As Facebook gently reminded me —
my professional media have been stale. It was less a writer’s block than a blind alley. Perhaps others will find my thinking instructive.
Like everybody, I have opinions about the world, and in these contentious times, it’s very tempting to share them. Everyone else is, and I talk prettier than many. Why not join the fray? Ooh, ooh, you’re discussing politics, or climate change, or guns? I can do that too!
I drafted three different posts on things political. One even got into my WordPress dashboard, until I deleted it.
Truth is, I just don’t want to be a public intellectual.
It feels irresponsible to say this. In the face of the great activists of the past, and today’s popular writers who still manage worthy columns (or at least snarky tweets) – and often get slagged by some fans for voicing opinions they don’t like – it seems weak to say, nah, I’m out.
I’m out. While it might feel good to get something off my chest, people aren’t waiting around to hear what I have to say about today’s crisis. Or, if people are, they don’t just want it once. If I start down that road, I have to stick with it, have to make it a bigger part of my life and thought.
Perhaps this would be virtuous, but it wouldn’t be singular. Many good people already discuss the state of the world, plainly and well, after actually investigating it and reporting on it. If I want to change the world in favor of my political beliefs, I’m better off writing checks.
Or, writing novels.
Not that I’m going to be ripping tales from today’s headlines. That’s not my thing. More to the point, the political power of good fiction is often indirect. Fiction can say complicated things to culture, often better than it says simple ones. There are political ideas in my novel The Demon in Business Class, but they’re neither immediate nor partisan.
The “messy ground where the worldly meets the divine,” as my back-cover text promises, is a place in the mind. My characters in their big world might inform your opinions about tomorrow’s crisis, whatever it is, but only by example and analogy.
That’s my contribution. We’ll see if it’s enough, over time.
Blame the English teachers at those fine expensive schools, trying desperately to engage their bored charges with a play about reckless youth. If only the chattering classes had been taught how to read Hamlet properly, they might have better understood this year’s presidential primaries.
Let’s do a Republican Hamlet. Best thing is, you don’t have to change a single line. Continue reading →
I have wagered with my wife that the 2016 US major-party presidential nominees will be Trump and Clinton. I don’t regret my choices after the Iowa Caucus. I understand the power of story.
On the Democratic side, one story seems better — a dark horse, vastly more leftist than anything we’ve seen in decades, going from obscurity to near-parity despite the machinations of party bosses. But Sanders is white, old, and male, and he’s been an obscure senator since before his most ardent fans were sperm. So far the main “machinations” are the Democrats choosing crappy viewing times for debates. Sanders didn’t win on good turf for him, and certainly didn’t trounce. As a tale of a man having a long-awaited moment, he’s heartwarming; but in this race he is an Obama sequel, and at that he is weak.
Clinton started as a sure thing, a near-coronation, just like last time. Clinton got in a fight for her life, just like last time — and narrowly won on bad turf for her. Now, a loss in New Hampshire will only keep the audience more engaged. Sanders failed to get a come-from-behind victory; Clinton is living a come-from-behind life.
For the Republicans, the best story is not when a man works incredibly hard convincing his own most supportive base to give him a squeaker of a win. Cruz has the kind of petty early victory racked up by the loser in a romantic comedy. No one wants that guy to win.
For Rubio, being the newest bottle of old wine is not a story at all. He’s won nothing yet, since the other establishment candidates not only haven’t dropped out, but are now turning their fire on him. So what is Rubio’s story? Alas, it’s Night of the Living Dead, where a man survives zombies inside and out, but dies anyway when he is mistaken for one. (Hey, at least he’s not Jeb Bush, the Chad Vader of 2016).
Which leaves us with a wealthy powerful man committed to protecting his country, who survives his first comeuppance, bloodied but unbowed, keeping the faith that his put-upon supporters always had despite the mockery of the elites, until he wins the naysayers over. That’s a black hole of narrative gravity, the ultimate Frank Capra film: It’s A Wonderful Life To Be Donald Trump.
