||Sep 1 2003
Kyle has been arguing about what it means to be human with just about the most terrifying creature he can imagine. The main question is: will there be enlightenment, or will there be lunch?
A twig? Too small. A branch? No. A thick, black spine, leading to what looked like a joint, and then tapering to another joint, and tapering into a smaller spine. No, not a branch, not wood, but something definitely familiar. Where had he seen that shape before?
He bent forward cautiously. The long black spine moved slowly back and forth. Gotta be something caught in there, moving with the exhaust. And then another one appeared from the left side of the hole, exactly like the first, long and shiny black, three spines tapering down through two joints. And they both stretched straight forward and stopped, forming two parallel spines about six inches apart, each at least three feet long.
Where the hell had he seen those before? Still bent forward, peering into the torn grill, He stepped back. Something too deliberate in the movement of those things, something too familiar that wasn’t invoking any pleasant memories, something sinister in the way they just lay there side by side, so intent on remaining still.
And then he heard it.
Not from outside, but inside, inside his head, like something effervescent bubbling into his awareness, the bubbles bursting into words strung together with no tone, no pitch, no base or treble. Just the meaning of the words.
“What are you?”
Kyle jumped back, almost losing his balance, the cigarette dropping through his fingers, burning them as it passed through.
Regaining his balance, he looked around, eyes popping wild, shaking his hand as though he could shake the burning away. No one was there. Just hundreds of empty cars boiling under the blistering sun, and beyond the parking lot, the city fuming in a smoggy haze. Gotta be the heat, the nicotine high. Sweat stung his eyes. He wiped them with both hands, felt the pinching hurt in his fingers begin to loosen into a throb, then waved his hand in a futile attempt to cool the burning fingers. He looked back at the hole in the grill.
The spines were gone.
Too creepy. Too much heat. He stepped quickly to the door, opened it and walked into the cool of the building.
It’s about time for an e-Smoke Break
By Ian Blechschmidt – Imprint Online
Picture this: you're outside on a cigarette break. It's too hot. You're cursing yourself for wearing a suit and you're cursing the weatherman for always giving you bad information. You see something moving inside a broken air conditioner unit and move to take a better look. All of a sudden, you're face to face with a black, hairy spider the size of a beach ball. Then the spider talks to you.
I'd pee myself.
Such is the unlikely situation in which the character known only as Kyle finds himself in Biff Mitchell's new novella Smoke Break.
The action takes place over a series of days in which Kyle, whenever he takes a break from work for a cigarette, engages the smart-assed spider in conversation about what it means to be human.
The harder Kyle fights against the conundrum that the spider presents (as it asks, simply, "what are you?") the more tangled he becomes in the logical fallacy that is to be human. The spider unerringly points out flaw after flaw in his answers, until -- well, read the book.
Mitchell, a Toronto native living in Fredericton, describes Smoke Break as a satire in which "the lead character is devoured by his own lack of conviction." It's an anti-philosophical book that makes you wonder through wry, bitter laughter, why the hell anyone does anything, only to realize that wondering why is the most pointless endeavor of all.
One of the more interesting aspects of Smoke Break is the fact that you can't get it in a bookstore -- it's only published as a computer file, an e-book, only available online.
Mitchell is one of a growing group of authors publishing content electronically via the internet.
Using your credit card, you can buy Smoke Break, as well as dozens of other books, starting at about $1US from such publishers as Echelon Press. You simply fill out the little form and submit. Then about a day or so later, you receive a compressed attachment in your email, which you simply unzip and voila! You're the proud owner of an e-book.
I had a chance to ask Mitchell about Smoke Break and about e-publishing.
IB: I know this isn't a philosophical book -- but each character does seem to have a certain philosophy. Is your personal philosophy more like one or the other?
BM: You're right, it's not philosophy. It's a warning. The most serious problem facing the survival of our species is not greed, war, famine, nasty aliens, disease, or global warming -- it's complexity.
