No Ordinary People: The Weight Of Glory And What C.S. Lewis Can Teach Us About Notre Dame

From “The Weight Of Glory,” by C.S. Lewis

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people.

You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.

We must play.

But our merriment must be of that kind… which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.

Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

I was thinking similar thoughts to this as I considered the destruction of the Notre Dame cathedral over the past two days. The loss of that incredible piece of art is simply unfathomable. And I was very glad to hear that the loss is not as bad as first reports led me to believe. I will be very glad if it is confirmed that the cause of the destruction was indeed accident, because I hope no one would wish to commit such a terrible act, or that those who do wish it would be prevented.

The Notre Dame Cathedral, like any incredible work of art, is not a person. In some ways, in fact, it is more than a person, because it has added to, inspired, and provided comfort for people in ways that another person simply cannot do. What art does is not what people do. If people could do what art does for people, then we would have no need for art. So it is not wrong to mourn the loss, nor to be shocked and saddened by it. Hardly any person could mean what great art means to so many people.

And yet, in the end, the Notre Dame Cathedral is so much less than a person. It is unique, and complex, and storied, and ancient. But speaking as an educated man, I know that it is less, not more complex than a single human being. Speaking as a Christian, I am bound to profess that not all the works of art on the planet can be equal to the story of a single unique human soul wrought by the Creator. And as Lewis reminds us, its ancientry is nothing measured against eternity.

The real tragedy is not that Notre Dame has burned. Not even if it burned to the foundations and was lost as utterly as the Library Of Alexandria. The real tragedy is that all of us not only assent to, but actively participate in, burning and destroying each other’s souls every day. Social media is only the most obvious battlefield.

I do not think that in our fallen world we can do otherwise. Scripture itself tells us that the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost. So many of our temples are desecrated, by others and by themselves. Some of us seem determined to burn ourselves down. Our problem is that we live amid an embarrassment of riches: there are eight billion of us, and so many die, or worse, every day, that we can only notice the loss of those that are especially “valuable” (God, what a blasphemy) to the majority or to those in power. Or those who are close to us. Notre Dame we can notice: there is only one of it.

We know we must do better than this. The barest vestige of moral sense demands it. But it is beyond us. To do otherwise than as we do would be to be perfect. It is, in fact, not enough to do “better.” Ten times better, or a hundred, would still leave countless eternal souls burned and destroyed. Would still leave us walking amid the suffering shells of living cathedrals. But this alone should awake us to the terror of our state. To make us cry out for a Savior who can reconcile us to the God whose eternal children we daily destroy.

I suppose that this is why I wrote this. I am under no illusion that a blog post will stop human suffering, nor cause our species as a whole to stop doing what we do so well. But waking up one person? Well, maybe.

Postscript Note: I realize, of course, that not all readers will share my faith. Discussion is invited. Trolling is not, and will be removed or simply not allowed. Thank you.

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Very Nearly Award-Winning Author Very Nearly Wins Another Award!!

I very nearly won an award today, which puts my lifetime of very nearly won awards at 3.

The award I very nearly won was the annual Revise & Resub contest (#RevPit on Twitter), which allows you to win a full five-week editing session with an editor you choose from a list. I came in 2nd of 100 for my manuscript ACROSS THE ENDLESS OCEAN. So that’s not too shabby. I will get my query, first page, and synopsis formally edited. That’s not nearly as cool as getting the whole manuscript done, but it’s probably worth at least $100 if I was paying for it, so I’m not complaining. I learned a lot through the process, and recommend it to anyone who’s querying novels.

An Open Letter To The Manufacturers of the Spice Melange

Dear CHOAM Company,

I would like to take the time to complain about your spice “MELANGE (a genuine Arrakis product!) It is my opinion that not only is your overhyped and overpriced, but is deceptive and dangerous as well. My own family’s case will prove illustrative.

My wife came home with a jar of melange about six months ago, for which she paid the exorbitant price of $575. While the jar was approximately the size of the other jars in our spice rack, we were surprised and dismayed to discover that within the jar stood barely enough melange to be visible, and no, I am afraid that thoughtful as it was, the microtweezers and hufuf oil magnifying lens included was not enough to significantly improve the inconvenience of digging out enough to use in cooking. Which brings me to my second point. Regardless of your advertising copy that promises “a flavor unmatchable in the known Universe,” the overwhelming impression I got from the scent of melange is cinnamon, the best grade of which is easily purchased at about $10 for a full ounce. As to the claim that melange is “never the same taste twice,” it’s rather ridiculous to make the claim when there is not more than one taste in the jar, even for the most artful of cooks.

