Living in a World of Magical Thinkers

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It’s Easter weekend, as the surfeit of chocolate and bunny imagery in store fronts attested to yesterday–and also the heavy-handed Christian parade running down King St., Waterloo, midday. “God Exists!”, “Jesus Loves You!”, and a host of more didactic banners about Christ’s tomb and eternal life were held high by members of a large throng of young families, with a few elders walking steadily in their midst while a marching band played on. Many participants were smiling. Others looked preoccupied.

I was on lunch break from one of my part-time jobs, reading from a collection of short stories centred around the lives of church members in a shrinking Anglican congregation. I’d picked up the collection on recommendation from a coworker, but all the while I was reading, I caught myself musing over how little any of the characters seemed to harbour genuine religious beliefs. In one story, the rector, after an interview where he evades a question about belief, makes confession to a sweater he stole. In another, an old man realizes he’s always had more of an emotional connection to a long-lost war buddy than to his wife of sixty years. In another still, a younger woman is too preoccupied with an ovarian condition to make much of the dust-to-dust rhetoric of Ash Wednesday. And then I heard the Christian parade’s marching band, and looked up, and found myself torn between two competing views of the world: the sneaking suspicion that most Christians don’t actually believe in a god, but simply use the language therein to navigate the human world; and the wonder that so many of my fellow human beings might actually be believers in the fantastical–that is to say, “magical thinkers”.

I’m not absent an imagination myself, of course. No writer would ever admit to such a mental gap, and I do thoroughly enjoy exploring what-ifs–a useful pastime for any sentient species attempting to anticipate future problems and opportunities. Nor do I believe it is always easy to differentiate between magic and the mundane: In a first-year class I TA’ed for last fall, for instance, dragons existed in Beowulf, and Beowulf was presented to the class as a kind of historical document; ergo (with no small thanks, I suspect, to recent HBO programming), many students discovered that they had passively believed dragons to have existed in the real world–just in another age.

The difference that makes for magical thinkers, I would therefore argue, is the active maintenance of a set of beliefs that would not otherwise accord with one’s day-to-day experiences within the world–beliefs, that is, for which the narrativizing of other realms, other sensory input, and other explanations must be almost incessant. If one’s car is barely functioning because the gas tank seems to be at zero, and then it manages a last gasp–enough to get you to the gas station, say–then this is a set of events for which mundane explanations exist. However, if one adds in a single factor–the assertion that one prayed to their god when they saw the needle at “zero”–then suddenly these facts take on a magical dimension, and one can narrativize the last gasp in the tank as a god’s “answer” to their prayer.

(Nor do I choose this story lightly; in my time as an undergraduate, I met many people who fervently asserted their belief that a god was responsible for their car starting in poor weather conditions, or their ability to pass a given test, or the discovery of a much-needed fiver in their coat pocket.)

In some ways, then, this fascination with the possibility that I live in a world with so many “magical thinkers” necessarily plays into my answering doubt about how many people “really” believe in such things, and I have to be careful not to let incredulity that someone might think a god planted a fiver in their coat pocket entirely skew my thinking towards this skeptical end.

That said, I often find myself doubting whether most people who identify as theists (friends and family included–people whose word I would normally take at face value) actually believe in a god, or an afterlife, or any of the fantastical notions that go with both concepts. Rather, it strikes me that many recognize the whole kit-and-caboodle as a social vocabulary they were given as children, and as a useful framework for more easily defending all manner of authority-claims as adults.

It’s not so much, say, that almost half of Americans do not understand evolution (as a surface reading of the most notorious recent survey would have us believe); it might simply be that when asked whether human beings evolved from other species with or without the involvement of a god, Americans recognize what checking any of those boxes would mean–for their politics and their general sense of communal identity–and side with their preexisting allegiances over what they may or may not understand to be more empirically accurate.

This is not to say that I suspect all theists maintain a claim to their beliefs on purely sociopolitical or communal grounds. I do not doubt the existence of credulous people–folk, for example, who hear tell of demons and angels in the Christian canon, and thereafter expect the presence of demons and angels in the world at large. It’s simply that my experiences with a range of religiously-identified people leaves me feeling this number is far smaller than made out by North American media.

In my neighbourhood, for instance, I am surrounded by what I call “street religion”–a form of orally-disseminated Christian faith practised by the hurting members of a marginalized socioeconomic class, many who rely on the social services along and around my street for food, shelter, and a safe place to come down from various substance abuse situations. These folk narrate religious beliefs from often incredibly wobbly understandings of Biblical texts they haven’t personally read–but they do so quite blatantly for practical benefit: as a vocabulary by which to perform rehabilitation for themselves and others, to gain acceptance and favour within their human communities, and to structure the stories of their lives to date in some way that might give them hope of excuse and forgiveness for past trespass.

On a few occasions now (since I’m careful not to identify as an atheist around religiously-identified people who are so clearly, immediately in pain), I’ve had the opportunity to “test” whether religious language is a kind of narrative shorthand more than an expression of genuine belief. In my experience, all it takes is framing conversation in a humanist, rather than a supernatural light, and one sees how readily the narratives change from praising the Christian god to reflecting on all the human beings who’ve helped a given person overcome their circumstances. In other words, the urge to narrate oneself out of a history of pain and past trespass might be universal, but I’ve found that the vocabulary people use to do so is quite clearly context-specific.

Nor do I think one needs to be in such an immediately vulnerable position for faith to emerge as a practical adaptation. After all, the dominant narrative of de-conversion from Abrahamic faiths seems to involve recognizing how one’s human community reinforced a certain vernacular and behaviour set all throughout one’s childhood, and how eventually one realizes they’ve simply been playing along (credulously, even!) for years. Adults, too, routinely use the language of religiosity as communal shorthand–for currying political favour, soliciting personal donations, evading repercussions for wrongdoing, and constructing “in” and “out” groups within society at large.

But while there is a strong case to be made (I would argue) for fewer people genuinely believing in a god or afterlife than the raw number of self-identified religious persons might suggest, magical thinking is by no means the provenance solely of such faiths. To properly encompass all the belief-sets that require relentless human narration to be sustained above and beyond day-to-day experience sets, one would have to include a host of “New Age” notions (including belief in a universal consciousness, or karma, or the efficacy of homeopathic treatments above the level of a placebo, or that one can will the universe a given way by thought alone, or other psychic powers, or ghosts, or reincarnation) and a few other notions that come to us as a direct result of our conviction that we are mostly free agents in the universe, entirely capable of writing our own destinies.

Indeed, even just trying to list all the ways in which human narration sustains belief sets that would otherwise exist in tension with our day-to-day experiences leaves me open to the possibility that any human who narrates is either a magical thinker, or someone who understands the social benefit of performing as if they were. What a world ours then becomes.

I touched on this concept in a short story I posted at the beginning of the year (“Rhoda’s Monsters”), but despite almost a lifetime of reading, inquisitiveness, and personal narration, I still feel ill-equipped to reflect in full on the implications of a world so full of storytellers, most of whom spend most of their narrative potential on stories that are at once very old and very much in tension with so much of the world around us. My intended dissertation, even, addresses the ways in which even science writing (in particular, science writing of the nineteenth century, a time of tremendous ideological upheaval) is always narrated, and in consequence beholden (for all its empirical data) to the underlying figurative language, rhetorical traditions, and cultural narratives that surround and precede any given work therein.

Even my ambivalence, though, is an old one–Hume’s notion of the Is versus the Ought writ large: If the world is filled with narrators (conscious and self-conscious alike), does that mean we ought to glorify narration? Do we even have a choice in the matter, when the great majority of us were born and raised into communities of public talkers, thinkers, and incessant debate?

It might seem strange for a self-identified writer, English literature scholar, and teacher to distrust the exaltation of narration, but on days like today, when some of the more magical narratives that dominate my culture are on such overt display, I find that my aforementioned tension–between skepticism about the extent of magical thinking in the world, and fascination with its existence at all–is predicated on a much deeper set of questions:

Do we know how often we’re telling stories–to ourselves and to others–every waking day? Do we know the implications of those stories–whom they help and whom they hinder? Would we change them if we did? Could we, if we wanted to? Are these stories even ours, to do with as we will? And if we could, and if they are, what is the better balance between overarching social narratives and the ones guiding individual lives? Or between stories more and less at odds with our everyday experience of the world?

Do any of us have these answers yet?

Would we know how to narrate them, if we did?

I look out on Easter Sunday in my city–church bells ringing, streets sparse, stores closed, and children in thousands of households doubtless cataloguing their egg-hunt loot. The world so thick with human stories, it’s a wonder our capacity for narration isn’t fantasy enough.

Brave Old Worlds — A European Short-Fiction Sampler

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Best European Fiction 2014
Drago Jančar / Aleksandar Hemon
Dalkey Archive Press

I have a weakness for this series, which every year reminds me what range of storytelling strategies still exists, despite trends in North American literature towards tales crafted by committee, which routinely leave unscathed all our culture’s unspoken, but no-less-sacred cows.

This is not to say that I consider North American literature inferior, but I do tire of the same beats and tropes and affinities replayed in story after story: the disaffected urban, middle-class, mid-life narrative that explores minor moments of confusion and embarrassment between partners real or imagined while foreign events or regional histories play out in the margins; the late-20s bildungsroman where protagonists try to find meaning in their circumstances, their personal actions ever-justified by heavily telegraphed backstories and other forms of self-conscious, please-excuse-my-characters interiority; the narrative staged around friends, families, or other close communities that presents one Strange Shared Circumstance as a site of capital-W Wonder, its symbolism approaching but never quite owning up to deeper sociopolitical commentary.

To read the authors’ list in back of this volume, in contrast, is to discover a host of European writers absent MFAs–PhDs of various national literatures, perhaps, but also many who simply wrote, and saw success both early and often in their careers. Outside North America’s finishing schools for creativity, a wilder sort of prose emerges, and if these 28 stories from Belarus to Wales (and 26 alphabetical points in-between) share any stylistic features, they might include the following: a fearlessness with the absurdity and spontaneity of death and other life-altering transformations; an indifference to holding strict divisions between fiction and essay (political, philosophical, or otherwise hypothetical); and a distinct comfort with brevity and sparseness, even if that means holding a host of characters in tension without ever inviting the reader inside their heads, or implying that sympathy with one’s protagonists is the essential point of writing stories.

