Trusted Messenger, Postmortem

This post has some spoilers for my short story “Trusted Messenger.” If you haven’t read it, check it out — I think it’s pretty neat.

Photo Credit: Paul Shaffner, Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a week since Escape Pod published my story “Trusted Messenger,” and one of the most exciting and gratifying parts of the experience has been hearing what readers thought of the piece. I’ve had some really interesting discussions with family and friends about the story, and in addition, I was delighted to see the incisive readers at Escape Pod weigh in with incredibly detailed, thoughtful responses.

I’ve spent the last week thinking about the story and its genesis, and wanted to share something about the process of writing it. Readers will always have the last word, but I couldn’t resist putting down some of my own thoughts about the story.


Toxoplasmosa Gondii.

It seems like one of the most common reactions to the story is discomfort. Whether the reader liked the story or not (and not everyone loved it), a sense of unease or mild revulsion was a frequent component. I’m glad — my goal with this story was to explore an uncomfortable place for the characters and their morals, with a hefty dose of also-unpleasant alien biology. Escape Pod tagged my story “body horror,” which I suppose isn’t inaccurate. But rest assured this was occasionally an uncomfortable piece to write, as well — once or twice I shuddered with revulsion at the situation I’d written for the characters.

In addition to those themes, a few readers asked whether issues of power, consent and victimization were involved in the writing of the story. In short, absolutely. Among several other influences, one of the historical parallels that was fresh in my mind was the monstrous forced sterilization of thousands of Native American women in the 1960s and 1970s. As a story about medical ethics, I was very interested in exploring the power dynamics between a frontier doctor and his intransigent patient, and speculating about what might happen when human morality and ethics are confronted with a unprecedented — and alien — dilemma.

puppetmastersOne of the difficulties I had writing the story was that in its earlier drafts, there was too clearly a “good guy” and a “bad guy,” and the story made obvious who was who. With every revision, I tried to muddy the waters of the situation — I tried make Suzanne’s decision reasonable and understandable, even if it meant, essentially, suicide and the certain death of her child, while also making Thad’s rather monstrous violation of his patient sympathetic from a lifesaving perspective. My goal was to heighten that discomfort by placing both terrible decisions on as equal footing as possible. Of course, I’ll leave it to the readers how successful I was in that goal.

the_faculty_movie_posterFinally, one of my favorite parts of writing “Trusted Messenger” was to make that entire situation more worrisome and ambiguous by playing with the well-worn trope of the alien parasite taking over someone’s mind. Books like Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, and films like The Faculty rely on the idea of extraterrestrials that simply take over a hapless victim’s mind. For this story, I wanted something a little more quiet and uncertain, with a more subtle menace. As I was writing this story, I couldn’t stop thinking about the parasite Toxoplasmosa Gondii, and how it’s carried by cats, silently infecting the brains of mice and humans alike. In mice, it alters their behavior to make them more likely to be preyed upon. In humans, it’s been hypothesized that humans’ affection for cats may be partially due to the brain chemistry changes wrought by toxoplasmosis infection. I found that concept profoundly disturbing, and I wanted to speculate about what it might be like to fall under the influence of a parasite (or a mutalistic symbiont) that very subtly altered your behavior, silently making you want to help it and partner with it, instead of merely taking over your mind and tugging on puppet strings.

In the end, I’m impressed and humbled by the reactions and feedback I’ve received on the story. Now, it’s back to the keyboard to write another!

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Trusted Messenger

escapepodMy short story “Trusted Messenger” has just been published by Escape Pod, the premier audio science fiction podcast. It’s my first professional science fiction sale, and it’s a thrilling experience to hear my story read aloud by narrator Phillip Lanos.

“Trusted Messenger” is my rumination on the limits of medical ethics and the lengths a mother will go to protect her children. At the same time, it’s my speculation on the unsettling adaptations humans may need to make in order survive on another planet. As if that’s not enough, it’s also a story about the ways American Indians might come to an accommodation with soil even more unwelcoming than that of a reservation.

Both the text and audio for “Trusted Messenger” are available free of charge on the Escape Pod web site.

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Man-Eating Tigers Through the Ages


This is a tiger. He’s probably thinking about eating you right now.

Tigers are the largest of the big cats. They are also critically endangered, with current wild tiger populations down to less than 4,000 worldwide. With so few tigers still in the wild, it’s easy to forget that for a long time, humans came into bloody conflict wherever tigers could be found. And the human body count was surprisingly high.

