Sunday, January 28, 2024

10 More Unpublished Manuscripts for Your Failed Novelists

Another cluttered, dusty study calls out to you like a banshee heralding the death of your free time and good taste. Tucked away in the dark corners of the world on shelves and in hard drives, monsters of middling quality lie in wait. Won't you give them a read? Won't you let them sink their prose into your tender grey matter? Worse yet, might you dare to seek out the ailing mind that conjured them, or even take one home to finish for yourself?

(Content Notice: references to body horror (albeit a positive depiction), extremist ideologies, suicide, and some bad stuff happening to a "kid".)

1 Rigatoni, Rig My Tony

Biopunk greaser street racing in a neo-retro-rockabilly world.

"Somewhere just off the Jersey Turnpike" exists a barely secret world of illegal street racing, vintage American cultural revival, and irradiated pasta. It is a tight-knit community that hearkens back to the old days of American working class disillusionment and youthful anarchy, drenched in pomade and blasting early rock n' roll in the background. But it's not hotrods this group is driving.

These neo-greasers possess the secret to cooking nuclear material into their food in such a way that it produces spontaneous, superhuman, yet temporary mutations in the imbiber. This food often (though not exclusively) takes the form of a pasta dish from back home, hence any mutant meal gets colloquially glossed as 'rigatoni'. One who is a career rigatoni-eater is similarly known as a 'Tony'.

Rigatoni gives the eater the ability to rearrange their body's molecular structure, allowing them to rapidly shapeshift into new and oftentimes frightening-looking configurations of flesh, bone, and sinew on the fly. While transformed into these mutable musclebeasts, these racers voluntarily carry a rider on their back (or some other area of their new anatomy) who acts as a sort of coach and orienteer, keeping the Tony on track and reducing any risks of "cognition meltdown". In turn the Tony protects the rider from being reduced to so much human detritus by the speed and violence of an average street race, with disqualification resulting if either party suffers harm. Like a jockey and mount in equal partnership together, they race other duos down lonely stretches of highway, through obstacle courses, and even across densely populated suburban areas on occasion.

The newest Tony to join the community is Toni, a recent high school expellee. Disowned by her family and suffering severe dysphoria besides, it is her despondent wandering by some old train tracks that puts her face-to-face with a near-skeletal serpentine creature the length of a 16-wheeler and a vaguely simian flesh geyser competing in a 1,000 meter dash. When they both transform back into unassuming mechanics with unscathed riders each, Toni is immediately captivated.

Toni joins the racers, and in the process of clumsily finding community with them she undergoes the training and conditioning needed to handle rigatoni safely. It is a physically and psychologically demanding process, but she throws herself at it with enthusiasm, and soon makes progress under the tutelage of a junkyard worker and guru known as the Rat Lord. Her first mutation into a thing of 'smoke, oil, and ferro-nails' is an experience of utterly transcendental joy and oneness with her infinite new selves.

Toni proves to have an aptitude for racing and shifting shape on the fly, and soon rises up the informal score board to become a mid-tier racer. Ironically her biggest point of friction in the community is not racing, but finding the right rider; despite the professionality and strict platonism that most duos conduct themselves with, Toni's interactions with several riders over the course of the novel take on a flavor of almost comedically awkward high school dating.

The story relies upon several Italian-American stereotypes throughout its plot, but also takes time to depict with some nuance the community and solidarity between Italian, Black, Puerto Rican, and other ethnic minorities who all contributed to the Greaser subculture once upon a time in the real world. This common humanity exists in harmony rather than tension with the common superhumanity of the Tonies, and much of the back half of the novel explores this spectrum through the point of view of Toni.

In the final race of the story, things go climactically awry. An old, disused bridge over the chosen track collapses under the weight of a Tony's sloughing climb over it, trapping Toni and her newest rider under the rubble. Worse yet, the jarring experience knocks Toni back into her base form, weakening her greatly. When it seems like injuries or depleting oxygen might claim the pair first, the other racers come together to rescue them.

The writer displays an awareness of—as well as an utter contempt for—the cowardice of subtle writing by having Toni's new found family both figuratively and literally come through for her in ways that her old family never did. They dissolve their bodies into streams and particles thin enough to work their way through the rubble, so that they can reconstitute inside the collapse to protect and free them from within.

As she limps back home with the other racers, Toni's first thoughts are of immense gratitude, followed quickly by a desire to get back out on the track as soon as possible.

