Monday, December 14, 1992

Origin: The Earliest Writings

[This article was posted in 2009.  It is backdated to 1992, which is obviously before this blog came into existence, in reflection of the date of origin of the material to which it refers.]

I did some personal literary archaeology and uncovered the oldest surviving published writing that I have done, The Original Dream Theater FAQ & Discography from 1993.  My writing skills in that document are what I would charitably characterize as "subpar," but I am nonetheless excited to have found published work of my own from almost two decades ago!

In this article, I will provide some context for my earliest material, and then present some synopses of the very oldest material I can remember in hope that it might be recognized if it is ever recovered.

The 1993 DT FAQ will likely stand permanently as my oldest surviving nonfiction publication.  Sometime around 1992, I wrote a nonfiction article called "Properties of American Money" for the hacking e-zine "FBI," fairly typical "underground" juvenilia edited by a hacker named Garbled User, whose real name was Tim R. and who was actually a very cool guy to hang around.  Properties was not a counterfeiting guide, but instead a primer on the security devices used in paper currency at the time.  However, concededly, the article's appearance in a hacking e-zine like "FBI" was no accident, and I did not expect Tim's readers to have a purely academic interest in its contents.  In 1993, I turned my back on the hacking community forever, a rare good decision at a time when I was making too many bad ones.  As Properties is dated information and contained nothing you couldn't just learn from Wikipedia today -- and because I don't think it's prudent to reproduce the context of the e-zine in any event -- I am not going to be seeking to recover that article.  It is lost to time; it can stay that way.

Fiction is another matter.  My oldest surviving fiction document files right now are sitting on my hard drive at home -- but those files are not the oldest fiction I have actually published!  As early as 1992, I was already writing short stories and flash fiction, and had written half of a novella. My earliest fiction work is of abysmal quality, but I would still like to recover it if possible just for its historical value to me.  Come to think of it, the history of how I lost those stories is a story in itself:

From the first time I ever had a computer in high school in 1988 until around the time I normalized my career path in early 1999, I frequently had catastrophic data loss.  Back in those days, backing up data was a technologically immature process.  Floppy discs, the primary backup media, failed or became corrupted often.  Worse, early applications did not always use standard data formats, so one's saved letters or budget records could turn up unreadable after only a year or so of archiving.  I exacerbated the issue by being a tinkerer with my computers.  This meant I spent years using a series of Frankenstein's-Monster-esque PCs built of cast-off components and held together with string and prayers.  Hard drive failures were the norm, not the exception.

Since I knew my ability to keep my data safe was suspect, I kept my writings and most other data of consequence on 3.5" floppy discs stored in a dark, dry, robust metal box.  I was still at risk of data corruption, but I accepted that possibility.  Alas, verily, it came to pass.  When I finally discarded my last patchwork computer and bought a decent system to run my card business at Arizona Gamer, I copied my floppies onto the hard drive.  I recovered perhaps half of the contents of those discs, and found that the rest had deteriorated to unreadability.  After desperate attempts to save my fiction by riding the (A)bort (R)etry (Q)uit carousel, I threw in the towel and pitched the media.  I knew nothing about forensic data restoration, but I was too poor to afford it then and expected never to need that material anymore anyway.  I was partly right: other than the fiction, I have not missed anything else that was lost.

Since I do still have all my files since 1999, all my old Word documents from stories I have worked on since then are now residing in one of two folders: the one full of material I am continuing to develop, and the "boneyard" full of fragments that I abandoned after finding them unworkable.  There might be a few circa-1999-to-2001 nuggets that I could post that are of parseable quality and that are not going to get released as parts of finished stories in the future.  I will look into that.  My science fiction epic, the working title of which is still "Space Dudes," has changed and morphed and mutated so many times I'm sure I can find some "deleted scenes" that I can share.  That will be for another article.

I wrote my earliest fiction in 1992 when I was 17 to 18 years old.  Most of this was published in ROCK/MAX Magazine, an e-zine released by an art group called "[mAx]" in the ACiD/iCE era.  The magazine ran from 1992-1993.  Below, you can see a recently-unearthed original graphic from "ROCK Magazine, a mAx Production," as brought to you by the "Symphony of Destruction II" bulletin board system (BBS).  This image was drawn by "Slinger" in '93, not long before the magazine folded.  I found this in a mAx art pack buried deep in the amazing archives at http://www.textfiles.com/.  Unfortunately, the Textfiles.com archive contained no actual issues of ROCK/MAX Magazine, but not for any lack of effort on their part, I have to say.