You can’t fight the power of story. I will win that $1 and put it toward a new novel.
Among the characters in my new novel is a collective of former package-delivery drones that, after a war, evolved themselves into a taxi service for their damaged city.
From the earliest drafts, I saw them as small flying saucers, with only a central trunk/harness to carry goods or a seated cross-legged person. It took a little time before I saw the plot and character possibilities of robots without hands or appendages. It meant that they had continued to evolve themselves to depend on people, both as customers and even as mechanics, like Thomas the Tank Engine.
I also gave them a limited vocabulary of green and red lights, suitable for bargaining over fares, but akin to the radiation-wounded Christopher Pike on old Star Trek. This made for a stranger, more labored interaction, but one familiar to anyone who has set a digital device.
It also made it easier for the taxibots credibly to be taken for granted by the people around them while they — well, you’ll read it one day. 🙂
This is a less common take on manufactured beings. Continue reading →
Thanks to Fareed Zakaria for his recent column calling out the recent obsession with STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I urge its wide readership.
The issue is not STEM, of course, but obsession — and it’s not really obsession, in the end, but the lazy desire for a panacea. Wouldn’t it be great to think that we could just do one kind of studying to be successful? And we could cut school funding too!
The world doesn’t work that way, alas. Defunding arts and humanities education will not make us a nation of successful technocrats. It will make us poorer in spirit, which will make us poorer in pocket, and make our culture harder to sustain. Without language, music, and art, people literally can’t communicate, explain, teach, and inspire.
It’s that last one which is hardest to quantify, least utilitarian, but most vital. Life is not easy, and even the most successful of us have days on end of meticulous tedium. Most people are hard pressed to give a damn about anything over time if their lives are not enriched by whimsy and beauty – not merely by consuming it, but by engaging with it, in the way one only can with understanding and training. Even Mr. Spock liked to jam with a band.
The stem is vitally important to the plant, but so is the flower. They are parts of a common purpose. Things can survive if they are stunted, but they can’t flourish or evolve. Lose sight of that, and we lose.
Esteemed cosmologist, and my old friend, Andrew Jaffe just posted a quick retort on his blog to a long essay by philosopher John Gray. Gray has an objection to the strident challenging tone of modern atheist thought-leaders like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.
I am not the scientist Andrew Jaffe is, and I was hopeful that Gray’s essay was something endearing and woolly, a plea for magic in our contemplative moments. Some time ago I began having issues with my atheism, a matter of personal feeling about this great universe. I’m not sure even now if I am proud or sheepish about it, but it is what it is – I am a woolly atheist.
Gray’s objections alas are very different, and worrisome. Supposedly Gray is discussing why militant religion is in resurgence, but Gray – himself a self-professed atheist – really writes to vilify and blame, cheekily calling the New Atheists “missionary” and “evangelical,” and less cheekily comparing them to the pseudo-scientists who justified Nazi and Soviet genocides.
It took a while for me to understand: John Gray has Stockholm syndrome. He’s been living in a culture that has been deferential to the religious for a very long time, and he can’t see a way past that.
Modern atheists are revolutionaries, not missionaries, and this is their revolution: to insist that in the modern world — where we fly without feathered wings, talk across distances without magic crystals, kill far-away enemies without thunderbolts and stop epidemics without human sacrifices — religion must now justify the exalted place it demands in the making of public policy and education. Continue reading →
You are driving, and almost out of gas, but you have two passengers who both need a ride. One fell at a construction site and has a steel bar through her chest. The other needs to quit smoking or she will develop emphysema in thirty years. With your limited resources, is it better to go the emergency room, or the late-night drugstore which sells nicotine patches?
Of course you go to the emergency room. But of course, this is a false choice.
In this spirit, I want to take on the nonsense about climate-change spouted last Friday by a reactionary writer named Bret Stephens, on the political affairs talk show Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher mentioned a study by scientist James Lawrence Powell showing that in almost eleven thousand scientific studies of climate change, only two studies denied it was caused by human activity. Stephens answered Maher’s challenge thus: Continue reading →
Almost fifty years ago, Stewart Brand wrote in the Whole Earth Catalog that we were as gods and that we might as well get good at it.
