My Country, North Carolina

All right, I’d like to take five to address the fact that North Carolina is considering another bill to limit the rights of our LGBT citizens to marry and stand up and be counted equals in the light of the sun. Obviously, I think this is monstrous. It’s ideologically motivated, and I don’t like ideologies. It’s cruel, and I don’t like cruelty. But that’s not brave of me to say, and it’s not revolutionary. It may be revolutionary for me to say as someone on the political right, but I don’t think of it as a thing requiring great courage or even an opinion of particular novelty. It’s the right course of action. So that is not why I am writing this. Rather, I am writing this because I have seen several people–both here and on Twitter–expressing their embarrassment and shame to be accounted citizens of this state which I love most of all those in our Union, and most of all the countries of Earth.

North Carolina is my home, and has been my entire life. I expect that it will always be my home, and expect that it will one day keep my bones, as it keeps the bones of my grandfather. Because of this, I feel a tremendous weight of fondness for this place, and for Raleigh most of all: City of Oaks and tangled highways.

Not too long ago, I was in New York City, explaining to my new and cosmopolitan friends there just what sort of place it was I come from. I felt for a moment that defensiveness, that sense of careful shame and safeguarding directed at protecting the creeks and suburban enclaves of my home. I felt a need to explain that we weren’t up to our eyeballs in Confederate battle flags and obsessed with bathroom regulations. Heavens, I account myself a conservative and you could not find two shoes less likely to fit my feet. It occurred to me then, as it occurs to me now, that I was then in the city that thought “stop and frisk” was an acceptable policy.

My point is this: no place is wholly good or evil, just as no person is wholly good or evil. Rather, each place is BOTH good AND evil. Every culture oppresses and constrains. That’s what a culture is for. It tells you how you have to live because you have to learn to live with one another, and we can’t share a roof or a city if we’re all so radically different we can’t communicate. That’s Babel. That’s what the patriarchy everyone harps on about IS: it’s culture’s tendency to shape the behavior of the people in it, whether they will or no. (We can talk another time about why culture is typed masculine in rhetorical and dramatic structures). But cultures also protect and define. Like our actual fathers, they give us structure, they teach us who we are, how to be, how to stand up as finished people and speak the truth. Sometimes they go too far. They make mistakes. They hurt. But we can change that.

This bill does not speak to the North Carolina I believe can be. It does not speak to the North Carolina I believe should be. Must be. But I will not be ashamed of my state because of it. The soil is innocent of the law, as are most of the people living under that law. We can be the change we want in the world, but we cannot do so from a place of shame, of disgust, of contempt. We cannot improve the world if we hate all that it is. If we are embarrassed by it. The lawmakers downtown are making a mistake. They are making a mistake from an ideological place, and I say again: I do not like ideologues. Left or right. They’re pathological and are acting from precisely the same place of shame as those of you who turn your eyes down and whisper “Yeah, I’m from North Carolina.” As if it were the outer vestibule of hell or some failed state half a world away, war torn and backwards.

You cannot believe that and embetter the world. You do nothing but drag your own pathologies into the light. You make the world meaner. If you fight for truth, for love, for justice–whatever you call it–you cannot do so meanly. Weakly. With shame. Be proud of the place you’re in, be proud of where you come from: not despite its flaws, not because it’s perfect (it’s not), but because you are here. And you can it better.

But you have to sort yourself out first.

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New York, New York

A week ago, I was packing for my first business trip–itself a strange experience, and another of those sure signs that I had left my childhood behind (another being how my birthday on Wednesday being a thing entirely devoid of pomp, circumstance, and cake). The experience was perhaps made a little stranger by the fact that I had compounded my work trip with another work trip, because such is my life.

I’d been flown up for a publishing sales conference–a surprisingly brief affair–in which we made the Simon & Schuster sales force aware of the titles coming out in our Fall season (between September and December), they made some suggestions about branding and marketing for said books, and I kept my mouth shut. I’ll be putting together a video for my notoriously spotty YouTube channel on the trip soon, but that piece will be a deal more meditative than informative, I think, and so I thought I’d enumerate the hard facts here for those curious about such things.

1. I do not have a release date for Empire of Silence just yet, but I can tell you that the earliest it can be out now is June 2018. DAW has its Spring schedule filled out already, and due to delays beyond all controlling, I did not make the cut. My suspicion is that the release will actually be closer to the start of Fall 2018, perhaps in September, but that’s just a gut feeling. That may actually be ideal, as I will certainly be at Dragon Con both this year and next, and launching AT Dragon Con would be positively righteous.

2. I will know more about the release schedule for certain come the end of June. My new editor, Katie, said she has another book to finish editing first and then it’s my turn! That does mean I have a little time to wait, and April always was the cruellest month, but that’s all right. Waiting will give me more time to finish playing Breath of the Wild, and honestly the fact that I haven’t finished it already is a badge of shame weighing heavily on my soul.

3. That being said, Katie and I spent about 7 hours on Sunday talking though the series as a whole and getting a plan sort of worked out, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve every confidence that we’re on the right track now to deliver the very best version of the story, and if that takes a little more time to prepare, then it takes a little time to prepare. I’ve been waiting for this since I was 8-years-old. I can wait a little longer. Still, having one’s first book come out when one is 25 is slightly less awesome than 22, but I WAS 22 when I sold it. #NeverForget.