2 The Sweetest of Things

An ultraviolent splatterpunk action novel revolving around a very stupid conspiracy theory.

Our protagonist is one Edouard Gagné, an angry young man living in the suburbs of Laval, Quebec. The story begins with Edouard debating what to buy at a convenience store, and having much difficulty with it. The only thing he seems certain of is that he, for whatever reason, despises with every fiber of his being the "godless cads and slatterns" who work at McCain frozen foods. He's in the process of being yelled at by the manager for stomping a bag of mashed potato Smiles when the store comes under attack by a squad of armed and masked men who kill several bystanders and abduct the rest, Edouard included. One of the assailants injects him with something, and he falls unconscious.

When Edouard awakens, he finds himself in a vast industrial facility somewhere in the wilderness. He handily escapes the meat hook he's tied to and overcomes his captors using hand-to-hand techniques that he allegedly learned from former spec-ops. He leaves the other captives, still unconscious, to explore the facility. He quickly learns from conveniently placed infographic posters that he's in a maple syrup factory, as well as the dark secret behind it.

In this universe, maple syrup is processed out of the remains of slaughtered Quebecois people on an industrial scale, with the fanciest Grade A syrup coming from people whose ancestry traces back to the earliest pure laine families of New France. As if to make the deeply uncomfortable parallels to the old myth of blood libel even more explicit, the syrup made from children is sweeter still. As the largest importer of Canadian maple products, the United States is revealed as the mastermind behind this silent and sticky genocide. Maple trees aren't even real; they were invented by the government in the 1950s. 

Edouard bears witness to the process of maple syrup making first-hand as the other captives are brought out on an automated disassembly line that ends in a massive, crimson-gold boiling vat. Edouard reasons that he must be partially resistant to the harvesters' anti-Quebecois sedative because he had a grandfather from Guelph, Ontario (which was always a point of personal shame for him).

Edouard proceeds to break out of the factory in a bloody rampage. Hounded by heavily armed frozen food trucks, he's eventually chased into the urban heart of Montreal. There, his discovery sparks a violent uprising among the populace that throws the province and much of the rest of eastern Canada into chaos. The people had been waiting for an opportunity to rebel, evidently, and this proves to be the perfect spark. Judging by a mushroom cloud that is briefly glimpsed toward the end, Toronto may even get nuked.

The book closes with a lengthy afterword about Quebec separatism, with a reading list and several organizations to donate to the cause through. This suggests that despite the over-the-top absurdity of the book and its plot, the author is being entirely, deathly serious about its underlying message.

Why it is written in American English rather than Canadian French is left unexplained.

3 Gondwanalandmansaga: The Saga of the Man From Gondwanaland

Sweaty, naked, Lost World-esque survival in a prehistoric jungle.

Somewhat inexplicably, this sequel to the as-of-yet unpublished The Lay of the Cantankerous Hrütlander is already well underway. It picks up immediately after the book last ends, with our eponymous sullen "hero" transported millions of years back in time by a Norse völva for his transgressions (and general awfulness).

From the moment he arrives in the past, the Hrütlander is forced to battle against the uniformly savage fauna (and occasionally flora) of the vaguely Jurassic Period land in which he finds himself. Though well-armed upon arrival, the Hrütlander quickly loses his armor and weapons from a combination of battle damage, and just plain being so badass that his possessions crumble around him without a hope of keeping up. Even his prized atgeir doesn't survive his trip through the digestive tract of an unusually large razanandrongobe.

Thus reduced to galivanting about the steaming jungles in nothing but a loincloth and a perpetual sheen of sweat, the Hrütlander goes 'native' as the book describes, despite the fact that there are no natives to emulate in the middle Mesozoic Era. The text makes a point of contrasting the Hrütlander's past glories with his present (even more past) low points, including juxtaposing the memories of an orgiastic mead hall feast with a truly hideous bout of dysentery.

The Hrütlander's luck turns around when he decides to raise an egg that he finds in an abandoned nest rather than eating it. The egg soon hatches into an easily domesticated Chilesaurus diegosuarezi, which somehow manages to serve as the Hrütlander's trusty steed for the remainder of the book. The Hrütlander names it Feytrdrekki, or "fat dragon", rendered in the author's typical style of barely grasping and then creatively misspelling Old Norse words. Chilesaurus was an herbivore, but the Hrütlander raises Feytrdrekki on the same exclusively-meat diet as himself. They form a bond, and the Hrütlander almost comes to regard his mount with something resembling respect and affection; an understated landslide of character development, all told.

