sarah that this was where Dina should grow up. In this neighborhood, on this block, Dina could learn what civilization could be, before her generation had to rescue it.

Aryeh returned a wave from a neighbor, the father of Dina’s friend, the bossy little one with pigtails. He started climbing the stairs to the porch when something strafed in front of his nose. He jerked back, stumble-hopping down a step. It was a bee. The porch was swarming with them.

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Eternals Is a Parable of Middle Management

SPOILERS for the 2021 Marvel movie Eternals

Now that I’ve noted what Eternals is not, it’s worth spending some time on what it is. Eternals is a story about the gods of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And about the gods of those gods. And I can’t help but see it as a parable about organizations with layers of management, and how quickly those layers can become disconnected and unaligned. Maybe I’ve just been a middle manager who has gone through one too many reorgs or acquisitions, but hear me out.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the godlike Celestials charge the somewhat-godlike Eternals with protecting the nascent humans of Earth from an extraterrestrial predator species, the Deviants. The Eternals are not to interfere in any other conflict. But the Eternals live among the humans, and develop sympathy for them. They roll up their sleeves and work with humans, romance them, and build families with them. They chafe against the injunction against protecting humanity against its worst instincts, and are sometimes horrified by what their non-interference AND their interference produces over the span of millennia. In either case, they become emotionally invested. That is, except the leaders among the Eternals, who commune with the Celestials. These upper rung managers know what the Celestials are doing, and know that it’s best not to get too attached.

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Every Day Is a Miracle (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Flash fantasy, 500 words)

Palms slide on palms, knuckles bump. Tail lights turn the corner. The stereo’s thump fades into the city. Bayard stands at the mouth of the dark alley. His smile dies.

The English accented voiceover says the gazelles know there are lions nearby. See how they keep watch. Tense.

Predators hunt here. Shapeshifters: Adze. But after a night of swagger, your friends don’t walk you to your door. “You can’t live in fear,” they say. But they do. Every damn day. The mayor wants more police, but police can’t tell Adze from human beings. Everyone’s a predator. Everyone’s prey.

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