Review of The Strongbox by Michael Pon

If learning history were always this much fun and always worked this well, the world would be full of enthusiastic history buffs. The Strongbox takes you inside the brutal reign of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo with characters and settings that feel so real you can almost smell them. Michael Pon weaves political, religious, family and work aspects of his characters' lives into a story that's as gripping and memorable as it is educational. I didn't want to put it down and I didn't want it to end.

But there's an even better reason to read this book and share it with your friends. In the most delightfully entertaining and relatable way, Pon shows us the ugly horror of life on the unlucky side of the political power game. We all know in theory that war is hell and cruel dictatorships tend to come with atrocities, even if we don't want to think about it. This book brings those cold facts to gut-wrenching life and leaves them lingering in our minds long after we've read the last page.

The Strongbox is available from Amazon, Smashwords and Booksamillion.

What Is Human Writes?

Human Writes explores written entertainment and its complex relationship with human rights issues. The intention is to facilitate dialogue and inspire ideas, all with the goal of working together to solve problems. Writing tips, movie/book/game reviews, commentary on current or historical events, short fiction and many similar types of content all have a place in this venue.

Here are a few more detailed thoughts on what you can expect to find here. Some are specific to this blog, while others are, in my opinion, self-evident matters of moral integrity. If you're thinking of contributing, you can think of them as content guidelines.

What Are Human Rights?

Merriam-Webster defines human rights this way: "Rights (as freedom from unlawful imprisonment, torture, and execution) regarded as belonging fundamentally to all persons."
For me, human rights simply endorse a view of life and a set of moral values that are perfectly clear to an eight-year-old child. A child knows what is fair and isn't fair, and justice derives from that knowledge. -Tom Stoppard
For me, human rights simply endorse a view of life and a set of moral values that are perfectly clear to an eight-year-old child. A child knows what is fair and isn't fair, and justice derives from that knowledge. Tom Stoppard
Read more at:
For me, human rights simply endorse a view of life and a set of moral values that are perfectly clear to an eight-year-old child. A child knows what is fair and isn't fair, and justice derives from that knowledge. Tom Stoppard
Read more at:
For the purposes of this blog, I'm using a very broad definition of human rights that pretty much includes all the rights that humans have. While it may be practical in other situations to make a distinction between human rights, civil rights, employee rights and so forth, that doesn't make much sense here. Here we are concerned about the rights that humans have and not about how they're categorized.

Rather than start out with a definitive list of all the rights I believe humans to have, I want to welcome discussion on the theme. While some rights are obvious, such as the right not to be murdered, others are a little less clear. The tricky part, as my father used to say, is that my rights stop at the end of your nose. In other words, nobody has a right to violate someone else's rights.

"Rights Are Not Needs"

Not long ago I found myself in a conversation with someone who's in favor of persecuting people from certain backgrounds or walks of life. When I pointed out that these persecutions are a violation of human rights because they deprive people of their basic needs, he replied, "rights are not needs."

Now, let's think this through. If I am falsely accused of a capital crime, then the one thing I need most is a fair trial. So do I no longer have a right to it, now that I need it? Obviously, the argument is ludicrous and negates the very idea of having any rights at all. If we were to believe that rights are not needs, we would have to say that Thomas Jefferson must have been very confused when he gave "life" as an example of a human right along with liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Science wasn't as advanced back then, so maybe Tom thought life was something we could live without?

While I welcome differing viewpoints and strongly believe in the value of debate, I think that this type of semantic derailment doesn't belong here because it doesn't facilitate dialogue, education, growth or problem-solving.

"I Was Just Doing My Job"

A whole lot of human-rights trampling throughout history would never have happened if the individuals involved had taken responsibility for their own behavior. One of the most popular excuses for this seems to be "I was under orders."

Again, let's think this through:

Quite obviously, the authority that comes with a job can never exceed the responsibilities of that job. So if someone gives an order that is outside of or contrary to their job, then that person's authority does not apply to that order. For the purposes of that order, the person has no more authority than an unemployed person or a monkey. Therefore, obeying that order is nothing more and nothing less than taking a suggestion, and the person who takes that suggestion is entirely responsible for their actions.

"I Don't Want to Get Involved"

Another excuse that's offered for human rights violations is "You can't blame me; I had nothing to do with it."

