There Were Going to be Poetry Posts Today…

…but I caught plague.

In the meantime, go read poetry archives like Verse Daily.  I linked to some of my quick favorites via twitter last week.

Also, I think Stone Telling has a new issue.  You should go read that too.

And hug a poet.

And don’t buy the winning Mega Millions ticket; it’s mine! Mine and my friends’! I’m not entirely sure of the grammar of possession, but you get the idea.

Plague.

Hugo

Hugo is a very pretty movie. From its opening sequence as the gears of a clock morph into the streets of Paris, to the long shot of a little boy winding through the back corridors of a train station as he cares for all the clocks therein, to the shine of the automaton’s steampunked innards–it is a very, very pretty movie.

And not much else.

I know it’s based on a beloved children’s book, and I am certain that in that form, the adult characters make a strange sort of sense. In a book, the menacing stalking of the watchman and his dog is probably a real threat. You never know when he’s going to show up, after all until suddenly he is there, between the periods. In a movie, we see him. We know where he is looking and where his next step will take him. In a book, his pratfalls may be funny as we fill in many of the details through our own imaginations. In the film, they felt oddly contrived and lethargic.

In a book, the aloofness of the adults, their callousness, their refusal to listen is part of the language of children’s lit. The POV of Hugo or the little girl adds a filter through which we interpret adults as a child would. In a film though, I don’t give you that leeway. I have to interpret facial expressions and intonation as an impartial observer. And quite frankly, the adults in this story were, in a word, cruel.

So people stopped watching your films. How tragic, how terrible. How strange that men returning from war don’t want to see rockets piercing the eye of the moon. These men who had seen their friends and brothers and classmates choke to death on gases, their intestines explode outwards, full of lead and metal, how dare they ignore these happy, fantastical films. I am so sorry for you.

Sure being ignored, forgotten is sad but it is certainly no reason to be angry–to be furious at those black, clacking heels. It is not enough to steal the notebook of a small orphan boy, to allow him to walk in shorts through the snowy streets of Paris, to give him a handkerchief full of ashes when you know, for you must know, that this was the one precious thing in this child’s life. Does he owe you a debt for stealing your toys? Absolutely. Does that give you the right to steal from him? Hell fucking no.

Not to mention the wife who, upon being asked by her goddaughter to explain why her godfather doesn’t want to speak of his work, says ‘You are too young to bear such sadness.’

Umm. Her parents are dead. How’s that?

There were snippets of beautiful observed stories, things which I’m sure were more effective in the books and would have stood out even better had the main plot been worth following.

And the terrible unsubtletly of it all! Stare into space and suddenly find yourself in a flashback! There may have even been diddly diddly diddly music and hand waving… I can’t really remember. Witness awkward exchanges between children which did so little to advance the plot(?) I can barely remember them as distinct episodes. Mysterious book giving man! Mysterious librarian who knows everything! Mysterious key given for NO REASON WHATSOEVER!

Ugh. I think my brother summed this movie up best: Martin Scorcese thinks children are stupid.

Whalefall

Editor’s Note: This story is by John. Do you know John? You should know John.  In fact, you probably already know John.  When the shadows linger on the windowsill as you make your morning breakfast, John is there.  John is in the incessant beep of your alarm clock, the slight chill of winter mornings, and he is responsible for all those missing socks from your dryer. John is there. John is everywhere.

And he might just be plotting your death.

Whalefall

by John Murphy

It sank through methane-ammonia skies and seas, dead at last and blotting out the sun. It was a whale of a thing, a continent of flesh. It had swum the seas and flown the skies for thousands of years. If other whales marked its passing, they showed no sign. If they mourned or had ceremonies for their dead, there was no indication from below.

The whale sank slowly, decomposing as it went. Its enormous swim bladders leaked their last breaths out slowly into the greater seas. Its coppery blood leaked in streams while the more daring among the scavengers leaped for it from their accustomed pressure zones.

