When The Watchmen Escape

A conversation on my Patreon the other day saw one of my patrons make the following point:

“Alan Moore was clearly pointing out that superheros were, by nature, indulging in sado-masochistic escapism, and their exploits should not be seen as heroic in any way.”

I’m going to take partial issue with those ideas, because I think that if that is Moore’s point, he fails to achieve it, at least in the way he wanted to.

Watchmen is a challenging and staggering work, no doubt, and one I have admired since reading it. And I partially agree with the statement: the Watchmen really aren’t heroic. Rorschach and the Comedian are psychopaths, theist and nihilist sides of the same coin. Ozymandias is a Stalinist tyrant, willing to slaughter his way to world peace, the Silk Spectres and the  Night Owls are dilettantes, using “crime-fighting” as a means to fame and self-esteem. Finally, there’s Dr. Manhattan, who is too powerful to be heroic in any true sense.

But is “not heroic” the same as “escapist?” While the Silk Spectres and the Night Owls, I think, can justly be accused of attempting to “escape” from the hard realities of the problem of crime, it strikes me that the other four are, in fact, finding their own ways of addressing what they see as cold, hard reality, and we see four separate means of engagement.

The Comedian considers morality to be a big, meaningless joke, and his response to it is essentially to revel in the knowledge and inflict pain on whoever he feels deserves it at the moment.

Dr. Manhattan is like the Comedian, except that his response to the meaninglessness of life is to disengage and pity humanity, lost in its illusions

Rorschach is the opposite of the Comedian, in that he considers a firm moral compass to be indispensable, but accepts that he will forever struggle against the corruption of an unworthy world, purging it of its worst offenders.

Finally, Ozymandias contrasts with both Rorschach and the Comedian, except that he sees the problem of human evil to be soluble with enough power at the disposal of enough intelligence, while still laughing at the idea that “morality” can apply to a superior being such as himself.

Of these four, only Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias can be said to be seeking “escape” from the realities of human life. Dr. Manhattan does it by denying, and Ozymandias does it by — if coldly and with horrible calculation — affirming its value. Rorschach and the Comedian — the psychopaths — escape nothing. They embrace what they perceive as reality, and dive into it headlong. To call them escapist would be to deny the problem of evil they face. But if there is no problem, then from what are they being accused of seeking to “escape?”

J.R.R. Tolkien, on having heard that fantasy was being denounced in high literary circles as “escapist” is quoted by C. S. Lewis as having responded, “What kind of men are so concerned that people might ‘escape?’ Only jailers.”

And so I must ask, if Alan Moore is trying to rail against the escapism of comics, who is doing the escaping? Is it the Comedian, trying to escape his responsibility as a moral being? Is it Rorschach, trying to escape the futility of life? Surely they cannot both be trying to escape: they are running in opposite directions. One of them is running the right way.

Or is the true escapist Alan Moore, who does not want to face that very dilemma?


How To Break The Rules

Like every other endeavor, creative or not, fiction has rules. And it has more rules than I could possibly list here, in all sorts if categories, from character (we have to care about your character) to plot (you have to have a climax) to basic writing mechanics (you have to have consistent sentence structure).

And every single one of these rules can be, and has been, successfully broken.

Now the problem with this is that a lot of beginning writers, frustrated with the rules they are accused of breaking, latch on to the above sentence and pick an example of great, rule-breaking fiction, let’s say, Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” and say, “See! It’s a great story told in mostly exposition with no characters. I can do whatever I want, WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” and then write awful dreck and start screaming and crying that Teh Eeevul Establishments (Patriarchy/Left Wing Gatekeepers/Cishet Scum) Does Nawt Rekunnize Muh GEENyus.

This is dumb. This is very dumb.  This is like my nine year-old son who keeps wanting to make movies based loosely off Star Wars and games based loosely off Minecraft only with all the tension taken out. Except he has an excuse: he’s nine. Actual writers have to be adults.

