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.


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!

Less a Fraud

So I’ve recently escaped Dragon Con in Atlanta, and as such have spent the past few days trying to catch up on work emails and sleep and writing and the like. Having sufficiently done that, I feel like it’s time for a little reflection.

Dragon Con was only my second proper SFF convention, my fourth convention ever. I went to the first Escapist Expo back when that was still a thing–before that magazine tanked. Then I went to Animazement in Raleigh, because it was there and I wanted to buy stuff, more or less. I also attended ConCarolinas in 2014, where I met and had dinner with the great George R.R. Martin, which remains one of the highlights of my life despite it being extremely awkward and my not really knowing at all what to say. Of those three, Animazement was by far the largest, hovering somewhere around 10,000 attendees, if I recall rightly.

Dragon Con 2016 had almost 80,000 attendees.

That’s crazy. 

If you’ve never been, it’s so large that it inhabits I think four hotels in downtown Atlanta: the Westin, the Hyatt, the Mariott, and the Hilton. It’s spread out along a few blocks of downtown so the whole city is magically transformed and it’s just wall-to-wall Harley Quinn cosplayers and lightsabers for as far as the eye can see.

And while I did take my lightsaber with me for the express purpose of fighting Kylo Ren cosplayers, I went to work, and working at such a convention is to be almost a part of a different species. You’re on your feet all day, bound to a schedule, bound to perform at booths and to turn up for panels, as well as all manner of social engagements and the like. It’s hectic. Sure, it’s hectic for the attendees, too, but it’s a vacation, right? I didn’t have the luxury of sitting in line for hours to meet Alex Kingston–as much as I really wanted to do that. And sure, I wish I could have stayed up until 3 AM partying with all the cool kids, but I didn’t because I’m super old and fell asleep at about 1 in the morning. Whee.

But what I did get was to meet authors, most of them because of my employment with Baen Books. I got to meet Timothy Zahn, whose Star Wars novel Heir to the Empire was the first book I ever bought. Hell, I got to have brunch with him (and many other authors from Baen’s stable). I got lost in downtown Atlanta, and was helped to safety by Kevin J. Anderson, whose Jedi Academy books my father read to me when I was little, and whose Dune prequels defined a whole period of my life. I broke bread with writers like David B. Coe, and had drinks with Charles Gannon and Mike Williamson. I met my friend Sonia Lyris in the flesh for the first time. I am a little sad I missed Christopher Paolini. Eragon was a big deal for me in elementary school and I’d have dearly loved to meet him.

I also met Anne Sowards, the editor over at Ace who nearly bought my book before it went to DAW, and we had a brief but lovely conversation, and I’m very glad I braved the parade grounds to meet her.

And the truly great thing about all of this is that the experience made me feel “like an author,” if such a feeling can be said to exist at all. I spent a little time talking craft with my fellow writers and no one checked me for being a newcomer, a neophyte. I was taken seriously and welcomed into the fold without pomp or exception. It was marvelous. Marvelous because until now I’ve felt like I’m not really an author, not yet. I’m just some guy who sold some book he wrote that’ll come out in like a year and a half. But my whole experience has been very self-affirming, very validating. I guess I’ve felt like I was kind of a fraud until now, saying I was an author but without a book to show for it. I feel less so now, having been welcomed so heartily by so many.

I feel very welcome, and I’m happy to be here.

Mirror’s Edge, Mr. Robot, and Misunderstanding

I really liked the first Mirror’s Edge game. It was fun. Short, but tightly constructed in a way that rewarded replaying and re-examination. The plot was a bit shallow and a bit daft, but it was fun. I played it for a couple months and sold it to Ed McKay’s, as was my practice at the time. The second game, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, improved the individual gameplay mechanics, but made some other design choices that resulted, ultimately, in the game’s being extraordinarily disappointing. Chief among them was the fact that it’s story was not only sloppily constructed, its universe poorly world-built, but it was philosophically dependent on an anti-capitalist polemic which was not only personally irritating to me, but predicated on misapprehensions about what capitalism even is. But it was just a dumb game, I beat it in about 2 days right after I finished the last draft of Empire of Silence (title not final), and I put it in my box to sell to Ed McKay’s. It’s still sitting in that crate, alongside a few old mass markets and some school books I want gone with the bad memories they brought me.

