Survival Tactics: Some story backgrounds

There’s a temptation, when publishing a short story, to explain it.

This is probably not a great impulse. The power of art is that it’s different for each person that consumes it. Ideally, a story threads itself into a reader’s identity and becomes an individual thing, an emotional experience as unique as a fingerprint. (That’s of course assuming the story resonates.)

But this is my blog, and I remember writing each story in Survival Tactics. And I’ll write it down here, as a reference for the future, where I’ve long forgotten.

“About Time”

Once upon a time, one of the smoke detectors in our garage started beeping. It has been beeping now for more than three years. There’s another smoke detector in there that’s been replaced more recently, so I don’t think there’s actually anything amiss; but the older detector chirps, regularly, every 60/90/120 seconds (I’ve never measured the interval).

The Kid and I decided it was a poltergeist, and we named it Gerald.

Gerald became a plot bunny. Originally I was thinking of a longer piece about a young man with a quiet life who’d died in a mundane way, only to be caught up in a bureaucratic Afterlife. (As a general idea, not uncharted waters; “Beetlejuice” and “Dead Like Me” are only two examples of fiction building on that framework.) But as I started to write for Gerald, I became far more captivated by the story arcs of the people he watched. Here was Gerald, stuck in an eternity of unchanging drudgery, looking to the outside world for entertainment and companionship. What could a paper-pushing ghost teach people whose activities and choices were simply a blip on his eternal timeline?

Nora was born first, and then Else; and Gerald being Gerald, he had to help them find each other. He knows, more than anyone he watches, how quickly it all passes, how fragile and beautiful and worth taking risks for it all is.

And so Nora, quietly reticent, and Else, quietly despairing, receive a little nudge from an observer. Because a little nudge is all that’s within his power, and isn’t it nice they’re watching at the right time?

This is a romance. It’s the only romance I’ve ever written. I adore it. If I ever met Else and Nora in real life I’d give them both hugs and buy them donuts. (Nora is incorrect about donuts.)

“Factory Reset”

So a couple of years back, a professional acquaintance asked me if I wanted to sub a story to The Verge’s Better Worlds project. I had two ideas; one became “Overlay,” and The Verge kindly bought it.

This is the other, and it’s a good thing I didn’t go with it, because it’s way over their maximum word count.

My idea with this was to remark on two things: our tendency to use technology to destroy and homogenize, and the power of technology to repair and restore. The were-kats were an afterthought, and they became the cheerful stars of the show. (Yes, they’re basically ferrets, only larger and less interested in raisins.)

It may or may not be worth mentioning that the formatting on this story was an absolute bastard, and I didn’t even bear the brunt of it. Moral: Never make source code part of the narrative.

“The Haunting of Jessica Lockwood”

“What? I am superstitious. So are you.”

“No I’m not.”

“Well you should be. It’s safer.”

Epilogue, The Cold Between,

It made sense for Jessica’s story to be a ghost story. She’s smart, intuitive, and disinclined to impulse–at least professionally–but she’s seen too much to believe she knows every damn thing about everything.

Canonically, Jessica was thrown off her home planet of Tengri after she embezzled from the government. As an adult, she remembers taking the opportunity as soon as it was offered. At fourteen, though…Tengri, despite its considerable flaws, was all she knew. Leaving couldn’t possibly have been easy.

The story structure was born as soon as I decided to go with haunting. Jessica rolls with the experience, because she’s always been the one with the open mind. She might not understand all the implications of her decision, but she does eventually get the message.


This one was a paid gig, written to a specific theme: how technology has the potential to improve lives.

Most of you know both my parents have dementia. As the disease progresses, I’m learning how little it’s possible to do for them, but I have wishes. The biggest wish is that they be somewhere they choose to be, somewhere they’re safe, entertained, even happy.

Enter VR.

“Overlay” is a spy story. It’s also a child’s gift to a parent, the only thing left in his power. And if the technology were real, I’d be giving it, too.

“Single Point of Failure”

So throughout 2016 and 2017, I got kind of angry. The kind of angry that you’re convinced other people can see, because it’s so powerful it must be crawling out of you pore by pore and taking on a life of its own.

I don’t act out much in real life. I almost always think before I speak; I think a lot before I write. Sometimes this means I’m a bit repressed.

