Like Teaching a Chimp Sign Language

Let us imagine, for a moment, that a superior intellect visits Earth. Not simply an alien intellect, different from us, nor one ancient intellect, one roughly our equal but with a million years our senior in technical knowledge and culture. No, I mean a truly superior intellect, one an order of magnitude smarter than we, as we are to the chimpanzee. What could we learn from such an intellect, assuming it was benevolent and sought to teach us?

 

My answer? Not much at all.

 

Washoe the chimpanzee was taught American Sign Language in the late 1960s. Washoe was able to learn about 350 ASL signs, of a total of approximately 7000, or roughly 5% of the language. A chimpanzee is not a stupid creature. It can communicate, lives in social groups and very likely has a culture. What it cannot do, however, is create abstract symbols. According to many scientists, chimps communicate but do not have language. They can learn to use human language, in the form of ASL, as a tool (like they would a sharp stone to break open nuts or a stick to extract termites from a log) but they do not innovate with the language they learn. At best, chimpanzees and other primates can comprehend and manipulate a small portion of what to us comes naturally, because of our innately superior intellect.

 

What does this then mean for us in regards to a visitation by an alien, superior intellect? Assuming the visitors are benevolent, that they wish to teach us and that they are similar enough to us that their mode of communication is fundamentally understandable to us, we could hope for, at best, to understand a small sliver of what they propose to teach. And herein lies the catch: language communicates ideas, and if we cannot grasp the language, we have no hope of comprehending the ideas. Whatever intellectual power allowed them to cross the gulf between stars to come to Earth would be utterly lost on us. Since the language of the cosmos is very likely math, it would be less like us trying to teach chimpanzees to use sign language and more like us trying to teach chimpanzees to do calculus.

 

Interestingly, sadly, the limitations are not simply one way. We are no better at truly understanding the chimp mind than they are at comprehending us. At best, we anthropomorphise the chimpanzee and ascribe to it our own thoughts and emotions, but in a demeaning way. Assuming we were at least somewhat physically similar to our mystery superior intellect, then the best we could hope for is for they to equally misinterpret our motives and crude attempts at communication. However intellectually superior they might be, they would likely be as incapable of reducing themselves to our level and communicating on par with us as we have been with chimpanzees. If they are any thing like us, in fact, we are likely to end up in their zoos and in what passes for their bad comedy films about truck drivers.

 

All this is, strange as it may sound, a best case scenario. It assumes that the superior intellect is similar to us — humanoid, something resembling mammalian, concerned with civilization and culture, egotistically benevolent. What if that superior intellect is fundamentally different than us, however? Then the situation is much less like us and the chimpanzee and more like us and the octopoid. Though they are extremely intelligent creatures, they are also completely different from us. An intelligent alien species that evolved on a world vastly different from our own would not only confound us and be confounded by us the way a chimpanzee does, but would completely defy comprehension in many ways. Would they even recognize us as intelligent beings? Remember — we eat octopus. Alive.

 

If the time should ever come that we are visited by an intelligent species from another world, we should hope that they are our rough intellectual equals. If they are some time — a thousand, ten thousand or even a million years — more technologically advanced than us, we are likely to experience a fate not unlike contact between advanced explorers and aboriginal peoples in Earth’s history. As bad as that may have been. however, it is better than the alternative: to be viewed as just an animal, a lesser being, strange but ultimately a source of curiosity, entertainment and perhaps even trophies and food.

75 Years of Solemn Heroism

 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of Batman. Last year, it was the 75th anniversary of Superman and while that hero enjoyed broad coverage in the media, I think the Dark Knight is going to be more difficult to celebrate. Not, certainly, because Batman is less well known than Superman — if he is, it is only by the slimmest of margins. Rather, the problem lies with the very nature of the two characters, their inherent differences and their opposite but equivalent places on the spectrum of iconic heroism.

 

Superman is a messianic figure, a savior on par with Mithras or Moses. He represents, in short, hope. Superman fights bad guys, of course, but he is as likely to save innocent lives from earthquakes and meteor showers. His powers are so great that he can halt a tidal wave, extinguish a raging inferno or even turn back time itself. He is a god-like being whose primary interest is in protecting humanity and helping humanity succeed. Superman could end war by enforcing peace, and often writers will have Superman or analogs do just that, but he does not. A favorite trope in Superman stories, when writers are too lazy to create compelling narratives with the so-called “boyscout” Superman, is to cast him in the villain’s role, corrupted by power or despair or rage. But those depictions of Superman serve only to reinforce his fundamental nature as the goodest of the good guys.