The result is work where unpredictability proves the status quo: where an estranged male person is as likely to have sexual congress with a trapped deer as with an old woman in a nearly abandoned town; or to interrupt a once-dead woman trying to get a refrigerator tan before everything in the room they share is drowned in rising tides of blood (Ukraine’s “Dead Darling”, by Yuriy Tarnawsky–particularly chilling to read in light of recent world events).

Even then, shock-value transitions aren’t the point. In Montenegro’s “The New Testament”, by Lena Ruth Stefanović, a middling security guard is described at leisure for a few pages, then dies abruptly and within a paragraph becomes a religious martyr. Similarly, in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Zec”, by Elvis Hadzic, an idle boy imagines himself a ladybug, transforms into the stuff of fairy tales, appears and lives out a looping existence on Broadway, haunted by Hamlet and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, then returns to discover himself murdered in the orchard of his youth–the story’s parting note reading: To the victims of the Srebrenica massacre…in remembrance, with love. In these as in other stories in the collection, the absurdist turn doesn’t lie within the narrative so much as without–in the ever-fragmented, surreal-realist stories that haunt Europe’s everyday history.

Granted, we get flickers of this kind of style in our films and literature, too–the essay-stories of David Foster Wallace; the techno-consumerist minimalism of Tao Lin–but when Quentin Tarantino, say, orchestrates a meaningful conversation ended abruptly by mass murder, followed by the murderers waxing poetic until they in turn are killed in an instant, such narrative beats are striking precisely because of their rarity in North America, where our stories cling with more frequent abandon to either a search for meaning or a collective mourning and disillusionment when we find that there is none. European literature, by and far, already knows that there is none, and therefore narrates in its absence, leaning on the unreal and the impossible because hierarchies of plausibility have nothing to do with literature’s purpose in a world as bizarre as ours.

To this end, the collection holds stories like Belgium’s “The Man in the Yellow Parka”, by Thierry Horguelin, where the protagonist’s compulsive viewing of late-night TV leads him to realize that a man once walked into a mediocre crime show set and became trapped there, living out a wretched (and ultimately irresolvable) existence on that alternate plane. Or Russia’s “Quiet Feasts”, by Nina Gabrielyan, where every unspoken behaviour and expectation-set between human beings is a universally-memorized article in a Code of Conduct enforced by the Central Psychotron, which has supplanted the need for a precious human organ, “THE THING”. Or Slovenia’s “The Pool”, by Vesna Lemaić, which starts by reminding you, the second-person protagonist, that you are human, and then expounds upon what one might almost call Europe’s answer to John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”, with the former’s pool used to a much more macabre end.

Nor is European literature humourless for all its spontaneity with death and discomfort, and its general familiarity with the grotesque. Two works in particular, Portugal’s “Ten Little Stories”, by Rui Manuel Amaral, and Switzerland’s “Fairy Tales from the World of Publishing”, by Christoph Simon, are collections of short, witty anecdotes–the latter rewriting Grimm’s fairy tales so that the principal actors are all members of the publishing industry; the former using the strangeness of our bodies to spin ten silly tales. I’ll leave off, then, with one such bit of narrative banter, which certainly goes a way to exemplifying the whole of this collection. Estranging, sparse, absurd, political, surreal, and abrupt: The best of European literature may seem bizarre to readers of North American fiction, but there is no denying that it just as comprehensively describes our world.

Dioptrics

There was once a man–let’s call him Anke–who was extremely nearsighted. So nearsighted that if he stretched out his arms he could no longer see his hands. He had only a foggy memory of his feet. It had been quite a long time since he’d seen them. They had quite recently turned into two monstrous fish, and the man was completely unaware of this fact. The fish flailed their fins as he walked–plop, plop, plop–swinging to the right and to the left, trudging along with great difficulty. It was a spectacle quite difficult to describe.

Lacking any knowledge of his extraordinary “feet,” Anke was a happy man. He lead [sic] as peaceful and comfortable an existence as his bulky lenses allowed. One fine day, however, his nearsightedness disappeared in the blink of an eye (that’s how things go). And our man, full of hope, prepared to rediscover the bountiful shapes and forms of the world.

Just then, the infernal fish emerged out of the shadowy depths in all their splendorous horror. Anke didn’t take a single step, didn’t make a single gesture, didn’t even move a muscle. The shock of it had frozen his voice and muscles. Oh, what a terrible sight! There they were, where they had always been, nervously flailing their tails–plop, plop, plop. It was difficult to imagine something that could be more offensive to good taste and decency.

He felt overcome by a very, very profound sense of despondence. His sadness and pallor were pitiable. He even thought more than once that he was going to die of sorrow. But he didn’t.


Translated by Rhett McNeil

The Making-Twee of Violence and Nostalgia

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The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson
Indian Paintbrush / Fox Searchlight

When the credits roll on The Grand Budapest Hotel, Stefan Zweig is named as the writer whose works inspired the 100 previous minutes of drama and absurdist hijinks. Considered one of Europe’s most popular authors during his height in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Zweig wrote works of intrigue and nostalgia, swan-songs for a fading Austrian dynasty, and stories of more individualist, psychological tragedy.

Wes Anderson’s homage is not so direct as to include Zweig himself, but there is an author in this film, introduced first as a dead national hero, then as an old man addressing the camera to explain his creative process, and finally as a younger man (Jude Law) in the act of acquiring the story of the Grand Budapest Hotel from its aged owner (F. Murray Abraham), who must himself look back upon his youth to tell the tale. And yet it is this owner, in his youth as Zero (Tony Revolori), whose age and context best accord with the resonant experiences and narrative interests of Stefan Zweig.

I call attention to this connection because this later owner of the hotel, known best and longest to viewers as a 1930s lobby boy, is quite self-evidently the only non-white character in Anderson’s film, and narrates a story that increasingly involves a fascistic military force, the Zig Zag Division, that we are clearly meant to recognize as the Schutzstaffel, an organization operating under the Nazi party in the years leading up to (and through) World War II.

This shift in the ethnicity of our protagonist is exceedingly clever, if also just as tokenistic, in a film attempting (in the vein of all Anderson’s output) to make “twee” a given, sprawling story of human nature–a story, in this case, that cannot help but stumble through all the horrors of a time and place beset by the signs of impending war and genocide.

Had our protagonist been Jewish, like Zweig, all of Anderson’s familiar directorial strokes–the quaint, toy-like miniatures of architecture central to the plot; the elaborate attention to set and costume design in general; and the moments of whimsical dialogue ever wavering between the grandly poetic and bluntly vulgar–would be overshadowed, in viewers’ eyes, by a long and troubled filmic history of trying to sentimentalize or make comic some of the best-known atrocities against humanity.

But since Zero is brown-skinned-of-ambiguous-South-Asian-origin, Anderson’s usual aesthetics become that much easier to balance against viewer foreknowledge of the story’s brutal narrative backdrop. While Anderson does not shirk from scenes calling attention to Zero’s unstable citizenship and related, racist attitudes of the era, the express absence of Jewish identity from this pre-war climate creates more room to make light of tropes common to interim-period stories of daring and delight, romance and covert enterprise.

Nor is this sleight-of-skin-colour Anderson’s only means of trying to lighten the film’s obvious histories of violence: From ZZ bolts colour-coordinated to match the pink exterior finish on the Grand Budapest Hotel, to the pointedly comedic use of a dead cat, to larger-than-life caricatures of villainy (Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody), to the emergence of American accents in unnatural contexts (Edward Norton) and a routine of repetition-to-the-point-of-absurdity gags, Anderson tries at every narrative turn to offset the grotesque and the violent in his tale with acts of playful reprieve.

Though there are moments when one can imagine Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds as “ships that pass in the night”* both tonally and stylistically (with more than one scene in the former almost a parodic echo of the latter), Anderson’s balancing act between amusement and horror is by far the less stable of the two. Routinely called upon to chuckle at abrupt deaths and murders, whether delivered to us through shocking visuals or a glib turn-of-phrase, Anderson’s viewers will find many unsettling beats not easily forgotten, and the film’s central narrative closes on a particularly sombre note.

At its heart, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of a young lobby boy learning about life and the hotel business from the legendary concierge, M. Gustav (Ralph Fiennes), at a time when a) Gustav’s love for rich older women makes him party to an extravagant murder-and-inheritance plot, b) said plot lands Gustav in prison awhile, necessitating elaborate escape from both the law and a dogged, brutish assassin, and c) continental war is steadily encroaching, bringing with it an end to an era of declining Austrian dynasty itself nostalgic for a cultural heyday with both feet in the grave.

Anderson is thus wise to set his tale deep within multiple frame narratives (another blatant reminder of the distance between his war-haunted plot-line and any “real” histories of the interim period before World War II), and other familiar moves–the tableau-esque cinematography, hyper-affected lines of dialogue, opulent set design, and sprawling cast of Hollywood notables–often cohere well enough to create amusing moments in the plot.

Ultimately, though, the film’s fount of inspiration, Stefan Zweig, committed suicide in 1942, a day after completing his autobiography, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, in affecting similar intrusions of horrific violence upon all attempts at the pleasantly twee, never quite sustains itself as the usual, larger-than-life Andersonian myth.

Maybe, though, considering how conscious Anderson clearly is of the more daunting European histories underlying his not-so-gentle tale, that tonal collapse is for once precisely the point.

*Poetry is often recited in this film, and relied upon–along with other oral and behavioural signifiers of European civility–as build-up for far too many punchlines that simply consist of the concierge, M. Gustav, switching abruptly from elevated speech to vulgarity in word or act.

Acceptance at Clarkesworld, and Updates

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It’s been a strange year. To say that I’ve been hard on myself might be an understatement, but I’ve been struggling for a very long time on my own, with really only a few online outlets “speaking to the void” as safe havens to narrate the worst of it, and I already have a pretty strong sense of personal responsibility even at the best of times.

I’ve had a lot of incredibly kind readers, though, and quite a few “fellow-travellers” have emerged from the cracks in a show of solidarity. What a terribly hurting world ours can be–but what strength can nonetheless be drawn by the fact that so many of us are struggling together in it.

With this knowledge in mind, I’ve been working through a very busy term–three part-time jobs, myriad doctoral studies obligations, and twice-weekly appointments at a program that’s been helping me (hopefully) get more of a handle on my bipolar disorder–in the hopes of seeing routines of fiction writing naturally reassert themselves over time.