The silvery scavengers were kilometers long, slivers of light in the darkness. They flashed reflected brilliance as they leapt, flew, and swam. The whale had consumed them by the thousands in life; in its death their payback would be swift. The bravest and strongest among them leapt first and highest. A few of them caught hold and attached to the great dead beast. Their flesh split to expose teeth like icebergs along their four-lobed jaws. They gobbled whole chunks, burrowed into its sides.

As the whale descended it hit the first pressure boundary, a phase change, and its descent slowed. Its surface writhed and flashed with silvery snakes that whipped their tails as they burrowed tunnels into the mountain of decaying flesh. Though they feasted for ages, their ravenous hunger still left the enormous whale nearly whole.

The snakes’ burrows provided escape to the gases building within the beast. Its last meal fermented, feeding generation upon generation of microbe. The warm gases within blew out of the holes in the carcass, great rank blasts that boiled the cold liquid methane. As the whale sank and the pressure grew, the fat silvery snakes abandoned the body to began their search for new dinners, for live whales beginning to slow and stink of death.

Down deep where the light got dim, carbonaceous cysts attached themselves to the whale’s flapping skin where the snakes had torn it open. They settled into torn green flesh and took root. The soft creatures inside put out their violet tongues to feed on the warm fluids still seeping out, and they multiplied. They drew calcium from the ocean, copper from the blood, and iron from the skin. They constructed hard shells like bubbles, constructed scaffolding like threads. Descendants built on the remains of their ancestors, painting stripes as their pigmentation changed over generations. Layers of blood green and bone brown and fang white fanned out from those first few cells.

The torn flesh mineralized and became hard. The blue skin became pale shingles. The colonizing cysts grew like frost crystals across its surface. Food and waste filtered down from above, settling on the corpse like snow. It weighed the beast down to where the pressure wrung it out, and the great body grew dense.

The whale continued to sink, but slowed. Even encrusted with calcium and iron, carbon and copper, even armored like a machine of war, it eventually came to a rest at an equilibrium depth. There was black frigid sea above, and blacker sea below. The body was warm still. Colonies of microbes burned through centuries of energy stored in the whale’s cells, and this furnace produced warm methane, butane, and acetylene. To the denizens of the middle deep, sensitive to infrared or more sluggardly wavelengths still, the whale shone like a sun.

On this shining warm thing landed stranger things still, ancient spores among whose descendants numbered the whale itself. These silicate-encrusted cells found purchase in the warm soft bed that had grown over the corals that had grown over the whale’s blue skin, and after a time they began to hatch.

These new cells basked in the warmth and the flow of nutrients. They divided again and again. They began as their descendants had long ago to cluster together for protection or structure. They called upon distant genetic memories to once again grow whip tails and oars like hairs. They rooted themselves to their home flesh, or they grew limbs and made themselves motile. They became as numerous and varied as the stars, and they spread across the surface of their new home on the flesh of their long-lost cousin.

The whale was not motionless, despite its buoyancy. It turned and twisted so that cold methane washed over its extremities. The creatures calling the whale home adapted, or died. They partook of the flesh or the nutrient snow, or they partook of each other. They became big or they became small. They became dangerous or they became numerous.
Some of them became clever. Not many of them, but in a furrow in the whale’s ruined flank arose a small colony of creatures that became aware of their surroundings and of themselves. They saw each other in the dim glow of the whale’s putrefaction. They learned to start chemical reactions to warm themselves. The learned to armor themselves when they swam high and could be seen by hungry things. They disturbed the icy methane and in the pressure waves they named themselves. They spoke the names together, telling each other stories about themselves.

They worked together, these creatures, when they did not work against each other. They slew the big, the small, the dangerous, and the numerous, until they considered themselves safe. They spread across the whale, learned to eat new things, and to speak of new things. They spent less of their time staying alive and more of their time exploring the contours of their great dead home. They explored their thoughts and told each other stories about being alive.

They learned that their surroundings offered things of permanence: below the soft mat of dead things were the calcium and copper shells of the corals that had suffocated long ago. They learned to chip this hard stuff to build tools and homes and empires. They fought over the choicest bits. The losers went away only to find choicer bits still. Some stayed and were content a little while. Some returned for revenge. They told each other stories about revenge and victory and justice.