It would have been little skin off my back, but the problem recurred. I started watching Mr. Robot today. An excellent program, beautifully shot, astonishingly well-acted, dazzlingly well scripted. It made me realize that the reason cyberpunk is nearly dead as a subgenre of SFF is because it is–in some social circles–already present in the here and now. It’s a cyberpunk piece, and a piece of realistic fiction. It’s dripping with existential dread and the kind of stylized self-loathing that appeals to me because I am, ultimately, a member of my own generation. It also really understands how to use the cliffhanger. I have work to do today, revisions for Empire of Silence, but it dragged me through two episodes despite my best intentions.

But it commits the same logical sin as Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, and for that reason I’m considering stopping to watch the program already. I won’t, because unlike some of the more convicted intellectuals of our day and age, I am not so offended by a challenge as to retreat to my own private ideological sanctuary when challenged. I can take criticism, particularly intellectual criticism, because “I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors” of thought.

The City of Glass in Mirror’s Edge is a shining corporate dystopia, and, to the incurious, a scathing indictment of Western capitalism. Only it isn’t. In Glass, a single security company rules the city with an iron fist. The police are just thugs employed by this security firm. There is no opposition, no opposing company of policemen, no opposing corporate entities. As the hero, you are fighting not against the capitalist system, but against an authoritarian government with a corporate gloss. Call a jack a jack, please. Mr. Robot’s critique is by far the more nuanced, centering (insofar as I can tell after a mere 2 episodes) on a group of Anonymous-expys indelicately called “F-Society” who plan to bring down this massive super-conglomerate called E Corp. The eponymous Mr. Robot (played by the usually awful Christian Slater, who is excellent here) talks about destroying all the financial infrastructure of the world and to thereby redistribute wealth by effectively erasing all record of debts and the like. It’s a chilling and an attractive notion, and there is some truly excellent motif work conflating the “imaginary,” credit-based system of economics we used with the “invisible hand” of capitalist discourse. I love the artistry, but the mistake comes from this supposition that money and the control of money is inherently evil and that it is–in an absolute sense–to blame for all the evils of our modern world.

This is repeated ad nauseum by persons of a more socialist bent. I appreciate their frustrations with the nature of the world, but I feel compelled–when faced with anyone decrying the failures of capitalism as an economic modality–to indicate the massive explosions in production, scientific advancement, cultural tolerance, artistic expression, life expectancy and the quality of that life which occurred once capitalism became the predominant economic model followed by most of the human race. Things are a great deal more equal now than they were under the auspices of feudalism and mercantilism, and individual quality of life is much higher here than under the more nominally socialist/communist systems in China and the former Soviet bloc. It would be foolish of me to suggest that capitalism is solely responsible for the up-swelling represented by the nineteeth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, but it would be disingenuous of anyone to deny that a shift to capitalist practices has been instrumental in these massive improvements to the world and to the quality of the lives of people living in it.

To suggest that money is an evil by which the worlds described oligarchs maintain their control is spurious. To suggest that the abolition of the imaginary, “invisible” construct of money would free us from the control of those same oligarchic powers is equally spurious. Money is not at fault, nor is the market nor capitalism nor the earth-bound ghost of Adam Smith, rattling his gilded chains. Power and control can take many forms. Ask any two victims of abuse to see what I mean. Despite what certain contemporary scholars naively postulate, humans are drawn to hierarchic systems. The anger so many of my generation and their political antecedents direct at “capitalism” would be much better directed at the collusion between bent politicians and big business, not at the businesses themselves. Such collusion dissolves any interest on the part of government to advance the cause of the people in favor of backing the business interests of a politicians financial backers. I’m not saying anything new here. What does bear saying, and saying often is this: anger against capitalism as an institution and philosophy is profoundly misplaced.

In the absence of capitalism’s non-specied currencies, mankind would–I guarantee–find another metric by which to enslave and oppress certain subcategories. I do not pretend to know what those metrics for oppression or the tools wielded in the prosecution of said oppression may be (for the sake of science fiction, I’ve always found genetics to be an engaging force), but the human impulse to dominance and domineering will remain regardless whether the capitalist or socialist ids win the battle for humanity’s soul. In the meantime, I only ask that storytellers call things by their proper names. The runners in Mirror’s Edge are battling an authoritarian government, not a corporation. That is the philosophical argument in play. The hackers in Mr. Robot, too, are battling a monolithic, monopolizing conglomerate with its fingers sunk deep in government and in peoples’ every day lives. Mirror’s Edge entirely fails to understand the problem it is addressing, while Mr. Robot’s problem is more complex, more representative of this ideological blindness common on the internet amongst (especially younger) people who are content to shameless plagiarize their political ideologies from the satirical ramblings of late night comedians.