Indeed, I have a lot of catching up to do on the submissions front, but with the happy news that Clarkesworld will be publishing a story of mine in May, I have all the more incentive to keep forging ahead. “A Gift in Time” was started in September, after sitting awhile with a growing sense of futility, and seeing where that rather universal feeling would take me in the world of speculative fiction; it’s the “upbeat” tale of a dude who by sheer will alone can acquire anything–a lost Murnau film, a complete copy of Beowulf–except that which his heart most desires.

I sincerely hope that in the coming months I can focus other such feelings (ideally not all negative, either!) into stories capable of resonating with wider experiences of the human condition. At present I’m working on a science fiction number set in the eighteenth century, as my uncertainty about being able to pull off historical work finally begins to ebb. After that, it’s anyone’s guess (as I’m sure any writer who reads this blog knows to be true for him- or herself as well) and on that note I’d like to extend my best wishes to the whole lot of you:

May your work this year bring you much personal joy and public success!

On Doing Harm

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Halfway through the third episode of HBO’s True Detective, Rust Cohle, a detective with as bleak and bare-bones a worldview as they come, circles a shuddering, sniffling, pock-marked sex offender in an interrogation room, and tells him what he wants to hear.

“You’re not bad,” says Rust. “It’s not you. There’s a weight, and it’s got its fishhooks in your heart and your soul. Now, what you did is not your fault. It’s not. You was drug to the bottom by that same weight, the same weight that won’t let you get along with a job, the same weight that won’t let you get along at school. [...] I know these things, Chris.”

Chris agrees. “I’m weak,” he says, through hiccoughed sobs. “I’m sick.”

Rust then goes for the figurative kill. He latches onto the rhetoric of the big-tent-revivalist preacher, reassuring Chris that he was made this way, dangling the promise of grace before him, then reminding him that if he wants salvation, he must ask for forgiveness first. Chris, still trembling, still snivelling, desperately accepts. “I do, I do. I want it. I want it. [...] Please–please tell me what to say. I want to confess. I want to confess.”

Rust turns away, shaking his head at his partner; they have the wrong man for the case at hand, but for neither is this new–the hunger in broken people for a story that can absolve them of themselves, their past offences, and offer a light at the end of the tunnel. A promise that their lives can change.

For the last two months I’ve been working on my own narrative of change: in particular, the hope that through a specific course of medication and very close short-term monitoring I can shake self-destructive and unmanageable routines that have limited my life for years. Years of not trusting myself. Years of cutting-and-running from activities I loved, people I cared for, and goals I wanted to achieve before I did harm to myself and/or others.

The hard part, though, is remembering that this narrative of change absolves me of nothing. Even if it works, even if it sustains in me a calmness and coherence that years of trying to manage bipolar disorder on my own could never, ever approach, I remain responsible for a series of actions during my last, severely anxious, fearful, and depressed episode that have done irreparable damage. Just as the promise of religious salvation is a false hope that millions of people turn to when their guilt and grief seems unbearable, so too can a claim of medical causation become an evangelical narrative in the hands of people desperate to rationalize (and so excuse) their lives to date.

“I know I did harm,” the former might say, “but that was before I found Jesus!”

“I know I did harm,” the latter might say, “but that was before I started treatment!”

This balancing act is, of course, difficult, because I want at once to be a rational figure but also to acknowledge (and attempt to treat) the biological source for a great deal of unavoidably irrational conduct. Even now I can’t imagine myself making different choices at any juncture during the period in which I did so much harm–not with the information I had on hand at the time, not with the nervous, severely isolated state I was in, and not with the various, extreme reactions of other people I encountered along the way.

But even in this deterministic light, I remain responsible for what followed from my actions, if only because others, due to their own biological determinacy, cannot help but react by holding me responsible for them. And that’s a profoundly strange feeling to have to learn to accept: the multiple-bodied problem of doing harm without realistic hope of catharsis.

This problem is not new to me, of course: Last year, as my posting record here absolutely attests to, I tried many times over to narrate my way out of a suicidal state. I was exhausted; the colour had drained from my life the prior winter, and I was rapid-cycling on a near-weekly basis between manic and depressive phases. I even knew what the triggers were–my extreme financial instability, the deep and ongoing familial issues, and the persons elsewhere in my life who were exploiting both my sympathy and my isolation–but knowledge alone could not change a thing ‘upstairs’.

The situation was so insane (literally; I do not contest having struggled poorly with these mental health concerns) that when, last May, someone asked for my assistance for a period of time, I was glad to give it in the moment–then spent many a long night thereafter wondering how on earth I was still going to pull off killing myself at the time I’d been planning for–namely, during my “move” out of terrible living conditions. I reconciled the matter by deciding to stay alive as long as I was needed in this new capacity–which proved to be until August, and so the middle of it found me packing and writing letters and otherwise wholeheartedly readying to end it all.

Guilt over my nephews went a long way to stopping me then. Worrying that the person I’d assisted would feel some measure of guilt of their own helped, too. Ultimately, though, I overcame the compulsion when I told someone else what I was planning to do; then the anticipatory guilt of putting that person in a terrible position if I followed through soon after tided me over until the school term began, at which point all my responsibilities to fellow academics left me with no opportunity for the next few months to break away.

Only when the winter break rolled around did I have to worry that I wouldn’t be able to control myself again–and I couldn’t. I didn’t. I spent weeks on end alone and pacing my apartment, planning and preparing to bring the exhaustion I’d been struggling with all year to what felt to me then as its long overdue end. In the process, I read everything around me as proof-positive that nothing was special in my life, that everything I cared about was ruined or headed for ruination, and that every articulated feeling to the contrary, from anyone I knew, was nothing more than a fear- or ignorance-based lie.

Insane. Yes, I know. I well and truly needed help, and while I sought it out at the beginning of the new year, I was only entered into an outpatient program (equivalent to hospitalization, but striving for far more human dignity) on January 27. That meant three-and-a-half more weeks of trying to control my impulses on my own, which I did only by putting myself to bed the moment I wasn’t needed at any of my three part-time jobs. I spent most of that month afraid of being conscious and alone. The rest of the time I did harm.

I won’t narrate the precise details of that harm–not just because its content isn’t pertinent to the topic of this post, but also because the incessant desire to narrate (myself, my reasoning, my ongoing perceptions of how everything stood and why I had done X, not Y) was the largest contributing factor to the harm I caused. Like a broken record, I could not stop worrying, could not stop pacing and thinking and insisting upon a given series of events. I didn’t even want to be in the world anymore, and yet, while I was still here, I needed to be believed. I needed to be understood.

I, I, I. Me, me, me.

In a way, I’m still doing it now.

Many years ago, though, I learned what is possibly one of the most important life lessons available to a body striving for full maturity: Your personal narrative–no matter how fervently you might hold it to be true–is merely one of many, and competing narratives are routinely going to be valued above your own. The question then becomes, which is more important: being seen as right, or remaining part of the unconvinced person’s life?

Sometimes the choice is very hard. In my early twenties, most of my friends were male due to most of my interests skewing more to that demographic, and unfortunately that meant when friends-of-friends sexually harassed me or otherwise acted in a predatory fashion during or right after group events centred around these shared interests, I had to decide after each incident whether I wanted to see how much my friends preferred risking my safety to having to tell a bro that his actions were unacceptable. More often than not, these situations were treated as he-said/she-said concerns, and since I was the one stirring the pot by complaining, they usually didn’t go well for me.

Other situations are more complex. I have an ex, for instance, with whom I am surprisingly close, despite how much harm we did to one another years back, and I appreciate his friendship in large part because I know what his narrative of me at my worst is. Other people may (out of a sense of injury, legitimate or otherwise) accuse me of being and doing many horrible things, but so long as I know there’s at least one competing narrative of what my worst actually looks like (and what it does not), its mere existence frees me from taking the most hurtful accusations from others as face-value truths.

Nonetheless, some negative consequences of this lesson can’t be escaped when you’ve done harm (or at least, been perceived by others as having done harm). You don’t always get to explain yourself, for one–and not just to the people you’ve directly harmed, but to their families, too: good people who might very well have extended to you incredible kindnesses in the past, and who doubtless now stand convinced that they extended those kindnesses to the wrong person the whole time. These many cascading and complicated narrative gaps simply have to be accepted as an extension of the harm you’ve done: You are not entitled the opportunity to apologize to anyone.

Mutual acquaintances, too, become a difficult terrain–at least, if you truly don’t wish to do further harm to folks you care about. Not raising the matter with third parties seems the wisest course to avoiding tension, and to keeping friends from feeling like they have to take sides–but how long can such a silence last? The harm you’ve done ripples outward in this sphere, too.

And so there is another narrative that starts to rear its head when all these facts begin to aggregate: the notion that the people you’ve harmed can’t be worth it, if there’s no clear path to reconciliation with them now. This, too, is a form of self-delusion–well-intentioned when posed by others in your life, but every bit as dishonest and entitled as the religious or the medical excuse if you accept it: Even good people–even the best of people–can have had enough. No one is obligated to risk peace of mind a second time on you.

What, then, is left, when so much has been destroyed? It seems to me an instructive coincidence, at the very least, that the harm I’ve done to others emerged at the same time I was doing the most serious harm to myself. After all, years of trying to narrate myself towards better mental health never did suffice, so what besides my own, fool ego ever led me to believe I could lessen the harm done to others by a similar narrative stroke?

The biting irony of all this, perhaps, is that I do feel wise enough to write certain stories now–certain fictions plucked from such difficult truths. Life offers up so many unresolved tensions, unanswered questions, and missed opportunities to make amends, it’s no damned wonder so many people run for the most reassuring fables of forgiveness and transformation they can find. In the coming months, I’ll probably find myself writing plenty of my own, too.

The one key difference (I hope) is that I won’t mistake such stories for something more, or otherwise try to gloss over this whole, terrible mess with self-aggrandizing platitudes. Simply, if awfully put, there is a silence in my life that wasn’t there before, and the greatest error in judgment I could make now is in pretending it doesn’t matter, or that it’s any less a part of who I am. In the midst of my new course of treatment for bipolar disorder, I have to believe there are more joyous, worthwhile moments still to come for me–but only in spite of my convoluted past; not by denying what I have done.