The Hrütlander and Feytrdrekki carry on for some time, hunting and carving a path of destruction through the jungles until they happen upon something peculiar; a set of tracks belonging to no creature they've yet seen or eaten. Somehow the Hrütlander instantly deduces that they must belong to a biped of similar size and build to a human being. He further surmises that they must belong either to an intelligent species, or to another person shot backward through time. The novel ends as they follow the tracks into the heart of the jungle, where a misty chain of mountains rises ominously in the distance.

Again, the final line declares that the story shall continue in the next installment, The Cantankerous Hrütlander and the Fortress-City of the Reptilians. There is so far no inkling that this has been written or even plotted out yet. Hopefully it stays that way.

Po Beg's Säbig's Yurt Cart

A contemplative historical fiction drama about the last khatun of the Second Turkic Khaganate.

The novel follows Qutluğ Säbig Qatun as she leads the remnants of the royal Ashide clan into exile. The story is told from the perspective of her yurt cart, which groans under the weight of memory and empathetic anguish as it bears the khatun south into Tang dynasty China. The cart "feels" the thoughts and motivations of anyone in direct contact with it, creating a sort of wandering third person limited omniscient point of view through which the story is told.

Through the cart, we learn how Säbig lost her husband and two sons to the chaos of mid-8th century Turkic nomadic politics. She married her husband the Bilge Khagan while he was still a prince, but soon after found herself queen regent for her two sons after he was poisoned. The long-standing rivalry between the Khaganate and the Tang Dynasty had recently reached yet another boiling point with the Tang ascendant, and it is not hard for many at the khagan's court to believe he was poisoned by traitors in league with the emperor.

The resulting atmosphere of paranoia tears the aristocracy apart. The khaganate becomes effectively divided between its western and eastern governors, who pay only lip service to the little khagans, Yollıg and Tengri. Säbig, for her part, ruthlessly defends her children from would-be assassins and usurpers while also maneuvering to assassinate the governors and rake back centralized control of the empire. It ends in ruin, with one son and then other other murdered or dead under mysterious circumstances. One governor revolts, and his rebellion proves to be the match that lights the whole powder keg on fire. Säbig and her entourage barely escape the dissolution of the long-ailing empire into a free-for-all battle between Karluks, Basmyls, Uyghurs, and competing clans of Göktürks.

The exodus south is a long, grueling, downcast affair. For the first time in years, Säbig is forced to interact with the commoners and bondservants among her subjects who do much of the work migrating hundreds of people and thousands of herd animals across the bitter Inner Asian steppe. She makes overtures to win the people over, but much like her efforts to cut the rot out of the festering political situation back home, it proves to be too little too late.

At one point a resourceful herder stands before the cart briefly to receive Säbig's commendation, and in that moment the cart feels all of the anger and resentment, mixed with sorrow and distant pity, that the people feel for their rulers. Feelings that some praise and the occasional gift of a brocade deel can hardly dampen, Säbig knows. She releases a young handmaid from her service so that they may marry, and the brief moment of utter relief and elation to be free of that cart is something the likes of which never felt before or again by anyone in the narrative.

The yurt cart grows old and rickety meanwhile, breaking down several times and falling into disarray during the journey. Its internal narrative grows increasingly bitter, absorbing all the anger of its riders and attendants until the wood can almost be heard writhing and groaning while at rest. It is ambiguous whether or not Säbig realizes this.

But things barely hold together until, finally, Säbig's wagon train limps its way into the only refuge that will take them. Ironically, this is the palace of the Xuanzong Emperor, located in the capital of Chang'an.

The emperor plays the part of a magnanimous host, throwing a banquet for Säbig and welcoming her clan as honored guests. But his every kind deed twists the knife in the wound: he extends his protection after observing that they have no proper khagan to lead them; he offers them land at the margins of the empire, knowing full well that this will render them a buffer state; he even has the audacity to name Säbig princess and appoint her as the leader of her own people.

Säbig's rage nearly boils over at this, and the cart silently screams for her to act. It begs her to tear a spar out of its body and run the smugly smiling emperor through with it. It yearns for one last defiance in fire and blood, even if it would be reduced to kindling for it.

Säbig ultimately decides not to, and accepts the emperor's gifts even as her tongue and palms bleed from the force of her restraint. The emperor sends her and her people away with one last parting insult; a stipend of flour to last them until harvest season, for the nomads and horsemen are to be reduced to farmers. The yurt cart's suffering finally ends when it is hacked to pieces for spare lumber needed to build the former khatun's new residence.