 

Batman, however, is different. If Superman represents our desire for a savior, then Batman is a symbol of our desire to act, our need to sometimes get our hands dirty in order to bring about justice. Where Superman is a being of light whose depictions sometimes swing into dark places, Batman is the opposite. His time in the light is a parody of himself; he is most at home in the darkness. Where Clark Kent is the ultimate adoptive child, raised by loving parents to see the good in all people, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate orphan, a victim who is constantly reliving his tragic loss. This is not to imply weakness on the character’s part — some writers depict it as such, an obsession that paralyzes Batman into inaction, while most depict it as the source of Batman’s unending dedication to his his quest for justice. Rather, it is an exquisitely human motivation, one that we can understand, embrace and even, in our darker moods, imagine for ourselves.

 

Both Batman and Superman are adolescent male power fantasies; I do not refer to them in that way to as a pejorative, but as a fact. The men who created both characters were, in fact, adolescent males and they were powerless in a world of depressed economy, crime and corruption. Their heroes had the power to confront these issues, Superman and Batman each in their own ways. Their careers would run parallel from then on, Superman always in the light while Batman would emerge from his shadows to combat alien menaces and laughable villains, only to be drawn back into the shadows where he belonged.

 

This story from CNN illustrates the difficulty with which the modern popular media will have in trying to do stories about Batman at this anniversary. While the people interviewed were certainly inspired by Batman, one feels the need for quiet reflection on them rather than the parades and ballyhoo that Superman’s anniversary engendered.

 

If we imagine for a moment that Batman were real, that Brice Wayne was real, we imagine a hero who is equal part victim. We imagine a man who has spent three quarters of a century trying to come to grips with the worst tragedy a child could possibly suffer, the worst images a child could possibly witness. We imagine a man who has dedicated everything he has, everything he is, to the singular goal of ensuring no child ever suffers like he did, that no person ever suffers like he continues to suffer every day. Batman does not stop earthquakes or alien invasions, he stops killers. Batman does not turn back tidal waves, he turns back tragedy. Batman does not fly in to save our lives, he swoops in to save our hearts and minds. It is heroism, but it is a solemn, dark heroism that asks us to feel dark and solemn things as we consider it.

Friday Flash Fiction: Lifepunk

Chuck Wendig of terribleminds.com throws out a flash fiction prompt on a weekly basis. As it has been a while since I have done my own Friday Flash, and the idea of creating an all new something-punk genre story appealed to me, I decided to give it a go.

 

So, without further ado, here is a brief story in the genre I call “lifepunk.”

———-

 

Sonny peered through the blinds. Blinds. What a ridiculously quaint furnishing. They were a throwback to an era before smart windows, when privacy and modesty were worshipped as gods, along with productivity and conformity. That they adorned these windows, his parents’ windows, did not surprise Sonny in the least. In that way, the blinds were a perfect example of everything he was fighting against, of everything he did not want, of all the old things that would not go away.

 

“It’s not going to work,” said Emil. He was pacing back and forth in the living room, between the wall screen and the blinds covered windows where Sonny stood. The wall screen was a more recent furnishing than the blinds, certainly, but still old enough to exemplify the technological and cultural atrophy Sonny despised — and feared.

 

“It will work,” said Sonny. He peaked through the slats again and this time he saw flashing lights. He smiled and reached for his belt where he felt the hard grip of the revolver. It, too, was quaint — quaint, antiquated, outmoded, ancient, positively antediluvian. It belonged to Sonny’s father, as well. The man had not changed, could not change, to the point of ignoring the law for over a century to hold onto this strange, murderous piece of steel.

 

Emil quickened his pacing and started to talk quickly. “It isn’t going to work. They are not going to do it. They are just going to tranq us and format us and then what? Nothing. That’s what. Nothing, forever.”

 

Even as the flashing lights grew brighter — the police flyers were descending, he knew — Sonny tore himself away from the blinds and his fingers from the revolver and he grabbed Emil by the face and kissed him long and deep and hard. Then, he said, “That is not going to happen,” and Emil could not have believed him more if the words had come from a burning bush.

 

With Emil calmer, Sonny went back to the window. and peaked. He could see the beetle shaped flyers coming to rest on the lawn and street. “We’re anarchists,” he said. “They won’t know what to do with anarchy, so they will over react. They can’t help it. It’s what happens when you never grow old and you never change.