They dug beneath the corals. They found flesh and eventually bone. They found cavernous ruins of powerful muscle cut ragged by the silvery snakes, and smooth veins and wide open buoyancy bladders full of bizarre creatures, descendants of microbes from higher altitudes and of the survivors of the whale’s last meal. They told each other stories of discoveries and riches and brave explorers.

The clever creatures mapped their world and began to see symmetries, analogies between the whale and themselves. They began to look away into the great dark ocean and to wonder whether there were other whales out there, infested with clever creatures like themselves. They told each other stories about those creatures.

They took great pieces of bone and coral and built great structures. They captured the warmth and the nutrients streaming from the body of the whale through apertures old and new, and they put these things to use making themselves strong and happy and rich. They told each other stories of their accomplishments, and that drove them to accomplish greater things still. They wrote down their stories and thought about their stories and wondered what other stories were told inside the stories, about the tellers themselves.

Generations passed. The clever creatures came to understand that there was more to see than what they could see. They learned what light was, and learned to see what they could not. They looked up and saw dimly through the sea and sky, a sun. They looked down over the edge of the whale and saw nothing. They looked hard, but still saw nothing except faint flashes of light. They told each other stories about those flashes. It did not escape their attention that falling things fell down.

Some of the clever creatures built cages of copper and calcium and iron and plastic, and they stocked their cages with nutrients and they swam from their home. The creatures that did that saw wonderful views of their home, but they either came home after finding nothing, or did not come home at all. The cages became comfortable and the excitement gave way to amusement, and they never seemed to go as far anymore.

The nutrients in the whale could not last forever. Thousands of thousands of generations had lived and died in its belly since its death, feeding upon the whale and each other. What streamed out through the holes that the silver snakes made and the holes that the clever creatures made, went out into the cold methane sea for other creatures to consume. The whale’s body began to cool.

As the whale cooled it lost buoyancy, and began again to sink. The clever creatures sank with it, and they understood that they sank. Their little bodies were not suited to too much cold or too much pressure. They became frustrated with their situation and with each other. And they disagreed what to do about it.

Some of them saw hope in the little bone cages. They built cages larger than ever before, learned to make them not just buoyant, but learned to heat them or to evacuate cavities and make them float. Many of the clever creatures died learning to do this, because their bodies were not suited to too much heat or too little pressure. They reinforced the little bone cages, separated the cavities. They built bigger and bigger, built cities that floated up to where the whale had been. They hewed great chunks of the flesh of their home and brought it along. Some of the creatures — they argued themselves whether these among them were clever or not — built enormous cages the span of the whale’s sharp teeth. They stocked their cages with flesh and coral and reminders of home, and they went off and away.

The clever creatures that remained tried many things. The whale sank slowly, after all, and truly clever creatures could adapt. They made themselves warm and protected themselves with their tools, or they played with their genes so they would enjoy the cold and withstand the pressure. Some of them dug down into the flesh where it was warmer. They too adapted. Over the generations, some of them changed their minds and tried one idea or another. Some refused to believe that the whale — their whale — was sinking, that it had ever been anywhere other than where it was just then. Life became hard for the clever creatures. Some of them left in even fancier cages than the earlier travelers made, and wondered whether they might meet up again. They told each other stories about dying, and what comes after.

Generations passed among the clever creatures, and the whale still sank. The pressure slowly grew, the temperature slowly fell. The clever creatures would not have been recognized by their ancestors, but they had good lives by their own reckoning, and sometimes found meaning in their lives and their passing. Eventually, there were no more of the clever creatures at all.

The pressure grew and cracked the coral plates. The whale’s flesh froze. All of the cities the clever creatures built crumbled and washed away as the whale’s great body turned and twisted. New things came to nibble at it, armored things, like the cages made by the clever creatures. They had eyes as wide as flippers. They made light in bursts and flashes and saw the reflections. With each flash they tore a tiny piece from the whale, tore away flesh and coral and the detritus and monuments of the long-dead clever creatures.