It ends up being the house she dies in.

The manuscript itself was written using a physical typewriter, which while charming and old-fashioned, seems to have left the writer in a despondent state. Next to the book rests a copy of an academic journal on Asian languages, turned to a page that reveals that the traditional spelling of the khatun's name, Po Beg, is based on a very old transcription error made by some medieval scribe.

The writer has endeavored to hand-correct every single instance of the name in the entire book to Säbig in pen; a process that they seem to have gotten almost halfway through, before giving up.


A bird's-eye view alternate history that chronicles the exodus of a large proportion of the Guanche peoples from their homes in the Canary Islands sometime in the 1st millennium BCE.

The exact reasons are left vague, but some sort of disaster is alluded to regularly, as well as a few hints that events take place right around when maritime imperialism is ramping up for the first time in the Mediterranean Sea. These voyagers rename themselves the Guañacguyon, meaning "people of the boats" in the very rough reconstruction of the Guanche language that the author seemingly developed by themself.

The people of the boats briefly tarry in floating communities across the Atlantic coast of North Africa, where they interact with their distant Amazigh relations for the first time in centuries. But before long local conditions push the Guañacguyon out to sea again, and within a generation they colonize the majority of Macaronesia- with the notable exception of what would become the islands of Flores and Corvo in the Azores. There, the voyagers encounter heavenly phenomena that they interpret to mean that Achamán, the sky-god, has forbidden them to go any farther west. The islands and westward expansion in general become forbidden in Guañacguyon culture, and the taboo is observed from that point forward.

A nearby textbook on the diffusionist model of cultural development (savagely annotated) and a folder full of memes mocking Thord Heyerdahl might be an indication as to why the author chose to sidestep the possibility of the voyagers crossing the Atlantic.

With the west forbidden and the north and east too dangerous for them, the Guañacguyon and their descendants instead spread southward.

With generations of growing mastery of the sea combined with some luck, they sail the Atlantic Gyres deep into the South Atlantic. What would one day become Ascension Island, Saint Helena, and Tristan da Cunha are settled one by one in the intervening centuries, kept united by a web of religiopolitical relationships. The Guañacguyon become one of the southernmost populations of humans in the premodern era with their final wave of settlements in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

From here, the far-flung Guañacguyon communities grow isolated from one another and separate culturally as well as linguistically. The list of taboos they observe grows until it begins to hinder rather than protect the observers. The once precarious but dependable lines of trade and interconnectedness between islands break down, leading to... something?

At this point the text breaks down into several unfinished possibilities as to where this goes from here; a multiple-choice question of how to end the story. Societal collapse is guaranteed in all scenarios, but the exact speed and nature changes between each. In one, an increasingly stratified society leads to a theocratic priest caste in Saint Helena declaring war on all other humans. In another, a rogue faction splits off and sails east, where they unwittingly disturb something vaguely eldritch in the Kerguelen islands. In another, it's just good old-fashioned climate change that does the isolated and subpolar societies in. In every ending, no trace of the civilization is left by the time the colonial powers of the early modern period reach their deserted islands.

The writer has apparently consulted friends to beta-read the draft to help them get past this impasse. Much of the collected commentary is mildly positive and votes in one direction or the other, but one response underlined several times in red is somewhat more scathing.

The last reader questions why this work of alternate history exists to begin with. By ensuring that the story remains entirely self-contained and isolated from the rest of the march of history, it does nothing to encourage the reader to contemplate and reconsider the real history of the world, which they extol as one of the great strengths of the alternate history genre. They compare it to a bottle episode in a TV series, but with no characters or interpersonal plot to anchor it. In their biting final words the reader calls Guañacguyon unfortunately nihilistic; not in its tone, but in its ultimate meaninglessness and self-devaluation.


A collection of short stories about indie music creators stumbling through their art. Each story is written by a different author, and despite the near-completeness of the project it seems that the group has been trying and failing due to incompatible scheduling to coordinate one last meeting before pitching it to publishers.