***

Captain Sandvik manually checked the charge on her tranq rifle while the flyer descended. It was an unnecessary action since all the data about her equipment — not just the rifle, but her armor and med-unit and sensor suite — was piped into her field of vision via heads up eyeplants, but it was a comforting habit. She had been, after all, been doing it for decades, as long as she had been a cop. Over the long years she had found that the tools changed, but she never changed and neither did the criminals.

 

She surveyed the men in the flyer with her. Most sat patiently waiting for the thing to land. Conteh looked impatient, ready for a fight. Otero looked nervous. Sandvik recalled that Otero was young, just fifty, and probably had never seen any real action. It was rare. Even she had not fired her tranq in twenty years.

 

The flyer touched down and the door folded away. She was on her feet and out into the yard immediately, followed and flanked by her subordinate officers. Before her stood the enemy fortress, a one story, three bedroom suburban house at the end of a cul de sac. She ordered her men to take up defensive positions and the remaining flyers to maintain clear airspace and looked over the house. She thought, nice blinds.

***

“Oh, god,” whined Emil. “It’s happening.” He looked like he was going to puke, then did, all over the retro afghan rug.

 

“Not yet,” said Sonny to himself, but then to Emil he added, “It’s okay, hon. This is what we wanted, remember?”

 

Emil wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I don’t know,” he said. Sonny glowered and he added swiftly, “I mean, I did, but now that we’re here, that it’s about to happen, I’m scared.”

 

Sonny softened his expression in the practiced way of a long time significant other. His very awareness of it irked him. It was habit, nothing more, a normal behavior made mechanical by long years of repetition. Even so, he remained placid.

 

“Emil, honey, we went over this again and again. How old are we?”

 

After a moment of hesitation, Emil answered, “I’m seventy five. You’re seventy nine.”

 

“Right,” said Sonny, “and what’s our favorite band?”

 

“The Larks.”

 

“Right, and how old were we when they came out?”

 

“I don’t know. Thirty, maybe?”

 

“Yeah,” said Sonny, his eyes flashing. “Our favorite band has been the same for almost fifty years. Do you know why?”

 

Emil shook his head.

 

“Because we don’t change. Because nothing changes. Because we don’t age and we don’t have to go through the stages of life. We were thirty when we got Treated. We’ll be thirty forever.”

 

Yeah, I know, Sonny. It’s just, is that so bad?”

 

Sonny raged, drawing the revolver and waving it in Emil’s direction. “Yes! God, yes! The whoe, world is thirty, or fifty or seventy like my ridiculous parents. Everyone is stuck, forever, at the age they got Treated and now people are Treating their kids because they don’t want them to ever age or grow up. It’s sick, Emil! It’s wrong!”

***

There was movement inside. Despite the blinds, Captain Sandvik could see with her HUD that one man, one of the anarchist terrorists who claimed to have planted bombs at the Treatment facility, was waving a very old fashioned gun around. “get ready,” she ordered.

 

She was directing Otero toward the south side of the house when the bang! reverberated through the house and into the yard. Later, surveillance video would show the embrace and the kiss and the intimate murder. At the time, though, Sandvik was hitting the grass as bullets flew out into the yard through the blinds.

 

Most of her men took cover. Some cowered. It was Conteh, though, that hunkered down, aimed and fired into the house. She knew from the sound of it that his rifle was not armed with tranqs.

***

“I love you,” said Sonny. He let Emil slip to the floor, kissed him once on the forehead, and then turned and fired wildly through the blinds into the front yard. It only took a moment before one of the police fulfilled Sonny’s promise.

 

As he faded, Sonny felt grateful. No prison of eternal, unchanged Sonny-ness would hold him.

***

There were no bombs at the Treatment facility, or even an anarchist cell. Sandvik shook her head. Why two guys her own age would commit suicide by cop when they had literally forever to look forward to, she did not understand — nor could she.

 

Inspirational As Fuck

On Sunday, March 9, 2014, Fox (the entertainment channel, not the “news” channel) began their broadcast of the new COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey television series.

 

The following video pretty much sums up my reaction:

 

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Whoever that kid is, here is hoping she remembers this in 20 or 30 years.

 

Watching the new COSMOS was an interesting experience. As a fan of science and science edutainment in general, I was pretty familiar with most of the actual scientific information conveyed by the show’s amazing host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. The fact was, in fact, that there was not a lot of it there (although I must say that historical information surrounding Giordano Bruno was new to me) which I found mildly disappointing. That is, until I realized that science, or at least specific scientific facts, are not the point of the new COSMOS. It was only when Tyson, at the end of the episode, gave his very personal account of a meeting with the late, great Carl Sagan that I understood what COSMOS intended to be:

 

Inspirational As Fuck.