New Year, New Story at Market’s End

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I surprised myself the other day when I realized just how many stories I’ve written that have not and doubtless will not see publication through magazine channels. A short story collection is still a ways off (I have many more sales to achieve before pitching such a thing, and the persistent veil of my winter’s exhaustion to slough off well before that), but it does feel strange to let so many stories moulder after a scant few rejections bring them to market’s end.

Someone recently asked me if I write for myself or for the markets. This is a tricky question; there are times when I try to think what a given magazine would like in the way of a story, and nudge certain ideas in that direction, but other times I write the story first, because it comes to me so strongly in a certain form, with a certain voice. I try to submit these latter stories to specific markets that might take them on the basis of listed publisher parameters, but thus far not one has been accepted (even the latest Analog piece was remodelled after feedback from an editor).

When I reflect on the topic or the tone I can see why, too; even if they’re competently written (as, of course, I hope they are), some of these stories will simply never fit current trends for character type and cultural approach. The story below, “Rhoda’s Monsters”, is one such beast: the tale of a turn-of-the-19th-century twelve-year-old wrangling with Christian theology in a way that brings a touch of real-world magic–for better or for worse–into her interactions with local fossils and fellow human beings. While I’m an atheist / secular humanist myself, it simply is not reasonable to make this protagonist share in my beliefs given her social context, and quite frankly, I would consider myself an exceptionally boring writer if I did.

This does, however, have the consequence of making the story teeter on an uncomfortable cultural line: Is there a place in mainstream fantasy for fiction blatantly about Christianity, without necessarily being Christian fiction or, conversely, a narrative that merely exists to mock belief? I see the occasional historical fantasy negotiating Christian oppressions and related heretical anxieties, but what I’ve read thus far uses the lens of a more decidedly secular present when helping the reader decide whom to root for in the past. Having a protagonist whose views are more complicated–and who, worse, does not get the opportunity to have certain wrong-headed ideas about guilt corrected after a trauma therein–definitely makes this story an odd fit for major magazines of a more optimistic and socially progressive bent.

Nonetheless, this story was a pleasure to write–my first attempt at historical fiction, and my first attempt at mundane fantasy!–so I’d like to share it all the same. I read an interview recently with Ursula K. Le Guin, who was asked why religion features so heavily in her writing when she herself was not raised religious. I laughed at this question, and some silliness that ensued thereafter, but Le Guin hit the nail on the head with her response:

INTERVIEWER

Could it be—I’m going out on a limb here—that this search for a satisfactory or sufficient religion might have influenced your direction as a writer? If none of our extant religions satisfy, in other words, why not invent one yourself?

LE GUIN

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. I’m just not a good candidate for conversion.

To my mind, speculative writers more than any other should be curious about other voices, other perspectives; we’re supposed to challenge cultural norms, even if there nevertheless remain certain narrative conventions that cannot be easily side-stepped for mainstream publication.

Granted, I do still have another short story with religious protagonists out in a submissions queue, where it has sat now for half a year; it was turned down with great articulated reluctance by one publication already for being just a bit too “controversial” for their readership, so I’ll be interested to see if it eventually finds a home at this other, less conventional speculative venue.

Otherwise, I don’t know if more religious characters will pop up in the near future, or if more stories will henceforth involve (light) fantasy or historical contexts. I do know that I like not quite knowing where my writing will take me next. So long as the spirit of exploration remains strong, I feel like a real writer. I dread the days instead when my store of delight and curiosity runs low–and there have been many this past year, so I doubly cherish all the others, if and when they come.

Happy reading, folks–and happy writing, too!

Rhoda’s Monsters

When Rhoda first learned of the infant who had survived a lightning strike the same night, she decided it must have been carelessness on God’s part that took her mother instead, when Anna had only been giving birth a sixth time, and not so much as standing under a hilltop tree during a thunderstorm in the process. This was not the sort of opinion to share with papa, of course, or Reverend Smith when he came by with cane and straw hat in hand, but Rhoda was fond of long walks around the cliffs that connected their little cottage at length to the beach, so along the way she shared such views with the rocks.

There were many on the beach who might have told her a great deal about these rocks, for men and women wandered the shores most mornings in search of stones bearing the pretty impressions of plants, shells, and other creatures that had long since perished in the mud. Some, Rhoda knew, would even sell their findings to gentlemen from larger cities and wealthier countrysides—persons with whole cabinets of labelled specimens, and books of names and figures even labouring men with only a little training in letters might peruse. The rocks themselves were very fine and intriguing to her, too—so many layers of limestone and shale with ragged edges her hands could bump along as she wended through their many twists and turns—but papa did not regard the beachcombers as good companions for a God-fearing girl of two and ten, so what conversation Rhoda managed always had to be done covertly, for in truth she did not mean to break faith with her father’s Word.

For all her good intentions, though, the very notion of conversing with the rocks had come to her only a few months prior, after just such an encounter on the beach. Restless on an overcast morning, with both guardians in town on errands, Rhoda had picked her way toward the seashore and there allowed herself to misinterpret the murmurs of a young man sifting through small stone fragments at the base of the cliffs. It would hardly have done to ignore an adult’s address, so Rhoda, perched atop a great grey rock with hands clasped over her skirt, had announced directly: “Pardon? Were you speaking to me?”

The young man recovered quickly from his surprise, smiling as he peered at the little interloper. The way Rhoda crouched and swayed upon the rocks, any outsider might have taken her at first for a wayward faerie. The young man, by contrast, was more clearly of this world: His overcoat sat neatly folded atop another outcropping, beside a battered pail laden with small stones; his light brown vest was streaked in spots with sand.

“Ah,” he said. “No, little miss—beg your pardon, but I was not.”

“But you were speaking,” she said with a pointed frown.

“Yes, that I was.” The young man caught Rhoda’s arched brow and winked in turn. “To the rocks, I suppose.”

“To the rocks!” Rhoda could not yet manage her voice as an adult might; what she had intended as a note of disapproval only came out as confusion.

“What!” said the young man. “You never talk to the things about you? Not to the trees and the songbirds about all your little secrets?”

“I should think not,” said Rhoda, sliding then from her perch. “Those ought to be told to God, if one’s parents will not do.”

The young man laughed and bowed. “My apologies if I gave offence. But don’t you think God hears them just the same? What are these rocks if not His creation? And if He is truly everywhere—”

“He is everywhere,” Rhoda cut in.

“Since He is everywhere,” the young man amended, “then He must be in these rocks, mustn’t He? How can anything in the whole of Creation be truly empty or dead if He stands at the centre of all things?”

Rhoda made no reply, for she had never heard such an argument before, and did not know how to affect papa’s condemnatory tone for all things not exactly of their church. At her puzzled look the young man added, in a softer voice, “Ours is an age of great wonders, little miss—I’m simply paying them all tribute as I work.”

Not an hour after this exchange, having returned to town for dinner with his mates and a few fine figures of near-genteel womanhood, the young man would forget having spoken at all with this child upon the beach, but his words would haunt Rhoda for the rest of the week. She could see reason in them, certainly, but if they were indeed reasonable, why did her papa not also converse with objects when going about his work—the axe when chopping firewood; the stacks of wicker furniture when he drove them to market? Why was their family’s way of worship and prayer achieved through a building and a book alone?

In church that Sunday, Rhoda studied the pews themselves, and the windows, and the bricks: What was it in this arrangement that the cliffside lacked—and was it in every aspect of the building, or did it solely emerge from the whole? Reverend Smith took to the pulpit in an especially grim mood that day, pinching the bridge of his nose hard before surveying his congregation, as if the former might sharpen his perception of sin in the latter. Rhoda was old enough to understand that his ensuing sermon had been provoked by some incident in the community, but too young to grasp the nature of the incident itself. It was enough, though, for the reverend to speak on temptation and invoke the terrible Fall—Eve’s fall—for in the heat of his words and the energy that rose from the pews to meet them, Rhoda remembered that the world was in fact a cursed and terrible place, filled with suffering and evil because Man had been cast out from the Garden of Eden.

On her way home from service, duly chastened and now frightened by how much her recent thoughts had veered from this sacred theme, Rhoda clung all the tighter to her mother’s arm. In the six-months’ rise of Anna’s belly, and all the memories it invoked of siblings who had come and died before, Rhoda found only further evidence that theirs was indeed a fallen world, and that nothing good could or should be found in it.

“Rhoda, dear, you’re crying,” said Anna, when she felt her daughter’s hot cheek against her arm.

“Yes mama,” said Rhoda, and though she could not look up, she felt her parents’ eyes meet over her Sunday bonnet.

“The good reverend is hard because he must be,” said papa, after a pause. “The world is a hard place, even for those who would only do their duty in it.”

“Robert,” said Anna, softly.

Rhoda’s father cleared his throat, then added: “But you’ve nothing to fear, Rhoda, so long as you do yours.”

Rhoda wanted to be consoled by the sound of papa’s voice, and the sweet warmth of mama’s arm, but when they reached the top of the last hill before their home, she could see the seaside in the distance, under a bright blue sky with tendrils of wispy white clouds rolling through it, and seagulls surging and diving over the shimmering surface of distant waves. She remembered watching sunrises from this height, too, on early morning rides with her father into town; and the breathtaking array of stars that greeted her on the occasional late night back from harvest and winter festivals, a heavy woollen blanket tucked about her legs against the encroaching cold; and mama and papa finding rare occasion then, when she had nearly drowsed to sleep, to sing out the songs of their own youth.

Rhoda remembered folks saying, too, of such splendid sights and sounds, that all were a testament to God’s greatness; that one could see in such precious moments God’s clear imprint upon the Earth. Which was theirs, then: a fallen world, or a world of amazing grace? Were some things good and others evil, and if so, why was it so difficult sometimes to tell them all apart? How, too, could God be everywhere if there was evil in this world? And how could some things be evil anyway? If God could be present in a rock—if God in His omnipresence must be in that rock somehow—then how, for instance, could a rock deceive?

Rhoda lingered on this last question because papa had always spoken of the rocks as deceivers in their own right, but his language always wavered on the matter of agency. Had the Devil put all those fossils in the hillsides—like the giant skeletons in the craggy forest on their property, which papa would never let outsiders know existed? Or were those remnants the work of God Himself—an attempt to test His flock—and if the latter, why, if He so loved the world, would He make it even easier to be damned in a lifetime already filled with threats to one’s salvation? Rhoda had heard papa invoke both causal explanations on different occasions, but neither even explained how such skeletons could be objects of temptation—for as Reverend Smith more often put it, temptation was all about the sins of the flesh. What flesh could ever lust after those old bones?