"Nindalf". Bleak Conjurer is an aspiring dungeon synth creator who is struggling to overcome his preoccupation with style over substance. He spends the majority of his creative energy renaming his persona, searching for the perfect VST plugins, finding artists to commission for the covers of the albums he hasn't recorded yet, and borderline-stalking people on Bandcamp. Meanwhile his hand-me-down keyboard collects dust in the corner. Chief of all concerns is that he can't find a Tolkienian name to use for an album title that no one else in the scene has used yet, because that's what every good artist (and many absolutely trash ones) eventually does, right? His feelings of inertia make him irritable and combative, and his IRC channels devolve into squabbling with friends and peers on more than one occasion. Eventually he is snapped out of it by the somber realization that he is going to need to create some good and meaningful tracks if he wants to compensate for the title he's chosen. Because at last, he finds the one name from LotR that no one has ever tried using, for somewhat obvious reasons: Wetwang.

"inb4 Shuto Express". kat/anna and Yng_Bld are two members of the nascent lofi hip hop scene who rightly believe they are bearing witness to the unfolding of a new chapter in music history. They also believe they are being visited and guided by the ghost of Nujabes, which is somewhat problematic because it's 2004 and Seba Jun isn't actually dead; Modal Soul hasn't even been released yet. But a little ontology won't get in their way, and the duo sets about creating a... something. Despite their enthusiasm to do something for the genre, they aren't entirely sure what they want to create- and having to make rent for their tiny room above the falafel place every month keeps getting in the way. They know they want to combine the format of music radio with the community insights of a talk show, plus the increasingly unparalleled accessibility of the internet. Without ever knowing the name for it, they end up cobbling together a sort of cult following proto-podcast that helps spotlight some of the earliest up-and-coming chillhop artists. In time even the old falafel guy gets in on the project, debuting the career of MC Such-n-Such and his short-lived but highly experimental "Nilestep" genre.

"(S)CREED". This mix of civil courtroom drama and epistolary tale gives the reader a glimpse into a drawn-out civil court battle between two underground Oregon-based metal bands. Hate's Creed (blackened death metal) and Hate Screed (melodic black-death metal) each claim that they were founded first, and that the similarities between the bands' names, sound, and imagery have caused consumer confusion, loss of revenue, and even damage to reputation for which the other party is liable. The fact that the bands' logos are almost identically jagged and inscrutable doesn't help matters. As the bands go back and forth making their case before an increasingly disaffected judge, the personal lives and struggles of the individual band members begin to bleed through the collection of emails, texts, courtroom minutes, and occasional sticky notes.

"Hate Death". The second half to "(S)CREED" covering the conclusion and aftermath of the drama. Despite how bitter and borderline-violent the dispute becomes between parties, the case is eventually dropped when the majority of both bands' members realize that they are all in the same clandestine yet mostly inept fascist movement. The two members who had somehow remained entirely out of the loop—a keyboardist and a supporting vocalist—quit their respective bands in disgust, only to meetcute a few months later while in the hospital for foot injuries sustained from kicking their former bandmates in the face outside of Portland. They embark on a new, more positive musical project (as well as a tentative relationship) together, naming the group Death of Hate.

"Idoll". In the midst of profound grief at the death of her beloved grandmother, a woman falls into the warm embrace of nostalgia. She moves into her grandmother's old cottage, fixes it up, and begins to live a deliberately kitschy, Thomas Kinkade-esque existence as a way of keeping her spirit close, fixating often on her grandmother's prized porcelain and cloth doll collection. While browsing the web on her struggling old iMac one lonely holiday evening, the woman stumbles upon comfy synth and falls woefully in love with the genre. She takes her grandmother's name, Irma, as her screenname and quickly establishes herself in the scene with the release of a series of especially bittersweet singles. Irma becomes a divisive figure in the community when she and her fandom begin to critique the aesthetics and sound of other creators for not being the "right" kind of nostalgia that matches her own idealized memories of life spent with grandma. Things escalate, and soon Irma is actively policing the comfy synth scene, fracturing the already tiny microgenre and spinning off a toxic "trad cozy" offshoot. Ultimately Irma is violently shunted back into reality when in the middle of bullying someone with a mushroom person avatar, the iMac's ancient power supply explodes and ignites her grandmother's doll collection.

"A Bus to the Sea". The travelogue of a solo instrumental alt-rock artist named Susurrus. Susurrus is a skeletally thin, soft-spoken bassist with arachnodactyl fingers and a retrofitted VW bus who drives around the country (somewhere vaguely in North America) listening for samples to record for their ambient music. They are most interested in the sounds of industry, urban landscapes, and water, so they follow a winding route through the rainiest and densest cities on their way to their ultimate destination, the sea. Along the way they have many quirky encounters with other travelers and oddballs at gas stations, campgrounds, and parking lots at 3:00 AM. (Various permutations of 3-0-0 appear throughout the story; seemingly of personal significance to the author that is not elaborated upon.) Through these encounters and foulweather friendships, we get a peek into Susurrus' vanlife and their personal bent on the philosophy of minimalist living. At every opportunity, the heavily distorted deep drone of their bass guitar is contrasted with the softness and meekness of their speaking voice, which struggles to get a word in edgewise during their mostly one-sided conversations with larger-than-life personalities. Susurrus lives in the margins of their own story until they come to the realization before the crashing waves of a grey, stormy beach that in all their recording, they have been looking for their own voice.