 

Take a look at that video linked above. THAT is why this new COSMOS exists. Scientific literacy and interest are at an all time low and the future of human spaceflight may not sit with America. In light of this turn of events in the latter quarter of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, a show like Tyson’s (and Seth MacFarlane — yes, the Family Guy guy) COSMOS is not just a good idea, but a necessary step in the war for the minds, hearts and dreams of the next generation. Both Tyson and MacFarlane have expressed in multiple interviews the importance of making sure the show would be broadcast on a national network as opposed to a niche cable network like Discovery Channel. In short, it comes down to navel gazing and preaching to the choir: viewers like me, who search out NOVA and The Universe for our edutainment don’t “need” COSMOS. Arguably, my kids don’t either, because I have already exposed them to science and science based entertainment. But, if America is to regain its prominence is science and technology and have a shot at competing in the new, global space race, the next generation of American Idol viewers to fall in love with, well, the cosmos.

 

As a writer of science fiction, I think about the future a lot. My views, whether I am optimistic or pessimistic, vary over time, depending on my mood. I must admit that right now, I am in a pessimistic mood regarding humanity’s future as it relates to technology and especially human exploration of and migration into space. I don’t necessarily believe that we can summon the wherewithal to achieve great advances in human spaceflight before circumstances — over population, climate change, imminent asteroid impact, or what have you — make it necessary. I would be more surprised, frankly, in a human exodus to the other planets than I would in the complete collapse of human civilization. Even if we leave this cradle, I do not think whatever it is that leaves would continue to be able to be called human: human is a very specific creature, evolved on a very specific world, to which life in orbit and/or on an alien world is inimical.

 

But then, I watch as Neil deGrasse Tyson guide me through a visually stunning tour of the cosmos and a little part of my old, optimistic self flutters to life. For just a moment, I imagine a clean, Rodenberry-esque future where dedicated research and the intentional rejection of divisive politics, religion and economics has allowed us to solve the scientific and engineering challenges inherent in the idea of not simply human habitation in space, but human mastery of it. For those few moments, before all my fears of human weakness, greed and stupidity quash that vision, I see the future that COSMOS is offering.

Story versus Prose

I have been doing a lot of self reflection on my own writing and writing preferences lately, mostly in attempting to understand why I have so much difficulty. Among a number of other things, I have started to understand that, at least for me, there is a fundamental conflict between Story and Prose. Or, rather, the two vie for my time, energy and attention in the writing process itself, and the casualty is usually a completed work.

I am a disciple of Story, first and foremost. What happens — both what actually happens, and what is happening, if you get my meaning of the difference — is the point. No matter what else you are trying to accomplish with the story — to titillate, to inform, to inspire — you cannot accomplish it without the story itself. By story, I mean the arc of the tale, the beginning(s), middle(s) and end(s). Big Fat Fantasy of literary micro-fiction, the core is the same, like how a fish’s skeleton and a human’s are fundamentally alike. That is not to say that all stories are fundamentally the same, but rather that all stories must have Story to be more than mere ideas or descriptions.

That said, I also love the craft of writing, the Prose. It simply feels good to manipulate the formless ephemera of words into a real thing. A well crafted sentence is a jewel unto itself, and a well written story is a crown. It takes time and care and, most of all, experience to produce such art. It can be a frustrating process, discarding one imperfect word, phrase or sentence after another until the perfect one appears. And when it does not, the hard choice must be made between stopping everything or leaving something lesser in place and going on.

I was not fully aware of the conflict between Story and Prose, though the unnamed idea of it was often a cloud in my mind, until relatively recently when I finally read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite stories. I first saw the animated film as a child and have watched it innumerable times throughout my life. I knew the film so well, in fact, that I never bothered to read the novel. I cannot say for certain why this is; The Last Unicorn is hardly the only adaptation I was exposed to before the original material, but still I read The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, for example. Perhaps I knew that those adaptations were incomplete or inaccurate, since Tolkien’s work inspires a kind of fandom beagle’s does not and therefore I was more fully aware of the Good Professor’s works in a way I was not familiar with Beagle’s. Or perhaps it was simply that the film was so satisfying to me, I could not imagine what value the novel might have — or worse, I feared that I would love the film better (an unforgivable crime for a young, budding writer).  Whatever the cause, I only finally read the novel The Last Unicorn mere months ago. Upon doing so, I hated myself for waiting so terribly long.