Thinking this one through:

When you see a crime happening right in front of you, you have only two options: you can either try to stop it or you can join in. "Not getting involved" is no longer a possibility because once you see it, you are already involved. If you choose to do nothing, you become an accessory to the crime. It's not just our actions we're responsible for, but our inaction as well. If this is true for a relatively minor crime, then it can't be any less true for one that has more victims or causes more suffering.

"The Constitution Gives Me the Right..."

I cringe whenever I hear people use words like "grant" and "take away" in relation to rights. By definition, our rights are an inseparable part of us. The Constitution (or the government, or any other entity) can't give or take away rights any more than it can give or take away birthdays or blood types.

I've heard the argument that it doesn't matter whether you say "grant" and "take away" or "recognize" and "violate"--that it's just a wording change and everyone knows what we mean--but I don't buy it. I believe that the words we choose can have a powerful effect on the subconscious assumptions of those who hear them. If most people understood that human rights belong to everyone and cannot be taken away, then most people would object when they see those rights being violated.

Why Entertainment?

Human rights can't be violated in a systematic way where the majority of the population refuses to tolerate such behavior. But just writing about human rights issues directly won't do much good, because the people who read that sort of thing aren't generally the ones we need to reach. However, even the most shallow, apathetic people like to be entertained. It's my hope that this blog will be a useful resource for everyone who wants to help raise awareness of human rights issues through entertainment. Whether you create entertainment or just enjoy it, if you care about human rights, this blog is for you.

Book Release: The Thirteenth Snare

Tomorrow, my newest book will be released on Amazon, Smashwords and many other ebook stores. The print version is already available from Createspace and Amazon.

It's called The Thirteenth Snare: Thirteen Stories of Kidnappings, Traps and Dead-End Situations.

The stories are a mix of genres, including science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery, military and contemporary. Some are dark or dystopian while others are more uplifting. It's my hope that they will help my readers to escape, to unwind or to cure their boredom. As Donna Tartt said,

“The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.”
But if you're reading this, you know that human rights issues are important to me, too. They're bound to show up in my writing at least sometimes, and this book is no exception. You won't find any preaching here, though. I've tried to ask questions rather than answer them, to raise awareness rather than make arguments. I believe that by working together in positive, creative dialogue, we can solve our problems in a way that works for everyone.

People often ask me where I get my story ideas, and there's no one answer that's true for all of them. Sometimes the way a story came to be is almost as interesting as the story itself. There's a brief synopsis of the premise of each story on my website, and you may find it useful to refer to those as you read below. But here I'll tell you the stories behind the stories:

Deathday: I'm a big fan of space opera in spite of (okay, maybe because of) the fact that it's so eye-rollingly improbable. It's fun to watch, fun to read and fun to write. But I also feel that if all I can write is space opera, I don't really have any business calling myself a science fiction writer. So I gave myself an assignment: write something in the genre without using any of the common space opera elements such as faster-than-light travel and humanoid aliens. I wrote two stories in response to this assignment, and "Deathday" was one of them. The idea came when I was driving and saw two vehicles ahead of me, traveling side by side like a blockade. One was a stretch limousine and the other was a Clean Harbors truck.

Wearing the Enemy: This is one of several pieces I wrote for, and which Chainbooks owners Greg and Sally Humphrey graciously released for publication in this book. These pieces were written as first chapters of novels, so I had to turn them into complete stories before I could include them. The title comes from the security devices Jacoby is forced to wear. Even though they don't figure very prominently, they were the idea that inspired the story. "Wearing the Enemy" was an exploration or mental exercise in the process of working out the plot for my Star Trek story, Cracking Cardassian.

The Knight Wench: This is another Chainbooks story and my first successful attempt at writing fantasy. I added the horror element for this edition.

Acid Chain: When I read Errihu's "The Bones of Little Dolls," I discovered that I don't dislike the entire horror genre after all. It was a short step from there to wanting to challenge myself to write in it. "Acid Chain" was my second successful result. (The first was "The Debriefing Chair," which does not appear in this book.) 

The Tarsus Secret: This is a Chainbooks story, and it started as a dream. I dreamed the kidnapping scene, and it felt so powerful that I knew I had to put it into a story. But going from an emotionally captivating dream to a story that others could understand was harder than I had anticipated.