At roughly the same time, George Romero made Night of the Living Dead.
Guess which one inspires our culture today?
Fifty years from now, the zombie might have the quaintness of little green men, but for now, they are everywhere. Newt Gingrich observed some time ago that for better or worse, the Earth is about human beings now. The zombie is our reflexive response to the disgust this idea rightly inspires: a fear our modern world is a fragile thing that fights nature, enabling concentrations of power that persist when they should rightly decline. The zombie says that we are Greek gods, petty and short-sighted, bad gods. Fifty years ago, our lone Gnostic writer Philip K Dick wrote pulps; today his work still inspires movies.
Perhaps we should be more optimistic. Last weekend I attended Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s inaugural Zombie Workshop, to kick off their spring 2015 satire Zombie the American. Along with zombie movement explorations (we form herds so quickly when we pretend to be dead) and hilarious script scenes, the theater hosted a discussion of “zombie economics” with the law professor Ilya Somin. Continue reading →
My writing group noted that my new story, though a different setting, is also a post-apolcyalypse tale, or at least post-disaster. One colleague included my novel in that theme, even though in my novel things are good, but about to get worse. It’s pre-apocalyptic, she said.
Something in that. My faith is that humanity will persist, but a lot of bad things are going to happen. By the standards of the past they already have. Like my mentor Philip K Dick, I’m less pinpointing details of the great shift, just exploring scenes after upheaval, where people have adapted to far different norms of environment and behavior. I no doubt absorbed this from my family history, for my parents fled war and Soviet occupation, and my own late 20th century life, where we took on huge social changes, and where the rest of the world changed vastly more. I greatly admire writers like Jim Shepard and Harlan Ellison, who change up place and time each story yet keep consistent in their approach and style.
Perhaps I’ll be more sensitive to this strain of pre-apocalyptic. I hope it will give me a way to glide across genre. I would enjoy writing historical. Continue reading →
A short note, for those who read my last post: I made my goal, reducing my novel 10.2% down to 124,400 words. Not merely a slimming — at least ten passages, or one every 15,000 words, needed a complete rewrite just to make sense, and in some cases had to grow. It was a grueling process, and I was exhausted for several days after. But it’s done.
Russia haunts my novel. I say haunts because I only gave it a short nod, but it wound up reappearing, unintentionally but naturally, in surprising ways.
My earliest inspiration, my reassurance that I could use fantasy to describe the heart of a real people, was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a satiric romp in which the Devil holds a grand ball in the heart of an atheistic society. Now it is viewed by those who lived under communism as a true document, a history of the soul’s sadness in those times. If only I could find a way to tell my times through that same lens, I thought, and my story was born.
I only meant to use Russia in my novel as a light on my character Gabriel — on his rigidity, his desire for order and clarity, his deep angry passion; his refusal to drink alcohol, forbidding himself the only Serenity Prayer that Russians allow; that Gabriel learned Russian at birth, educated by Cold Warriors for the world they expected to continue until Armageddon — until the Wall fell, making Gabriel and his Russian know-how into a thirteen-year-old buggy-whip.
But Russia kept returning, in scenes comic and topical. Of course an East German of Gabriel’s generation would speak better Russian than English, allowing a secret language to the security guards of Eurocentric technocracy. Of course new Silovik money would seek the status markers of golfing and Scotch whisky. But why my immortal smoked Russian cigarettes, why a Haitian loa told a Pushkin joke, why Gabriel’s mother found happiness through a different Pushkin joke — ask my muse. I can see the connections in retrospect, and credit my unconscious with wisdom. But maybe in the great Immateria where stories are born, Russia bullied my muse, as if offended by (or sniffing opportunity in) my casual usage. So you want a taste? Russia said menacingly. That makes it my pie.
I think it’s saying the same to the whole world right now. Continue reading →