Beagle’s Prose, his mastery of the language, is nothing short of amazing, rivaling the likes of Hemingway in my opinion. I found in reading The Last Unicorn that I experienced it in an entirely new way, even though the story was nearly identical to that of the film. Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, which I am currently re-reading: Tolkien also has a mastery over his use of language (though in a very different way than Beagle), but since so much of my reading attention is directed at how different Peter Jackson’s adaptations were, I feel almost as if I am less able to enjoy the Prose because of the differences in Story.

 

Once I read The Last Unicorn and became consciously aware of the distinction in my mind between Prose and Story, I began to look at my own writing in a different way. Specifically, I started to look at why I was having such trouble finishing some stories, or producing a good version of some stories. What I began to realize is that in some cases I had a Story I wanted to tell, but was trying to tell it with a kind of Prose that does not come naturally to me, or was not a natural fit for the Story. The sort of Modernist writing style, where we describe all the actions and emotions of the character has become the expected, even demanded, form of Prose for our written fiction. This is a relatively new development, though. From ancient epics to folkloric tales to all the other media we consume, most storytelling we do is focused on the characters and events, the Story itself. One could write a 5000 word short story version of Hansel and Gretel, for example, but would it be “better” by any measure than the shorter form used to tell the events of the tale to children before bedtime? Prose is art and can be beautiful for its own sake, but it can also weigh down the Story, obscuring it under layers of unnecessary detail. I realized that in many cases, I was trying to tell a piece of folklore or talk about a series of things that happened in this imaginary place to these imaginary people, but was not, in fact, trying to “write a story” in the conventional sense.

 

The questions arises, then: is there a market for such fiction? In a world dominated by Modernist, Prose-centric preferences, is there a place for Story-telling? I worried that the answer was “no” until I realized something very important: the world of non-fiction, from magazine features to biographies, looks very much like this. When we are telling stories about what were or are or might be, involving real people, we almost invariably focus on Story rather than Prose. (This, of course, does not mean there is not a place for strong writing and a good turn of phrase.) And I realized, then, that there is no reason why that form of storytelling can’t be applied to fiction as well, and that there is sure to be a market for it in the same way that there is a market for non-fiction in that form.

Immediate Gratification: The Joy of Improvisational Creation

I spent the weekend at Total Confusion 28 where, in addition to general merrymaking and running a Mutant Future duology called Out of the Fridge/Into the Freezer (I will post about that some day soon), I engaged in my third annual attempt to take the (regional) crown of Iron GM. For those not in the know (and too riveted to click the provided link) Iron GM is to tabletop role-playing games (primarily Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) what Iron Chef is to cooking: given a limited amount of time and a collection of disparate, secret-until-it’s-go-time ingredients, you are tasked with creating a convention scenario (you’ll note that the very idea of Iron GM  breaks a lot of those rules) on the spot for real live gamers instead of a panel of professional judges.

 

The whole concept of Iron GM appeals to me. Much of my writing is performed similarly: when I feel the need to create but I can’t muster up any good ideas, I solicit my friends to throw random story elements (settings, protagonists, challenges and so on) at me and then I force myself to write with those elements, finishing a story of between 1000 and 2000 words in an hour or two. The result is always a little rough around the edges, but more often than not, I find that I usually really like at least the concept of the story, if not the particulars of the prose or pacing (two elements that I believe require real polish to get right). Iron GM scratches a similar itch for me, but with one spectacular addition: an audience. Sure, a flash fiction as previously described can garner some atta-boys and “Likes” from friends, but the people at the table in Iron GM are strangers by requirement — at least at the time of the game; some of those players turn out to be lifelong friends.

 

Gamermastering a tabletop role-playing game is one of the most rewarding, if ephemeral, creative undertakings I know. It comes in second to writing simply, I think, because the written word lives on after the act of creation and may even see a much larger than originally intended audience. It might even live forever (for varying definitions of “forever”; even Gilgamesh hasn’t been around forever, since we’re still going on). Bust, as stated, it beats writing on the “immediate gratification” metric, since it requires a group of people to appreciate it (these people happen to be co-authors in this undertaking, of course, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this post). Many game masters meticulously craft worlds, study rule books and prepare adventures before they actually sit down behind the screen and begin play. I have done that on occasion, but I have always preferred running by the seat of my pants. I prefer a relatively “light” rules set, one that is easy to bend to my will without getting bogged down in fiddly bits (which, of course, makes D&D 3.5 a terrible choice, thereby making it a brilliant choice for competition). That is not to say I don’t like rules. I think they are essential to provide a structure where the players feel like they have agency in the game and a way to measure how “fair” the game is. Having to look rules up in the middle of play brings everything grinding to a halt, so fewer rules with consistent implementation serve my purposes better.