So, here is what I have learned about how breaking the rules really works. I’ll give an example from my own story, “Requiem With Interruptions,” which was my second published story, sold to a pro magazine. In it, I broke three rules:

1) Never have more than one viewpoint character in a story.
2) Never have more than one type of POV (point-of-view)  in a story.
3) Never switch tense in a story.

So, how did I break these rules and still have a saleable story? Well, let’s look at why these rules exist in the first place. The rules — most rules in fiction, in fact — exist so that you do not confuse the reader. Readers do not like being confused. They like being puzzled to a certain degree, but that is not the same thing. Leading the reader into a mystery while making them wonder what is going on is a purposefully-crafted technique. Confusion is just an accident. The challenge, therefore, was how to create the effect I wanted, which was to puzzle and intrigue the reader, without confusing them.

So first, I came up with my own rules, governing how the story would be presented:
1) There would be a 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person-limited POV.
2) 1st person and 3rd person would always be in past tense. 2nd person would always be in present tense.
3) The order these POVs would be presented in would be strictly cyclical: From 2nd to 1st to 3rd, and then repeating.

By doing this, I was presenting chaos in order. The reader never had to figure out where we were. The rhythm was clear. Which leads me to my first induction: The more you break some rules, the more strictly you must adhere to the other rules. I did not mess around with plot structure. I did not mess around with things like antiheroes. I did not (much) mess around with weird sentence structure. Every rule broken served a purpose. Which leads to my second induction: You break rules for clearly understood reasons.
Nonconformity for its own sake isn’t cool. At best, it’s showing off. At worst, it looks like the arrogance of ignorance, and Dunning-Kruger isn’t a famous author. And this leads to a corollary: The more you like breaking the rules, the better you have to know them.

Okay, I hope this helps anyone out there who is still on an earlier stage of writing than me. Go learn and break rules in good health.

Harry Potter And The Invisible Curriculum

It’s been a long day. Sick wife. Patreon Rewards due. Novel writing. Trying to land a more permanent day job. All (except the first one) good things, but tiring. So I’m just going to pen a short rant here:

It strikes me that the greatest feat of magic ever produced at Hogwarts was its ability to teach those kids things like grammar, composition, and basic math without ever having taught any classes in it. Harry Potter writes better than most of my juniors, and to my knowledge he was never assigned a single essay nor asked to read a single work of literature or piece of technical writing.

If I were a completely humorless scold obsessed with defending all aspects of my identity from the slightest hint of disrespect, I might scream at Rowling about this, as she obviously feels such instruction unnecessary, and I can only laugh bitterly at how wrong she is.

However, I can’t help thinking that there must be the potential for a whole treasure trove of secondary adventures at Hogwarts: Harry Potter and the Misplaced Modifier. Harry Potter and the Greatest Common Factor. Harry Potter and the Supporting Paragraphs. Harry Potter and the Law of Sines. Harry Potter and the Periodic Table. And of course, that page-turner, Harry Potter and the Five-Paragraph Theme of DOOM.

I may turn these into flash fiction for my Patreon supporters someday. Mention it in the comments if you’d support me in exchange for that.

The Heinlein Hypocrisy II: A Superior God

“Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.”

“Intermission: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, pp. 243-24

I’ve always found it funny that Heinlein wrote this twelve years after his most famous work, Stranger In A Strange Land, in which Heinlein’s attempt seemed very much to be to dream up a God (or at least an Archangel) superior to human religions. I will, of course, admit to seeing some truth in the statement. Pagan gods are famous for their sexual exploits and selfish behavior. When it comes to the God of the Bible, I am going to disagree with him, though I know that many readers will just as vociferously agree. However, the discussion of whether the God of the Bible is open to such charges and the refutation of them would be material for an entire column in and of itself, and as that is not the purpose, I will simply note my disagreement for what it unarguably is: mine.