Anyway, I was the literary editor for R/M, covering "Fiction stories" and "Humorous satire," so I had only my own editorial standards to meet, and whaddya know -- somehow my own literary slush always made the grade!  What a surprise!  I did have some nice verbal nuggets in the 1993 mAx art pack, such as noting that our content, however subpar, was "better than picking your ass with a basketball."  Ah, to be 19 again.

R/M featured the following stories and more that are since forgotten:
1. Souljumper (short story/flash fiction)
2. The Vampire's Curse (short story/flash fiction)
3. The Space Hunter (short story/flash fiction)
4. Misdirection/The Catalyst (short story/flash fiction)
5. Beyond Mortal (The Luminous Children) (novella, first half)

Souljumper (1992)
To this day, I absolutely love that title.  I am definitely going to use that again at some point, and probably for a better-developed story based on the same concept.

In Souljumper, Our Hero is a hopelessly dorky high-school sophomore nerd (What?  Author avatar?  I don't know what you're talking about!) who builds grand inventions in his garage workshop while dreaming of romance with Popular Pretty Girl from school, the beauty queen who won't even talk to him.  OH gets help in his tinkering from Nerd Girl Of Inner Beauty, but is oblivious to her feelings for him as he pines for PPG.  On a dark and stormy night (Wait!  Stop laughing!  It's not just prose, but a necessary plot point.  Read on!) OH invents what he calls a "thinking cap" that will grant him greatly-expanded photographic memory; reasoning that brain activity is made up of electrical signals, OH's cap converts static electricity in the air into additional electrical current in the wearer's brain.  OH tries it out and is amazed at how well it works, and learns that, thanks to a tweak suggested by NGOIB with a jaunty wink, once a person has worn the cap, his or her brain permanently adapts to the higher memory level and the cap is no longer required.  OH and NGOIB spend a few hours experimenting with memorization puzzles and it goes great.  Excited at the discovery, OH and NGOIB call it a day. 

The next morning, OH wakes up but finds that his consciousness is in the body of one of his classmates.  At first, there is some fear and the exultation of discovery as OH stumbles his way through his morning and goes to school.  He meets with NGOIB and explains the situation; the two reason that the cap permanently opens a conduit for electrical brain activity to travel through the medium of static electricity on the air, and if he isn't careful, he could end up brain-dead.  (Plot hole: OH's parents would certainly have discovered his inert body, not waking, and thought him to be in a coma or brain-dead or something.  Ah well.  The things you notice 18 years later.)  OH and NGOIB figure out that the only time there is enough static electricity in the air for a "soul" to "jump" to a new brain is during a lightning storm, like the one from the dark and stormy night when OH invented the cap! (See, I told you I actually used that howler to good effect!)

NGOIB figures out from OH's explanation, but OH doesn't realize yet, that the reason he "jumped" to his classmate is because he had remembered just before going to sleep that he had to bring his math notes to lend to that classmate, who had been sick, and that the soul jumped there because it was the last person OH was thinking about before losing consciousness.  (Giant plot hole, of course, in that the soul has no way to navigate the stormy seas of static electricity on the air, and thus the science here takes on an unfortunate "it's magic, okay?" aspect.)

But OH won't realize all that until later.  First, there is another storm after a couple of nights.  OH falls asleep pining for PPG, and -- you guessed it -- wakes up with his consciousness in the body of PPG!  (This kind of body-swap fiction is pretty common at the slush level.  As this was my first-published-story-of-any-kind-period-full-stop, I can live with that.)  After a morning of fairly tingly reader-wish-fulfillment revelations and experimentation, much of it in front of a mirror, OH dresses his sluttiest, goes to school, and is amazed at how reverently he/she is treated by everyone, especially the difference with the teachers's attitudes toward him/her.  OH finds NGOIB and tells her who he is, and NGOIB runs away crying without explanation.  OH finds his other classmate alive and well, with amnesia as to what he did the last few days.  (Plot hole: still no word on the presumably rotting corpse of OH's original brain-dead body back at home.)

It all goes horribly wrong, of course, when a monsoon torrential thunderstorm comes in just as the school is beset by a vanload of escaped convicts.  (Man, I hate it when that happens!)  They hold one of the sophomore classes hostage -- OH's/PPG's/NGOIB's class, natch -- and one of the crooks holds OH (as PPG) at gunpoint while making his demands of the police outside.  OH hears the click of the gun's hammer and passes out in fright, and rides a lightning strike into the brain of the Head Crook Guy!  OH quickly panics and tries to find a way to end the hostage crisis as HCG without getting killed or "stuck" in HCG's brain first.  OH's first attempt to foil his own crime fails, and Criminal Sidekick Tough Guy subdues him and puts him in a sleeper hold.  (Yes, all plot-driven hackneys; you expected Tolstoy?)  OH rides the lightning to CSTG and manages to successfully take out some of the criminals, but not before one of them appears to shoot NGOIB in the stomach for trying to escape.  Tear gas comes in the window, and as OH passes out once more he rides the lightning to...