 

This is in no small part due to a very important and, frankly, fun aspect of improvisational GMing: the players define the game as much as I. There’s an adage among game masters, paraphrased from improvisational theater: say, “Yes, but…” Players who have a toolset in their hands (i.e. the rules as they relate to their character) and a clear sense of agency (based on the choices you put before them, either implicit or explicit) enhance any game, especially an improvisational one since, well, I might not even know where I am going with this thing. Granted, this is slightly less true during the Iron GM competition, if only because there is a time limit and part of the grading is based on whether the adventure was completed to satisfaction. Two years in a row now, time has run out for me in the boss fight finale.

 

There is a dark side to the immediate gratification I get from improvisational creation, especially the flash writing that I described above. For me, the act of completion, of seeing a story through to its end, is the real joy. To have created such a thing fills me we a sense of accomplishment. But also as I stated above, the real work is in the polish, the cleaning up of the inevitable failures of such a speedy creation: inconsistencies of plot and character, clumsy prose, ideas only hinted at that need fleshing out, and so on. That stuff is hard and, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, I’ve already rolled over, smoked a cigarette and am ready to go to sleep. I have countless (I mean I have never counted them, out of fear of disappointing myself) first draft short stories desperately in need of revision that I have never gone back to simply because they are, emotionally for me anyway, “done.”

The Too High Bar

The very first story I remember writing was a fantasy. I don’t recall how old I was, although I am fairly sure I was under 10 because I had not yet discovered Dungeons and Dragons, but I do remember writing it in one of those black and white covered composition books. Nor do I recall anything of the story itself, except that it was about a champion on a quest to slay a dragon. Strangely, I do have a very specific memory of writing it, particularly at a moment when I described how the dragon’s eyes “glew” with fierce light and my mother corrected me that it was “glowed.” I recall arguing, as well, holding up “blow” and “blew” as evidence that she was surely wrong. I do not remember whether I changed it. I wish I still had that notebook. I would like to know more about what I wrote, perhaps even uncover what it was inspired by. I imagine that nothing had so great an influence on that story as the Rankin/Bass Hobbit cartoon, which was my first exposure to Tolkien.

 

I love fantasy, especially the “Tolkienesque” kind, with elves and dwarves and heroes and Dark Lords and all the other trappings. I love Tolkien’s work in particular, but to be honest I am not that discerning at times. For example, to my shame The Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies are as close to my heart as is Lord of the Rings. Not because they rival the good Professor’s work in skill and craft, of course, but because of where they landed in my formative reading experience. In gaming, both table top and electronic, that flavor of fantasy is by far my favorite. All that said, I find that I have a difficult time writing fantasy. As I just began rereading The Lord of the Rings again — the mark of great literature is, I think, that one can revisit it again and again and always find something both meaningful and new in it, because the great works are able to speak to us across the changing landscapes of our lives — I think I finally hit upon why I have such difficulty with writing fantasy:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien.

 

In particular, I will never be able to craft a world in the way that he did, with its deep history and complex languages. The fact is, I am far more interested in storytelling than world building. The problem is that the definition of fantasy for me, what makes great fantasy so rich and powerful, is a great fantastic world that is complex, cohesive and real feeling. That is what Tolkien created in me with his work, and now when I desire to write a fantasy, to tell stories about champions hunting evil dragons, I cannot help but see how thin and brittle the world in which I place that story is. The bar Tolkien set is too high for me to reach and so I often do not try at all.

 

What I found I prefer, as far as world building is concerned, is to take something familiar, whether it is our own world or the typical medieval fantasy world or any other archetypal setting, and season it with the unfamiliar. When it comes to fantasy, though, this is something that is all too common and I dread the idea of being another terrible Tolkien imitator, making Middle Earth with cat folk, for example. Unfortunately, I believe some stories belong in certain genres and are best told in those genres, which leaves me at a loss sometimes when I have a story to write that is absolutely, unequivocally a fantasy story. A world of knights and ogres and wizards and dragons brings with it a host of implicit qualities that aid the author in communicating with the audience, conveying meaning easily while offering accessible opportunities to subvert assumptions. Every genre is a toolbox with which the writer builds a story with the help of a genre savvy audience. To feel a genre closed off from me, especially one I so love, because of my own inadequacies is, to say the least, unpleasant.