Come Heck or No Water

This hefty graphic novel illustrates the endearingly pathetic trials and tribulations of the demon lord Heckadeath.

Heckadeath is a rotund, diminutive little creature, potbellied and goat-legged like the most stereotypical depictions of a demon one could find in a PG-rated movie. He has a large ambition, however; he wants to become Marquis of Hell.

In the backstory of the novel, the State of Deseret seceded from the United States to become a presidential theocracy in the mid-1800s. But after living in Utah for nearly a hundred years, the Mormons decided to find someplace nicer to settle. So they began invading Hell. By the time Heckadeath comes into the picture, Hell has been reduced to a rump state and every title higher than Marquis has been abolished or abdicated. No one has heard from Lucifer in decades, and he is presumed dead.

The process of being elevated to office is surprisingly meritocratic, with every 1 evil deed performed on Earth translating to 1 vote cast in one's name. Good deeds, however rare they are, erase 1 vote with no cap in either direction. The 'elections' are held once every 100 years and 1 day. Normally the top demons trade titles such as Marquis back and forth between themselves, but recent deaths among the frontrunners have thrown the process into chaos and given slim hope to such underdogs as Heckadeath.

The story picks up as Heckadeath narrowly escapes a squad of LDS commandos by opening up a portal to the languishing city of San Bernardino, California in the late 1980s. There, he sets about performing wicked acts and establishing a cult of fanatical worshipers. Or at least that's the plan. In reality his grand schemes are so incompetent or milquetoast that they end up being harmless or beneficial to their victims more often than not, and the only 'cultists' whom Heckadeath attracts are a group of Goths and Wiccans who adopt him after they realize 'Heckie' can't keep himself out of trouble.

Over the course of the novel Heckie and his handlers tangle with crust punks, carnies, US Marshals, NIMBYs, Mormon wetwork squads, and a multi-billion dollar scheme to privatize all drinking water on the West Coast. When the elections in Hell roll around, Heckie is devastated to learn that he received thousands of votes- in the negative. He becomes the laughingstock of Hell. But his incompetence also gets his name taken off of most assassination lists, while his unwitting good works get him written into the ballot for the coincidentally concurrent election for Mayor of San Bernardino. He wins handily, defeating both the incumbent and the main opposition by a landslide.

The story ends as Heckadeath bemusedly walks into his new office in an ill-fitting suit and tie, his witchy cabinet already hard at work setting up his new administration.

Didacts on the Knowing of Hlaax, Vol. DCCCXIV

Framed as the newest volume in a long-running encyclopedia, this tome describes the fantastical lands and their occupants which have recently been conquered by the ascendant Hlaax Empire.

The Hlaax, like any empire, maintains its position through the monopolization of violence. But somewhat uniquely the Hlaax's monopoly is not martial or economic in nature; the empire is noted for having only a token military force. Rather, its violence is metaphysical and epistemological.

The Hlaax Empire possesses the power to manipulate the knowledge and perceptions of other peoples from afar. By some unknown means its ruling caste can weave enchantments that spread outward from the empire's capital city like a web or net. They can gradually ingratiate a group to the Hlaax, or make them forget their native language and customs. With the aid of an immense, hyper-detailed world map they can even draw borders that then have real, material impacts on that area and how the people there conceive of the land around them.

Once a region has been more-or-less bloodlessly conquered, the empire moves in to begin the process of Knowing.

"Knowing" is a bit of a misnomer. It is not an acquisition of knowledge of the conquered region, but rather an imposition of knowledge upon it. The empire fits the land, its peoples, places, even flora and fauna into a single overarching worldview of imperfect radial diffusion; that everything is a pale corruption of the perfect, Platonic ideals that can be found within the Hlaaxi imperial core. This degeneration of ideals worsens the farther out from the heartland one goes, creating a system in which every conquered region has an immediate superior, and is also incentivized to accelerate the conquest of their immediate inferior. Hlaax, naturally, is at the center of this hierarchy.