The problem I have with Stranger In A Strange Land is not that it plays around with the idea of religion, especially organized religion. That’s fair enough. But what I find interesting, and a bit hypocritical about SF writers is this: when they try to create their own gods that are superior to the gods we already have, they inevitably do so by creating a fairly standard god and then subtracting the characteristics they happen to find irrelevant. I have already pointed out in an earlier column that Arthur C. Clarke does this in Childhood’s End  with the Overmind.  Like the God of the Bible, it is an immense, near-omnipotent force. Unlike the God of the Bible it simply can’t be bothered to notice anything more insignificant than a new species to be incorporated into itself and is quite happy to maintain a slave species in perpetuity to assure itself of growth. It kills without remorse or compassion, and exists without love. But surely, growth means that you become more, not that you become less. As an adult, I have learned to appreciate whiskey. I have not stopped appreciating ice cream. And while it is true, there are games that my children love which now bore me to tears, my inability to enter fully into those modes of play is a fault in me, not something laudable.

Heinlein’s case is more complex. Heinlein as a writer was far superior to Clarke in engaging the human condition. In my last Heinlein post, I acknowledged that Heinlein was one of my favorite agnostics/atheists, and this is one of the reasons why. As an aside, Heinlein’s inner monologue in which Jubal Harshaw considers the problem of perceiving the divine is one of the most perceptive and honest engagements with the issue that I have ever seen from the agnostic point of view, and his wry look at those who believe in random chance as a primary cause is just as cutting as his engagement with religion. Valentine Michael Smith’s Church Of All Worlds in philosophy is pantheistic: Thou Art God (and so is everyone else). In the novel, the simple act of learning the Martian language (although it is not simple, of course) is sufficient to imbue the learner with  a mode of understanding that makes people morally perfect and grants them godlike powers. And I have to admit that in this, I actually see a mirror of what Paul and Christ did teach. This is in fact what “being transformed by the renewing of your minds” would look like if the Church ever actually accomplished it (though the miraculous powers might or might not follow). Obviously, such accomplishments have been exceedingly rare and transitory if they ever existed.

So what, one might ask, is my problem with it? What is missing? I would argue that what is missing is any concept of justice. Now, to be honest, I am not sure whether Heinlein would ridicule the notion that justice is something that humans “need.” However, in Time Enough For Love, one of Lazarus Long’s quotes was: “The more you love, the more you can love–and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had Time Enough, he could Love all of the majority who are decent and just.” He also said “The only sin is hurting others unnecessarily.” This seems to imply that sin and justice are things Heinlein recognized. Then what is to be done with the sinners? Heinlein has no answer for this, it seems. The Church of the New Revelation that ends up lynching Valentine Michael Smith causes great hurt to others unnecessarily. And yet, it’s almost as though it doesn’t matter, because everyone is immortal anyway. Even Foster himself is an archangel in the end, just like Michael. And Digby, who poisoned Foster. And if someone like Foster can end up as an archangel, then one might reasonably ask what the point is of anything? If it does not matter, then why does it matter? What is the point of cherishing loyalty and duty, as Heinlein called them, the two finest inventions of the Human mind, if they produce nothing superior than that which would be produced without them? In fact, what seems to be produced by the Church of Many Worlds is not better, more just people, but only people who have more fun, overseen by what C.S. Lewis called, Our Grandfather In Heaven: “a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’” All well and good but we have ended up exactly where Heinlein started his objection: with a god no better than its maker.

It’s possible I’m judging Heinlein too harshly. He himself said of the book “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers … It is an invitation to think – not to believe” (Vonnegut). Well, fair enough. There’s a lot in the book to think about. But surely it would be disingenuous to think that Heinlein was, if not giving a social blueprint, at least proposing what a “real” religion might look like, and if so, he has hardly met his own criteria for what a truly inspiring god might be like.

I think the author who has in recent years most closely approached the idea of what a god might look like is Lois McMaster Bujold and her Holy Family as portrayed in The Curse of Chalion. They are anthropomorphic, yes, but they are good, and while their expectations of humanity are not high, they are awe-inspiring for the lengths they will go to, in spite of their limitations, to care even for individual humans.

Vonnegut, Kurt, “Heinlein Gets The Last Word” New York Times On The Web. Dec. 9, 1990.




Retro Movie Rant: A Brief Defense of X-Men 3

I think I was one of the few people who actually had anything like good feelings for the last X-Men movie of the original trilogy, X3, The Last Stand.