Answers would not rise readily from her surroundings, or even from the family Bible in its place of honour by papa’s chair. After mama’s death, though, Rhoda watched her papa’s temper and attention turn all the more to the subject of sin within the world—and sin within the nearby rocks above all else. Many a morning she would wake to find him at the window overlooking the path through their property to the cliffside and the seashore below, and if asked how he had slept, he would ever reply, “Poorly, Rhoda, for this world makes a mockery of all my attempts at peace.” To which Rhoda could only suggest that she would start breakfast, then—and so she did, though her hands trembled as she worked.

They visited Anna’s grave often in the weeks to follow, too, and those of the five babes Rhoda had scarcely been given time to call her living kin, but not even these solemn moments seemed to quell her father’s inner fire. Was there life in mama’s body even now, Rhoda wondered as she looked upon the little markers. The surrounding cemetery grass had already yellowed with the lateness of the season, but how could anything ever be truly dead on Earth? Since God was everywhere He must be here as well, in each little grave and all the fronds of decaying grass about them—and yet, to what end, if their souls had long departed?

Whatever questions now haunted her papa’s heart as these did hers, they seemed to burn low and deep and in perfect silence until one afternoon, with winter’s breath flaring from his nostrils as he chopped wood and she stacked the shattered pieces, papa came to a complete halt and stared at the copse of trees where both skeletons still idled in the rocks.

“Right then,” he said at length. “It’s time they went.”

“Papa?”

He did not reply, ducking into the shed instead and bearing a sledgehammer and an empty rucksack on his return.

“Stay here, Rhoda.” But Rhoda barely registered the words over the visible tension, the startling anger in her papa’s gestures, and when she followed he did not repeat himself.

“Papa—” she started, when they reached the clearing where remnants of two spinal columns flanked a narrow walking path. Both skeletons’ outcroppings were banded with rust, and signs of massive, elongated skulls protruded at the far end of the path: here a tooth, there an eye socket, there a heavy jawbone—all fissured, dark, yet oddly smooth to the human touch. At the end closest to Rhoda’s home, backbones extended into tails at least as long as the rest of their bodies, though coiled and twisted in the rock. “Baby Leviathans,” mama had once called them. “Not to be meddled with,” was all papa would ever add.

Now, though, he set down the rucksack and took aim at the nearest tail. “It’s too much, Rhoda. How can I trust that your mother’s at rest when these beasts will not cease their nightly torments? When their very existence makes a mockery of His Word?” With this last and an accompanying moan, papa swung true and fragments of bone and rock dust flew out. Rhoda answered with a piercing cry.

While a monk might take a lifetime of quiet meditation to strike upon a new theological chord, in Rhoda’s sudden, wide-eyed terror at this wanton act of violence, months-long mental churning instantly cohered: Good and evil were merely states in the mind’s own eye, and Man could make a a good thing evil just by thinking on it too long. “Papa!” she cried out. “Papa, it’s you who’s tormenting yourself—not the rocks. Don’t you see you’re only showing God how much power they have over you?”

Rhoda’s father faltered then—startled as much by the fact of his daughter’s speech as by its contents. Then he set his shoulders and hefted the heavy tool again. “How else can I know?” he said sharply. “That she’s still out there—safe, and waiting for me? How, with the Devil spiting me—laughing at me!—from inside its hideous spawn?”

“Oh papa,” said Rhoda, her eyes welling as she reached the limit of her new philosophy. But tears were the more compelling thesis in any case, for her father never could endure them in either wife or daughter with a hardened heart for long. When he heard Rhoda’s shuddering breaths and ragged sobs continue, his arms went slack, and he let the sledgehammer fall. Eventually he knelt and began to pray.

Rhoda came to his side and clasped his callused hand in hers, then pressed her face against his shoulder, where the coarseness of his shirt came to bear the weight of many tears. She had thought to pray as well, but the moment’s revelation was still so fresh upon her that, with imminent danger past, she reeled instead at its implications. If good and evil were not absolutes—if they existed in one’s thoughts and varied there from man to man and moment to moment—then truly the mind of Man was God’s greatest—God’s only!—enemy, for in his mind, Man could create whatever world he chose: A bleak and forsaken one, or a world of great power, and destiny, and hope. Whatever did that mean, though, for his salvation?

The Bible did say that Man was made in His image, after all, but never before had Rhoda thought the act of creation might reach so far. What kind of God would create such a terrible being anyway—one so small and ignorant in so many ways, but filled with such a capacity for good and evil just the same? And how far did man’s creative will extend?

At length, Rhoda’s father stood, and with sledgehammer in hand started limply back. Laden with so many questions, though, Rhoda could not yet bring herself to follow, and so remained with the rucksack, collecting what bone fragments she could along the path. When she studied both fossils in the rocks it occurred to her that by preventing their destruction she had, in a way, given each old beast a new grasp on life. But did either even realize how close they had come to ruin?

“There,” she said, fitting what pieces of tail she could back into their places, and bracing the smallest with surrounding stones. “That’s not so bad, now is it?”

She waited and watched for an answer, but when none came she simply wiped the lingering tears from her eyes and laughed.

“That was silly of me, wasn’t it?” She patted the other skeleton’s spine. “But it would be something, wouldn’t it, if whatever still lives in you would rise up when I wished it? As a kind of debt to be repaid?”

Again, there came no answer—but this time Rhoda only smiled, a faint and tired thing that echoed the new constriction in her chest. By the time she had returned to the cottage, she felt years older and wiser, having reflected along the way on all the different minds exerting their competing wills just in her little town. What a cacophony there must be upon the whole of the Earth, with so many minds at work upon it! Rhoda no longer wondered why so many things were good and bad at once, and why the difference was so hard at times to discern. How could it be otherwise, when some people were so busy willing the world one way, and others pushed just as hard in another?

Rhoda thought of her mama’s world—its kindnesses, its little mercies—and her papa’s: a sober place now overrun with unrelenting grief. Was she the product of both creative wills, or was her will entirely her own? And where was God’s will in all of this—was He in all these competing minds as well? He must be, being everywhere, but what a moral mess His presence made of things. Did He really sanction all this confusion and this strife?

When, in the coming days, papa took to his bed and could not be made to rise, it seemed to Rhoda that God must indeed condone such things, since not everyone perceived the world as she now did—and lacking that perception, how could they ever hope to change it for the better? If papa only knew the power of his will to shape the world, why would he permit himself to become so sick within it? And mama—what of her own powers of creation? Had the sheer exhaustion of her labor been too much? Had she simply lost herself in the birth pains that night, and so given up her precious will to God’s?

Such questions gave way in time to more practical concerns, though their traces still haunted the periphery of Rhoda’s thoughts. With papa ill, and the family annuity only going so far, Rhoda took up as much of papa’s business as she could, attending market days with preserves and homemade wicker crafts, and there, in idle hours, reflecting on the resignation and smallness she so often saw in other adults’ eyes. Rumours, she knew, had started to circulate among the older women in town—that Rhoda spent too much time wandering the forests and the beach alone; that there was something not entirely Christian in her character after Anna’s death; that somehow her errant, roving ways were now keeping her father from getting well. But Rhoda paid the substance of such talk no heed—only wondering what sorts of lives people must live to reach a point where filling the world with gossip seemed the best use of their creative wills. Could they not better serve the world just by listening, as she tried to on all her walks through the forest and cliffside now—whole hours when the very rocks seemed to welcome her into their oldest secrets; whole pristine, snow-capped days when she could almost fancy she heard ancient footfalls and sympathetic whispers in her wake?

Rhoda could not decide if she actually understood these gossipmongers any better now, or if she was simply willing herself to believe she understood—but such minute points of contention, like “Is God in my mind, a part of my mind, or of my mind?”, were so finicky that they only brought on headaches, and so she left them alone as best she could. It was enough, she had to hope, that her own creative efforts moved in the direction of greater understanding, and attempted to sow more hopefulness into her own and papa’s worlds.

She felt she better understood Reverend Smith’s will now, too—for he had visited more often than ever since her father’s illness, sitting by papa’s side and talking quietly of somber, sacred things. Now, when his heavy eyes tracked Rhoda’s movements throughout the little room, she could almost put a name to the pain she saw there, though she could not grasp its implications yet. It was as though the good reverend had run from something a long, long time ago into his current, ministerial attire, but still did not sit well within it. It was no wonder, then, that his rebukes were all turned outward in his Sunday sermons, for Rhoda sensed that he would never bear to look within. But what kind of world could such a man be building? What did it mean if her family’s shepherd so much despised himself?

With papa not getting any better, the reverend began to linger on his visits, too—just long enough to acclimate Rhoda to the topic of his mother, who was apparently growing quite forgetful, and had already been mostly blind for many years. How good it might be for her, Reverend Smith would say, to have a companion—someone to aid her in day-to-day routines. Not just yet, he would always add, but maybe someday soon?

“Papa still needs me,” Rhoda always replied—and more firmly each time the topic arose. “And he’ll need me for a long time yet.”

Three times, the reverend inclined his head in silence at this answer. Three times he then added, after a long pause, “Of course.” But the last time he asked and she answered, the reverend’s silence continued for the remainder of his stay.

A week later, Rhoda came in with the morning’s yield of eggs and milk to find her papa propped up awkwardly in bed, and the reverend praying over him. At Rhoda’s entrance the two men’s glances met, and then papa beckoned for his daughter to come near.

“What is it, papa?” she said, her own gaze passing curiously between them.

“Rhoda,” he said, catching her hand in his and pressing it to his recessed lips. “This is a terrible world I’ve brought you into—for that you must forgive me—but it was always in anticipation of the next, you know.”

“I know,” said Rhoda. Tears welled as papa gave her hand a squeeze.

“Good girl,” he said. “I know you’ve always been—always tried to be a good girl. But still, the world…”

He sighed and sank back. “Papa?” she said.

Reverend Smith helped her father settle, then turned with solemn face to her. “It isn’t considered proper, Rhoda, for a girl to be on her own as much as you’ve been forced to as of late. There has been—I hesitate even to dignify it with mention—corrupting talk of you in town.” Rhoda started, and the reverend placed a hand upon her arm. “Women with unbridled tongues, you understand—people who do not understand that to go against their brother is to go against the one true Law. But—people of this world all the same.”

