A Cog in the Machine

Last week, I told you about the inspiration for Talie Tappler, the morally ambiguous main character of Tomorrow News Network. She’s a journalist. She’s a time traveler. And she does not time travel alone. The original inspiration for Talie’s sidekick, the cybernetic cameraman Mr. Cognis, dates back to a much earlier period in my creative life.

My latest illustration of Mr. Cognis in his cybernetic exoskeleton.

My latest illustration of Mr. Cognis in his cybernetic exoskeleton.

It was high school. I had to write a short story for English class, and I decided I wanted to write science fiction. I was a nerdy teen; what else would I want to write?

I came up with a story idea about a man of the future, a man with cybernetic enhancements grafted to his body and his brain. Due to the laws and customs of his day, this man was forbidden from having emotions.

I named this man Cognis, because all too often he felt like nothing more than a cog in the machine. But this name had a double meaning, because Cognis was intelligent enough, cognitive enough, to question his lot and seek some deeper meaning in life. Which would lead him to “experimenting” with “illicit emotional simulation programs.”

I thought I was being clever, packing my page-and-a-half story with symbolic allegorical stuff, casting society as the bad guy, and making a not-so-subtle allusion to drug use. Just the kind of stuff my aging hippie of an English teacher would love, or so I thought.

As I recall, my teacher gave me a C, which was probably generous of him, given how pretentious and angsty my little story was. And that was the end. I never wrote another word about Mr. Cognis, the emotionless cyborg who got addicted to emotions. At least, not until I started developing Tomorrow News Network and realized Talie needed a cameraman: a cameraman who might, on occasion, meddle with history when he wasn’t supposed to.

Excerpt from “The Medusa Effect,” story #1 in the Tomorrow News Network series:

“You were feeling compassion, weren’t you?” Talie said. “Don’t deny it. Look, there’s nothing wrong with emotions. I have a whole bunch every day, but you have to use them responsibly!”

Cognis flicked a switch on his forearm, and a crestfallen expression formed on his face. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Oh, turn that thing off,” Talie snapped.

And thus began a long and proud tradition in Tomorrow News Network of salvaging my old, abandoned story ideas.

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More Golden Than Gold

Inspiration can come from totally unexpected places at totally unexpected times.

I was in church. I probably should have been paying attention to the mass, but there was a woman several rows in front of me. A very pretty young woman who kept playing with her hair.

I know, I know. Why would a good Catholic boy like me notice such a thing during mass? How shameful. Let’s set that aside for a moment. More than anything else, it was this woman’s hair that caught my eye, and for whatever reason it really got my creative brain going.

She was blonde, but not like any blonde I’d seen before. Maybe it had something to do with the low lighting, or the haze of incense, or the strange colors cast by the stained glass windows, but her hair seemed to sparkle in the darkness. It was almost luminous.

“A color more golden than gold,” I thought to myself. After mass, I hurried out to my car and wrote those words down on the back of an envelope. I’d been struggling with a new story concept, and I needed a main character. I wanted her to be both beautiful and terrifying, the kind of person readers could love and hate at the same time. I wanted to do a lot with this character, and I had no clue where to start.

Other character traits would come later: the violet eyes, the blue suit, the cunning smile and profoundly insensitive sense of humor. Eventually, my new character would get a name and become the morally ambiguous Talie Tappler, reporter extraordinaire of the Tomorrow News Network.

My first attempt to draw Talie, dated 2011.

My first attempt to draw Talie, dated 2011.

But it all started with one central image that appeared before me—miracle-like—while I should have been paying attention in church.