The Devil’s in the Details

Or… “My Love-Hate Relationship with Game of Thrones”

(Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, so if you came here to see a minor author slam the biggest name in fantasy at the moment, go home. You’re drunk. Also this will have spoilers for season 6’s finale, so consider yourself warned.)

I love Game of Thrones. I caught the first episode the day it came out–I was 17–my parents had HBO at the time. I hadn’t read the books (I had been loaned one by my sociology teacher, Mr. Conder, but I returned it to him unread and pretended I liked it all right). By the time episode 2 aired a week later, I was just starting the third novel, A Storm of Swords. For a boy who literally grew up reading and re-reading The Lord of the Rings, it was a revelation. An utter tour-de-force focusing on those aspects of Tolkien’s work I most enjoyed: the world of men, the politicking and the grimy mess and nightmare of the human struggle (this being far and far away from Tolkien’s focus, bless him). I was smitten. Utterly. Have been ever since.

And since that April of junior year in high school, a lot has changed for me. I finished high school, I went to college, I finished college, I got a job, quit a job, bought a car, oh…and I got a publishing deal that now extends over half a dozen countries. I even paid off my student loans and learned to like musicals. Who knew?

But Game of Thrones is still there, looming large and lively. And it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, which is great, because it’s objectively very, very good. But it’s reached this sort of weird point where it isn’t perfect any more, and that’s weird. Because it was. It was perfect for all of season 1, and was arguably really close to perfect all the way through to the end of season 4–just about until they ran out of book. And then…ugh. I don’t want to be the one to say this, but…

What are they doing? What the hell is this?

Calm down! Yes, you. Put the keyboard down and step away from the machine for ten seconds. Keep reading. Breathe. Because some of the show is still perfect, and the parts that are are even more perfect than season 1 ever was. It’s just that that perfection doesn’t go all the way through. It’s like using the finest chocolate chips the world in cheap, grocery store-made cookie dough. Let’s look at the last two episodes, The Battle of the Bastards and The Winds of Winter. Both clearly the finest visual masterpieces of the series, with the possible exception of Hardhome. All directed by Miguel Sapochnik, all scored and set and superbly written. I love them both, but they betray a subtle problem that’s starting to become more and more apparent.

They keep going needlessly off-book, making everything seem a bit slapdash.

Now I understand a show is not a book. I know things have to change, and I support that. When they made Jaqen the Kindly Man in the House of Black and White, I was delighted (and in no small part because Tom Wlaschiha is a remarkably nuanced and spooky actor). I love that Theon and Asha are the ones who take the Iron Fleet to Meereen, although I do miss Victarion. It would have been cool to see him.

But the showrunners, David Benioff & Dan Weiss, have said repeatedly that the next 2, final seasons might be shorter, running 6-7 episodes because they’re “running out of story.” I’m sorry, what? You’re what? No, they aren’t running out of story, they have willfully ignored huge chunks of it. Consider Victarion Greyjoy, previously mentioned, and his brother Aeron. Consider Rhaegar’s son, Aegon, still apparently alive. (He may be a fake, but he’s still a better candidate in the books than anyone else trying to be king right now). Consider Sansa’s time in the Vale (her marriage to Ramsay being one of the more effective changes, but still one that I think is ultimately a bit sloppy). Consider the Mance Rayder plot, how he is still alive in the books and in the clutches of Ramsay Bolton. MOST of all, consider Dorne, which serves as the best example of weird, sloppy changes.