 

This is a limitation I do not feel with other genres. If I have difficulties with any other genre in this way, it would be hard science fiction and that is only because I am not a scientist or even an engineer and therefore do not know a lot of things I should know in order to write such a story. Even so, I do read a lot of science and have access to the Internet, so I have those two tools — knowing which questions to ask and where to go about finding the answers — which usually suffice for any given story I am likely to want to write. There is no equivalent in fantasy, no way to Google up a long and detailed history of a particular region so the singular chapter the protagonists spend in the place is as real and convincing as life outside the reader’s window. Instead, I find myself relying in writing on a skill that has served me well in game-mastering table top role-playing games: treating the world like an old time Hollywood movie set, all veneer and no substance. That works when at a table, helping players navigate a monster riddled maze or dragon-haunted badlands. Players see through that sort of thing and don’t care because they are engaged in the game itself; readers are not so forgiving, I don’t think. Or, at least, I am not, which brings us back around to the problem itself:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien. The bar is too high.

Teledildonics: Sex and Futurism

Quick Edit: First draft was a little on the harsh side. I don’t know John Aziz or his work. That said, I still hold the linked article is not very well written.

 

Over at The Week writer John Aziz discusses (poorly) the emerging field of teledildonics. For those without their finger (or whatever) on the pulse of sex-tech, teledildonics is what Geordie LaForge might call web enabled sex toys, designed for use by individuals on opposite sides of an internet connection — which could be in the other room or in orbit.

Aziz says

It’s easy to condemn such things as weird or bizarre.

And I’d say that’s for good reason: Hooking up via vibrating plastic accessories attached to an internet-connected computer is clearly not the most obvious way for two people to be intimate. It is rather like a Rube Goldberg machine: an extremely complicated solution to a simple problem. Why go to such trouble to create virtual sexual experiences when real-world sex is possible without all the technology getting in the way?

In addition to being insulting, the above is obtuse. Why go through the trouble? Perhaps because a spouse or lover is separated by geographical distance. Perhaps because that lover has a medical condition that prohibits intimate interpersonal contact. or, perhaps, because it is fun to do something a little different — you know, some of the same sorts of reasons people include non-tele-dildonics in their love lives.

Aziz notes the importance of “porn” in advancing technology (though he fails to qualify that as “consumer technology” which is a relatively important distinction) but then steps over the line to suggest its inevitable powerful impact on robotics. Futuristic sex robots are not likely to push the technology in the same ways as video buffering, however. The adult industry as refined technology and applied it to consumers in new ways, but high end R&D is outside that industry’s purview. Sex robots won’t arise from the adult industry, but may well overtake it when lifelike androids become standard in our culture (which may never come to pass, of course).

Ultimately, sex with robots arises from the same place of desire as does sex with prostitutes: it promises (however unrealistically) to be both novel and to fulfilling in a way that sex with a partner (as in an equal) cannot be because partnership demands both familiarity and equitibility of pleasure. Sexbots would, one assumes, be whatever the user desired and also do whatever the user desired — like picking a girl up out of the lineup of the Bunny Ranch but with none of the human (or legal) restrictions).

More likely than the emergence anytime soon of the sexbot will be the integration of teledildonics into the adult industry. The convergence of cam girls and teledildonics seems not just inevitable, but natural. How it will be construed in regards to anti-prostitution laws is an open question and certainly one worth exploring. Include the ever-inching-forward technology of virtual reality and the future looks bright for both the long distance relationship and the virtual sex worker.

The Distraction of Imitation

Recently, I picked up from the library The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. I have a mind to give writing for the tween/young adult audience, just to see if it suits me. Having read most of the Harry Potter series, as well as a number of older suggested books like the Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, I chose to read Percy Jackson & The Olympians  because of its popularity. After all, how better to understand the genre than to examine its principal examples.

 

The problem is, as I read The Lightning thief, I am distracted by its similarity to, even apparent imitation of, the Harry Potter series. Lest there be any confusion, however, I am not suggesting that Riordan’s writing is bad or a simple pastiche of Harry Potter. The prose is clear and fast paced, the characters distinctive if not especially deep (so far), and the reliance upon Greek mythology an interesting counterpoint to Rowling’s fairy tale inspired magical world. Rather, the tropes — which existed well before Harry potter, but were so perfectly distilled in that series — are constantly pulling me out of the narrative.