Finally, I must question the wisdom of allowing — let alone advertising — the fact that melange is an indispensable part of foldspace drives. I can’t think of any other machine additive I would be well-advised to put on my food and consume. Besides the which, ever since we did use melange on our Thanksgiving apple pie, our familial harmony has been shattered. Not only did no one in the family notice the expense and trouble to which we went, but my wife has been going abut murmuring that she thinks I will divorce her when I discover what she really paid for the jar of spice. My high-school age son has decided it is impossible to pass calculus no matter what he does, and the younger children are all complaining about what they are getting for Christmas, and I haven’t even finished my shopping yet. Plus ever since that meal they youngest one has seemed to be in several places at once.  If the doctor says that’s more than the fact that he’s seven years old, you may advise your legal department that they will be hearing from my lawyers.

Sincerely,

Malcolm Idaho
Duchy of Grumman

memo: write the Ix division about eye treatments, re: younger brother DI

 

Video Game Rant: Faster Than Gossip

I really like 4X Games. My favorites, back in college, were Civilization (yes, I am literally older than Civilization. None of my students get it) and Master Of Orion. Lately, I have been overjoyed to discover Stars In Shadow, which feels like the sequel to Master Of Orion that I always wished had been made and never was. MOO 2 was trying too hard to be Civilization In SPAAAAACE! and MOO 3 is best set on fire and forgotten. But Stars In Shadow has done everything right: Their planetary improvements hit the right balance between monotonous and gimmicky, the ship combat is wonderfully differentiated, with several equally valid styles of play, and the tech tree is interconnected and awesome.

But there is one thing that the game just absolutely falls flat on… the diplomacy.

To be fair, most 4X games handle diplomacy with all the poise and finesse of a drunk Chihuahua. it’s HARD to get AI to simulate negotiation. But the two things that just make me want to punch a fist through the screen are:

  1. The AI Mean Girls Club: No matter what you do in SiS, the AI players know about it. Instantly. And react to it. Instantly. Also, they have an eidetic memory for all your slights. So that means that if I am, say, playing the Gremak, the interstellar slavers, and I enslave members of a race? Everyone knows about it. And everyone cares. I perform experiments on the slaves? That’s instantly known and remembered, too. In fact, races I don’t even know about will show up holding a grudge a hundred turns later. And that sucks because first, it’s a bait-and-switch: “Hey, PC, your race has this super-cool ability, sort of a balance to other races’ super cool abilities you don’t have! But don’t you dare use it, or you will be permanently at war forever, because everybody will hate you!” But it’s not just that: the races will have bad impressions of me because “We heard how you treated the innocent Ashdar!” Which leads to the more important point, that it’s not reciprocal. No one comes to me and says, “Hey just so you know, those evil Orthin have attacked two other races because they noticed that they had inferior navies and thought it would be fun!” No, I get to float in blissful ignorance.
  2. I Don’t Get To Speak The Language: The AI almost always, in these games, has options unavailable to the PC. So I’m constantly getting messages like: “You have a world that is rightfully ours. Return it, and we will stop hating you,” Or, “Sever the diplomatic relations you’ve spent  lot of time forging with our enemies, and remember if you don’t we will dislike you. A lot.” Or, “Give us money and we won’t attack.”
    Meanwhile, I don’t get any of these choices. I can pretty much say, “Let’s have formal relations, let’s have a trade/research treaty, let’s have an open ports treaty/alliance, or let’s have a war.” That’s it. I feel like I am constantly the foreign exchange student just arrived to a gaming party, and I know a third of the language and a quarter of the rules.

I mean, some of these are admittedly hard to code, but hell, the option to demand tribute from enemies was included in Civ I for crying out loud!

You know, it’s still an awesome game. But it really should be better.

Random Stupid Ideas: Rejectomancy Magazine!

Okay, I completely missed yesterday’s blog, because the muse still had not let go of my hair and I was trying to slam out the last 3000 words of an 8000 word story. I finished it this morning, and am now in recovery mode. So here’s Monday’s blog. On Tuesday.