“Then why not tell them to stop?” said Rhoda, withdrawing to her father’s side. “Why come to me if you know I’ve done no wrong?”

The reverend hesitated. “Because the world is a complicated place, Rhoda. There are your best interests to consider. If you had shelter from the storm—a female companion—”

Papa,” said Rhoda.

“It would only be for a few weeks,” said papa. “Just until I’ve found my strength.”

But Rhoda’s eyes only welled with further tears, and she shook her head, drew her shawl from the hook, and tore out through the kitchen door. Vaguely she heard papa speak, and the reverend reply, “Not to worry—I’ll go.” But Rhoda would not so much as turn to acknowledge Reverend Smith when she heard him behind her on the narrow path, for her tears were now falling too fast for her to care about anything but the ache within her heart.

“Rhoda,” said the reverend.

He spoke now with the kind of voice meant to stop her in her tracks—low, imperious, and absolute—but Rhoda would not be moved, hastening her step into the craggy copse of trees just before the cliffs. All the same, she heard the reverend bridge the gap just before she felt the sharp, lancing blow to her shin—the reverend’s cane flashing into and out of view as she tumbled on the rocky path. Her breath came hard and shallow as she adjusted to the fresh pain in her twisted ankle, bracing on both elbows as she tried to stand.

“Lord forgive me,” said the reverend. He knelt with hands trembling over the injury, Rhoda’s woollen stockings caught up as much in mud as snow. “I meant no harm.”

“I can walk,” said Rhoda, faintly—but when she caught sight of the reverend’s changed expression she did not reach for either outstretched hand. With a terrible acuity brought on by market days and dawning adulthood, she recalled the stories spread of her, and judged at once how little weight her voice would ever be allowed to hold in town.

“It is—a hard thing, Rhoda,” the reverend said, slipping a shoe off, and a stocking. “I was content to wait. I was. But when the Lord worked to bring you to such fragile circumstances, I knew He was speaking to me. Comfort your lamb, He said. Do it now.”

“Please, Reverend—” she started, but when his eyes flicked up and down again she found she could say nothing to allay the hardness there. She turned her gaze then to the rocks, and the trees through which the early morning light seemed now to be swimming. Please, she said to them instead. Please please please.

“At first I wondered at His urgency, for your father still lives and you of course are all a daughter should be to him. But these past few weeks I have seen the greatness of His wisdom pushing me to these necessary ends. The wilfulness, the independence growing in you like disease. Dark signs, Rhoda,” the reverend said. “The makings of a wife who will need much more training to submit, if the impulse is not checked now.”

As the reverend spoke he had one hand wrapped firmly around the twisted ankle; his lesser hand easing off her other shoe. Rhoda shuddered more at the sound of her name upon his lips, and the awful world it strove to consign her to, than at the surrounding winter’s cold upon the rocks. Not his will, she thought, with her heart now wildly beating. My own! My own to build the world!

Over the frantic energy of her newfound fears, and the deafening heat of the reverend’s hand upon her leg, Rhoda could not comprehend at first the snapping of roots and branches all about them, nor the rumbling of big and little rocks alike—while the reverend, in his increasing fervour, had long since shut his surroundings out. When Rhoda sank back to the ground, though—when she craned her neck further along the path, her gaze desperately following the rust lines on either side of the unfolding rocks—the whipping, coiling shadows she saw there suddenly cohered with all the rest. She drew her breath in sharply then, and stilled her body’s trembling to match.

“You must stop now, reverend,” she said with full composure, and a gravity she had never heard from her own lips before. “Now—or never, reverend. Please.”

Yet even as she spoke his hands were finding stronger purchase, and in the gaze bearing down she could see that all his self-loathing had settled now upon her—her body, her breath, her whole life as the singular sin to be resolved by something in his presence, his looming weight. So Rhoda sighed and closed her eyes, giving up a shrug as if on the merest whim. Very well then, she remembered thinking—you were warned—and then, in the terrible rush and roar of things to follow, her world winked promptly out.

*

Everyone in town called the incident a landslip, one chunk of the cliffs dropping suddenly by many meters, and the surrounding forest collapsing in upon itself. Such a shame, they said, for the good reverend had been so soundly swallowed up that his body might not be found for decades yet—but at least he had died in service to his calling, attending to a parishioner’s family in its time of need. And what good fortune, too, Rhoda was so very often told, that she had managed to escape the worst of the land’s collapse herself, and had thereafter been found as quickly as she was—before nightfall, when the cold would have killed her even after everything else she had survived.

Rhoda wanted to reply to these many voices—some that had held nothing but idle, damning words for her in the long weeks prior, yet which now came along with food and amenities for her and papa in their shared convalescence—but she found herself shaking whenever she tried to speak, and took gratefully to the counsel instead that she stay in bed and sleep.

Her sleep was just as fitful, though, for in her fevered dreams as in her waking hours, Rhoda replayed in her mind’s eye the sweep of tail-like shadows she had seen roused by her mental pleading, and the glint of antediluvian features just around the bend in the rusted, ancient rock. For all that the reverend’s actions had repulsed her, and for all she knew her anger justified, a life was still a life, and murder still a blatant breach of the Commandments. Even if Man could make any world he wanted—even if the powers of creation and destruction lay as much within him as with God—Rhoda realized in those haunted nights that this was a power she did not want: a power she no longer trusted herself to use.

Let God bear the sin of making us such easy sinners, she decided one pre-dawn morning, while shivering under a viciously cold sweat. Oh mama, mama! I just don’t want it anymore!

Not long after this entreaty, the fever having at last run its reckless course, Rhoda lapsed into her first uninterrupted sleep since the rescue, and when she awoke that calmness happily followed into the light of day. Her papa, she discovered then, had also begun to rally, and together they regained their strength in the weeks to follow. Rhoda took all these events quite seriously, as signs of an opportunity she had been given to relinquish her terrible power in exchange for inner peace. In quiet gratitude, then, she settled into a humble, diligent, and far more socially engaged routine throughout the next few years—so much so that all the neighbours noticed, and were quick to give the disaster that preceded these changes all the greater praise. The Lord works… and so on, and so forth, they would say.

After coming of age, this milder, meeker Rhoda married a man of modest holdings and mostly unreflective faith, and their life together, when not worn thin by daily practicalities, had its moments of genuine affection. Rhoda had seven babies, too—four surviving infant-hood—but if one were to ask these sweet-faced girls in the flush of their own youth whether their mother had ever seemed to them a woman of great imagination, all four would exchange furtive smiles, then bow and shake their heads—tittering softly at the very notion, even, until a strange silence came upon them equally. Then, one by one, each would begin to insist on all Rhoda’s other, better virtues for their listener’s pleasure—as if some greater willing of compassion, honed perhaps by years of subtler, gentler practice, had moved at last within.

END

The Stories I Tell Myself

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It’s been a strange year. I’ve never been quite so tired of living as often as I have these past 365 days, and I’ve never had to struggle so hard to catch up with my normal life after the routines that come with such exhaustion are finally put aside, one bad spell at a time. I use my diagnosis of “bipolar disorder” when it can be useful in curtailing certain behaviours; this year I’ve definitely been rapid-cycling on a weekly basis, but I’m still not certain that this knowledge has helped me get a handle on the worst of it.

I have also, granted, had some of the most precious days of my life this year. You’d think these would be a strong buffer against the other days, but stress and depression are hardly rational operators–even if I think the stories I’m telling myself at my lowest points are perfectly coherent: That I’m just circling the drain anyway. That I’ve been a terrible friend and nothing will ever feel special again on account of it. That nothing will get better in general and I’m just a coward for not accepting this sooner. That I’m a burden and a fool–the latter in particular for thinking there is any point in continuing to write or read or study or do anything that used to bring me so much joy in the past.

This last bit of rhetoric is especially ironic, because once I’ve slept off the worst of my exhaustion I understand with even greater urgency the importance of telling the right stories, since telling the wrong ones can self-evidently threaten the end of ourselves and others. When I am at my best, I am delighted to be in a position to help navigate stories from our past, to argue for the immediate relevance of certain stories over others, and to try to contribute my own to the age-old human conversation–but when I’m at my worst, my range of viable narratives narrows drastically. It’s exhausting just to move from a place of immense possibility to utter despondency and back again (let alone to be trapped with that despondency for an agonizing while), but I’ve yet to find a way around the incessant cycling, so for now the struggle is just to make the most of the times when I am calmer, with the broadest range of possible stories at my command.

At present, more than a little worn out from a recent string of anxiety attacks, I’m in an uneasy middle ground: not trapped in the usual depressive routines that winnow my sense of possibilities to a minimum, but still too exhausted to regard writing and reading and other pursuits with any real enthusiasm. I had thought to write quite a bit this break, but the mind is simply not willing. Nothing feels good enough. Nothing feels worthwhile. And so it will go, I know, until a burst of renewed optimism takes its place (for a spell).

Far from being the mental boon I had hoped for, too, the recent publication of a story in Analog has been an unexpectedly sore spot for me. Thus far, two general, blogging readers were confused by it (one identified the plot as involving four “prostitutes” on their way to Mars, claiming that the female astronauts seemed to talk in the manner of prostitutes, whatever that means), one general reader more accurately identified the magazine feature article’s topic and called the story a “nice read”, and Lois Tilton of Locus.com both found the prose “unreadable” and seemed dissatisfied with the article’s lack of closure either about the mysterious, ongoing crisis on Mars or how the four en route colonists definitively feel about the media circus surrounding their potentially impending deaths. (Tangent Online still hasn’t posted anything yet.)

Now, poor reviews don’t bother me, but I did quickly realize that the story not being understood (when it wasn’t) was getting under my skin more than it should. So I reflected on why, and it dawned on me that there were many points this year when I truly thought I would not live long enough to see the damned thing in print at all–and that I’d resigned myself to this fact with full confidence that, in this story, I had at least written some of the most important things I wanted to say about the immaturity of our species, the fragility of our greatest hopes and aspirations, and the persistent desire, even amid the most estranging of social narratives, to connect as individuals.

I truly thought, in other words, that it was the best thing I’d ever written (and, in my bleakest moments, the best thing I would ever get to write). Living to see that this story failed for many readers is thus a strangely mixed blessing; in a way, it suggests that I had more confidence in the stories I was telling when I was at my most dire, and that surpassing my narrowest range of narratives necessarily involved a return to the often futile struggle to be understood–both through stories, and more directly, by fellow human beings.