Waking up in a hospital in the body of NGOIB, OH discovers that he/she survived the bullet wound because it lodged in his/her appendix, and he realizes that his only thoughts as he passed out were fear that NGOIB had been injured or killed.  That's how OH connects the dots and realizes how his soul jump destination is determined, and all of the jumping around during the hostage crisis makes sense to him now.  During convalescence, NGOIB's parents bring her backpack to the hospital so she can stay current on her school assignments.  OH reads NGOIB's notebook and sees an entry for the day he came to school as PPG: "I'll never get OH to love me!  He falls asleep dreaming about PPG -- he admitted it without even realizing what he was saying!  What chance do I have?"  OH realizes that NGOIB figured out how the soul jump worked before he did.  OH reads more of her notebook and discovers for the first time how much NGOIB really cares about him.  OH decides he has feelings for NGOIB too, and so as to preserve the relationship and out of respect for her privacy, he keeps his eyes closed whenever he engages in any girl-parts-related hygiene while in NGOIB's body.  (This is what passes for "heartwarming" in the body-swap slush world.)

A few days later, an early autumn storm arrives and OH rides the lightning back to his own body, which of course is exactly as he left it like a month ago, despite not having eaten or moved or had any brain activity whatsoever. (Yup!)  A weekend passes with rain and lightning aplenty.  OH goes to school the next Monday and looks for NGOIB to tell her his true feelings for her, but she is nowhere to be found.  Soon, PPG approaches OH and gives him a jaunty wink -- and he realizes it's NGOIB, who wore the cap and rode the lightning to PPG in order to win his love.  OH tells NGOIB that he likes her the same no matter what body she wears.  NGOIB is happy and says she will return to her normal body on the next storm, and she gets in one last dig at the real PPG (who, presumably, did not treat NGOIB very well throughout the years) by giving the super-nerdy OH a huge, sloppy kiss right in front of the entire class at lunch, causing all the other popular kids to think OH must not be such a social reject after all if he can win the attentions of PPG.  And, curtain.

Hmmm.  Come to think of it, I think I did better with that story than I realized.  Either that, or it was even worse than I remember it and the rosy fog of nostalgia is making me conflate it with a bunch of better and more recent work or influences (or both).  This is far from a stroke of brilliant originality -- a clumsy version of this tale appears to be something developed in parallel by many a neophyte writer, especially those of the teenaged-boy-with-hormones variety.  Despite all the shortcomings of my first published work, I think its underlying concept still has life.  I may remake it at some point.


The Vampire's Curse (1992)
You see, I spent all of 11th grade playing video games, except for that week when my eyes started to bleed.  And that meant that the iconic stories of my teenaged years generally involved characters that did the bidding of my control pad in a fight against the "Nintendo Hard" repetitive-action villain du jour.  As such, my second early foray into fiction told the story of a man attempting to whip his way through a medieval castle, facing the Grim Reaper and a Mummy along the way, and finally defeating a vampire.  To paraphrase the Munchkins from Futurama's send-up of Oz, my story and characters "resembled, but are legally distinct," from those of the Konami video game Castlevania.  Which, of course, itself borrowed from much existing horror folklore and literature, especially of the "originating before 1923 and thus now in the public domain" sort.  I won't be revisiting this story, obviously.


The Space Hunter (1992)
My third attempt at fiction was much like my second.  This story and its characters resembled, but were legally distinct (wink wink), from those of the Nintendo video game Metroid.  A beautiful but deadly bounty hunter in a powered spacesuit became stranded on a distant planet thriving with malevolent creatures and, well, "Space Buccaneers."  Do I even have to tell you that they are controlled by a single brain-like alien, or what Our Heroine does to that alien in the thrilling final battle?

What can I say?  The earliest stage of the development of a creative mind involves copying the work of one's betters in an attempt to learn their chops.  As you might imagine, I won't be revisiting this story either.


Misdirection/The Catalyst (1992)
Unfortunately, memory is failing on me for the original version of this story because I did actually manage to get into a comprehensive rewrite of it around 2003 at novel length, and the time I spent developing that treatment completely wiped out everything I remember about the original short story.  The novel treatment is called "Misdirection" and is "a story from The Catalyst Saga."  (I'll explain that below.)  The original short was titled either Misdirection or The Catalyst; I cannot be sure which.