Place names are altered, old cultural traditions are eliminated or "corrected", and perceived mental illnesses like speaking a language other than the standardized Hlaaxi tongue are cured with severe medicine. And while the conquered never, ever achieve parity within the empire, many still fall into line and become another rung in the ladder. And then it is as if they had always been imperfect Hlaaxi, working toward the ultimate goal of Mirroring.

Almost nothing is written about Hlaaxi religion, because such a thing is considered blasphemous in a society where the written word can and regularly does warp reality. But what can be gleaned is the idea that through obedience and correct Knowing, the occupants of outer circles may be reborn farther within, as their soul progressively sheds more and more layers of degeneration. Eventually, it is promised, the soul enters into union with and Mirrors the ideal from which it fell so long ago.

Another way to describe this is that not even death will free you from the empire.

Not everything succumbs to this bending of reality, however. The process of Knowing is imperfect. Scribbled in invisible ink in the margins, spelled out in random bolding and obvious spelling errors, secret messages can be found throughout the text. The author of this volume is a member of a diffuse and disorganized mental resistance, or perhaps they hope that through the act of writing they can will such a thing into existence.

In a final act of rebellion the author reveals that their name, not the name forced into them but their name fought and wept over is Shai-qib, of a place once named Bamla.

Muscleman Curry

A rather saccharine children's novel about food, archaeology, and the ethics of tourism.

The exceptionally WASPy Preston Forthright and his seven year-old daughter Addison arrive in the city of Krung Thep, Thailand, which the story consciously favors over the more common English name of Bangkok. Preston is an archaeologist specialized in Southeast Asia, and he wishes to extol in his daughter a fondness for the field and an appreciation of its morals and values- simplified for a child, of course.

Preston organizes a busy schedule touring museums and archaeological sites across Krung Thep and the larger Chao Phraya River Delta. The schedule is packed to the point that them going to every location in just one week strains credulity somewhat, especially considering that Thailand is at the height of its tourism season. But before setting out on their first day, they stop to get a bite to eat at one of Taling Chan district's famous floating markets.

Here, Preston and Addison meet Nuu, the aging operator of a curry stall at the edge of the market. He is fluent in English—or more fluent than Preston is in Thai or Malay anyway—and the three become friends almost immediately. Nuu is delighted to no end when he serves them each a bowl of Massaman curry on the house, and Addison inexpertly renders it as "muscleman curry". Nuu soon decides to close up shop and accompany them as a combination of interpreter, guide, and occasional student.

What follows are 9 chapters themed around the 9 principles of ethics in American archaeology, from responsible stewardship and accountability to cultural outreach and safe workplace environments. More ink is spilled here on the significance of naga-headed ponds at ancient Hindu temples than possibly anywhere else in a children's book, though perhaps that was for good reason; the middle of the book begins to drag on.

The novel tries but struggles to discuss the issues of tourism and how to address them. For as much care and effort that Preston puts into raising Addison to be an ethical person, the actual lesson being taught eventually boils down to "do all the normal things a tourist does, but politely and while handing out giant tips". They go to all the same places, see all the same sites, even visit a famed tourist trap that causes them to meet Nuu to begin with, etc.

There is also something to be said of the way Preston teaches Nuu about the history of his own culture. Nuu is not a completely passive actor in this; he frequently interjects with bits and pieces of what he remembers from his own schooling as a child. But the fact that Preston knows more about Thailand on average and educates Nuu about it falls into more than one "White Savior" trope.

Shorter interlude segments pass the narrative torch over to Nuu, who introduces the Forthrights to more lived examples of Thai culture. He also invites them back to his home in Krung Thep, where an extensive cross-section of Thai family life is wrapped up with the revelation that 'Nuu' is his public-facing nickname rather than his given name. Addison is entertained to learn that nuu means mouse, and starts pestering Preston for her own nickname on-and-off for the remainder of their visit.

At the conclusion of their vacation, the Forthrights return to Nuu's food stall for one last meal before catching their flight home. There, they find that he has completely rebranded his stall in honor of his new friends. A painted façade of a circus strongman now stands above the counter, proudly holding aloft a steaming bowl of food while frozen mid-flex. "Muscleman Curry" is open for business.

10 Second Shots

A psychological thriller about a time traveler who wanted a fresh start.

The nameless first-person narrator introduces themself as your typical hopeless, self-loathing older millennial who wouldn't be missed and wouldn't want to be missed besides. They receive an anonymous text one night asking them if they want to reset their life, and they find themself deep enough in ennui and beer ramen to say "to hell with it" and agree.