In fact, one of my favorite oddball facts to trot out is the number of deaths that can be attributed to tiger attacks. Sometimes, I’ll ask for people’s guesses, off the top of their head, of the number of people killed by wild tigers in the last 200 years or so. The responses range, some people will guess a handful, or a few hundred, up to a few thousand. An adventurous guesser might venture a number into the tens of thousands.

So, how many people have actually been killed by wild tigers since 1800 or so? 373,000.

I find that number mindboggling. That’s almost 2,000 people a year for 200 years, according to the authoritative reference Tigers of the World: The Science, Politics and Conservation of Panthera tigris.

maneaters_of_kumaonOf course, not all reports of man-eating tigers are found in dry academic tomes. One of the more sensational accounts of killer tigers can be found in Man-Eaters of Kumaon, a memoir by “hunter-naturalist” Jim Corbett, filled with lurid descriptions of the author’s pursuit of man-eating tigers in India in the early 1900s. One such tale described the hunt for the Champawat Tiger, a female Bengal tiger responsible for killing 436 people before being killed in 1907.

In his latter years, Corbett became an outspoken advocate for the protection of India’s endangered species, especially the Bengal tiger. He helped establish India’s first national park and oldest nature reserve for the preservation of tigers, which was renamed Jim Corbett National Park, including the Corbett Tiger Reserve.

As one of the oldest tiger preserves in the world, Corbett Tiger Reserve now plays a critical role in ongoing efforts to save the Bengal tiger from extinction. Though tiger attacks in modern days are rare, reports of man-eating tigers still crop up from time to time.

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Lincoln Park: Chock-Full of Decaying Corpses


There are probably dead bodies in this photo. A lot of them.

One of my favorite things about living in Chicago is Lincoln Park. More than 50 percent larger by area than New York’s Central Park, Lincoln Park is truly is a marvel. It spans seven miles along Chicago’s Lake Superior shoreline, boasting gardens, sports fields, one of the nation’s largest free zoos, a conservatory, two museums, and as many as 10,000 dead bodies in shallow, unmarked graves.

Wait, what was that last one?

chicago_in_flamesYeah, as it turns out, Lincoln Park wasn’t always a public park. It started out as Cemetery Park and the city’s cemetery in 1843. For several decades, thousands of Chicagoans were interred in the land now used as a park, including 4,000 Confederate prisoners of war held at Camp Douglas, and thousands who died during the periodic cholera epidemics of the late 1800s. After the Great Chicago Fire, virtually all of the burial markers were damaged or lost (in addition to the thousands buried in unmarked Potter’s Fields).

While some graves were certainly moved during the transformation of Cemetery Park into its present-day form, it’s widely-known that thousands of those graves remain interred just feet beneath the running paths and baseball fields. In fact, as recently as 1998, construction in the park uncovered dozens of bodies just below the surface.

For much more on Lincoln Park’s storied history and its macabre legacy, check out Hidden Truths: the Chicago City Cemetery & Lincoln Park.

So be careful when digging in Lincoln Park: you may uncover more than you expect!

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Good news: the rabbit’s dead!

rabbitYou’re tellin’ other things, but your girlfriend lied
You can’t catch me ’cause the rabbit done died.

 The lyrics above (from Aerosmith’s 1975 single “Sweet Emotion”) may seem pretty obscure to modern audiences, but they actually refer to the Aschheim-Zondek Rabbit Test, one of the earliest accurate tests for human pregnancy. The test, developed in the 1930s at the University of Pennsylvania, involved injecting a laboratory rabbit with a woman’s urine. The presence of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) caused the rabbits ovaries to change, which could be observed (after surgically extracting the organs).

Because the procedure to examine the organs involved killing the rabbit, a widespread misunderstanding of the procedure led to the phrase “the rabbit died” as a euphemism for being pregnant. In truth, the rabbit died either way, and while it was possible to complete the procedure without killing the rabbit, that made the process much more expensive and difficult, and consequently, a lot of rabbits died.

xenopus_laevisLater, scientists found a way to test for pregnancy without the need to dissect a rabbit: injecting female African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) with pregnant women’s urine stimulated the frogs to produce eggs, an obvious process that didn’t involve killing the frogs.

The advent of modern immunoassay methods now allow doctors to measure hCG directly from the blood or urine of a woman, eliminating the need for either a dead rabbit intermediary or an ovulating frog.

While no one (except perhaps Aerosmith fans) think much about the Rabbit test anymore, Xenopus frogs like African clawed frogs now rank among the most-studied model organisms in science, and even to this day, human growth hormones are used to stimulate the frog to reproduce easily in captivity.