In the books, Prince Doran Martell is criticized by his nieces, the Sand Snakes (who are awesome, if a bit dumb) for not taking enough action against the Lannisters and Tyrells. His daughter, who doesn’t exist in the show, comes up with this plan to make Myrcella Baratheon queen, and Doran shuts that down. He reveals that no, he hasn’t just been twiddling his thumbs, he’s come up with a plan to ally himself with both Daenerys and Aegon Targaryen through Arianne and his other son, Quentyn, who mysteriously  ALSO DOESN’T EXIST, which is fine, actually, Quentyn’s arc in A Dance with Dragons is supremely disappointing and goes nowhere in the books. In the books, Doran is a brother driven by his revenge to supreme caution, seeking to destroy the people who killed his sister (and now his brother), and who does so from the confines of a wheelchair with a skill that might chill even Tywin Lannister’s blood. And they replace it with…what? Ellaria Sand? I’m sorry, but why? This is completely incomprehensible to me. Why would you sacrifice the great story described above for Ellaria’s sloppy coup? It’s a complete disaster, and one that will forever place as asterisk next to Game of Thrones on my list of favorite shows, like this:

Doctor Who, Community, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Daredevil, Game of Thrones*, Stargate SG-1, Cowboy Bebop, Peaky Blinders, Sherlock.

*Except for the complete bullshit handling of House Martell.

Okay in fairness most of those other shows get asterisks too, Doctor Who’s is just called “Series 4” (which is garbage), but I’m getting off task. They keep making these adjustments to fit their medium, fine. But they keep making these weird overcorrections, as with Dorne. Let’s look at the scene where Arya kills Walder Frey. Okay, that’s great. I hope she DOES kill him in the books, but a few things.

  1. How does Arya get to Westeros so quickly again? (Timing has been a real issue in the show this season, I’m looking at you, Littlefinger and Varys).
  2. Why did the Kindly Man (call him UnJaqen) let Arya get away with the temple’s magical faces? Wouldn’t you want to keep those under wraps?
  3. WHY DID ARYA GO FULL HANNIBAL LECTER HERE? She killed the Frey sons and baked them into a pie. That’s okay if it’s Wyman Manderly doing it, but Arya’s clearly got a conscience, or else she wouldn’t have spared Lady Crane. I’m not sure I buy her COOKING PEOPLE into pies. Revenge-killing is one thing, but that’s next level stuff right there.

It’s things like this that are becoming ever more rampant, and which are causing me increasing levels of distress, particularly when compared against things like Hodor’s plot twist, WHICH WAS PURE GENIUS and–apparently–cribbed directly from the sixth book. Next to the unadulterated genius that was “The Door”‘s Bran scenes, this business with Dorne looks like some General Hospital weather machine level vaudeville.

And Game of Thrones is better than that.


Mission Accomplished (Sort of)

Well, it’s been several months now since last I deigned post anything, and since people might actually start CARING that I haven’t posted anything on this blog in a while, I thought I should maybe fix that.

I finished my rewrite today. The book’s done again. Thank heavens. I even played some Dark Souls 3 today. The lion’s share of this labor is over. As it stands now, the book is 200,306 words long (640 pages in word). I expect the final version will be shorter, but we’ll see. I accomplished this feat in 107 days, averaging 1873 words per day. I’m slightly worried I sold my soul somewhere in there to obtain the powers to get that accomplished, but it’s been accomplished. As Frodo said, “It’s gone. It’s done.”

Only it isn’t! Because like Frodo, I have to go home and kick Saruman out of my living room–and by “kick Saruman out of my living room” I mean fix a couple niggling little issues before I send it on to Sarah, my wonderful editor. Notably, I have to translate several lines of dialogue into multiple fictional languages (this is what I get for idolizing Tolkien from age 5 onwards, and I’m nowhere near his equal in the conlang department). Fortunately, several of the languages are just Earth ones that have meandered over the centuries and I just rewrite what Google translate gives me with blurred spellings and messed up pronunciations. But the Cielcin language has a grammar. I may make it up as I go but it has a grammar. Remember, if there are any alien grammatical errors in-text, they’re Hadrian’s fault. Not mine.

Not mine.

But I’m not really done. One must keep moving, keep going. I have three more books to write (and hopefully several more, this is my dream, after all) and the next one will need an outline soon, to say nothing of revisions to this first one that will need doing. I’ll try and relax a little (Dark Souls 3 must be beaten!!) but I’m afraid to slow down too much. I’ve never missed a deadline in my life and I’m not about to start now. Especially now.