It’s not a big stretch from repression to anger literally taking on a life of its own.

Mercury came into it for a couple of reasons: one, it’s mineral-rich, although currently it’s difficult to imagine technology that would make it worth mining. Two, of course, there’s retrograde, which apparently affects the view from the planet as well as the view of the planet. Even without supernatural elements, humans don’t always cope well with things that look strange, even if there’s a good explanation. So is the story reality, or madness? Does it really matter?

“Unto Dust”

One of the core themes of the Central Corps novels is loss and reconstruction. Not such uncommon things in life; few of us reach adulthood intact, and it’s not unusual for stories to use broader strokes to cover the things we all deal with.

Which is my way of trying to excuse knocking off Greg’s mother.

My mom asked me once, some years ago, why I was always killing her off. In truth, my relationship with her is complicated, and because my dad was more problematic, I’ve done less work to figure her out. Greg came to me without a mother, and yeah, that’s a stereotype. But for him it was effective: raised by someone he was told he wasn’t like at all, expected to follow in his mother’s heroic footsteps, never quite dealing directly with the catastrophic loss.

One thing I find interesting about Greg is what a good father he has. His mother was smart, and charming, and upbeat and focused, and probably wouldn’t have been a great mom to him as he got older. But Tom, his father–steady, reliable, always acting with love. Greg would have done a lot of grieving through anger as he went through adolescence, and Tom would have had to stand steady through quite a storm.

This isn’t Greg’s story, not really. This is Tom’s. Tom, who hated the Corps before he fell in love with a Corps doctor, before his son grew up starry-eyed about serving, before he lost his wife to the job. Tom who loves his children, and knows precisely what he can and cannot change. Tom is the parent we all wish we were; he’s certainly better at it than I am.

“Thinking Inside the Box”

I’m not supposed to have favorites, but this one is my favorite.

This is a classic “what if” story: what if you could learn, with complete accuracy, what would happen for the rest of your life? Even if you ignore all the issues around predestination and free will, it’s a pretty horrific thought–and it’s something I suspect a lot of people would do anyway.

What would it do to you, if every bit of mystery and anticipation was stripped from your existence? What kind of person would you become?

And what if you saw more than everybody thought you were going to?

I like the voice I found in this one. The narrator is full of the dry cynicism of age, but at the same time–and against his better judgement–he’s not without hope. So maybe he’s a bit of who we all are on our good days.

“Friends Like These”

This one is a little long to be flash fiction, but that’s basically what it is. When I was working on revisions for The Cold Between, I became heartily sick of the whole process. A friend of mine prescribed one night of writing something that had nothing to do with my manuscript, or my universe.

Calling this one spec fic is a stretch. It’s a mystery, really, or maybe a thriller, or maybe a little bit of horror. It’s a bit of fluff, but I ended up liking the way the characters normalized something that just isn’t normal.

By the way, I can highly recommend the prescription if you’re feeling burnt out but don’t want to take a night off writing. You never know what might come out.


This is an actual deleted scene from Breach of Containment, ever-so-slightly cleaned up. Greg and Elena have a brief conversation about the incident in Chapter 9 of the novel, but my original draft started with this scene, and although it didn’t belong in the final narrative I still rather like it. Elena’s got this odd combination of bravery, selflessness, narcissism and nihilism that can both lead her to heroic acts and make her extremely dangerous to be around.

The scene is less about Elena than Arin, the almost-adult still figuring out how he wants to make a difference in the world. Whether Elena is a good influence on him or a bad one is debatable; I kind of think she’s both.

“Birthdays at the End of Time”

I’ve gone back and forth on what to say about this one.

This story was born from a desire to write something in first person plural. Given the kinds of things I usually write about, it made sense for the narrator to be an artificial intelligence.

Beyond that…I’d been thinking about the black hole paradox. Last year Quanta reported physicists were nearing a resolution, but I was fascinated by the idea that there were two possibilities, and we didn’t have a good way of disproving either one. I wanted to write a story about someone who was about to find out the truth.

It’s sad. But I had at least one reader say he felt hopeful at the end of it. He also suggested I place it at the end of the book, and I can’t disagree with that. The end of the story says all the right things.

Available worldwide. Your library should be able to order it as well.

Survival Tactics:
A Short Story Collection

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