So a test for human pregnancy that resulted in the deaths of countless rabbits is now used to help frogs reproduce more easily. How’s that for recycling?

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Google Maps, Burakumin and the shrinking planet

highandlowAt first, the AP article on Google Maps seemed like the garden-variety handwringing that happens whenever Google Maps rolls out street view photography in a new location (neighbors complain about invasion of privacy, etc).

But it turns out, there was much more going on. From Old Japanese maps on Google Earth unveil secrets:

The maps date back to the country’s feudal era, when shoguns ruled and a strict caste system was in place. At the bottom of the hierarchy were a class called the “burakumin,” ethnically identical to other Japanese but forced to live in isolation because they did jobs associated with death, such as working with leather, butchering animals and digging graves…

But they still face prejudice, based almost entirely on where they live or their ancestors lived. Moving is little help, because employers or parents of potential spouses can hire agencies to check for buraku ancestry through Japan’s elaborate family records, which can span back over a hundred years.

An employee at a large, well-known Japanese company, who works in personnel and has direct knowledge of its hiring practices, said the company actively screens out burakumin job seekers.

Emphasis mine. I won’t pretend to know a lot about Japanese culture, but I was fascinated by this holdover from a rigidly-enforced caste system that I never knew existed in Japanese history. Reading more about cultural issues in modern-day Japan, I also learned that Japan, like the United States, has its own tortured past with indiginous peoples: the Ainu and the Ryukyuans.

It was likewise a surprise to me to find that Akira Kurosowa intended the main character of his crime thriller High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku) to be understood as a burakumin who had overcome discrimination to become a business executive.

The infinite varieties of the human condition never cease to amaze me. And as the Google incident shows, the world is getting smaller, and people need to learn a lot more about the world around them.

This blog post is a reprint from a long time ago.

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Sea-Monkeys: A bowlful of happiness

instantlifeAh, the joyous miracle of life. I’m referring, of course, to the miracle of Sea Monkey life. For millions of children, the first experience with playing god began with an advertisement in the back of a comic book, and ended with a slurry of dead Sea Monkeys dried into a hard paste on the front of a dresser. Or was that just me?

The original mail-order pets, Sea Monkeys are a fascinating biological anomaly: a variant species of brine shrimp that evolved in salt lakes and areas that saw alternating periods of moisture and evaporation. Their unusual heritage meant that they could be easily induced to enter cryptobiosis, a state of suspended animation that allowed the shrimp to be dried and packaged along with a packet of food and salt, which when combined with water, would re-animate the dormant creatures.

(Another creature capable of cryptobiosis, the Tardigrade, or ‘Water Bear,’ a microscopic eight-legged organism, is perhaps the hardiest organism on earth, a polyextremophile that has been shown to survive temperatures close to absolute zero, minutes in boiling water, decades without water, exposure to 1000 times the radiation that would kill a human, and even the vaccuum of outer space.)

seamonkeyadSea Monkeys were notable for their outlandish advertisements which illustrated anthropomorphic Sea Monkey creatures which bore no resemblance to actual brine shrimp. Nowadays, the Sea Monkey franchise isn’t just limited to aquariums: runaway merchandising means you can now get Sea Monkey habitats in wristwatch form, or even on a necklace.

Behind all the hype and biological wizardry was Harold von Braunhut, one of the pioneers of the garish advertisements that filled the back pages of early comic books. He was also the inventor of the X-Ray Specs novelty, and many other novelties like ‘crazy crabs,’ and ‘invisible goldfish.’ Unfortunately, von Braunhut was also a white supremacist and ardent neo-Nazi supporter.

This blog post is a reprint from a long time ago.

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Arr, you Vitamin-C-deficient scallywag!

grogGrowing up, my mother always exhorted us to eat our fruits and vegetables, or else we’d get Scurvy. Being an elementary-schooler, I didn’t know that Scurvy was, in fact, a dietary deficiency in Vitamin C. Actually, the sum total of my understanding of the word was as part of the timeless (cartoon) pirate lingo: “You scurvy scallywag!” I think at one point I was convinced that not eating your vegetables would result in me becoming a pirate.

The disease was, apparently, quite common among sailors and pirates in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but the symptoms are quite a bit less pleasant than a charming West Country accent: spotted skin, spongy, bleeding gums, eventually leading to wholesale tooth loss, open pus-filled sores, immobility and death. Being a simple dietary deficiency, the disease could be cured by daily consumption of fruits or vegetables, especially citrus fruits (which were unfortunately, unavailable on long sea voyages).