The whale’s pitted bones were exposed to the ocean and began to dissolve. With a great shuddering, the body twisted in a powerful current. Its spines broke and its body was rent in two. The exposed flesh and bone flowered in the dark. New things took root in the receding flesh, things of magnificent hidden beauty and horror.

At long last, the whale came to rest on the floor of the sea. It was eaten by and became home to new things, old things that long had lived in the basement of the world, undreamed of by whale or snake or clever creature, things with claws and tongues and pinching teeth. Some of these things were in their own way clever as well.

The mountainous body of the whale grew over with living things. It lay among similar mounds at the Stygian depths of a planet-wide methane sea. It sighed out the last of its warmth, and never moved again.

At the top of the world, where the seas turned to skies, a whale made its last leap of joy and became still. After a time, it began to sink.

Originally published in After Ever After

John Murphy is the nom de plume of a swarm of small fast robots. They are completely and utterly harmless — nothing to worry about at all.

Old Eve, New Dawn

Editor’s Note: This story is by Igor.  Do you know Igor?  You should know Igor.  It is rumored Igor lives in an abandoned missile silo somewhere in the Nevada desert where he makes robots out of old kitchen appliances and whispers the scriptures of the new religions.  If you want to speak to him (and who doesn’t want to speak to him) leave a message at the beep…

Old Eve, New Dawn
by Igor Teper

During quite possibly the most spectacular sunset in Earth’s history, as they all now were, what looked like a man but was really a Know-It-All walked out of the radioactive slaglands into the slightly less radioactive ruins of a small town.

Among the many things that the Know-It-All knew were the date and time, the temperature, the absolute and relative humidities, the ambient radiation levels, the soil toxicity, the particulate content of the atmosphere that painted the sky such an extraordinary pink, and the entirety of humanity’s technical knowledge and cultural heritage.

Among the few things that the Know-It-All did not know was the future. In particular, it had no idea while it ambled down what had once been Main Street that it was about to encounter a human being until it heard a piercing shriek off to its left.

She dashed out of the rubble and embraced the Know-It-All before it even had a chance to greet her. A girl, in her late teens or early twenties, who, her tattered clothing and generally disheveled appearance notwithstanding, appeared to be in excellent physical
health.

She released the Know-It-All and stood back, her hands resting lightly on its upper arms, looking at its face with unbelieving elation.

“I knew you would come!” she said, her lips and jaw trembling, her words coming out in gasps. “All these months, I was ready to give up hope, but I never did! I just knew you would come!”

“It is a miracle that you have survived this long, and in such good health,” the Know-It-All said, “and another miracle that I have found you. But now you do not need to worry about anything. I shall take care of you.”

“Yes. Yes!” she said, nodding, her hands squeezing his arms. “We will take care of each other.”

“My own well-being is in no danger,” the Know-It-All said. “I was designed to be entirely self-sufficient and to survive in far more extreme conditions than the ones here and now.”

“Designed?” she mouthed.

“With the war seemingly inevitable, I was created to be the last safeguard against humanity’s extinction,” the Know-It-All said. “To be the perfect companion and guardian to those humans who might survive the war’s devastation.”

She took her hands off it and stepped back.

“Do not be alarmed,” it said. “I am fully capable of taking care of all your needs. I am fully skilled in all known medical procedures and can synthesize a variety of drugs and other useful chemicals. I am anatomically male and fully functional, and I hold within my abdomen large quantities of preserved sperm, specially shielded from radiation. And if you should prove to be infertile, I have another reservoir of preserved ova, and I have the further capacity to configure my midsection into an incubation chamber that would allow me to carry an embryo to term. I will not let you down. Together, we will lay the foundation for a new, better humanity.”

The girl had sat down on the ground and buried her face in her hands, and was quietly sobbing. And for all the things that the Know-It-All knew, it could not fathom what could have made her cry.

Originally published as “R is for Robot,” as part of “Thought Experiments: An Abecedary”
in Son and Foe in 2006.

Igor Teper is a colony of single-celled organisms that spontaneously
achieved sentience just in time. He once had a pet right-handed
neutrino, but he took it out for a walk, and it escaped.