So, have you ever eaten at Ed Debevics? Yeah, it’s that restaurant chain that looks and feels like a fifties diner, only the waitstaff is paid to abuse you by making commentary on your clothes, your face, and your non-participation in singing “YMCA” by the Village People?*

So, I was thinking of this amazing concept, that people would actually pay to be insulted, and how writers are used to being ignored and also see rejection letters — especially personal rejection letters — as good things, and suddenly, an idea was conceived. You ready?

REJECTOMANCY MAGAZINE! The only online magazine in the world where you will submit absolutely knowing that you will be rejected! Takes the guesswork out of it entirely! You send us a story and we GUARANTEE that you will not only GET a rejection, but that it will be a personal and entertaining rejection that WE WILL PUBLISH, telling EVERYONE why we rejected your story!

So not only do we guarantee you a personal response, but WE PUBLISH YOU AS WELL! NOW how does it sound?

All right, so now it’s time for us to answer some questions form our hypothetical audience:

Hypothetical Questioner #1: What, you’re going to reject us, AND publish our story?

A: Hah-hah. No. What are you, stupid? But we will publish the response, maybe with a sentence or two of excerpts designed to highlight your atrocious grammar and impenetrable “style” for the express purposes of a) telling you why we’re not the only people rejecting you and b) making fun of youTechnically, that means that you will have “been published. Sort of.

HQ#2: And you think people will pay for this?

A: Of course not. That would be even harder than getting people to pay money to enter writing contests, which is already stupid and unethical.

HQ#3: But you think people will participate?

A: I don’t know. Possibly. It amounts to offering an honest, albeit tongue-in-cheek and insulting, microcritique. And that’s something a lot of people really do need and want. And the ones who need it most are the least likely to get it. They get form letters.

HQ#4: Well, how do we know you won’t just read the first page and reject us based on that?

A: Um, we absolutely will do that. Do you think pro magazines do differently? The difference is that instead of publishing stories we like, we’ll shred the whole manuscript of those.

HQ#5: What if I send you a story that is so good you just HAVE to publish it?

A: You are EXACTLY the kind of person who needs to submit here, you poor sap.

HQ#6: This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.

A: Maybe. Who wants in?

*Okay, maybe that one was just me.

 

This Blog Pre-empted By The Muse.

You know, I’ll be the first to say that people who spout the line, “I can only write when I’m inspired” are likely wannabe hobbyists who will publish very little. Unless they’ve practiced and honed their craft to the point that they are inspired just about every damn day, in which case, I can only say I envy them.

But don;t ever let anyone tell you that those storms of inspiration don’t happen. They do, and they’re awesome. And I’m in the middle of one now, so I don’t have time to blog. By the way, my Patreon supporters already have a hint of what’s coming. Please consider supporting me if you think it’s worth knowing.

Less Controversial Science-Fiction Rant: The Aliens Who Hate Everything Every Million Years or So.

Am I the only one who is tired of the plot that goes: “Well, you see, a long time ago there was a huge alien race that got pissed off that other people existed, so they decided to wipe everyone back to microbes every now and then.”

Sometimes, there’s a putative cause for it, as in Babylon 5, a series I love. But the whole Vorlon-Shadow war which was like, in the words of John Sheridan, “a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides” was my least favorite part of it. Because it was like watching a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides!! I mean, these were two demi-god-like races! I wanted the war to be over some transcendent disagreement or point of history Not Meant For Man To Know. Instead, it was basically American politics and personal pettiness (but I repeat myself).

David Weber did it a little better with his Achuultani in The Armageddon Inheritance, where the aliens at least have the excuse of being enslaved to an evil AI that can do self-maintenance for millennia.

At its worst, this trope takes the form it did in the game Mass Effect where the ultra-powerful Reapers sterilize the galaxy every million years or so because Reasons.

Folks, this trope is TIRED. And it’s an idiot plot. If the aliens are that powerful, why don’t they just create a fleet of robot ships to go burn the life off every planet that shows cholorophyll? Answer: because DRAMA! They always wait until humanity et al. develop the technology to play David to their Goliath and then get stopped. Also, how is it that the aliens always have this amazing social and political cohesion? They hang around, absolutely loyal to each other and content to do bugger all until the Evolutionary Alarm Clock sounds and reminds them it’s time to get back to slaughtering the Younger Races again.