One of the most common solutions to shipboard scurvy came as part of the solution to another unpleasant facet of life on board a ship: filthy, stagnant drinking water. As seawater was undrinkable, sailors and pirates needed to haul all of their fresh water with them, in wooden casks. Unfortunately, this stagnant water quickly grew algae and became filthy and unpalatable. Grog, a mixture of the stagnant water and rum, made the water more palatable (and avoided the predictable consequences of handing out straight rum to bored sailors and pirates). Eventually, the British Navy also added citrus juice (usually lime) to the mix, and unexpectedly, the problems with scurvy almost disappeared. This also led to the infamous derogatory epithet aimed at British sailors: “limey!”

Vitamin C deficiency is almost unknown in the animal kingdom: virtually all mammals can synthesize Vitamin C, and don’t need to find it in the environment. Along with other primates, guinea pigs are virtually the only other mammal that does not synthesize their own L-ascorbic acid. Well, fruit bats, too. But I don’t consider bats to be mammals. Instead I tend to think of them as horrible unearthly hellspawn that have no business existing at all. (So not an exact taxonomy as such.)

Serious cases of scurvy are all but unknown in the modern world, but apparently, a peculiar diet can lead to inadvertent self-imposed scurvy. So eat your fruits and vegetables. Yarr!

This blog post is a reprint from a long time ago.

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Mayhem in McDonaldland!

evil_grimaceEarly McDonaldland was a freaky place. Originally a transparent rip-off of Sid and Marty Kroft’s H.R. Pufnstuf program, the mythical McDonald’s realm was filled with anthropomorphized fast food products, volcanoes spewing milkshakes, and a recurring cast of villains attempting to steal food products from Mayor McCheese and Ronald McDonald, including the legendary Hamburgler.

One of the more disturbing trends in early McDonaldland commercials was the prevalance of casual cannibalism. Mayor McCheese, himself a anthropomorphic hamburger, would occasionally indulge in a hamburger grown from the hamburger patch, each of which were themselves also anthropomorphized. The Gobblins, later renamed the fry guys, were brightly-colored bundles of McDonald’s french frys, who roamed McDonaldland stealing and eating their smaller fry brethren.

But little can compare to the freakiness of the original incarnation of Grimace. Originally named “Evil Grimace,” the giant purple monster had four arms, and stole milkshakes from the various denizens of McDonaldland.

As ever, the Onion parodies the absurdity of the whole situation perfectly with the article McDonald’s Drops ‘Hammurderer’ Character From Advertising. From the Onion article:


Bowing to outcry from consumers and parents groups, the McDonald’s Corporation announced Monday that it is discontinuing its new advertising mascot, “The Hammurderer,” a mischievous, homicidal imp who kills McDonaldland characters and takes their sandwiches.

This blog post is a reprint from a long time ago.

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2112, Rush’s Prog-Rock Sci-Fi Opera

2112When I was a high schooler, I took a summer class from a wild-eyed, and equally wild-haired guy on the topic of dystopian literature in science fiction. (Nerd. Guilty as charged.) The class was great, and introduced me to tons of interesting authors and ideas, but in retrospect, I think the whole thing was a big excuse for the teacher to spend a class session listening to and discussing Rush’s rock opera 2112.

Now, pop music is no stranger to sci-fi tinged rock productions. From Styx’s legendary Mr. Roboto to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, there’s often been a rock and roll nod towards sci-fi sensibilities. But 2112 is an entirely different beast. Clocking in at just over twenty minutes long, 2112 can barely be described as a song. 2112 begins with a lengthy instrumental overture, segues into a fast-paced hard-rock anthem in the Priests section, and continues through seven distinct sections, telling a story of subjugation and persecution in a far-future dystopia.

Written by Rush drummer and lyricist Neal Peart, 2112 is an extended riff on Ayn Rand’s Anthem (the liner notes include a questionable tribute to “the genius of Ayn Rand“), telling the story of a idealistic dreamer who tries to bring music to a harsh, authoritarian world, only to be persecuted for his discovery.

Quite apart from the Rand-esque philosophy (ugh), the experience of sitting in class with a bunch of like-minded teens, listening to 2112 and discussing its significance has always stuck with me as a turning point. High school can be a tough slog, particularly for those socially underdeveloped or counterculture folks for whom the high-school years aren’t the high-water mark of their lives. (In Rush’s charming but slightly pretentious lyricmaking, “nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.”) Experiences like this helped remind me what was on the other side of the horizon.

If you got a spare twenty minutes, listen to 2112. It’s worth a listen, even if you aren’t trying to survive high-school as a sci-fi enthusiast.

This blog post is a reprint from long ago.

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