After a trip to a seemingly abandoned warehouse with a surprisingly professional-looking lobby and medical facility inside of it, the narrator gets strapped into a pod-shaped device that will, allegedly, send them back in time to their early childhood with most of their memories intact. The idea is that with perfect hindsight, they can correct their many regrets and 'what if?'s throughout life. The pod fills with warm fluid, and the narrator falls asleep.

The narrator wakes up still submerged in fluid, but of a very different sort. Unable to move or breathe, they drift helplessly as something slowly pulls them through an increasingly, agonizingly narrow space that threatens to crush their skull and break their shoulders. It isn't until after a blinding flash of light and an agonizing breath that they realize they were just conscious for their own birth. Amazed and horrified, the narrator faints.

What follows is a rough few months as the narrator slowly gains motor function of their new infant body, feeling trapped like a near-vegetable all the while. Slowly, bit by bit, they ambitiously begin to wiggle, crawl, and eventually walk. To their parents, they are developing at an amazingly fast pace, but no one is tipped off to the truth of the matter.

A renaissance of sorts begins as the narrator indulges in joys, freedoms, and love that they hadn't known for decades, all while building up a reputation as a preternaturally excellent child. Now and then they feel the temptation to exploit their combination of knowledge and youth, mostly to get one over on obnoxious adults. But for the most part the narrator just bides their time, waiting for the opportunity to retake the biggest first steps of their life.

This changes at the age of 6, when the narrator tries to coax their family away from an ill-advised camping trip that got their childhood dog sick. Attempting to speak upon the matter causes the narrator severe disorientation and nausea, culminating in a seizure that lands them in the hospital overnight. Over the next few weeks they cautiously try to push the envelop with other decisions, all ending the same way. The narrator realizes in mounting horror that going against the 'canon' of their previous life is almost impossible to effect, as if this new timeline was somehow enforcing its will upon them.

Through trial and error (and deeply worried parents) they come to figure out how far they can change things. The broad arc of their childhood continues unchanged, but minor details can be tweaked and altered. Depression and hopelessness return as they realize they can do nothing to stop the tragedies of their own time from happening.

The bulk of the book sees the narrator in this state of tension, as early childhood gives way to adolescence and then the tween years. School is effortless, most of the time at least; elementary school math still kicks their ass, much to their chagrin. But they remain aloof from kids 'their age', unable to relate to them and unable to divulge the truth to anyone at all.

This internal agony culminates when an old crush of the narrator asks them to a dance, and in a moment of surprised delight, they agree. Soon after, the narrator begins to dwell in increasing revulsion upon the fact that while they are physically the same age, the narrator is mentally several decades older than their once-again crush. Realizing what this makes them—at least from a certain point of view—the narrator promptly jumps in front of a bus.

Once again they wake up confused and disoriented, this time in a clean medical room. For a moment they are relieved to find they must never have left the warehouse, only to look down at their tiny, broken body and realize that they did not wake up from a nightmare, that they are in fact still in the past, and they survived the collision.

A childhood psychologist visits the narrator in their hospital room to try and suss out the details of why they attempted suicide. The entire book is revealed to be the narrator's relaying of events up to this point to the psychologist, through gritted teeth and multiple seizures. The narrator even manages to get in a few words edgewise about events yet to occur before a coma hits. Finally, mercifully, the narrator dies.

An epilogue framed as personal notes by the psychologist expresses their feelings on the whole tragedy.

The psychologist hold their breath as disasters, inventions, and elections all pan out just as the narrator revealed. They reflect upon the feeling of helplessness to change what is still yet to come, combined with all of the other existential dread that the case of the unchild prompted. But they do not feel quite so helpless as the narrator did, and eventually resolve to track down and intercept an operation at a warehouse not terribly far from here.

If the time traveling project still exists in the divergent timeline created by the narrator's death, changes need to be made.


  1. This is really, really good! I especially like The Lo-Fics, "Come Heck or No Water", "Säbig's Yurt Cart" and "Muscleman Curry"
    "Didacts on the Knowing of Hlaax" is similar to how I view Common language (and Commonality as a terrain), only more human and thus, fallible.

    1. Ooh, I didn't even consider that. It is like a twisted, enforced in-universe form of the Common tongue trope, isn't it? Which I guess makes sense, since so many real life examples that we draw from for that fantasy trope often involve imperialism in some way.