 

Harry was an orphan whose parents were killed when the villain came to kill Harry. Percy’s mother was killed when the monsters came to get Percy. Harry’s Aunt and Uncle; Percy’s step father. Hogwarts; Camp Half Blood. Slitheren; Ares’ cabin. Hermione; Annabeth. Ron; Grover. Lightning scar; lightning.

 

Of course, things don’t line up perfectly, but the point is that the presence of these tropes makes the genre glaringly obvious. YOU ARE READING A 5TH GRADE BOYS FANTASY ADVENTURE BOOK, proclaims the sub-text, so loudly and rudely that the actual-text gets drowned out. It is especially problematic in literature, because unlike film or comic books, say, where there may be striking visuals or other effects to distract you, all there are here are the words. Like a dream or a hazy memory, you build in your mind the world of the book from the lumber of your experiences, including previous entertainment you have consumed. This means that no matter how different the flavor (Greek mythology versus fairy tales) the tropes summon up the structure of the other. (Note that all of this is easily reversible if you are of a generation where you encounter Percy Jackson before Harry Potter; as an old tabletop gamer, I have many a times shuddered upon hearing how D&D stole X or Y from World of Warcraft.)

 

All that said, while these similarities are a distraction for me, I do not know they are actually a problem. They may, in fact, be a feature. Those tropes exist and become tropes for a reason. They must speak to the intended audience in a way that they do not speak to me as a jaded old adult. In fact, a quick survey of YA fantasy series summaries suggests many of these tropes are nigh prerequisites. I am forced to wonder, then, where do books that buck these trends fit in — in libraries, on kids’ bookshelves and on the Goodreads and bestseller lists.

 

For my part, I will finish The Lightning Thief and perhaps move on to the following books if I find Percy a compelling, if familiar, hero. I will read some of the other books touted regularly as great examples of young readers/adults lit, and I will write that story that is burning at the back of my brain — whether or not it fits the tropes so apparently prevalent in the genre. I can only know if the genre is a good fit for me by experimenting with it, after all.

40 Years of Fantasists

Today is, according to Jon Peterson, the 40th anniversary of the release of the first iteration of the Dungeons and Dragons game. Much has been said of the impact of D&D on both individuals and on whole industries. One could go on forever trying to gauge the total impact of D&D on American popular culture, and some have tried, or recounting the roller-coaster ride of its rise from obscure past time to 1980s sensation/scapegoat and back again, with a few stops at both nerd obsession and geek chic. All of that history is interesting and important and many writers have recounted the power of D&D on popular culture before and will do so again.

 

What I am interested in is something a little different. As ide from inspiring a generation or two of authors, game designers, filmmakers and others, the arrival of D&D also created a whole generation of fantasists. A fantasist differs from those aforementioned types in that  a fantasist, by definition, does not necessarily make a living creating fantasies. Of the approximately 20 million people who have played D&D, every one was or is a fantasist. Every one has created a fantasy world or just a piece of it. Every one has helped craft a unique universe, populated by unique characters undertaking unique adventures. While there are of course many published worlds and even more commercial modules for the game that provide players a shared experience, each iteration of such a module, each group’s version of such a world, is still a unique creation. Even though they are clones, they are not the same.

 

What does it mean to have empowered 20 million daydreamers with the tools to create whole worlds? In some cases it has meant commercial success, but for most the rewards have been more subtle. The act of creation is one that has many benefits for the creator. Because D&D players are fantasists, and fantasists are creators, that population of gamers has enjoyed those benefits even if they don’t translate to a career as a best selling novelist or a high octane action star. And anecdotally, we know that being around creative people is fun and makes us happy, so the rest of the non-gaming world has benefited, too.

 

On a personal note, the existence of D&D gave me system by which to organize my creativity. before I discovered D&D at age 10 in 1985, my brothers and I played fantasy games we made up ourselves (usually involving hitting one another with sticks). I played by myself, having riotous adventures in the barn when I thought no one was looking (and my mother was watching via the horse foaling cameras we had installed). I wrote stores about heroes  with shining “sords” and dragons whose eyes “glew” before I had ever read a book myself (what I would not give to have a copy of that notebook today). It was D&D, though, that allowed me to take all of those fantasies and wrangle them into a way that not only were they ordered for myself, but they could be shared with others. D&D gave me a venue. It also gave me the greatest friendships I have ever had and still have, but that is another post entirely.

 

So to all the gamers out there, from the most famous to the most common, I say: happy anniversary and Game On.