And there were things that upset me about it, most notably Scott “Cyclops” Summers’ death offscreen.

But overall, I found that the complaining was without much merit. It seemed to me that mostly, the audience was upset that the screenwriters and director had chosen to make a tragedy, in which the old X-men fought, and half of them died, for their ideals.

I mean, I have some sympathy with those who get stuck with a story they didn’t want. But in many ways, I felt the movie did an excellent job of portraying the costs of war, both between humans and mutants, and between mutants and mutants. You don’t go into that and not suffer loss. You don’t go into it and not come out scarred. And the characters who survived took up roles they had never really wanted, and found that they could do what their mentors would have wanted.

It was, to turn a phrase, not the movie we wanted, but perhaps a movie that we deserved to see.

How To Structural Fiction: A Workable Plot

I don’t know how many writers or would-be-writers I have here, but I’m going to pass on a very simple lesson that I learned from the late, great Algis Budrys at Writers Of The Future. Because while hardly any new writers need “an idea” as earlier discussed, many need to know what to do with that idea. So here is a plot structure that intrinsically works:
At least one protagonist.
At least one problem (and this is important) solvable by the protagonist!

Step 1: The protagonist encounters the problem. This is generally your hook. If this is a long-standing problem (like, say, the protagonist has a terminally-ill child and has had for years) then the problem must become immediate.

Step 2: The protagonist attempts to solve the problem using a reasonable amount of intelligence and the resources available.

Step 3: The protagonist fails. Ideally, the protagonist fails in a way that costs him something, or makes the situation worse, or reveals something to her about the nature of the problem.

Step 4: The protagonist attempts to solve the problem using what he has learned the first time to bring more resources to bear.

Step 5: She fails again, more severely or learning more.

Step 6: The crisis is now imminent. The character is out of some resource (this may include time) necessary to solve the problem. She throws everything valuable to her at solving the problem, knowing there will be no other chances.

Step 7: The character triumphs against great odds. Or, if the story is a tragedy, she may fail. Note that the character losing his life does not necessarily count as failure.

This formula gets you a functional story.

At this point, some objections may occur to you, such as:

That’s not the only way to write a story!

You are right. I never said it was.

Fiction is more than a formula!

Of course it is. And people are more than skeletons. Nevertheless, people work very BADLY without skeletons, or with incomplete or damaged skeletons.

Wouldn’t that make all stories the same?

Again, only in the sense that having practically the same skeleton as most other people means that YOU are qualitatively “the same” as all other people. In other words, not at all.

In any case, that concludes the brief lesson. For many of you, it won’t be necessary, but it was valuable to me when I read it, and in that spirit, I pass it on.

Fiction Update: What’s New In My Worlds

I am interrupting your regularly scheduled blog today to bring you news of new and awesome publications!

It’s been kind of a slow year so far for new fiction. I find that frustrating because there’s a whole lot behind the scenes that is in the process of happening, (more on that below) but very little that has actually happened. This means that there’s not a lot new for my readers to read.

So, what I’m doing over on my Patreon Page is I’m launching a new kind of story, a sort of series of humorous vignettes, called “Signs From A Generation Ship.” And we all know the problem: You launch a huge ship across the horrifying void of space on a journey of 1000 years, hoping that your great-great-great-great-ad absurdum-grandkids will get there, but how do you stop them from forgetting they’re on a ship and blowing themselves up when they, I don’t know, try to free God from the fusion reactor, or look for supplies on the other side of that big, sealed double door? What kind of warnings do you post? Here’s a snippet:

Publication BDCH4135M

Location: Helm Station (embedded in the padding, back of helmsman’s chair)

Title: Welcome To The Control Room!

Hello! Judging by the fact that you are ripping apart the chairs, we must assume that you may be the first person(s) to visit the Control Room (or “Bridge”) for quite some time, possibly even for generations. We hope you are literate. If so, please locate a copy of Publication AA1: Your World Is A Ship, hopefully still available in many cabins and public spaces. If you are semi-literate, TAKE BOOK TO READER. DO NOT BURN FOR WARMTH. If not, the flashing red button will play this message in an audio file unless you press it.