Our world has become so complex, I'm not sure if there's anything we can do to stop doomsday from saying, "That's it! You're too damned complicated. I'm shutting you down." In Smoke Break, Kyle seems to think this is great, that there's all these people with their own little part to do and everything works beautifully like a well-oiled machine. The problem is, the machine doesn't work well at all and there doesn't seem to be anybody running it. I have friends who talk about conspiracy theories, about small groups of people running the world. Bullshit! Nobody's running it. Those small groups are hanging on for dear life just like the rest of us. The web of complexity we've spun is probably going to destroy us just as Kyle's web of excuses destroys him in the end.
So, I guess I'm on the spider's side.
BM: Smoke Break is very funny. Is humor important to your writing? Why?
IB: When the last human stops laughing, the meter on humanity will be switched off.
It's the one truly redeeming human quality that runs through everything we do. I've tried writing serious shit, but it's all so insanely funny that I keep coming back to humor and satire: humor when I just want to tickle the reader's head; satire, when I want to use humor to talk about something that bugs me.
Humor runs through everything, whether we're inclined to laugh, or not.
That's been true since the first primate dropped a club on his big toe, screamed and ranted, and then laughed and said, Good thing we don't have guns yet.
IB: Why did you publish Smoke Break electronically?
BM: My writing is never going to have mass appeal. My audience will always be a small group of people who like to read something intelligent and weird as opposed to that vast trash heap of gibberish spewed out by the traditional publishers.
The e-publishers are just beginning to head in that direction, but they're not there yet. They don't have the same distribution and set-up costs as the print publishers, so they're willing to take chances on writers who may have limited audiences.
Some of them even have online group sites for their authors, where the writers can exchange marketing tips, and work together to get their books noticed.
Echelon Press is like that.
IB: Do you think that e-publishing is something that's likely to catch on?
BM: Here's the way it should pan out: The people who make the e-book readers should start selling them in stores like Wal Mart and Zellers, right up front by the checkouts, just before Christmas.
The reader should be loaded with a couple of classics, a set of reference books, a current best seller, and maybe a couple of e-zines. Beside the readers, there should be packs of disks, each containing several novels, each pack offering a separate category like romance, suspense, horror, mystery, weird stuff like Biff Mitchell writes. Perfect stocking stuffers.
IB: Are you concerned that people will copy/distribute it? Or is that part of the point?
BM: Not at all. It's going to happen. It happens with movies and music, why not books?
I realize that the potential for distribution is greater for digital material, but we can't bring digital literature to a halt because we haven't worked out ways to prevent illegal copying. Controls are on their way, but for now, some people are going to get something for free. Nothing wrong with that.
On the other hand, they'll burn in eternal hell and demons will rip their eyes out . . . but if they try to see the humor in the situation, I think they'll be OK.
Josh Brubaker in eBook Reviews Weekly
Smoke Break is a short story about Kyle, a typical mid-level business person (from best I can tell, since Kyle's profession is never described, though he does wear a three-piece suit), out taking a smoke break while encountering a giant talking spider. Check that, a giant, mind-reading spider. Through the spider's Socratic interrogation, Kyle is forced to explore what makes us
distinctly human over the course of several smoke breaks. The ending contains a fun twist, which makes the reader go back and re-evaluate earlier parts of the story.
In reading this story, I went through a variety of phases of satisfaction with it. I started with respect for the layers of description the author had woven into the story, then a bit of weariness at the sophistication of the spider's philosophical arguments and, finally, pleasure with the way the story resolved. The ending isn't particularly clever; I saw it coming from quite a way off, but the way the author sets it up and the underlying story line of the spider's life left unrevealed till the end is highly satisfactory.
I would recommend this story; for those of us with philosophical backgrounds, it's particularly fun; but that sort of knowledge is hardly necessary to enjoy the thread of the book. The description seemed a little overdone at times, as though the author was trying too hard, but the story stays cogent and has a little fun with the reader as well as the characters.
I don't know that this truly fits into the category of satire (what is it satirizing?), it feels more like a science fiction tale with a moral — what that moral is, is up to you to discover.
Julie Peters in The McGill Tribune
Mitchell is a master of description. The rich, full-bodied writing will make your eyes sting with sweat on a hot day and almost choke on the “long bluish streams” of smoke constantly being exhaled between Kyle’s lips. Mitchell curls right up inside his own literary atmosphere and languishes in the tactile experience of the world inside the story.”
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