Right now the file is in the boneyard because I need more practice mastering my tropes in order to make the plot work as intended.  The current story sets up all the premises and prepares a few twists, but I never figured out a way to develop them toward the resolution.  I did have the final battle and denouement written.  It was the bulk of Act II that eluded me.

In Misdirection, set "twenty minutes into the future" in San Diego, three prominent biotech professors disappear without a trace at about the same time that a mysterious serial killer frustrates police with her striking appearance, brazen murders, and seeming invincibility.  Our Hero, a police detective, discovers evidence of missing material from the professors' computer records and academic papers, and after some forensic work and an anonymous tip learns that it has something to do with a machine called the "Catalyst."  OH traps the serial killer, who protests that she is innocent; while she is in custody, cameras record the same serial killer committing more murders in public.  The killer in custody is actually our Hidden Monarch of the story, and she explains to OH that the Catalyst can take a person's body, "save" the mind to a hard drive of sorts, and rebuild (fabricate) the body molecule by molecule into a perfect form, which in turn is loaded with the mind and off you go.  The commercial potential of such a machine is off the charts, of course.  Everything from curing disabilities and disease to simple vanity refabs.

Turns out plenty of other parties have an interest in keeping that machine off the market, including the HM's nemesis, one of the vanished professors, who used the Catalyst to turn into the serial killer and is the Big Bad of the story.  Both of them used the only Model Body that had been created in the Catalyst machine, a "perfect female" with regenerative biology and enhanced strength and senses by virtue of being built not of DNA strands, but of DNA sheets.  Hence the "evil twin."  OH soon realizes that HM is the first vanished professor, and that BB is the second who in turn murdered the third.  (The third professor was the progenitor of the Catalyst itself). 

In what I think was one of my better turns of "characters following their motives and driving the plot properly," OH realizes that HM is most concerned with "getting the science right" behind the Catalyst, while BB is more concerned with selling the rights to the machine, and that any technology so cutting-edge will have severe risks and flaws and BB wouldn't be paying attention to that.  Indeed it comes to pass.  HM goes back to the Catalyst to get a corrective refab, since the integrity of the fabricated body isn't completely solid and HM knows she'll disintegrate if she doesn't patch it up.  (And she can't go back to her original body because the Catalyst still hasn't completely rendered it in memory from when she initially transformed from it.  The process takes months.  That's why they only had one Model Body ready.)  Meanwhile, BB didn't do his homework, so when he ambushes OH and HM at the lab, he loses nail-biter Final Fight with HM when his molecular structure discombobulates.  The Final Fight itself is a wicked, kinetic martial-arts throwdown right out of The Matrix, because both combatants are identically strong, flexible, and fast -- and just as BB is about to win, his fab corrupts and his strength ebbs, and HM leaves him no room to recover.  Anyway, OH/HM win and, in a twist, fix their romantic relationships with their significant others (problems that recurred throughout the story) instead of getting together.  And, curtain.

The 2003 rewrite of Misdirection was, I thought at the time, the perfect first story in The Catalyst Saga, a connected series of novels taking place in the same universe, a la Heinlein's Future History or Clancy's Ryanverse.  The Catalyst Saga has genuine potential and I think I'll definitely be back when I improve my craft.

It occurs to me writing this article that all three of the non-video game stories I started off with all have the common theme of the transformation of the body in some form.  I think the notion of the "sanctity of the body" is at odds with the raw technological capability for people to realize the ultra-libertarian reality of a future market with body parts as a commodity.  (Regardless of whether you think you'd ever sell, the implications alone are sobering.)  Moreso than that, fiction only really works if it's about sex or death, and the human body is, uh, intimately entwined with both.  I would not be surprised to look back decades from now and realize that riffs on the theme of the "sanctity of the body" feature in virtually all my fiction writing.


Beyond Mortal (The Luminous Children) (part 1) (1993)
I wrote a more detailed article on this story, including context and the last surviving fragments of a 2001 rewrite attempt: The Luminous Children: Prologue.


Well, there they are!  That's as much information as I have on hand of the very first, oldest, most raw and unpolished fiction I have ever written.  Perhaps some of it will live again in a more functional "written on a readable level" form.  If anyone finds any of my old material in the ol' textfiles where it was last seen, please to get in touch with me.  Your round of drinks will be on me, and I'll certainly be happy to credit you here for your archaeological contribution if you like.

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