This recording is not the voice of a ghost or an evil spirit. It was hidden by your ancestors in case a mutiny or other disaster caused your people to forget their origins. For a detailed description of these origins, please refer to the aforementioned Publication AA1.

In the meantime, the machines surrounding you are very complicated and vital to maintaining your life and that of your children for the foreseeable future, which is why it is so important that you DO NOT TOUCH ANY OF THE BUTTONS OR DISTURB ANY MORE OF THE ARTIFACTS IN THIS ROOM. SERIOUSLY, LEAVE EVERYTHING IN THIS ROOM ALONE! IF YOU TOUCH ANYTHING IN THIS ROOM YOU MAY CONDEMN EVERYTHING YOU KNOW AND LOVE TO A HIDEOUS AND PAINFUL DEATH.

To discover whether you or others before you have already condemned everything you know and love to a hideous and painful death, please complete the following steps:

1) Look at the Astrogation Station. That is the panel with three large screens on it.

2) On the upper small screen, there is a gold circle projected. If there is a star glowing within the circle, please leave the Control Room immediately, barricade it with severe warnings and guard it with your lives until the Voice Of Arrival Protocol instructs you or your descendants what to do. Guard it with your lives.

3) If there is no star in the circle, continue to disassemble this chair. Ignore the pamphlet buried in the column. Flip open the transparent cover and press the large, red button.

4) Use the countdown to pray to whatever God(s) your people revere.

This story will update Monday, Wednesday and Friday on my Patreon until I run out of signs, and is yours for the low price of $1.00 per month. Additionally, you will receive my novelette, The Chrysalyx, a tale of steampunk intrigue in the alternate 1920s, downloadable as a .mobi file.

Chrysalyx Cover Done

So, what’s in the process of happening? Well, what’s coming up is…

  • “All The Colors Of The Darkness,” the story of a girl blinded to keep her from developing her natural talents as a witch, will be appearing sometime this year from Lethe Press in their Survivor anthology.
  • “Crying By Remote Control,” the story of a woman who must use prosthetic emotions, has just been accepted to the anthology Mind Candy 2.
  • On The Wings Of The Morning, an anthology of my no-longer-easily-available work will be coming from Digital Fiction later this year.

Also, the novel I’m working for at Digital Fiction is nearly halfway done.

So that’s it. Please support me on Patreon; I’ll make it worth your while.



Is It Just Me, Or Is THE EXPANSE What’s Between Julie Mao’s Ears?

If you’re currently watching Seasons 1 and 2 of THE EXPANSE or plan to do so in the future, please be aware there be spoilers here.

Okay, so first off, I really do like THE EXPANSE. It’s a fine show, with great interplanetary sci-fi action, and wonderful acting. I haven’t gotten around to starting Season 3, yet, but that is a question of time, which is in very short supply right now.

But I have to ask, am I the only person who thinks that Julie Mao was a complete idiot? I mean, the character herself is understandable, and is a great example of overused-trope-done-well. She’s a spoiled child of privilege who decides that the pathway to righteousness and holiness is to wreck Evil Daddy’s stuff. She’s determined to become the White savior (Asian savior, yeah, I know, but the principle is the same, and that sort of thing seems to have shifted a bit in the intervening 200 years) of the downtrodden Belters. So far, she’s not really different from today’s trickle of rich white kids who decide to go join ISIS or a leftist terrorist group because Mommy and Daddy didn’t fulfill them enough and there’s poor people and this proves that AMERIKKKA IS TEH EVILZ!!

But Julie outguns these poor saps because she knows that her Daddy is actually screwing around with something that’s apparently a fusion of nuclear weapons, killer AI and zombie virus, so she decides to arrange to steal it. And apparently is utterly unconcerned that she might be playing with something she barely comprehends, is incapable of controlling, and might cause literally billions of deaths if she screws up.

Hmm. Is it an accident that Julie’s name is “Mao?”