Which brings me to the news bit, or the question bit: Should I resurrect my twice-monthly video blog thing? Everyone who saw them seemed to really rather like them, and I had fun making them–however cursory my editing skills might be. When last I made a video, on 1 November 2015, I hadn’t gotten an agent yet, much less secured my deal with DAW, with Heyne, with Gollancz, or even gotten my job working as an Editoral Assistant with Baen. You can see that last video here:

I held off making more because so much was happening and I wasn’t sure if I was legally allowed to talk about any of it. I’m much more comfortable now (and not working two jobs). So it might be possible to keep up with the videos. What do you think? Leave a comment (or comment on the inevitable Facebook link (since that’s where most of you will be seeing this anyway) and let me know!



When people die, they just go away. If there’s any place a soul would go, it’s in your memories. People you remember are with you forever.

–Kaim Argonar, from Lost Odyssey. Written by Hironobu Sakaguchi & Kiyoshi Shigematsu

This is always a bad week for me. Always. And this one is probably worse than usual.

It’s my birthday tomorrow. I just got my first birthday message, from a good friend in Kolkata, India–where it is my birthday already. I’ll be 23. 10 years younger than Alexander the Great was at the height of his power and his too-early demise, 2 years younger than Shakespeare was at the offset of his career, 3 years younger than John Keats at his death.

These are all frightening numbers. The first because I will never conquer the known world, and so–no matter my age–I will never be an Alexander. That is perhaps for the best. The world is not starving for want of pretenders to that Alexandrine mantle. We are glutted on conquerors, and most of them incompetent ones. The second frightens me for arrogant reasons, because I am enjoying so much success so soon. I think I may be among the very youngest published writers in the past decade (the only person I know who beats me is Christopher Paolini, but please correct me if/when I am wrong). That’s a lot of pressure, but I tell myself I have 2 more years before I’m expected to write on the level of The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus. (I know no one really expects that). The third number is most frightening. There has never been a better poet in the English language than John Keats. Five-feet-high and scrappy, a surgeon by training cut down by tuberculosis, reduced to the sickbed and elevated to the station of poet. Every line he penned is golden and perfect and pure. He is a better poet even than Shakespeare, but perhaps only because his attitude fits my world view more precisely than the Bard’s ever could. Keats is sad, his poetry all composed from within the ambit of his sickness, and it shows. His world is beautiful, but fading fast. “…for many a time,” he says, “I have been half in love with easeful Death…” Easeful. Soft.

Sad. No Dylan Thomas he, Keats embraced entropy and the winding down of his own clock, going quietly into the night and an unmarked grave. A nameless tombstone for the purest poet who ever lived. Does that seem right to you?

Three years to go. Three little years to achieve something worth doing. I know I will never be Keats, but I’ve not quite come to peace with that. It’s why I always feel old, knowing that countless millions have died in childhood and youth achieving more than I will ever do. Those who know me will know that I am not a religious man, and so cannot be content with a quiet life, well-lived, in the hopes of divine reward. I yearn to do, to make, to build now, but I know that Shakespeare’s concept of immortality-in-ink will be barred from me for the simple reason that I am only so good, and not good enough. I am not Alexander, and–to paraphrase TS Eliot–I was not meant to be.

But I have said this is a hard week, and my arrogant desire to be like John Keats (preferably without the dying, thank you) isn’t the half of it. My grandmother died eight years ago this Wednesday. The day after my birthday, but as birthdays in my childhood were such protracted affairs, so often it feels like she died on my birthday. We were very close. She had the flu, could not attend my birthday party because of it. She called me during that birthday party but I couldn’t stay long on the line, promised to call her back in the morning.

I never did. Never could. And it killed me. And it kills me still.

I was on my way to the phone to call her when dad called to tell mom the terrible news. I was on my way. I had just used the money she’d given me to buy a game, Mistwalker’s Lost Odyssey, and I wanted to thank her for it. I knew she wouldn’t have approved, but I had been so excited for it I don’t think she would have minded. I never got the chance. I never got the chance. The next years were rough: take the ordinary tribulations of a rude high schooler, drunk on his inflated understanding of his own intelligence and stir in the cell-deep psychological misery that comes from such personal loss and you have a Michelin Star recipe for a bad few years.

I am better now, returned to something like the person I was before by the passing years and the numbing distance that implies. But every year, my birthday comes, reminding me again and again how little I am like Alexander, like Shakespeare, like Keats. Every year my birthday comes, and every year the anniversary of her death, of the phone call I’ll never make.

And it breaks me, this year most of all. This year because I am so much to tell her, so much to celebrate with her and my other, vanished family members. So much to share.

And I never can.