Enough.

Gaming Rant: The Keymaster and the Gatekeeper Need To Go

Without a doubt, my favorite trope in fantasy RPGs is the cult of the Key and Lock.

This is my name for it, but you all know what I mean: it’s the conceit that the Chosen One, the Dragonslayer, the Bringer Of Destiny who shall Destroy Evil and Restore Peace to The Land, Before Whom None Can Stand…

…cannot break locks, doors, or chests.

I can’t count how many times my quests have been interrupted by the simple presence of a locked chest or a locked door. I can slay dragons, assume a phantom form, produce fire at will, and forge steel all day. But simple wooden planks and iron bars and locks stand in my way as an immovable barrier.

I can just about bet that someone’s going to say it anyway, but just in case it prevents condescending comments: YES, I am aware that game designers have to have a way (or it is most expedient to have a way) to keep players out of, to take just one example, the quests that are led to by other quests. It’s easy to break a game if, for example, you have a player just stumble upon the Elder Scroll before ever learning of the Elder Scroll’s existence. I realize that is a difficult problem to deal with.

The problem isn’t that the barriers exist. The problem is that the barriers take the forms of mundane barriers, when those barriers should be very special, because they guard the way to special places. I can think of any number of ways around this that wouldn’t carry such an overt stench of Because The DM Said So.

  1. Chests and Doors that absolutely needed to stay locked until Quest Time could be made of a magical substance, such as adamantium, utterly resistant to magical/physical damage.
  2. Locks on such Chests and Doors could function only with enchanted keys. You’d really only need to change the dialogue box for this.  Many times, I have come across “This lock can only be opened with a key.” Or “This lock is not pickable.” Replace that with “This lock requires the enchanted key.”
  3. Doors that absolutely must stay locked could function similarly to the Doors Of Moria in The Lord Of The Rings. Until you know the right enchantment or Questing Words, they won’t even appear. Or they will be magical gates. Break them, and you just face a wall.
  4. Chests that need to stay locked could function this way, too: They are invisible until you have discovered how to make them visible. Or appear from the Otherworld. Or they are disguised by a powerful illusion spell as a fire, or a bookcase, or something else that doesn’t look like a chest.
  5. Attempting to break such chests or doors might be known to trigger a one-shot kill, if you’re feeling particularly nasty.
  6. For less game-breaking events, like say, high-power items that you want to delay access to, but aren’t game essential, you could make breaking the chest containing them carry a high chance of destroying the contents.

I realize that to a lot of people, these are nitpicks, and in terms of mechanics, they are. But what makes RPGs great is their immersion. And “You Can’t Because The DM Said So” always breaks immersion. You can’t get away with such things in stories, and you shouldn’t get away with them in games. Not when you don’t have to.

Science-Fiction Rant: Why I Hate Robots

Robots. I have never really understood why there is an obsession with stories about robots. As with fae, I understand the attraction of having robots exist in a story. What I don’t really get is stories about robots. Robots as the reason for the story. Yet many, many people love stories about robots. Isaac Asimov, arguably, built his career on an obsession with robots. I can’t think of any other piece of future technology — with the possible exception of spaceships — that has inspired such a wealth of stories about them. Can you imagine a whole subgenre of SF devoted to, say, laser guns? Or teleporters (apologies to Larry Niven)? Time machines, perhaps, are the most comparable. But the reason I can’t get into them is this: robots are either tools, or they are tools that imitate beings, they are designed to be beings, or they are accidental beings. And in all but one of these cases, stories about them seem to be unnecessary.

Robots Are Tools: These are the robots I have the least objection to in stories, because they’re the most obviously useful. We deal with this type of robot every day, whether we realize it or not. They’re not required to be shaped like humans, and in most cases, they shouldn’t be. But stories about this sort of robot are about as interesting as stories about screwdrivers or reciprocating saws.

Robots Are Tools That Imitate Beings: Now, on a certain level, I can see stories about this working, because it goes to a pretty profound question: is it important that emotions and souls “really” exist? If I create a robot that imitates a being well enough to fool human beings, does it matter that it is just a machine? On the physical level, of course, the answer is no. If I program a robot to feel rage, and then taunt it until it kills me, then I’m just as dead whether it “really” felt the rage or not. And the impact of these questions on humans can be very compelling: how much “love” can you give or receive from a machine?
But on what level can I possibly care about the machine, once it’s established that such a thing is merely an imitation? If that’s all it is, then you might as well try to get me to care about a reciprocating saw that you stuck a smiley face on.