Nevertheless, storytelling is life. I know this with every fibre of my being, in good times and in bad. Wanting to die comes hand-in-hand with utterly losing confidence in my ability to tell or share in more meaningful stories than I have to date, while wanting to live means accepting that I’m still pretty incompetent at both, yet retain the hope that this might someday change.

Wavering between these two states on a weekly basis this year, I did not accomplish all that I desired in 2013. If anything, I spent the bulk of my time mentally drained and unable to get past certain narratives in either my writing or my day-to-day life, and I would indeed be a fool if I were to claim that 2014 will assuredly be different.

In a way, though, recognizing my profound failures to date gives me something to work against–something to try all the harder to resist with my output going forward. In my lowest days I know I will continue to tell myself the bleakest and narrowest stories I have on hand, but in my best days I will also have the opportunity–and therefore the obligation–to make those bleakest stories nigh on inaccessible: to dilute them in a wider, more wonder-filled spectrum for myself and maybe others to lean on in hard times.

This, at least, is the story I’m telling myself tonight. I can only hope tomorrow’s is even better.

And may the same always be true for you.

Scientific Storytelling: Why It Matters How We Write the World

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There’s a part in Genesis meant to explain why many animals have stripes, spots, and related patterns. As in “Just-So” stories from around the world, the tale makes the best use it can of its immediate surroundings to answer a question that indicates a long-standing human thirst for knowledge.

30:37 Then Jacob took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the sticks. 38 He set the sticks that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, 39 the flocks bred in front of the sticks and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. 

Today such an explanation rightly reads as fable, although it was only last year that Alan Turing’s 50-year-old work on repeating patterns in biological systems was definitively evidenced by research into morphogen expression. Such has been the incredible shift in our collective knowledge these past two hundred years especially: We are still learning so much, but the tools now at our disposal are capable of so much more complexity than the ones our ancestors had when looking with equal curiosity upon the world.

The trouble with these tools and their findings, however, is that they do not exist in isolation; they are forever mitigated by the people wielding them. It would not even suffice to say that for every hammer there is a carpenter, because let’s face it: Most anyone can pick up a hammer, and many unskilled persons do. I, for one, am not a scientist, but as a doctoral student of English literature with a focus on the literary forms of nineteenth-century scientific non-fiction, I feel fairly well positioned to observe the importance of narrative in conveying knowledge about the world. When we are careless with our figurative language; when we are not mindful of the style in which we are writing; when we employ rhetorical strategies with no regard for how they impact our arguments, we make a pre-existing gap between various levels of scientific literacy (i.e. between one scientist and her immediate community; between one scientific community and another; between scientific communities in general and non-scientists) that much harder to bridge.

One need only look, for instance, at the “March of Progress” metaphor that still pervades our culture as a go-to representation of evolution. Granted, depicting human evolution as a single, linear progression from primordial fish to modern homo sapiens has great potential for setting up cartoon punchlines, but it has not been an accurate depiction of species evolution for quite some time.

Amusing? Maybe. Accurate? Nope!

Nor is the branch metaphor that came to replace it entirely accurate, either; contemporary research has rather come to terms with the fact that speciation is itself a figurative construct–useful in many regards, but limiting whenever employed to suggest concrete end-points to interbreeding between early hominid species. Networks, rhizomes, webs, rivers: the contemporary biology landscape is now rife with metaphors trying to succeed the lay-person’s familiarity with the “March of Progress” image of yore… but that’s the pesky thing about figurative language: Even inaccurate representations can prevail if they resonate with other popular culture notions (in this case, the misguided notion of inevitable human progress towards a superior state of being).

Another example emerges in the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which might just have been the most abused and poorly understood scientific concept of the 20th century. Heisenberg noted that, when attempting to measure paired quantities like position and momentum for a given particle, the precision of one quantity will always be diminished the more precisely one measures the other. Research since indicates that the extent to which this precision is lost is nowhere near as dire as Heisenberg originally thought, and also that there are ways in which this imprecision might be overcome, but more critically, the concept has been blurred in the general public’s minds with wave-particle duality, wherein the act of observation (through photon inputs or related particle impacts) necessarily resolves the wave into a particle; before that, uncertainty is a fundamental attribute of the quantum system.

From these two concepts have emerged quite a few wacky notions that science now “proves” the power of any human observer to impact the reality of her system on a macro level–disregarding, of course, that these scientific observations are on a quantum level, and that we’ve come a long way since the early Greeks’ Emission Theory of Light. (Or have we? A 2002 study of American university students found that a full 50% believed our eyes actually create light.) The worst of these notions are tied to nonsense about being able to transform our environments with the power of thought alone, but even for less credulous persons, that one word–”uncertainty”–often suggests a limit to knowledge that stands in direct contrast with the science itself. We know more because of our heightened understanding of the fluidity of matter-wave quantum systems, not less.

Bad scientific storytelling is pervasive, though, and it’s difficult to imagine how it could be otherwise when the internet is such a big place, and so very many people are able to participate with some measure of authority therein. The most recent issue of Aeon Magazine, for instance, has an essay that exemplifies quite a bit of misguided thinking about evolutionary intersections with morality discourse–and the poor science writing for this one begins right in the deck (subheading). Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell are the authors of “Beyond the Paleo“, which is immediately captioned: “Our morality may be a product of natural selection, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone.”

Where is this “but” coming from? “But” suggests that a product of natural selection would naturally be intuited as something “set in stone” if not for these authors–but that, of course, is a complete misrepresentation of natural selection, which is always acting on us through environmental pressures. If an article is going to try to negotiate evolutionary discourse on morality, it should darn well not start by conflating colloquial use of the term “evolved” (namely, stable attainment of the highest, the most superior, and the most ideal position on any given issue) with the biological processes by which adaptive advantage is ever-determined by the surrounding conditions for any given generation.

The essay itself does not fare much better; the authors begin by presenting a form of conservative thinking that relies on the notion that people have “permanent cognitive, motivational and emotional deficits” that make “significant social reform … impossible”, and then go on to suggest that “evo-conservatives” have used evolutionary theory to “[provide] a scientific foundation for the idea that human nature is fixed in this way.” From here, the authors make a quick jump to the assertion that “[m]any evolutionists believe we can explain morality by appealing to Darwinian mechanisms, in particular to natural selection”, and in so doing tacitly align people exploring evolutionary explanations of morality unto themselves with the aforementioned construct of politically conservative thought.

There are many problems with this kind of rhetorical sleight of hand. It is immediately telling, for instance, that, three paragraphs in, no singular conservative thinker has actually been identified in relation to these first claims, which seem particularly extraordinary when one reflects on the actual arguments of prominent conservatives today: arguments that forward a “by your own bootstraps” mentality of individual transformation, which (to their reckoning) the government is only hindering when it offers welfare, food stamps, and related aid programs to persons in need. There are indeed conservatives who believe an individual’s life path is severely limited by the aforementioned measures, but when this form of conservative thought is by no means the most popularly-understood–when the more familiar conservative is actually rather Lamarckian in their belief in individual transformation–then it behoves honest authors to identify by name and example the kind of conservative thought they’re leaning on to make such critical comparisons.

Another immediate red flag emerges with the terms “evolutionists”, which invokes a group of persons disingenuously placed at a remove from scientific communities, as if scientific progress at large is not reliant upon expectations drawn from evolutionary theory. The fact that this term emerges so innocuously from the straw man conservatism of previous paragraphs is further problematized by its ensuing relationship with notions of “a Darwinian perspective … [of] biological fitness”–”fitness” being a bizarre term to use if one wants to encapsulate contemporary evolutionary discourse best. Where is the language of adaptivity that better describes the status of evolutionary theory in the modern world?

Granted, that language does emerge in another guise later in the article, with the authors forwarding a few examples of evolutionary hypotheses for co-operative and altruistic human behaviours, and even writing:

“Many different evolutionary models have been put forward to account for the evolution of co-operation in humans, including theories of reciprocal altruism, indirect reciprocity, and punishment-reinforced reciprocity. But all of them maintain that morality evolved to enhance co-operation within a group. … But once we realise that morality is, from a functional standpoint, an inherently group-based affair, we can see that it has a much darker side. … Which means that morality most likely evolved in an arena of intergroup conflict, in which violence and vigorous economic competition between groups was commonplace. This conclusion is consistent with archaeological, ethnographic and ethological data, too. As the archeologist Lawrence Keeley, the psychologist Steven Pinker, the anthropologist Chris Boehm, the primatologist Richard Wrangham and others have observed, intergroup conflict is common in extant and prehistoric hunter-gatherer bands, and is well established in chimpanzees.”

But the inclusion of actual scientists lends itself to a greater question: So where’s the argument? Well, take a look at what rounds out the section:

Extending moral consideration to outsiders — especially those who are not in a position to reciprocate or who could be exploited without fear of reprisal — is maladaptive in a moral system that arose from competition between groups. In other words, a conventional evolutionary view is that morality involved as a way of bolstering in-groups and excluding others – that we are ‘hard-wired’ for tribal loyalties and conflicts.

Wait, what? It’s a subtle move, but the authors here have actually made a huge leap: Moving from a range of scientific arguments about how certain behaviours emerged from a specific set of circumstances experienced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors… to suggesting that these behaviours are now “hard-wired”–as if evolutionary pressures can have nothing more to say about human beings today. What scientist believes this?

The next section provides an answer by evasion: Scientists don’t, but hey! Here’s a bunch of actors in the political theory realm who are potentially employing scientific discourse in a way that suggests limits to “[m]ore inclusive moralities”. I’m not even sure if the examples these authors use fit the rigid conservative mould they established at the outset; rather, the authors offer no direct quotations, preferring just to sum up a political philosopher, a jurist, two international legal theorists, and a political scientist (among others) as all arguing “that these evolved constraints on altruism undercut, or militate strongly against, the plausibility of a cosmopolitan political order.” Is that really it? If we’re just dealing with a few political theorists acknowledging the existence of one set of evolutionary pressures, then there’s nothing this essay’s authors have said that supports the existence of a claim that such evolutionary pressures can never be overcome by others. The arguments thus forwarded only suggest that getting certain people to treat people outside their own communities as beings of equal worth is by no means an easy task. (And… I’m pretty sure human history bears that one out!)