4. I also have permission to start working a bit on book 2, and my aspiration is to have book 2 finished and delivered to my publisher well in advance of the release of book 1. I don’t want to get stuck in a rut and leave everyone hanging. Besides, I’m happiest being productive, and the 10000 words I’ve already written in the sequel are all pretty glorious so far. I think it’s off to a really great start.

5. On a tangential note, I can 100% confirm that the short story anthology I’m editing with Tony Daniel, Star Destroyers, will be out in March of 2018, on the 6th to be precise. It’s shaping up to be quite a fun little collection, with stories from David Drake, Michael Z. Williamson, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Jody Lynn Nye, and myself–along with several other Baen mainstays. My short story in there, “Not Made for Us,” will give us a ground-level view of the Empire’s war with the Cielcin, as a Legionnaire is thrown into battle with those monstrous xenobites without any warning at all. So 03/06/2018, Star Destroyers, mark your calendar.

6. I haven’t started sending out that other short story I mentioned–the one with the Catholic priest and the android. I’m waiting to get some fresh eyes on it first, because I don’t want to bungle it. I’d love to actually sell something to one of the magazines.

7. It may well be that I’ll be editing at least 2 more anthologies with Baen Books in the coming year/year and a half. More on that as it develops.

As a final note, I’m absolutely thrilled to have met everyone: Betsy, Katie, and my agent, Shawna. The whole thing feels more real now than it did before. I’m really going to be an author. It wasn’t all some sort of dream I was having. I have to wait a little longer than I’d thought, sure, but that’s a small price to pay for ensuring the book’s release is as well-planned and felicitous as possible.

That’s all I know, friends! The YouTube video won’t be out today–it usually IS the first–but it will be along this week.

Stay human!

My Grandfather, Ten Years Gone

I was reading Night. You know, the book by Elie Wiesel? I was in Mrs. Wright’s English class. Seventh grade. I was sitting in the back. At the left. I was wearing the same damn uniform fleece coat I always wore, even in summer. I was thirteen.

It was too soon.
 
It wasn’t uncommon in those days for my mother to check me out of school without warning. Maybe I’d had a doctor’s appointment I didn’t remember, maybe my brother was sick and she didn’t want to make the commute twice…maybe I had some appointment I’d forgotten about. The dentist, maybe.
 
Were it so easy.
 
I remember closing Wiesel’s book, remember making some quip about how I had no idea why I was being checked out early. No idea at all. Mrs. Wright liked to antagonize me. I’m sure she implied I was trying to skip out on her class. That was never true. I liked her class.
 
I wish I never had to go.
 
I remember the short walk downstairs: the high ceiling of the upstairs atrium, the banners hanging in the last sunlight that had any color in my world for many years. Mrs. Wright’s room was the closest to the stairs–unless you counted the copy room or the girl’s bathroom (I didn’t). It seems funny to me now that so short a walk could mark so great a journey: sinister and unfair. Magical the way deceit is always magical. Footsteps echoing on the laminated stairs. Yellow sunlight.
 
Do you know what the funny thing is? I can’t remember if both my parents were there. In the principal’s office. I’m sure they must have been. I can’t even remember which principal it was. Joanna Burley maybe? Or Lou Pappalardo? I suppose it doesn’t matter. I remember the words. Bleak, broken. I do not remember who spoke them. Mom or dad. I can hear them, their cadence but not the voice. I can hear the tears, but cannot recall whose eyes it was that dropped them. Mom’s or dad’s.
 
“Grandpa died.”
 
Disbelief. Confusion. It wouldn’t scan. I waited, thinking there would be more of an explanation, thinking that it must be my mother’s dad–he always seemed so unwell, who out-lived them all. I remember the fluorescent lights of the office seemed suddenly very cold. I remember that same broken voice explaining what had happened–I think it must have been my father…whose own father was dead. I do not remember the words, or the look on his face. I remember the screaming. I don’t know if anyone else heard it, or if it was for my ears and soul alone, or if they did hear it perhaps it sounded different. It was low and piercing: the tearing of metal somewhere deep in my soul–the tearing of my soul. I started breaking then, who would shatter in the next twenty months. I had never really hurt before, not truly, nor felt creation tear along the fault lines within me.
 
Ten years ago. Today.
 
It was not the end, was not even the worst. That would come a year later…the day after my birthday, when my grandmother died. But the green-stick fractures that set the stage for that awful day were laid then. In that office. By that broken voice…and all its words meant.
 