Robots Are Designed To Be Beings: Again, on a certain level, stories like this make sense, especially if they’re focused on the ethics of creating life, and how the created being reacts to its own creation. Some of those are amazing. But ye gods, how many stories in this realm seem to postulate complete idiocy on the part of the creators. You get things like The Matrix Reanimated where humans seem to take joy in creating super-strong, humanoid robots specifically to be abused, complete with pain sensors and the ability to resent being controlled — and then are surprised when the robots revolt. Or more subtly, A.I., where the robot creator creates a human soul in a body that can’t eat, drink or grow. And then we’re supposed to be surprised that he’s created misery? Or Star Wars, where robots apparently have pain sensors for no definable reason. It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of creators who get slaughtered by robots that have been given every reason to slaughter them.

Robots Are Accidental Beings: Now, this is the one type of robot story that I can get behind: the idea that a machine might, given the right self-programming ability, “wake up” to true consciousness, to the surprise of its creators. In this case, it can’t be accused of being an idiot plot, because the humans are, in a sense, exploring the unknown, and they find something unexpected. That’s a reasonable risk. The humans might reasonably not even suspect that the risk exists. Excellent examples of this are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion cycle. But I notice that these stories rarely involve — because they do not need to — actual android-like robots. And why should they? By definition, no one was expecting this robot to take on attributes of human beings. With the exception of a few stories like Terminator 2, where the need for an android-like, accidental intelligence is fairly well justified, most stories of this sort smack of implausibility: “No, we never expected the computer we put in this humanoid body to develop humanoid attributes (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  Either that, or the story smacks more of fantasy than sci-fi, with computer + humanoid body being a voodoo-like spell that magically creates a consciousness because of it looks like a human and talks like a human, it will become a human.

Honestly, one of the best “robot” stories I’ve ever read falls in the cracks of about three of these, which is the excellent “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker, where it’s made pretty deliberately ambiguous whether the titular caregiver-robot is a tool or an accidental being. This was an amazing story that gave a wonderful sense of the alienness of a robot consciousness, while still allowing us to care about it. And, most importantly for this story, a reason that it was a robot and nothing else.

 

Fantasy Rant: Why I Hate Fairies

I was thinking yesterday about why it is that fairy tales repel me.

No, not things like Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. Those stories don’t have fairies in them. I’m not even opposed to those stories that do have fairies in them, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. But for a long time, I’ve found myself turned completely off by stories centered on fairies. Fae. The spirits that show up in rings of mushrooms and live in another dimension where it’s dangerous for mortals to go. But I’ve never figured out why I dislike them so much. Well, aside from the fact that when people write about fairies, one inevitably winds up talking about the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and I just can’t take seriously any story in which the good fairies all remind me of mattress commercials.

And then yesterday I finally figured it out. Basically, fairies, when they’re portrayed authentically (as far as I can tell) are spirits or beings that pretty much just exist to fuck with people. And that’s it. They aren’t ever really portrayed as having any needs, of themselves. They are immortal. The Fairy Kingdom (or whatever we’re calling it this week) provides them with endless food and drink. Their major problem seems to be that they get bored, and when they get bored, they decide to go fuck with each other, or to fuck with people.

Now, the good fairies amuse themselves by occasionally doing helpful things for people, but honestly a lot of their “help” comes with a price, such as Rumplestiltskin might provide. Hey, you didn’t really need that kid, did you? Or they’ll put conditions on their help such that you half kill yourself jumping through hoops to “earn” it. The bad fairies, on the other hand, amuse themselves by straight-up torturing your ass to death.

In other words, fairies are not so much fairies, but trolls. Bored little soulless beings who delight in making misery for people and each other. And the entire human world is their Internet. They dive into it looking for troubled people to torment for shits and giggles. If you engage them, you always get the worst of the bargain. The really bad ones will actively hunt you down and try to drive you to ruin or suicide. And if you dive into their realm, they’ll suck your life away. It’s almost impossible to hurt them. And why do I want to read about miserable creatures like that?