Regardless of the relevance of these political theorists’ stances, though, their inclusion marks a much more frustrating shift from talking about what evolutionary theory actually suggests, to talking about how non-scientists are treating the theory, to then blaming the theory itself for its misapplication. To this end, the authors set up an extreme extension of the political theorists’ purported views, then introduce a “large swath of contemporary morality … [that is] strikingly more inclusive than evolutionary theory would lead us to expect, suggesting that human moral nature is far more flexible than evo-conservatives have acknowledged.” When exactly did evolutionary theory “mislead” us? In the course of their argument specifically, when did evolutionary theory itself suggest rigid and inviolate trait selection?

Much of the article to follow then looks at the ways in which “cosmopolitan moral principles” have been expanding since the Enlightenment–human rights and animal rights now challenging us to give justifications for aggressive or otherwise cruel behaviour, and to otherwise work “toward increasing inclusivity”. Here the authors themselves treat evolutionary mechanisms rigidly, writing:

The same is true of inclusive moral attitudes toward human beings who are outsiders: groups that extended moral community to individuals based on their humanity alone, rather than on the basis of their group membership or strategic capacities, would have foregone the fitness benefits that often flow from more aggressive behaviours, and would have constrained the tactics adopted in military conflicts.

But since when is “fitness” (again, an archaic term for the discourse) an automatic outcome of aggression and military conflict? There is a powerfully good reason the vast majority of species have ways of warning others off well before striking: there is a cost and a risk to combat, which human beings are fortunate enough to have the means to develop alternatives to. Also, even if these alternatives only burst onto the scene in the last few hundred years (a claim I don’t agree with; there are many philosophies far older that suggest a brotherhood of all mankind, while recent history is still rife with large-scale and wasteful conflicts) this would in no way suggest a disconnect from evolutionary theory: Again, we’re not working with Darwinian evolution here; to Darwin’s notion of gradual progression has long since been added clear instances of dramatic, exceedingly short-term transformations in the face of new environmental pressures. It is truly bizarre that these authors go to such pains to dispel the possible evolutionary origins of certain political discourses, without even accurately representing the current state of evolutionary knowledge in the process.

Their final paragraph begins as follows: “Nothing we have said rules out the possibility that a more sophisticated evolutionary explanation can illuminate the recent development of inclusivist morality – indeed there are evolutionary thinkers, such as David Sloan Wilson, who argue for a progressive political philosophy of inclusion on the basis of their scientific research.” And later adds: “But even so, no conservative implications will follow.” All throughout this essay, though, these “conservative implications” have only been described as rigid–never shown as such–and yet political theorists’ purported uses of evolutionary theory have routinely been blurred with the state of evolutionary theory itself.

The reasons for such writing are clear enough: Adversarial journalism sells. Having a scapegoat to position as wrong, even if one’s straw man has no clearly-defined real-world correlate, makes for an entertaining read. And positioning evolutionary theory in terms better suited for the 1860s than the 2010s? Well, when you have a largely lay-audience for whom notions of contemporary evolutionary theory are not always well-developed, why not just play off more familiar expectations?

Why not indeed–except that weak scientific storytelling perpetuates weak scientific literacy. We still have so very much left to discover, but there is already so much about the ongoing process of discovery that deserves to be highlighted whenever we relate stories about how much we already know. To this end, essays using rhetorical sleight-of-hand, outdated scientific terminology, and antiquated scientific concepts or straw men are by no means a rarity online–but they should be. We just desperately need better scientific storytellers to get the job done.

Analog’s March 2014 Issue Now In Stands!

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It’s funny to think that “We Who Are About To Watch You Die Salute You”–a piece of near-future journalism written for the fictional Screed Magazine–is now published in a magazine that itself seems to be from the future, if the publishing date of this issue is any indication. I still haven’t received my contributor copies yet, but I am looking forward to giving the whole a read!

In the meantime, though, I couldn’t be happier. I know I must be a bit of a nut when I get excited even by poor reviews of things I’ve written, but today the first average reader weighed in on the issue, saying he was entirely confused by my piece, and I’m still just thrilled that someone not paid to review issues took the time to comment at all.

Granted, I’m already fully aware that my latest piece at Analog is not an easy read, but his confusion is still a good working note re: formatting for all other near-future journalism pieces I might seek to publish, and to that end I broke my usual rule about not chatting about my writing with readers in order to clarify when the format of the story (again, a near-future feature article commenting on the immaturity of Earth’s responses to colonist tragedy) stopped being clear to him. If another presentation style is indeed more optimal for near-future journalism pieces, then that’s something I definitely want to consider going forward. Like, oh, I dunno… this little venture I’ve been working on all year?

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It’s all useful, in other words! I still feel stronger about this piece in Analog than any other I’ve published to date, but I completely understand that my conviction alone means nothing to readers (nor should it!). And if it takes me years yet to be really good at what I love to do, so be it. I’m enjoying the journey and cherishing every privilege and honour I receive along the way. (And I have had quite a few as of late; I’m incredibly lucky to have come this far at all.)

May my fellow writers always be in a position to say the same in turn!

What Jackson’s The Hobbit Tells Us About Storytelling Today

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Peter Jackson
Warner Bros.

Last year, I made the mistake of re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit just before viewing Peter Jackson’s first instalment, and this made Jackson’s film, which already suffered from bloated, ludicrous fight scenes, bizarre cutaways, and shoddy pacing, almost impossible to enjoy. Jackson had simply changed too much about the fundamental nature of Tolkien’s characters and their thematic journey–ostensibly to build a coherent prequel universe for Jackson’s LotR, except that, even then, the film did not always accord with its mythology, either.

This year, I came to the instalment having accepted this film as a prequel text more than anything else–but I also came into the theatre with a recent article about Jorge Luis Borges’ unusual method of teaching literature in mind: Professor Borges would summarize (at great and entertaining length) the plots of the works his classes were studying, and in so doing, he was essentially re-framing these stories (and deciding what was important in them) for his specific audience. Jackson might not be doing the same intentionally, but his second instalment of The Hobbit similarly suggests that Tolkien’s base text has been re-framed in a light attending primarily to the values and interests of contemporary culture.

It’s a weird light, granted–and we should probably not be satisfied with what it tells us about modern storytelling priorities–but it most certainly is worth noting. Last year, for instance, I pointed out that the dwarves were not being treated as their own species (as opposed even to Gimli in LotR), and that Thorin Oakenshield was being figured as a replacement Aragorn instead; this year, Jackson’s film starts with Thorin at The Prancing Pony, in a scene that could not more clearly invoke Stryder if Viggo Mortensen himself had silently passed Thorin’s table and exchanged a grave nod.

Elsewhere in this film, the theme of greed is similarly treated as if Thorin were man, not dwarf, and so beholden to mankind’s moral narratives around material acquisitions. This is an even more bizarre move when one considers that this opening scene has Gandalf pushing Thorin to pursue the Arkenstone in the first place, with very legitimate reasons regarding maintaining the power balance in the realm. Jackson, in other words, is thematically uneven: treating Thorin like a sinful man when it’s convenient; treating him like a dwarf seeking balance-restoring inheritance when it furthers other ends.

This flattening of species attributes extends, of course, to Bilbo Baggins as well; whereas in Tolkien’s story (written as an extension of mythology started in the trenches of WWI), Bilbo succeeds as an anti-hero by mostly relying on non-combat means, Jackson had Bilbo killing throughout the first movie, and in this movie (as with the last), uses kennings only as a prelude to massive fight scenes. As the third movie will be dealing with two major combat sequences, and since the point-of-view is these films is not solely Bilbo’s (as opposed to the book, where Bilbo is unconscious during the major battle sequences, so the narrative simply jumps forward, further downplaying any fetishization of war), this further attests to a prequel trilogy fixated on fighting above all else.

Here, too, the timing of this whole prequel tradition becomes very odd. In this instalment we see the size and focus of the Orc army and learn through Gandalf that the ring-wraiths have already been loosed from captivity, but… these events are all happening 60 years before Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf then shocks the Elven High Council with news that the Nazgul are afoot. 60 years of the ‘wraiths doing, what, exactly? Sitting around reminiscing about the good old days? Gandalf and Radagast flesh out this side-plot as well as can be expected, but (without giving anything away) all it amounts to is one of those scenes where the bad guy could easily have saved himself a heck of a lot of trouble down the road if he had just finished his opposition when he had the chance. After a literal fight scene between Light and Darkness, Sauron the Merciful makes very little sense, but hey, if it will help fill three hours…!

Another side-plot, involving the Wood-Elves Legolas and Tauriel, is more understandable. In Tauriel, Jackson ups the female character count neglected in Tolkien’s original tale by having Tauriel fall for and save a dwarf; Legolas, meanwhile, lets audiences know that before he met Gimli, he really was a racist, self-centred, dwarf-hopping sod. (Side note: Middle Earth is still Super White.) Even then, surrounding fight scenes with the Orcs only attest to a common thread in all Jackson’s Tolkienian films–one in which the enemy always acts exceedingly poorly and takes huge casualties, while our heroes nimbly survive heavily-CGI’d fight scenes in collapsing landscapes, the excessiveness of which gives the sense that sheer luck alone saves any of these characters from getting squashed by falling rocks, and so bringing the whole adventure to an abrupt end.

To its credit, Jackson’s second Hobbit film actually fleshes out a range of characters in the central dwarves, and Laketown gets a richly developed treatment as the home of an amusing despot. Smaug, too, gets to be every bit as vain as he should be (while also being powerfully incompetent at eating little things), although the film could absolutely have used a metallurgy consultant for fight scenes in the Lonely Mountain. In short, a lot of the Significant Glances in the first film have been replaced with actual dialogue and world-building, which I’ll take as a minor win for the series, and attribute (along with improved narrative flow) in strong part to Guillermo del Toro’s contributions.

Broadly speaking, then, the pacing and character development in this film have clear advantages over its predecessor, and it serves as light, if lengthy entertainment so long as one does not think too much about the universe in which it is supposed to be a precursor text. More importantly, perhaps, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug reveals quite a few differences in storytelling priority since Tolkien’s text was first written, and the first film adaptation thereafter attempted. Of these, Jackson is certainly not alone in foregrounding preposterous fight scenes or treating all likeable fantasy species as human, but the fact that Tolkien’s The Hobbit, more than most texts informing contemporary mainstream cinema, so blatantly values other ways of negotiating and living in the world means that Jackson’s reinterpretation proves exemplary in presenting modern epic storytelling as an especially simplistic affair.

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