And then of course, like so many in her actual situation, is shocked to discover that she and her friends are actually the low-level bottom feeders of politics rather than an unstoppable revolutionary force, and that she has been outthought and played, all of which leads to her death and the deaths of — “revolutionaries” take note — thousands of people, almost all of whom are the very “downtrodden Belters” she was trying to “save.”

I’m sure the people of Eros were very grateful to her.

In the end, Julie Mao reminds me of no one so much as Osama bin Laden. All for the cause, kumrads! And it matters not how many we kill, because our ideology is pure!

Or am I missing something?

Honestly, I can forgive Julie Mao because she does come to a pretty bad end, and the character of the detective who falls in love with her because she represents to him a willingness to fight for what he’s given up on is compelling. I’m honestly not certain whether the writers wanted us to see irony in Julie Mao or whether they were in earnest. Hell, maybe I AM missing something. Thoughts?

The Law Of Diminishing Cool Stuff

One of the great misconceptions that readers (and non-readers) have about writers is that “ideas” are valuable. “Where do you get your ideas” is to a writer, of course, that most useless of questions, much like asking an artist where he gets his canvas or where she gets her clay. It’s just there, and if it’s a mystery to you, then you need to look at the world (and possibly art, whatever your “art” is) a lot more.

So writers are never out of ideas, and in fact generally have the opposite problem. One of my great regrets is that if I were able to become a full-time author right now I could easily write for the rest of my life and never run out of “ideas.” Conservatively, I estimate that there are at least four entire novels and five short stories, apart from the novel I am actually drafting and the one I am revising that I could be working on from the ideas I have now. I will have more.

In fact, the problem I now have come face to face with is in the novel I am revising. It was pointed out to me by my editor that I had been sloppy with my portrayal of black-powder weapons. Well, guilty. I wrote them well enough to fool the average reader (and myself, and at least one other history teacher) but not well enough for this editor’s readers. Guilty as charged.

While I haven’t gone fully into this revision yet (mostly because I’m drafting that other novel, see above) a LOT of ideas — a lot of really COOL ideas — on how to solve this have been flitting around my head. The problem, and the point of this post, is that I have reached the point of what I must call The Law Of Diminishing Cool. In other words, most of the things I can do to make the guns more awesome in ONE direction are completely inconsistent with the ways the gun is already cool in ANOTHER direction. For example, I could reduce the guns’ loading time by making introducing cartridges, or making them breechloaders. But if I do that, I lose a really cool scene featuring a ramrod. Breechloaders don’t NEED ramrods. Or, as it turns out, there really was once a repeating air rifle that saw military service! Lewis and Clark took one with them on their expedition because it didn’t need gunpowder! The Austrian Army was, at about the same time, fully equipped with them! But if I make them do THAT, I lose a really cool scene that relies on the guns having a muzzle flash. Air rifles don’t HAVE muzzle flashes.

There’s no easy way around this, although I am both looking forward to and dreading the thought process I need to solve this problem.  But you can’t just ignore it. Too many famous franchises have ignored this. They can, because people will watch them anyway. But when they do, you get really stupid consequences and lack of continuity, like in Star Wars, where the original series establishes that Force use runs in families, but then the prequels decide that Jedi are essentially Space Monks who can’t have families, but on the other hand, they also want potential Jedi kids to be trained from approximately age 3, and they ALSO want to keep Jedi from falling to the Dark Side.

Now all four of those ideas, taken separately, make some sense. It’s cool to have Jedi abilities run in families, so that Luke must take down Darth Vader. It’s cool that the Jedi are enjoined against attachment, so that Anakin can’t just marry Amidala and live happily ever after. It’s cool that Jedi must be trained from a young age. And it’s sensible that you don’t want Jedi falling to the Dark Side.

Together, these ideas are a mess. If Jedi have to be trained from a young age, wouldn’t it be best if their parents started it, and had a good idea of who they were? And if you DON’T want Jedi to turn to the Dark Side, and the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive,” wouldn’t you HAVE to train everyone, just to avoid Sith?

The answer to this is that a writer has to practice discipline. As much as you want to, you can’t just do all the ideas at once. That way lies Star Wars. I mean madness. I confuse those these days.