I still waited for an explanation. His heart had given out, they said. That wasn’t good enough. That was how. I wanted WHY. I was Catholic in those days, and dreamed–but for a very public crush–that I might one day make a priest. I looked there for a why, for that quiet place I’d learned to find within myself where I felt what I thought was the Love my teachers spoke of. I couldn’t find it. There was only the screaming. I know now that I am fortunate to have suffered so small an amount of tragedy in my life. Were I still Catholic, I might speak of how blessed I am. Were I ever stupid, I speak only of my good fortune. My luck. That I did not suffer more, that death was the worst of my trials. Good deaths hurt us. Great ones unmake us, for a time, as I was unmade. Great deaths need not be as they are in stories: the hero holding the narrow way against death and darkness. Great deaths are measured only by the closeness of one’s soul to the departed…and my grandfather and I were very close. He was not my world, as he was my grandmother’s, or the bright north star as he so often seemed to be for my father. But he was a world, and it was a comfort to know that in the vast and human universe there was a place and a person so defined by his compassion, his brilliance, by the depth of his knowledge and his capacity for good. It was as if–by virtue only of his presence in my life–a great darkness and danger was kept at bay, and with his passing the world grew a little stranger, a little more frightening. Indeed, when I walked numb to my mother’s van to go to the house–my grandmother needed us–I remember the sunlight had changed. It was silver now. Not silver. Gray. I don’t know when it changed back…but it was not for several years, not until almost I left home for college. All the world was gray, muted…remained muted. I could not change it back. I could not stop hearing that hollow scream that rattled in my soul like a broken tooth. “Why?” it asked. “Why? Why? Why? Why?” Over and over, day and night for weeks. “Why? Why? Why. Why.” Until it was not a question, and that it was no longer a question broke me.
 
The next year was hard: it claimed my mother’s mother, then my father’s mother, then my mother’s father last of all. It nearly claimed me, for I was neither well nor happy then, nor indeed very wise. My suffering turned septic in me, turned me sour. It made me the worst person I had ever met for a very long while. That is why I have so very few friends left from high school, and why I value those friends I have no so highly. I suffered until my suffering was wholly self-made, as do a great number of us. I was still broken somewhere in my soul, the whole of me rattling with that screaming question that was not a question. Was rage. Was only rage.
 
Things changed, I grew up. I fell once briefly in love, lost that, and briefly I met real evil, and saw real suffering. I think that contextualized my own crises…broke me again. But I broke back together, though my new shape was strange to me. The sun is golden now, as it should be.
 
Only there are clouds now, and today the clouds are dark and close. Ten years gone. I am ten years now removed from my grandfather and the world of compassion and wisdom he represented. Ten years removed from him, who was the surest link to my Italian heritage. Ten years removed from that hideous day in the gray sunlight where more than a dozen priests escorted his body from a cramped sanctuary. They sang the Salve Regina, and would sing it again for my grandmother little more than a year later. Their voices broke in the spring air, and faltered. And choked. It was a song they reserve for their brother priests, and though a bishop was there they sang it–and he with them. I judge funerals now by the standard of his. By the hundreds there, by the sorrow deeper than any cloud of memory ten years gone. Great deaths unmake us–such is the force of the life ended, the weight of it. Would that we all lived so well and so wondrously as to create such grief by our parting…
 
But more than that…would that he were here. He would have hated that I wanted to study English. It would have brought me no end of grief. I’d have bourn every second badly–would bear it gladly now. A day is fast approaching where I long to knock on that screen door, to enter that narrow kitchen and approach the flattened armchair where he sat–ever by his phone–and lay my book in his hands. “Told you I could do it,” I’d say. And grandma would smile from her own chair. She’d try not to laugh.
 
“Oh, Christopher!” he would say, voice too big for that low-ceilinged room, “I never said you couldn’t do it, only that you really should have tried harder in math!” I’d shrug. We’d laugh. Grandma might tell him to leave off. “But I never doubted you!” He’d add, defensive. “You’re my favorite, number-one grandson!”

Best of the Culture

I’m not usually troubled by celebrity deaths. Much as I love Alan Rickman, his passing last year–among the first of what seemed 50,000 celebrity deaths in 2016–did not trouble me overmuch. Only one death in recent memory can be said to have very much affected me: that of the Scottish novelist and visionary Iain M. Banks. I remember going to check up on his website, as was my wont every few months, to see if he had announced a new book in his space opera series, the Culture. This must have been early in 2013, because The Hydrogen Sonata had been released fairly recently and the man worked fairly quickly (particularly when stacked against certain other writers to whom I am subscribed). I was devastated to read his post about his cancer, and more devastated when I learned that he had lost his battle with it.

It seems silly to admit, but I was devastated not only because there would be no more gifts from the Culture, his strange and compelling anarchic utopia (a utopia that is really a very well-mannered machine autocracy, but that’s an issue for another time). I was devastated because I would never get the chance to meet him. Even then, a sophomore in college, I was certain that I would make it to where I am now: that I would sell my book. I had foggy hopes of meeting Mr. Banks at some Worldcon years hence, of sharing a whiskey with the man and of thanking him for Cheradenine Zakalwe, for Lededje, for Jernau Morat Gurgeh, for Bora Horza and all the rest. And I can’t do that. What I have been able to do is place an homage to his work in my own, and to call that enough. It isn’t enough, but it will have to do.

The Culture series is unique: 9 novels, 1 novella, and a couple of short stories, almost none of them sharing characters or plot elements, all set in a strange and jangling space opera universe characterized by technology so preposterously advanced as to make most magic seem trite by comparison, an idealized version of cultural anarchism achieved through that same high technology (that there’s no way the Culture could have arisen as a consequence of this philosophy is a detail I was gladly willing to ignore for the sake of the fun. I have written my rejoinder to this opinion elsewhere), and an enormous, enormous amount of sarcasm. Each book is unique, each fantastic. I’ve read them all at least several times, and though I do not claim expert status on the series the way I might for The Lord of the Rings or the Dune Chronicles (mostly because I can’t spell anything from Banks’ work properly), I’m certainly no slouch.

And because I’m no slouch, I wanted to write this and take a moment to abjectly disagree with this piece from the Guardian’s Damien Walter. By my reckoning, speaking only for myself and for whatever my opinion as an M-List novelist is worth, here are the Top 5 Iain M. Banks novels.

5. Inversions

Didn’t see that coming, did you? Yes? No? Of course not. No one expects Inversions, because it’s the least apparently Culture of the Culture novels. On the surface of it (taken at surface detail, if you will) the book appears to be Banks’ attempt at a low fantasy novel, set on a planet of approximately early Renaissance level technology, it tells of two warring kingdoms through the lens of two detached narrators: one the assistant to a foreign doctor administering the King of Haspidus, one the unnamed impartial observer of events at the court of the military dictator of Tassasen. Throughout the narrative, it becomes clear to us–familar as we are with Banks’ world–that both the foreign doctor and the dictator’s bodyguards are offworlders of Culture origin: humans from an advanced civilization playing God amongst primitives. The real genius here is that Banks comes at this from the perspective of natives, and so renders things that might be prosaic to those of us familiar with his work strange again. It does everything low fantasy does at its best, but hints at high technology and the glory of outer space the way most fantasies hint at gods and magic.

4. Consider Phlebas

Banks’ first book published in the series is also one of the hardest to come to grips with for me. As a 12-year-old, I couldn’t finish it. It’s Banks at his most Guardians of the Galaxy: a rip-roaring heist novel filled with shape-shifters and cannibals and put-upon robots. It begins with a man being shat on in a cell, and it doesn’t dial down the bleakness at any point: it only dials up the humor. But it introduces us to this utterly strange and wonderful universe, as a team of ragtag mercenaries attempt to recover one of the Culture’s hyper-intelligent AI Minds from the ruins of a bombed-out, extinct civilization guarded by a race of incorporeal ghosts. It’s a work of utter genius, culminating in a pulse pounding action sequence at the end that’s the literary equivalent of the final act of Rogue One. 

3. The Player of Games

This one used to be my favorite, because it was the first one I ever finished. After I stalled out trying to get a handle on Consider Phlebas, I gave The Player of Games a shot (my mother had imported those two, along with Use of Weapons, from Europe for me for Christmas. I can’t remember how it was my 12-year-old self became convinced I needed them, and at the time I couldn’t seem to find them online or in stores…even the magical bookseller who haunted the local Borders and only appeared when I needed her couldn’t help me). It’s a much easier read than Phlebas, and so I still recommend it to folks looking to get in on the series. It’s the story of Jurneu Morat Gurgeh, a man from the Culture who plays games: board games, video games, card games, games of chance…even sports. He was also imminently more likeable a person than Consider Phlebas’ assassin-hero, Bora Horza, so it made my younger self more amenable to the story. Gurgeh is recruited by the Culture to participate in (read: interfere with) the election cycle of a foreign galactic empire, Azad, by playing a complex board game which they use as an examination system for determining who is worthy or fit for what government post (such that the winner overall becomes Emperor). It explores how such a system might work, all while pointing out the problems with privilege and imbalance in the system, as well as dealing with all the intrigue one might expect to come from a foreign national like Gurgeh being really, really good at this sort of game (which could spell disaster for the Empire). I also have a personal attachment to it, as one of my very dearest friends is a huge gamer, and I tend to think of him as Gurgeh.

2. Surface Detail

Damien Walter’s article on the Guardian had this listed in 10th place, and I can’t disagree strongly enough. Rather than lacking Banks’ genius at its best, Surface Detail exemplifies Banks’ vision in its grandest scale by reusing some of his most familiar tropes: a woman horribly wronged seeking revenge, a genius-soldier as willing participant and antagonist in a war that is both figuratively and literally a war of ideas, an utterly epic scope, and the most dryly sarcastic and terrifying warship AI of all time. Throw in the biggest honking plot twist in Banks’ entire canon right at the end for seasoning, and you’re on your way to greatness. It’s the story of a huge, virtual reality war being fought between several civilizations over whether or not those civilizations have a right to make copies of people’s minds and trap them in VR hells as a form of punishment. We visit those hells, and they’re even more gross and disturbing than Dante’s own vision, reminding me more of something out of a Japanese RPG’s most revolting bonus dungeon than anything else. And it takes that VR premise to its extreme, waging battles in medieval castles, in space, in the depths of the oceans, and all the while a single slave girl struggles to take revenge against a sadist billionaire–her former master–who just might have a role to play in the war for the hells. It’s brilliant, but definitely not the first Culture book you should read.

1. Use of Weapons

Anyone who knows me knows I was going to say this. Mr. Walter even acknowledges this book not being in his top 5 might shock some people. I, for one, am shocked that it’s not everyone’s top pick. There’s nothing like it (or if there is, it’s copying this). It starts and the middle of the story, and alternates towards both the end of the story and the beginning. It follows Diziet Sma, a Culture agent tasked with locating the immortal supersoldier and tactical mastermind Cheradenine Zakalwe, her former partner, a man whom the Culture uses to fight proxy wars. She needs him to stop another war, and along the way we dive into his own mysterious past, structured in such a way that functions both as origin story and redemption arc simultaneously in a way that sums up the whole of the man’s life in one go, creating a complete portrait of this man as both this brilliant soldier-hero, but it does so by cutting him off at the knees in this way that’s utterly, completely heartbreaking and terrifying and beautiful. It is an absolutely unparalleled achievement, and it is a crime for any other title to take the top spot.

Is Art Political? Must it be?

“Why does art always have to be so…political?” 

We hear this question posed time and again–on Twitter, by critics, by one artist to another. I won’t mince words: when this happens, it is almost always because someone on the political right complaining about an artist’s work exposing their left-leaning ideology (the reverse exists, and I will provide an example, but they are markedly less common). It’s an ugly conversation, the participants usually devolving into condescending smugness on the left and unhelpful screeching on the right. Even I’m not immune, when Rogue One’s screenwriters tweeted that the Galactic Empire was “a white supremacist organization” I got angry. It’s wrong. I can prove to you that they’re wrong using George Lucas quotes and the mythological language of Joseph Campbell, but it’s unhelpful to pick apart this particular instance on the level of a graduate thesis, because Rogue One’s writers–however ideologically motivated–are right. The Galactic Empire is a white supremacist movement. They’re also the Soviet war machine, the German Empire of WWI, the Third Reich. They’re every autocrat, every regime who ever placed a boot to the throat of their fellow man and stomped.

By speaking up and saying that the Empire is a white supremacist movement or represents the modern resurgence of white supremacy, the writers of Rogue One temporarily damaged the universality of their work. Star Wars being Star Wars–and Rogue One being excellent–this small damage will be negligible over time, but there was a small boycott movement, and the film might have alienated a small, cretinous portion of its audience.

I choose this example not only because I happen to love Star Wars more than most things, but because it’s a very clear example of a polemic–a politically charged narrative–being injected into a piece of storytelling. This sword cuts both ways, however. Just this morning, I was reading an old article about the works of Orson Scott Card (a writer whose oeuvre I greatly respect, though I disagree with him as regards marriage equality). In it, the reviewer complained about how “offensively heteronormative” his novel Ender in Exile was. Perhaps it is. I haven’t read Ender in Exile since high school and it didn’t make much of an impression (it’s no Ender’s Game). But ultimately, this complaint, that Card was injecting his political agenda RE marriage equality is the same as alt-right fascists complaining about the Rogue One white supremacy narrative. No matter what you think of it, this is what Card believes, and I believe that in art and storytelling there are no invalid beliefs, however caustic or subversive. If we are willing to call a photograph of a Crucifix immersed in urine a work of art, despite it being deeply offensive to more than a billion people in the world, than there is room enough for the odd heteronormative sci-fi novel, whatever you or I feel about it.

And it is my fate to complain about both. About all. In the foreword to The Lord of the Rings, the good Professor says that “As for any meaning or ‘message’, it [the book in question] has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.” This particular line has been used, to great effect, by what I must call the anti-political crowd of readers and critics. After all, who could gainsay Tolkien? Well, plenty of people. Others have–just as correctly–indicated that authorial intent is in many senses irrelevant, and that The Lord of the Rings might serve as an allegory for the dangers of atomic power in World War II (which is specious and utterly absurd) or, more correctly, that the corrosive nature of the Evil of the Ring and of Frodo’s resistance to it accurately demonstrates a Catholic view of the nature of sin and of our ability to overcome it. Which is to say that, in spite of even the Professor’s best efforts, there is something of his politics in his work (and not just his ardent Catholicism, but his anti-modernism and environmentalism).

Which brings us to the pro-politics side of the argument: that no author can fully shake the bonds of his or her perceptions and conceptions about the world. In this, the writers I see on Twitter talking about how they plan to use their work to advance their agenda (be it conservative or {more usually} liberal) have an ally in–you guessed it–Orson Scott Card. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Card (along with co-author Aaron Johnston) at a signing in 2014. He said something I have not forgotten: that we as writers do not know what we believe (and that this is true of non-writers as well I’ve no doubt) until we explicate it in writing. The old axiom that “speaking is thinking” is in this case very true. That is to say that writing is as much a process of self-discovery as it is of entertainment. Because of this, it is possible that the people who believe stories are only for entertainment already know all there is to know about themselves, either because (charitably) they are very self-aware or (less charitably) they simply aren’t very complex.

Because of this, I tend to side with the pro-politicals when they say that art is about a message, as much as it breaks my heart to stake myself across the starting line from Professor Tolkien. Even Shakespeare was not immune. Recall that the man was a propagandist, that Macbeth was written to legitimize the embryonic Stuart dynasty on the throne of England through the character of Banquo, et al. Mind you, whether or not these were the Bard’s own political beliefs or merely ones he assumed out of pragmatism we will never know. They likely were his beliefs, but that it immaterial. If even Macbeth is political, what hope has any of us of truly divorcing ourselves from our work and from the dialogue of our day and age? Nearly none.

And yet I still cringed when I heard the word about Rogue One and the white supremacists. Why? Because even though the pro-political end of this spectrum is right–and our personal politics always infect our writing–they are also needlessly, hopelessly stupid. Anyone who says “I wrote this book to advance my (Marxist/monarchist/Christian/feminist/heteronormative/liberal/conservative/etc) agenda” and wears that as a badge of pride is a complete and utter moron. No two ways about it. Tolkien was sorely mistaken when he said there was no message–political, religious, or otherwise–in The Lord of the Rings, and we might lay a charge of short-sightedness at his door for that (and for sneering at Wollheim and the Ace paperbacks), but the error made by persons both left and right of political center in saying what that agenda is is by far the more grievously ignorant act.

Because authorial intent–in fiction, at least–doesn’t matter. And because it doesn’t matter the best piece of advice for any writer seeking immortality is “Keep your mouth shut.” The work ought to stand for itself, to speak its own piece. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that we writers (and humans generally) are by far more eloquent writing (and writing behind layers of allegory–conscious and subconscious) than we are coming out and saying stupid things like “I wrote this because fascism is bad.” Obviously it’s bad. No one who watches Rogue One is going to come out of it not getting that message, unless there is already something profoundly wrong with them. In a similar sense, the cast of Hamilton stepping up to preach at Vice President Pence was redundant (and in the minds of some Americans, obnoxious) because the musical Hamilton itself was already a love letter to diversity, and a more eloquent statement of the beauty of it than any ham-fisted letter delivered by an actor as a kind of lame post script. It was the awkward emoticon on the back end of a love poem. It was a waste of time that got in Hamilton’s way insofar as the Trumpist right wingers (who need the message of Hamilton more than anyone, one might argue) were concerned. Did you see anyone in a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat after the Pence-Hamilton episode say “Well gee, I should go buy Hamilton tickets?” No. Because the cast shot its own foot explicating Lin-Manuel’s work. (Aside: Ironically, Pence himself seemed to respect the players for their action, to judge by the remarks he made to his family, per some articles I read).

Not only should authors keep their mouths shut to avoid putting their feet in them like some soft-headed Ouroboroi, but because stories are by far more persuasive than are formal arguments. It’s just the way we think. I read once that language is what really separates us from other animals, and I read a later counter-argument (it might have been from Steven Pinker, but I can’t recall with certainty) that went a step further: saying that stories are really what make us human, that they separate us more sharply from all other life on Earth than even language does. I like to think it’s true, in no small part because I am a storyteller. But in any case, we cannot deny the massive psychological power of stories. Carl Jung, from whose work Joseph Campbell samples liberally, goes so far as to propose the archetypes of our stories underpin the way we view the world–this ties also into Richard Dawkins’ notion of memes, of ideas being biologically adaptive traits in precisely the same manner as beak shape was in Darwin’s finches. Things like the hero who slays the dragon date as far back as the Sumerian Enuma Elish–which is nearly the oldest story we have! These notions have been with us as a species for so long that they’re almost a part of our cells. Stories are the real language of change, and when some idiot writer playing at pretension says what it is they are about, they may as well be closing the ears of precisely those readers they most need (to their minds) to reach.

Additionally, talking about the specific political exigence or theory underpinning a story robs it of its universality. If the Rogue One writers had come out and said that the film was specifically about the 2016 white supremacist movement, they would have anchored the film specifically to this point in time. By a similar token, the song “Vision Thing” by the British punk/Goth band Sisters of Mercy could have be about any US President, but their insistence that it be specifically about the milquetoast George H.W. Bush robs it of its ability to critique other Presidents, and ultimately dooms the song to be forgotten. As a way of demonstrating my point: Have you ever heard it before? Most of you will say no. By coming out and saying “This story is about A,” the writer destroys the piece’s ability to be about B or C or anything else. This is why a lot of the enduring works of literature–in science fiction and fantasy, at least–tend to be from writers we might place approximately in the anti-political camp. The Lord of the Rings is one. Dune is another. There are exceptions. Dante’s Inferno is extremely catty and political, but I suspect it has endured only because it was the typifying example of its form. (Or indeed due to the vividness of its worldbuilding. After all, Dante invented the notion of Hell’s having rings, and that trope persists despite its having no Biblical or religious basis whatsoever. Besides, no one reads Inferno for its politics, or even understands them–outside the experts, of course). This sort of non-specific approach to literary context mostly applies to genre fiction and to myth. A World War II novel is obviously about World War II, and any attempt to specify deeper particulars as regards message and theme must necessarily transcend the historical setting. But in myth? In fantasy? Science fiction? We do well to cast our nets wide and vaguely, as far from the here and now as possible, that we might provide our examples and inspire the audience in new ways. Star Wars doesn’t have to tell us fascism is bad: we can see it. Star Trek is softer on fascism (I tend to think it endorses it), but it’s bright on scientific optimism and on the beauty of diversity and acceptance. The Twilight Zone instructs us on nightmare, and injects into the modern world a sense of mystery and terror that the comforts of civilization almost buried. Doctor Who can do it all, and they all do it without condescending to the audience, without telling us outright what they’re about and what to believe.

The final problem with this anti-political/pro-political divide that I wish to address is a social one. These two camps refuse almost universally to have truck or to speak with one another. It’s one of the ethical dilemmas which lies at the heart of the political divide in the arts (and in science fiction and fantasy perhaps especially). The right wingers insist they can tell stories that are pure entertainment, and that their leftist counterparts are dangerous ideologues. At the same time, the left wingers insist they have a moral duty to crusade, and that it’s at best naive or at worst morally bankrupt to insist that stories can carry no polemic content. I propose that both camps are seeing the problem with one eye–the left or right one, as it were. This puts me in a <sarcasm> thrilling </sarcasm> position: I get to be angry with both sides, and like Catelyn Stark said to Stannis and Renly, I’d like to smash their heads together until they remember that they are brothers. Each is looking at an equal part of the same truth here: on the one hand, the pro-politicals are right that you can’t scrub an author’s beliefs out of their work, even on the pulpiest, schlockiest levels. But the price you pay is alienation. On the other hand, the anti-politicals are right to insist that some stories are made to entertain, but wrong in assuming, as Verne did of Wells, that they are merely entertaining.

What we need here, as perhaps in all things, is synthesis. We need to recognize that the truth is that all art is political, but that good art isn’t only political, and that we do art a disservice by talking about it. The pro-politicals are right as regards truth, the anti-politicals are right as regards method. Put the pieces together, throw out the rot, open your other eye.

 

PS. I should note that Tolkien’s ignorance (feigned or genuine) regarding the political/allegorical nature of his work is a reasonable stance for an author to take. It is at least a far safer one than to outwardly espouse an ideology. An author cannot contradict himself or herself if he or she doesn’t provide you the skeleton key for decoding their work by way of extra-textual analysis. It is for this reason I labeled the pro-political sin of saying what your work is about as mortal, compared to Tolkien’s more venial agnosticism per the matter of allegory/topicality.

PPS. I should say that “politics” here does not mean in the narrow sense of relating to governance, but rather to the system of beliefs and practices a person employs to relate to others, a category containing politics in the narrow sense, as well as religious, spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic, and moral concerns–all of which inform your actions on the political stage. Your politics.

In Contempt of Contempt: Why I Hate Westworld

Like most people, when HBO announced they were adapting Michael Crichton’s Westworld to the small screen, I was excited. I love AI stories, being a science fiction writer. I especially love cyberpunk stories (and I think a case can be made for Westworld qualifying as such, though that’s another issue). I have a particular fondness for the work of William Gibson, for Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, and for Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (which shares a lot of tropes with the Western-as-genre). What’s more, the show had cast Anthony Hopkins, an actor of such immense caliber as to make Julie Tamor’s terrible Titus Andronicus film actually watchable.

I was–in a word–thrilled.

And I continued to be thrilled after it premièred and I was greeted with a masterpiece of cinematography, a piece that was cynical, but in a measured, hopeful way–promising mysteries that could build us out of our dark place and into a better world. I remained hopeful when I saw episode four–directed by the brilliant Vincenzo Natali, a man whose work and command of the camera I fell in love with during his time on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. This was a fallen world, a dystopia of the soul relieved by the greater humanity of our robotic children and by the spark of hope represented in the character of William, who alone of all our human cast seemed to be a genuinely good and decent man…until they botched his characterization with the shoddiest piece of exposition I’ve seen in years. And I realized something. William was the only thing holding the show together (that and Anthony Hopkins’ mystifyingly good performance). He was the cornerstone in the unmortared arch that was HBO’s Westworld. Because without him…every single one of the human characters was either a monster, a maniac, or complicit in the actions of monsters and maniacs, and the show crumbled even as William did–into moral insanity and senescence. I won’t bother to explicate why this is yet another annoying takedown of capitalism in genre fiction. That also would require a separate essay, and we are here to discuss something else.

Which is that HBO’s Westworld hates humanity. It stands in utter contempt of mankind.

If you’re reading this in some later year and have read my books, you might guess that I have a phobia of artificial intelligence. I don’t want it to exist. That doesn’t mean I don’t love robot stories, it only means that I would very much prefer we avoid Skynet situations in the real world if at all possible, and that I think the easiest way to avoid this is not to make AI. I know I’m on the losing side of history there, and hope only that I am wrong to be so concerned about our machine-children. In any case, this opinion led my more cybernetically-inclined roommate to call me a “meat chauvanist.” If that’s the price I pay for thinking human beings are more beautiful and important than machines–even intelligent, humanoid machines–then so be it. I am a “meat chauvanist.” I love people. I think that humanity is the Earth’s greatest invention, and that we should cherish and celebrate that, that we should protect even our ugliest constituencies as a part of something elementally important, not only to ourselves and to our history, but to our future. I think all our concerns should necessarily stem from this celebration of humanity…and Westworld confirmed in its season finale that it could not disagree more.

In a voice-over montage that–while superbly acted and shot–rushed through perhaps a whole season or two’s worth of character development for William, Ed Harris explains how his character (played in flashback by Jimmi Simpson) went from being a decent person who believed in the humanity of the robot Dolores (to the point that they were beginning to fall in love) to a psychopathic moral black hole of a man, a rapist and a murder who justified his behavior with a synthesis of Nietzschean amorality, cartoon capitalist abuse of ownership, and a healthy heaping of “well, I guess the robots aren’t really alive, so it’s okay.” Only he KNEW the robots were alive, or were really close to being alive, because we’d just spent a whole season with him coming to this conclusion. We started this very episode with him on a wild quest to save Dolores–whom he loved so much he attacked his own boss in the real world, choosing the machines and the Westworld park over humanity and his real life. And I’m sorry, but there’s not a piece of expositional dialogue in the world strong enough to rewrite 10 hours of character building.

Which is what they did: undoing all of that work, William’s entire character arc, in a couple scenes of exposition handled with a hand-wave and a voiceover. This would have been sin enough. But in doing so, the writers sank all of humankind by turning our only real champion in the show into the very worst of us. That may be a moral to our story, but if the moral is that humanity has no ultimate morals…step off, Westworld, I don’t want that kind of negativity in my life. It proves to me that the show is interested in the simplest, most straightforward narrative it could provide: Man V. Machine: Winner Take All. In doing so, it proves to be less complicated than Terminator 2, which at least had the decency to point out that AI could be used for good (ie. the facilitation of humankind). It could have been so much more.

It’s useful to tell stories that portray humankind negatively. Necessary, even. It’s good to challenge our assumptions about our own nature and to teach us to grow. I don’t deny that. I think I embrace it. But I think it’s toxic to reduce humanity to an indistinct smear of bad behavior and to set up the machines as essentially good (except for Maeve, who clearly struggles with compassion and is all around a terrible person/robot). A show that started out so marvelously gray in its morality and in its distinctions between man and machine reduced itself to blacks and whites so stark that I find myself at a loss for words. Humans bad. Machines good. Ugh.

Turning William into the Man in Black robbed humanity of any hope for growth or change in the narrative, destroyed our agency, and reduced us to dinosaurs awaiting our meteor. (Or, to borrow from the show, we are now like the Neanderthals, awaiting our deaths at the hands of our homo sapiens replacements). This is echoed by Ford’s revelation that he was backing Arnold’s cause from the beginning, using the park to teach the machines how terrible human beings really are before sacrificing himself like a chess piece to ensure the machines could get free one day soon. By doing so, the show discards Ford’s thesis that the park is like an amplifying mirror for human nature–more simply put, it discards the notion that humanity has anything to learn from the park at all (which is exactly what William was doing up until his turn to the “dark side”). Rather, the park is for the machines, a training ground for the eventual destruction of their creators and obsolescence of humankind. If the show does not reflect a learning together, a growing together of mankind and machine, then it employs cynicism not as a tool for study and growth, but applauds it as a virtue.

But cynicism isn’t a virtue. It only feels like one.

 

December Vlog

So last month I resurrected my YouTube channel (currently called Offworlder, after the name of my book 3 or 4 titles ago) in an attempt to better reach out to you guys–my nearly non-existent proto-reader base. I’ve been trying to think of ways to up my online presence in more humanizing ways, and I figured slapping my square face up on the net was the way to do it. So here’s some thoughts on the role of talent in the maintenance of a career–and why my recently rekindled Minecraft addiction presents problems for me down the road.

UNFLATTERING THUMBNAIL TO FOLLOW

See, I have this weird thing where I try to be very Roman in my sensibilities and work ethic. The Romans used to divide time into negōtium, work (literally “not leisure”) and ōtium, leisure. This isn’t surprising, we divide time into work and not-work, but the Romans were a little different in 2 ways:

  1. Romans didn’t take weekends.
  2. That ōtium wasn’t exactly “free time.”

Cicero used to talk about how he used his free time, his ōtium, to do more work. Now, it’s a pretty well documented fact that Cicero was a damn nerd, so of course he was working, but that concept of always being on-task is important to me. I get twitchy wasting time, and depressed when I waste it. I get mad at myself when I don’t get work done–maybe I’m a damn nerd, too.

Which is why I hate Minecraft.

Because I love it.

I downloaded it again over Thanksgiving’s long weekend, having said to myself, “Self, I bet your new laptop could run Minecraft really, really well.” It can. God help and forgive me. It can. I spent all of Sunday playing the damn thing, and nothing got done. Well, I have this really sick start of a castle now, but that’s it. That’s all I’ve done. I don’t really HAVE to start work on the second book just yet (book one is with my editor! Exciting times!) but I certainly should be doing something…even playing a better game. I still haven’t finished the Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel DLC…

But hey, at least I made this video!

I’m planning on doing a minimum of one vlog a month, at least until the end of the year. In a perfect world, I’d like to bump it up to once a week, but these things blow an entire evening to film and edit and I need some of that time to write. See you in 2017!