Outage: This was the other story I wrote for my science fiction challenge. It was inspired by the eerie feeling I had once when I drove up to a road in Merrimack, New Hampshire, that I had previously seen full of traffic, and found it empty. (I recently learned that feeling is called kenopsia.) I kept the road name in the story: Continental Boulevard.

Tour of Booty: When I wrote this for Chainbooks I imagined it as a romance, but when I finished it for this book it didn't turn out that way. I hardly ever read romance stories and I've never written one. But someday I want to, just so I know that I can.

Seeing Scars: This is an adapted excerpt from Cracking Cardassian.

The Privilege of Sleeping: This one was inspired by all those signs saying "no overnight parking" in places where the owners make absolutely no use of their parking lots at night.

Fighting Fire: Another Chainbooks story, this is a space opera indulgence--although it does stay within our solar system. The title comes from the adage, "Fight fire with fire," and the nickname for liquor, fire-water.

Gene Pollution: This was originally a Chainbooks story as well, along with the next one. "Gene Pollution" is a new rendition of the classic playing-God sci-fi story.

The Tumbleweed: Named for the rootless, directionless, constantly moving life of its heroine, this story puts a twist on a few space-opera cliches.

Hallowed Walls: This one started as a world-building exercise for my book series The Fletcher Variable and quickly took on a life of its own. Taken alone it could be either soft science fiction or fantasy, as it's set entirely on a non-human world. In the process of writing it, I fell in love with Gali and became so invested in her dilemma that I'm considering incorporating her story into my next book, The Erratic.

The Thirteenth Snare is available from Amazon, Smashwords, Createspace and your favorite ereader or reading app store.

Jane Goodall on the Myth of Neutrality

"You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make." --Jane Goodall

How to Join ISIS Without Leaving Your Home

The scene is all too familiar. A breaking news bulletin interrupts your show. Another American
reporter has been beheaded by ISIS, or maybe it's a British aid worker this time. You're filled with horror and rage. You feel so powerless.

And then comes the followup story: another small group of Americans has gone to Syria to join ISIS.

Maybe those people just have a travel bug, or maybe they don't realize that you don' t have to leave the country to join ISIS. In fact, you can be an important part of the killing spree without even leaving your home. I'll explain how in a bit. But first, some background:

Any war needs a whole lot more personnel than just soldiers. The soldiers couldn't do their jobs without people to feed them, clothe them and arm them, to cite just a few examples.

One of the most important kinds of support soldiers need is public opinion. Without the backing of the public, vendors would refuse to sell their goods, recruiters wouldn't have anyone to recruit and soldiers already enlisted would be shamed into switching over to "the good guys." There would be nobody left to fight and nothing left to fight with. Defeat would be inevitable.

Nazi Germany had its Ministry of Propaganda. On the other side were war movies like The Longest Day. Today, movies are still effective (American Sniper, for example), and so-called news outlets are important as well, but social media has become the essential third propaganda element for the current war.

And that's where you come in. You don't even have to get out of your chair. There's no need to enlist, as ISIS will take anybody and has no need to write your name down or give you dog tags. (When you die--which they hope will be soon--they won't be worrying about burial arrangements.) Just stay right there and head on over to your favorite social media site. But before you start posting statuses and sharing memes, make sure you know what your new bosses want you to do:
         - Get your friends to hate Muslims.
         - Get your government to reject refugees.
         - Get your government to escalate the war.
(Sources here and here.) 

So go ahead. Pop on over to your favorite social site and get started. Just refusing to look at anything that makes you uncomfortable helps, because then you'll be interrupting the viral spread of anti-terror efforts.

But if you really want to get in the trenches, be proactive and spread some hate. Memes designed to make your friends afraid of refugees are particularly effective. You could say they're coming to attack us all and force us to follow their religion. After all, scaring people is what terror is all about.

Gene Roddenberry on Intolerance

Gene Roddenberry is one of my heroes. Here's why:

"Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity & wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas & differences in life forms. If we cannot learn to actually enjoy these small differences, to take a positive delight in these small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space & meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there." - Gene Roddenberry

Thanks to @OmanReagan on Twitter for the meme.

A World Without Black History | Decoded | MTV News

In honor of Black History Month, I'm sharing MTV's fabulous video: