Politics and the escape

Seems like we can’t get rid of politics these days. It’s an election year, combined with a manufactured crisis, a race war, and whatever else is going on in the world. No wonder stress-related health problems have skyrocketed in 2020. Not just for me, but for the whole country.

In times of trouble, when the real world is an awful place to be, I normally turn to fantasy or science fiction. Some people have other escapes, but my strongest has always been my imagination, aided where necessary by the words of “genre” fiction authors. The past decade has allowed me to make my mark, and I have consistently stated that I write what I do because I am, at heart, an escapist.

But it’s getting harder and harder to avoid the thorny political problems of the world around me by diving into a novel. That isn’t because I’m having trouble reading. Oh, no. Since being placed under effective house arrest in March, I’ve read more than a dozen different books. Most are nonfiction, history or science books that caught my eye. A couple were fiction, part of my ever-growing “books to read” pile.

I have others in that. I started reading Brent Weeks’ The Burning White this week. Blood of Empire (Brian McClellan) still waits. The Infernal Battalion? Still untouched. And so on.

Why haven’t I been reading as much speculative fiction? If you asked me a while back, I’d say it was because I didn’t have enough time. Or I didn’t feel like committing to it. Those are both lies, of course. I’ve got nothing but time. I have no problem rereading my own novels. I don’t mind checking out an archaeological history of England, a humorous account of mathematical errors, or a study of idioms originating in the King James Bible.

No, my present problem with fantasy and sci-fi boils down to politics. As part of my treatment for depression and anxiety, I’ve been tasked with a series of introspective exercises, and those have helped me come to terms with this.

In a nutshell

It isn’t politics per se that turned me off fantasy. I don’t mind a novel with political wrangling, as long as there’s a good story in there. But I feel like I’ve read all of those. Martin has basically stopped writing. So has Scott Lynch. Jim Butcher needed six years to come up with a new Dresden Files entry, and the reviews I’ve seen of Peace Talks say it’s incomplete at best.

I’m not even opposed to political allegory, if done properly. I mean, I’d be a hypocrite if I said otherwise. My Nocturne, written in November-December 2016, was unabashedly political. (Funny how its themes are still relevant now.) I don’t mind exploring an important topic through the metaphorical lens of fiction.

But there are good and bad ways to go about it. Lately, I see too many authors—prominent, professional authors who really should know better—taking the bad route. It’s one thing to write a character, even a central character, to hold a firm opinion on an issue. I’ve done it often. In my Otherworld series, Ashley starts out as a stereotypical feminist, while Damonte is openly socialist. Martevis, a protagonist of my Hidden Hills novels, might have common friends, but he retains an aristocratic view of social class. The Modern Minds short stories feature a character whose mother is a very…zealous evangelical.

Too often, the pros I once idolized have made the decision not to write characters like those. Instead, they preach. It’s not enough for the characters to believe in a cause. No, the narrator has to believe in it, too, even when that narrator has no connection to them. And the cause has to be front and center at every possible opportunity, whether or not it contributes to the progression of the story.

Most of the examples I see in fiction today are of the leftist bent. As I’ve stated in prior posts, I’m, well, not. “Classical liberal” is the closest label I’ve found to describe my leanings, and it’s far from perfect. But I’m not complaining because I disagree with the politics. I’d say the same thing if the narrative preaching were progressive, conservative, libertarian, authoritarian, anarchist, or any other form you could imagine. (Seriously. Ask me about Ayn Rand sometime.)

No, it’s not that I don’t like what you’re saying. It’s that I can’t stand how you’re saying it. Berating the reader is never a good recipe for success. Beating me over the head with political theory in what was supposed to be a fun, relaxing escape from reality takes away any joy I might have gained.

Illustration 1: The Expanse

It wouldn’t be a PPC post without some illustrative examples, so here’s what I’m ranting about this time. First, The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey. I enjoyed the opening book, Leviathan Wakes. It got me back into space-based sci-fi after a decade away. And the series continued to impress. Cibola Burn had some major plot holes, Babylon’s Ashes was forgettable, but the whole thing was just so fun and refreshing.

In the seventh book, Persepolis Rising, I became thoroughly disillusioned. It was around that point that I noticed there were no stable, monogamous, heterosexual relationships anywhere, except for the villains. Holden and Naomi are content to FWBs. Alex is coming off one failed marriage when the series starts; he adds a second in the 30-year jump between books 6 and 7. Amos is a psychopath who avoids commitment. Holden’s “parents” are a group of seven people who did some genetic trickery to have a baby sharing DNA with all of them—mostly for tax purposes, not because they wanted to perpetuate their lineages.

Yet there are plenty of…alternative arrangements that take center stage. In Abaddon’s Gate, we see a lesbian couple whose names I can’t remember. Babylon’s Ashes has Pa and her polyamorous crew. The only “traditional” family that gets more than a brief mention is that of Duarte, in Persepolis Rising. The megalomaniacal Martian who (spoiler alert!) ends up conquering the entire solar system with the help of alien technology is just about the only man with any serious screen time who has a wife and a child. Earth’s population had somehow reached fifteen billion by the starting point of this series, and I’m left wondering how.

The Expanse’s political browbeating doesn’t stop there, alas. Early books were fairly neutral. Earth has its share of good and bad. Belters very naturally develop a terrorist wing due to their constant persecution. As the series progresses, however, it takes a hard left turn. Corporations are ubiquitous in the setting, but they are rarely, if ever, shown in a positive light. The idea of “consent of the governed” is widely viewed as fringe, if not crazy.

The killing blows, in my opinion, are twofold. Persepolis Rising introduces the new bad guys, and I couldn’t help but imagine the authors (James S. A. Corey is a shared pseudonym) saying, “Why don’t you understand that we’re talking about Trump?” It’s okay to base a foe off an important historical figure, but this is much too transparent. Adding insult to injury is the way essentially every male character has been marginalized or emasculated. In the future, apparently, boys aren’t allowed to have heroes.

Illustration 2: Demon Cycle

Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle series is another one I liked to start. The Warded Man was a great book, and I’ve sung its praises on this site before. Brett has a great worldbuilding mind. He can handle dialect, something few others bother to try. And he made a great antihero in Arlen Bales.

It’s everything else that’s the problem. The enemies of the setting are the Krasians, who are best described as Muslim ninjas crossed with the Bene Gesserit from Dune. Arlen’s first meeting with them is as a trader who joins their fight against the nocturnal demons who haunt the world. He leaves in disgrace, beaten and raped, and this seems to be a common theme in the series. Okay, that happened in history. Not so bad, right?

But it goes downhill from there, in my opinion. The patriarchal, indeed misogynistic (and I, unlike your average Twitter user, do not use that term lightly), Krasians are secretly controlled by their women. Their emperor’s wife uses blood magic to control his mind—when sex doesn’t work, anyway. His daughter secretly creates a women-only assassin squad. The whole thing is more full of holes than the official coronavirus narrative.

It takes away from what was otherwise a decent, innovative fantasy series. The whole message at every turn seems to be “White men can’t do anything right unless they’re helped.” Arlen was a prodigy, but he’s about the only one. Rojer comes across as somewhat bumbling, and ends being manipulated by women. Jeph, Arlen’s father, is just plain pathetic. Every other white male character is an oaf, an opportunist, or a cuckold. Meanwhile, the women of the setting rule everything, whether behind the scenes or out in the open.

Go broke

If that phenomenon were limited to a single series in fantasy or sci-fi, I wouldn’t have much to say. I’d just not read those books. But this is pervasive, and it all goes in only one direction now. It’s the same problem Hollywood has. It’s the same problem video games have. Story so often takes a back seat to diversity, yet diversity of thought is never allowed. The good guys must never be just guys, for instance, because that’s sexist. Capitalism always results in dystopia. Religion is only ever tyrannical, unless it’s tribal shamanism, in which case it’s the most powerful force in the world.

But that’s not an escape. If I wanted to read about the black transgender heroine facing off against the evil colonial corporation that’s all-white, I’d just go on Tumblr, or Reddit, or Twitter, or Mastodon, or…you get the idea.

Fantasy worlds aren’t ours. They don’t have our problems; they have their own instead. I’ve written scores of articles about this very thing, but it’s only getting worse. The political cancer has spread into my last refuge. Is it any wonder I’m depressed, or that I’ve switched to reading history and science books?

I don’t care what you believe. If you want to think that communism is great, fine by me. I vehemently disagree, but that’s your right. Think that America should expel anyone who isn’t a white Christian? I’ll oppose you with all I’ve got, but I won’t stop you from expressing your opinion. Until your ideology infringes on my rights, it’s none of my business.

That said, is there any reason to force it into your writing? The answer, of course, is a resounding no. Nothing should be forced. That’s just poor writing. You may pat yourself on the back for making your characters so “woke” that you get all the internet points, but it doesn’t make them deeper. Cardboard cutouts are boring no matter where they fall on the Political Compass.

No, if you can’t be subtle about it, leave the real-world politics in the real world. I didn’t come to your book for a lecture on how awful the conservatives/progressives/whatever are. I came to get away from that.

Summer Reading List 2020: Finale

The past few weeks have been utterly miserable for me. What reading I’ve done has mostly come while I was eating, because that’s the only time I can keep my mind focused on something other than how awful I feel. That I managed to finish two more books despite the depression, the anxiety, and now the dissociation boggles my mind.

But enough about that. Let’s see the other two entries in the Summer Reading List Challenge for the worst year ever.

History (non-fiction)

Title: Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom Author: Paul Gething and Edoardo Albert Genre: History/archaeology Year: 2012

I’m an archaeology nut. Ever since I started writing my Otherworld series, I’ve found a passion for studying ages past. More recently, I became enamored with the series The Last Kingdom, first by reading the Bernard Cornwell book of the same name, then watching the show. It’s gritty, it’s fun, it’s epic, and I love the setting for multiple reasons.

Well, the protagonist of The Last Kingdom, Uhtred, hails from the English town now known as Bamburgh. Long ago (before the ninth century, when the series is set), Bamburgh, with its imposing castle overlooking the North Sea, stood as the seat of a kingdom: Northumbria. And the castle has offered up a wealth of archaeological findings that help us better understand life in Anglo-Saxon times. How the people there lived, what they ate, what they wore.

Gething and Albert explore the strange world of ancient Northumbria in this book. They call it a “lost” kingdom for many reasons. It’s obviously just one corner of England now. It was the first Saxon kingdom to fall to the Viking incursions. And we simply don’t know much about it. But now I know a lot more than I did, and I find myself even more interested in that long-gone world than before.

To be fair, there are problems with the book. At times, the authors come across as overly preachy. They do the usual politically correct dismissal of the term “Dark Ages”, which is entirely appropriate for a period of centuries with social and technological stagnation, if not regression. They’re always quick to go on about ethical concerns. On the whole, though, it’s not too obtrusive. The faults are minor, and they don’t distract from a lively, humorous, and above all informative journey through Anglo-Saxon times.

Suspense (fiction)

Title: Verity Author: Colleen Hoover Genre: Suspense/mystery Year: 2018

Rules are rules, and one of my self-imposed rules was to read something from a genre I don’t normally read or write. Fortunately, my partner had talked enthusiastically about a novel she read some months back. She’s big into mysteries and thrillers, neither of which normally tickle my fancy, so I thought right then and there that her suggestion would make the perfect addition to the Summer Reading List.

Verity was a short novel, but a hard read for me. Partly, that’s from parts hitting too close to home. The protagonist, Lowen, is an author. She’s had a lot of family troubles lately. She lacks self-esteem and pride in her work. She suffers from anxiety. The parallels are obvious, but they end pretty soon. Lowen actually has things I don’t: a publisher, an agent, a portfolio that gets her a job ghostwriting for the preeminent author in her genre, Verity Crawford, who has suffered a major accident that leaves her unable to continue writing. Thus begins the mystery, because something is up with the whole situation.

Without going too far into spoiler territory (it’s a mystery, people!), I’ll say that I was somewhat hooked. The way the story is told left me jarred, as it cuts between the first-person perspectives of Lowen and—through an autobiography manuscript Lowen finds—Verity herself. Even I couldn’t pull that off in Nocturne. Credit where credit is due, because Hoover managed it. The autobiography parts left me feeling unclean from the sheer depravity that sometimes came out, while the “main” narrative eventually veered into some quite explicit romance that made this red-blooded American male a bit uncomfortable.

I’m constantly comparing myself to “professional” authors of fiction. I can’t help it. Lately, in my preferred genres of fantasy and science fiction, I’ve judged my own efforts equal to, if not better than, the pros more and more often. As I’ve never written suspense or mystery stories, I’ll withhold judgment here, apart from a couple of nitpicks. Hoover’s prose is occasionally…off, in some way I find hard to explain. She repeats herself too often for my tastes, and I almost wonder if that was padding a word count for what was already a fairly short novel. The final twist also left a bad taste in my mouth. It doesn’t come completely out of nowhere, but it was definitely a blindside hit. In all honesty, I feel it’s the weakest part of what was otherwise a great, if unconventional, novel.

Conclusion

Another summer is in the books, but I’m not done. Later this week—assuming nothing else goes wrong—I want to look at a couple of my aborted attempts at the challenge. There’s a very good reason, one I’m not going to tell you just yet. Always leave them hanging, you know?

I hope you enjoyed the last three months more than I did. If you participated in the challenge, I can only thank you from the bottom of my heart. Win or lose, you’ve done a great job. If you’re just here to read about me, then I have two things to say. One, you probably need your head examined more than I do. And two, I did have fun with these books. Maybe they aren’t perfect, and they might not be to my exact tastes, but they were worth my time. I’d like to think I’m worth yours.

Thank you again, and remember to keep reading!

Parts of the whole

(I’m in the aftermath of a mental breakdown this weekend. Reflection and introspection are the ways I cope, so you get this. Enjoy.)

“Write what you know,” the saying goes. It’s one of the seminal pieces of advice given to budding authors, and there’s a lot of truth in it. Obviously, it’s easier to write situations, characters, and stories that are familiar. More outlandish people and places need more thought, more planning. That’s why you see a lot of authors working on dramas, “slice of life” stories, recollections of childhood, etc. By contrast, fantasy and science fiction, two genres that imply outlandishness by their very nature, are very much niches. They just take more work to create.

Of course, it’s also easy to go too far in the other direction, to create something too familiar. Writing only what you know is great if you’re writing an autobiography, but you have to think outside the box for fiction. After all, the whole point of fiction is that it didn’t happen. And it most certainly didn’t happen to you.

In my works, I try to strike a balance. Obviously, as I write speculative fiction of various sorts, I have to do the research and contemplation of creating a setting unlike our present-day world. That has taken me down some strange and wonderful roads in the past decade, from the settling of the Americas (Otherworld), to paranormal sightings and hybrid DNA (Endless Forms), to the logistics of interstellar travel (Orphans of the Stars), to Biblical scholarship (Heirs of Divinity), to the nature of dreams (Before I Wake). It’s been a fun journey, I have to admit.

In this post, however, I want to talk about the other side: my characters. In particular, I want to look at a certain subset of characters who best illustrate writing what I know.

Birds of a feather

They’re all the same, when you get right down to it. A very common theme in my works is…well, me. Not as a self-insert or Mary Sue, but a character who embodies a part of me. I’ve written before how the main POV characters of the Otherworld series are all different facets of me, and that’s true to an extent. But there’s a broader correspondence, too.

Many, though not all, of the stories I write will, at some point, feature a character who represents how I see myself: an intelligent, luckless, socially awkward or rejected, insecure male. I’ll freely admit that I sometimes dwell on those characters, giving them more screen time and deeper subplots. That’s because I’m writing what I know. I can get in their heads better, because they’re closer to who I am. Many of them also end up with “good” endings, and you can call that wish fulfillment if you like.

In contrast to these self-portraits, I’ll often have a character who is, in essence, the man I wish I could be. This character is still highly intelligent (I’m not good at writing below-average individuals), but he’s not necessarily a genius. Despite that, he has the confidence I lack, and he’s often in much better shape physically, socially, or financially. He also gets plenty of time as the center of attention, and he often has conflicts with the other sort of self-insert, but they’re often of the “friendly rivalry” sort.

With that in mind, I’m going to go through some of my works, whether novels, novellas, short stories, or the major series so dear to my heart. For my own peace of mind, you see.

Otherworld

Otherworld is where I first noticed this tendency. As it’s by far my largest series, that makes a lot of sense. Alex has been one of the central characters since the beginning, and he’s probably the most transparently like myself. He’s your stereotypical geek, caught in a bad situation due to what he believes is his own bad luck and poor choices. (About the only place where we disagree is that he’s into anime and manga.)

Over the many, many stories of the Otherworld series, Alex certainly grows the most of any character. He already suffered from some depression issues even before he and his team were accidentally sucked into another world, but the rigors of living there didn’t help at all. He wasn’t used to physical exertion, he didn’t think he could learn another language, and he knew he was a poorer fit for the strange land of Vistaan than he was even in America. Witnessing the death of a native friend broke him, as he would tell you. At least he knows what caused it. Some of us aren’t so lucky.

Alex’s rival, of a sort, is Jeff. He’s still the nerdy type, and he’s far from outspoken, but he knows his role, and he excels at it. Jeff is the linguist of the group, and only really part of that group because they needed more interpreters. Going to another planet scares him as much as anyone else, yet he manages to keep it together.

These two grow close as time goes on, as they see themselves as similar enough that they could be friends. But their fates diverge. Jeff is seduced by a native woman; Alex assumes none of them would give him the time of day, the same as their counterparts here. Alex’s best claims to fame out there are determining their latitude and becoming a math tutor, while Jeff works on decoding the language of the ancient race who may have built the device that brought them there in the first place. In every case, you see the dichotomy: Jeff has humility, but Alex has self-loathing. Who I want to be, who I believe I am.

Hidden Hills

The Hidden Hills series is a little like Otherworld. Despite only being two books so far, and four total, there’s a lot of character development packed into those 1300 pages. And I made the same character decisions, just transplanting them into the pseudo-fantasy setting.

For these novels, we have Asho and Gallan. One is a tradesman, working as an apprentice smith under his father. The other is a junior scholar. Both are well aware of their corresponding places in the feudal-era society they inhabit, but they take those places much differently.

Gallan can comport himself well. He can talk to the nobility. He can do research. He knows how to manage, delegate, and lead. In the underground lair of the so-called wizards, he becomes the man in charge even before he becomes a man. Asho, meanwhile, never feels right. He doubts himself when it comes to building the machines of the wizards. He sometimes feels that even his little sister, only eight years old at the start of the first book, is more useful in the circle that he and his friends have created. And he’s scared to death when his mother works out an arranged marriage on his behalf.

These two aren’t the perfect metaphor that Otherworld provides, but they stick out to me. I’ve written two characters, one of whom is everything I want: a leader, a scholar, an inventor. The other? He doesn’t know what he wants to be, but he’ll be happy if he just doesn’t disappoint anybody.

Orphans of the Stars

My newest release, Innocence Reborn, doesn’t offer quite the same set of characters. I consciously tried to avoid the trap I’m describing here. Still, Levi is very much an idealized version of myself. He has the take-charge attitude I long for, though he also suffers from bouts of indecision and doubt.

Probably the closest to my self-image is Mika. Odd, as I don’t connect with my female characters to the same extent, but she shares a few of my demons. By the fourth book (which I’m currently writing), she’s deep in depression, and already past the breaking point. Not great for a fifteen-year-old girl. Not great for the 36-year-old man who first imagined her, either.

It’s harder to see, but this introspection has let me realize the similarities, and how I’ve been unconsciously steering Mika into more of a catharsis role as the series has progressed. Now that I know, I’m not sure what that will mean for her character development, but time will tell.

All the rest

My other works don’t possess the contrast, but one trope or the other almost always appears. I’ll treat the rest of the set together here, just for interests of space.

  • The Linear Cycle, being an apocalyptic fantasy, doesn’t have much time for doubters. Everyone has to work together to fight back the horde and keep society from falling apart. Still, Tod has a lot of the same qualities as, say, Alex. He’s a social outcast for a different reason, one specific to the setting, but it leaves him in much the same predicament.

  • Before I Wake‘s protagonist Jay fits the “insecure and inward” mold to some extent. As I wrote this novel following some deeply personal tragedy, I can only chalk that up to self-insertion. I wasn’t in the frame of mind to write very original characters, and the plot was, to me, more important.

  • In Nocturne, Shade is very much an authorial voice, at least in terms of his philosophy. As a person, he may represent some part of me, probably the part that feels like I’ve been rejected by society. Other than that, he’s like me only in his drive and his love for his ideals. But that’s still a lot.

  • Fallen, my free novella, follows Lucas, a tech who’s just been fired, who knows he’s a pariah because of his lack of faith. Well, that’s just me in a nutshell. (Okay, except the “getting fired” part. You have to get hired first.) You’ll get no argument from me there—it was mostly intentional. And Fallen might be the closest thing I’ve written to a personal fantasy. Meeting a perfect, indeed angelic, woman and falling in love with her? In late 2017, I would’ve killed for that. In 2020, I can say I got what I wanted. Next time I write a fantasy that’s going to come true, I’ll make sure it has a longer ending.

Most of the others are longer stretches. You could make a case that Dirk from Modern Minds fits the “how I see myself” mold in some fashion. You could also say the same for Luis from Heirs of Divinity…if I ever put that one out. And the Occupation trilogy almost pulls off the twofer. Main character Raneph is a Shade-like idealist and revolutionary, while humble helper Anit just wants to learn all he can without rocking the boat. (Or getting magically bound to the bed by his lover, but that’s another post.)

This has been a long post, and I’m trying hard not to make it even longer. But I needed to write it, whether anyone ever reads it or not. And if you’ve ever wondered why some of my characters are the way they are, this is my reasoning. They’re me. In some form, they’re always me. Because that’s what I know.

Moving on

Late yesterday evening, I left the Fediverse instance (the technical term for the individual servers making up this federated social network) I had inhabited for over a year, letsalllovela.in, following a warning by the administrator. Quite simply, I was told that my opinions were not permitted to be stated on her site, that I should, and I quote, “find another instance” for them. So I did. Now that the heat of the moment has cooled, I feel the need to write this.

I joined the instance last May for two reasons. One, my original introduction to the Fediverse, toot.love, was small, isolated, and actually blocked by many of the larger sites. I wanted to connect with a larger audience, because what’s the point of a social network if your voice can’t be heard? And two, I wished to try out Pleroma, the 2nd most popular software platform on the network after Mastodon. There weren’t a lot of good Pleroma-based instances at the time, and some had…less than stellar reputations. Those few I found which had open registrations and sensible terms of service usually had some other flaw I found fatal. Only 3 real people posting, with the rest being all bots. Too much anime influence. An annoying pink theme.

letsalllovela.in got recommendations because it was a “comfy” server. Quite a few active posters, good connections to the rest of the network, accessible admins, and it just gave off a chill vibe. I would’ve liked a more tech-themed site, yes, but I had fun interacting with the people there, as well as those who had been walled off from me initially.

There were some bumps in the road. The admins, both teens from…somewhere in Europe, were obviously still learning how to run a server. Downtime has been frequent, sometimes lasting 12 hours or more. The site nearly caused a relationship disaster when one admin (the same one who warned me, as I’ll get to in a minute) changed the site’s name to “Sapiosexual Pride” on the very day my partner—who identified with the term—first checked it out. That required a lot of explaining, and the domain name (using the India TLD) has remained a running joke between us ever since.

Both admins have said they are transgender. That doesn’t bother me. It’s not my cup of tea, but I’m not offended at the thought. And they could even have fun with it on occasion, joining in the more good-natured ribbing that friends can share about such personal details. So I came to believe that they were decent people, open and accepting.

Like so much else in the past week and a half, that opinion has had to change. The post that caused this was a reply to someone I’ve conversed with on a few occasions. We don’t see eye to eye on everything, but then nobody really does. In this case, he posted that, because the phrase “All Lives Matter” has become seen as racially charged, he wanted to suggest “People Lives Matter” instead, complete with its own Twitter-style hashtag. I honestly responded, saying that I had been thinking of “Human Lives Matter” in private.

That’s important to me. Human lives do matter. All of them. Black, white, or whatever, if you value human life, I believe you must value all human life equally, at least a priori. And while I do sympathize with victims of racism and other forms of discrimination, I can’t, in good conscience, support a movement that rejects this fundamental premise. By saying that some lives matter to the exclusion of others, I feel you have committed the same transgression you attribute to your opponents.

In addition, I can’t support the present rioting throughout the country. Peaceful demonstration is one thing; being enumerated in the First Amendment, it’s the next best thing to a sacred right, as far as I’m concerned. Looting, vandalizing, arson, and the other attacks being committed in the name of George Floyd, by contrast, seem to me destruction for destruction’s sake. Whatever nebulous goal these more violent demonstrations want, that’s not the way to achieve it.

But this isn’t good enough, apparently. Too often, people on both sides of the political spectrum have resorted to the “you’re either with us or against us” argument, the false dichotomy that has divided our nation for 19 years and counting. And I was the victim of that last night. The letsalllovela.in admin told me that my post was unacceptable, that even mentioning “All Lives Matter” instead of the politically-correct movement was harmful.

How? How is equality harmful, unless your objective is to sow discord? How is giving everyone value equivalent to taking it away from the segment currently in the media spotlight? Last I checked, the whole point of the civil rights movement was that skin color shouldn’t matter.

No, our world isn’t perfect. It can’t be, but that should never stop us from trying to make it better. And while the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law, those who enforce that law too often ignore it. That’s terrible every time it happens, no matter who the target is. What happened in Minnesota is a tragedy by any account, yet America has survived worse in the past. The ideals we hold dear, that all of us are endowed with liberty simply by being born, don’t change because we’re black or white. They stay the same for men and women. They care nothing for our religion, our sexuality, our nationality. Liberty and justice for all. It can’t be put any plainer than that.

Life is too short to waste on some battles, so I moved. I went to a place where such an opinion can be voiced without censorship. It was a mostly cordial separation. I exaggerated for dramatic effect in the introduction post for my new Fediverse home, which kicked off a rather long thread that got a bit heated. But I have no hard feelings. I disagree with the decision, yes. However, I do not deny the admin’s authority to make it in this case. And while I disagree with the politics behind it, I understand that tensions are running high these days. Some people would like nothing more than to cut off all contact with those who think differently on any issue.

That way lies destruction. We would become the house divided against itself, as Lincoln once said, and we would fall. Democracy requires debate. Civil discourse, not partisan bickering, will heal the wounds our society has suffered. I thought I had found a place where that sort of disagreement was welcome. I was wrong.

You live and learn.

Go for launch

Today, SpaceX launched its Demo-2 mission, the first manned mission leaving from US soil since 2011, and our first capsule launch since 1975. If all goes well, the Dragon will dock with the ISS tomorrow morning, then spend the summer there before a splashdown in September. In this post, I’d like to talk about my feelings and opinions about this historic moment and what I think it means for all of us.

As you may have guessed from reading my posts here and elsewhere, as well as my books, I am a space nut. I don’t deny it. Space has captivated me since I was a child, when I would read books about the Apollo missions, encyclopedia articles about the solar system and the planets. Cartoons involving space, most of them made in the early ’60s (before we had ventured beyond Earth orbit), captivated me. TV and movies mostly meant Star Trek, Star Wars, and eventually the Stargate franchise, as well as the far more realistic Apollo 13—still one of my favorite movies—and even Space Camp.

Since those days, I’ve expanded my repertoire. I’ve read Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon, the go-to account of the Apollo program and its precursors, at least a dozen times. I eagerly watched its TV version, From the Earth to the Moon, a few years before that, and my eyes were glued to the screen for 2007’s When We Left Earth. Add in the other historical accounts, the futurists’ ideas, the rocketry textbooks, and even games like Kerbal Space Program, and you get the picture. Space will always grab my attention.

But the real-life space program is often depressing. NASA is, in certain circles, a running joke. “Boldly going nowhere since 1972” is a faux slogan I’ve seen and spread in reference to what was, in my teenage years, the only government program I truly supported. The Russians aren’t really any better; they at least have the excuse of communism and its aftermath. The Chinese are too secretive and suspicious, and no one else is even bothering with manned spaceflight.

I thought the X-Prize would change that. I watched the Scaled Composites flights with stars in my eyes, believing this would finally be the dawn of a new Space Age. Because the first one was, in my opinion, one of the three most pivotal periods in modern human history—the others being the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, in case you were wondering. The heady days of 1957-72 directly begat the Information Age of 1992-2016, as well as our present time, which I feel is better labeled a Misinformation Age. A new space race, even one driven mostly by capitalistic concerns of profit and shareholder value, will bring a new technological revolution. There’s no doubt in my mind. And the benefits will be felt far beyond the space-loving community. Apollo made computers popular. What will the first mission to Mars give us?

In 2004, it looked like that was coming true in real time. SpaceShipOne was reaching the Karman Line, the boundary between our world and the vast void beyond, and pocketing a few million dollars in the process. Richard Branson was hyping trips around the moon. Robert Bigelow had inflatable space stations and lunar colony modules on the drawing board. Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis, Jeff Bezos, John Carmack…entrepreneurs were getting in the game, and so were tech giants. Google announced a prize for an unmanned lunar lander (nobody won it, alas), and one of the team leaders even shared my name. The dream was alive.

And then it wasn’t.

The Great Recession was a setback for space as much as any other sector. Launch dates began to slip faster than the stock market. SpaceX had a few bad accidents, plus a lot of red tape. Even the government stuff was going badly: important science missions like SIM and TPF were scrapped, Kepler barely got off the ground, and we still don’t have that Europa lander. The Obama administration didn’t help matters, as they prioritized earth science and political causes such as global warming and diversity over the core mission of NASA.

In 2008, I looked back on the Bush presidency with an opinion that has remained unchanged over the past twelve years: the Vision for Space Exploration was the only truly good thing he did. That was killed early in Obama’s first term—he campaigned on it!—and replaced with…nothing. Seriously. Rather than reach for the stars, our previous president was content to go in circles. There’s a metaphor there. I think it’s pretty obvious.

The final Shuttle launch was a sad time for me, a dark time. Sure, I’ve had much darker moments since, but that day felt like…well, like I was watching a friend die, and I could do nothing to stop it. It was a day that a childhood dream was finally, fatally crushed. Astronauts were going nowhere, and now they couldn’t even do that without hitching a ride from our former enemies!

In the years since, I had to get my space fix wherever I could find it. I went back to reading science fiction, which I had avoided for years because of the sheer despair it caused when I thought about how far away we are from doing anything like what I was reading. Eventually, reading became writing, a process that culminates with the imminent release of Innocence Reborn, my first novel set in space.

But I keep following SpaceX. They’re the only ones left from those wonderful early days of the commercial space race, and they’re actually doing something. Elon Musk has grand plans, along with both the will and the means to pull them off. Whether his team can, I don’t know, but I’m hoping.

We need space. Space is our future, in both the literal and the metaphorical senses. Moon missions, Mars missions, asteroid mining, and space hotels all offer something to humanity as a whole. We gain scientific knowledge from exploring new places, material resources from the untapped riches awaiting us, and an important intangible: something to strive for.

Every night, we can look up and see infinity. Pinpricks of light impossibly far away, for the most part. But some of the things in the sky are much closer. They’re within our grasp, but only if we want to reach. Today should long be remembered as the day America finally started to stretch out its hand again.

A difficult decision

Sometimes, you have to make a judgment call, and it may not be the one you wanted to make.

In my two months of writing hiatus, I contemplated many things, some of which I have discussed in recent posts. In the past week and a half, however, I’ve come out of my personal lockdown to rediscover my favorite hobby. But this disruption to our world has caused me one other problem I didn’t anticipate when The Powers That Be closed everything for what we now know to be something no worse than a bad flu.

As I have said before, a number of my books and shorter works are set in a shared universe. This collective setting, which I sometimes call the “Paraverse” in my mind, now encompasses my extensive Otherworld series, the Endless Forms paranormal thriller series, the Modern Minds short story collection, the RPG knockoff The Soulstone Sorcerer, my historical fantasy novel Heirs of Divinity, possibly my free semi-romance novella Fallen, and a couple of odds and ends I rarely talk about.

These all take place in the same setting, the same world. It’s a world essentially the same as ours, except that there are differences at the margins. So monsters like those in The Shape of Things exist, but they’re so rare that almost nobody believes in them. There’s a portal to another planet hidden deep in the Mexican forests, but it only works one day out of the year (okay, two, but spoiler alert), and it’s almost impossible to find anyway. A secret society dedicated to psionic phenomena existed back in the Roaring Twenties, but the Great Depression basically ended it. And so on.

The link between all of these is Project Daylight, a dark web forum dedicated to exposing the “truth” behind all the weirdness in the world. They’re not always right—some of them believe the moon landings were faked, a point of view I find so offensive I can’t even write about it in detail—but they occasionally knock it out of the park. For the most part, though, they’re the crazy nutter types you’d see associated with Alex Jones, Gab, QAnon, and other internet nastiness.

The members of Project Daylight didn’t exist when I first started Otherworld. That only came about much later, when I needed a reason for the kids who had visited another planet to be found out. Since then, I’ve made them a larger part of that series, even giving the forum’s administrator his own story: “Alone With Myself”. Another member appears in Change of Heart, the latest Endless Forms novel; this one, named Shane (but going by the moniker Lurker), is based on my neighbor, who really does believe some crazy things.

Now, the more historical entries in the Paraverse obviously don’t have a group that formed in 2016, and there’s no evidence the forum even knows about the secret 18th-century college in London claiming descent from Simon Magus through a “lost” book of the Bible actually written around 800 AD. (Yes, in case you’re wondering, that is part of the plot for Heirs of Divinity.) Likewise, they weren’t around to see the foundation or fall of Matrema in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

But they’re around now, and therein lies the problem. See, I had already written multiple stories set in 2020 before this year went off the rails. The Beast Within and Change of Heart both take place right about now. “The Candle’s Flame” finished up just as the Wuhan virus was making its alleged debut in the US (although we now see it was here as early as November, a few weeks before I caught it!), and its immediate successor, The Second Crossing, starts right about now. None of them mention a global pandemic, a panic-induced lockdown, or anything of the sort. Which really breaks the idea that these books are set in our world.

But I think I’ve found a way to save face.

Bear with me here. The problem is that no one could have foreseen our present crisis. If I had written it into a story, even I would have dismissed it as too outlandish. Too unrealistic, and I value realism in my stories. On the other hand, it seems wrong not to mention the coronavirus in some way going forward, seeing as how it defines the current generation the same way 9/11 defined the last. (Take that as you will. It’s an entirely different debate.)

My solution is simple: yes, the virus does exist in the Paraverse. But it was less virulent, less widespread, and less deadly. Thus, it was more in line with what we actually see, rather than what we were originally told. The media reaction in the US was closer to what we saw with SARS way back when. Oh, it was talked about in the news in February and March, but as a problem almost exclusively tied to Asia. Project Daylight found some information about…certain actors trying to hype it as something more dangerous, but that narrative fizzled before it had a chance to affect us too badly.

In this, I recognize that I’m effectively rewriting history to suit not only the best needs of the story, but also my personal beliefs. And that’s okay. I have no problem with it. The Paraverse diverged from our world long ago. I just want to keep it close enough that we can imagine, that we can look at it and wonder how much of it really is happening right under our noses.

Forever in me

I am a humanist.

Different people interpret that term in different ways. For me, it means something pretty simple: my primary focus is on humanity. Not the spiritual, not the metaphysical, and not the environmental, except insofar as it pertains to human habitation.

I consider myself agnostic as it pertains to the question of God. I just don’t know, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I don’t have faith, though. I can’t. Nothing I’ve seen in my 36 years of life has shown me any proof of a cosmic force of pure good, because there’s only one purely good thing in my life, and I know I’ll lose her once I inevitably fail in my attempts at becoming something better.

That’s a terrible thing by any measure. But it’s worse for someone like me. Part of my personal humanist feelings is a sense of purpose. Rather, the overall lack of purpose I feel in my life. Unlike believers, I can’t take it as a given that I was born with some kind of destiny or fate, or even a curse, despite sometimes feeling like I’ve been laboring under one of those for decades.

No, purpose is, for me, what you make of it. And that’s where my beliefs combine with my situation to create a perfect storm of despair. As humans—as living beings—we’re born with only one innate purpose: reproduction. To procreate is to fulfill our evolutionary goal, our biological imperative. That transcends any religion, and I would feel the same if I were an adherent of one. “Be fruitful and multiply” is the way it’s commonly worded by Christians; I do agree with the sentiment, if not the source.

I want children. I need to be a father. I have felt this way for years. Maybe that stems from my life history, the way my own father abandoned me when I was 12. Whatever the case, it’s not an urge I can stifle. Because, in my mind, if I don’t help create the next generation, I’ve failed at life in a way that no amount of fame or wealth (if I had either) could overcome.

Therein lies the problem. I’m 36, and I know my time as a virile male is limited. My partner is the same age, and she’s worried we’ll run out of time, too. I’m essentially unemployed, with 20 months and counting of rejections. The only reason my bank account has a balance over a hundred dollars is because I haven’t spent my stimulus check. I have goals in mind, yet no conceivable way to achieve them. And I know I’m not getting any help. If I’m going to improve myself, it’ll have to be on my own.

It is the cruelest joke that so many people in this world have and squander both the stability and the legacy that I long for, that I feel I’ve earned, while those like me must struggle for every scrap, constantly beaten back down when we dare to lift ourselves out of the mire. Religious folk would say that this world’s suffering is nothing in comparison to the next life’s reward. To them I would say this: why can’t we have rewards now, too?

I don’t ask for much. Just what the average American man gets almost as an afterthought. I don’t have to be a billionaire. I don’t need 7 kids who all end up as Olympic athletes, Oscar-winning actors, or legendary pop stars. I would consider myself content with a nice suburban home, a son and daughter with the wife I adore, and a career that challenges my mind while putting food on the table. I’d be happy with a normal life like that.

I only wish I could have the chance.

The price of protest

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming…four dead in Ohio

I have written a lot in the past few years to commemorate the 50th anniversary of various spaceflight milestones: the Apollo 8 lunar orbit, Apollo 11’s landing in 1969, and so on. I do that because I love the American space program, of course, but also because I believe its accomplishments rank among the greatest in human history. They are certainly shining lights in the 20th century.

But we must also remember the darker days, lest, to paraphrase Santayana, we be doomed to repeat their mistakes.

This day 50 years ago, on May 4, 1970, four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by National Guard soldiers during a protest against the Vietnam War. Nine others were injured, a college campus became a battlefield, and the entire nation lost whatever vestiges of innocence it still had after years of needless death in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

I was not alive for these events. They were 13 years before I was born; those who lost their lives were over a decade older than my parents! Yet I have seen the documentaries. I’ve read the stories. That is how history survives, through the telling and retelling of events beyond our own experience. In the modern era, we have photographs, television recordings, and other resources beyond mere—and fallible—human memory.

For Kent State, I’ve watched the videos from the tragedy itself, and few things have ever left me more disgusted, more saddened, and more…angry. It boggles my mind how anyone, even soldiers trained in the art of war and encouraged to look at their enemy as less than human, could think this was a good thing, a just thing. Yet they did not hold their fire. If they stopped to think, “These are young Americans, people just like me, and they’re doing what’s right,” then it never showed in their actions.

Worse, however, is the public perception that followed. In the wake of the massacre, polls showed that a vast majority of people in this country supported the soldiers. Yes. About two-thirds of those surveyed said they felt it was justified to use lethal force against peaceful protestors who were defending themselves.

Let’s break that down, shall we? First, protests are a right. The “right of the people peaceably to assemble” is guaranteed in the First Amendment; it doesn’t get the attention of speech, religion, and the press, but it’s right there alongside them. And remember that the Bill of Rights, as I’ve repeatedly stated in my writings, is not a list of those rights the government has granted its citizenry. Rather, it’s an incomplete enumeration of rights we are born with—“endowed by our Creator”, in Jefferson’s terms—that cannot be taken away by a government without resorting to tyranny.

Some may argue that the Kent State protests were not peaceful. After all, the iconic video is of a student throwing a canister of tear gas at the police officers called in to maintain order, right? But that argument falls flat when you see that the tear gas came from those same cops. It was fired to disperse the crowd. The protestors didn’t like that, so they risked physical danger (not only the chance of getting shot, but even just burns from the canisters themselves) to clear the space they had claimed as their own.

And finally, the notion that killing students was the only way to end the protest would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. They were unarmed. Deescalation should always be the first option. Whatever you think about the protest itself, whether you feel it was wholly justified or dangerously un-American, you cannot convince me that shooting live rounds into a crowd is an acceptable answer. The only way, in my opinion, you could convince yourself is if you accept the premise that these students were enemy collaborators, and the National Guard’s response was legitimate under the rules of engagement.

But that presumes a dangerous proposition: that American citizens opposing a government action they feel is morally wrong constitutes a threat to the nation. And here we see that those lessons learned in Kent State 50 years ago have been forgotten since.


Today, we don’t have the Vietnam War looming over us. The eternal morass of Iraq and Afghanistan, despite taking twice as much time (and counting), has long since lost the furious reactions it once inspired. Trump’s presidency was worth a few marches, the Occupy and Tea Party movements were quashed or commandeered, and even the Great Recession didn’t prompt much in the way of social unrest.

But a virus did.

Rather, the government response to the Wuhan virus, whether on the federal, state, or local level, has, in some places, been enough to motivate protests. The draconian lockdown orders in Michigan, California, North Carolina, and elsewhere, unfounded in science and blatantly unconstitutional, have lit a fire in those most at risk from the continued economic and social devastation. Thousands marching, cars causing gridlock for miles, and beaches flooded with people who don’t want to hurt anyone, but just yearn to breathe free. It’s a stirring sight, a true show of patriotism and bravery.

Yet too many people see it as something else. They believe the protests dangerous. The governors know what’s best for us, they argue. They have experts backing them up. Stay at home, they say. It’s safe there. Never mind that it isn’t. As we now know through numerous scientific studies, the Wuhan virus spreads most easily in isolated environments and close quarters. It’s most deadly for the elderly, and some two out of every three deaths (even overcounting per federal guidelines) come from nursing homes and similar places. For the vast majority of people under the age of 60, it is, as the CDC stated on May 1, barely more of a risk than “a recent severe flu season” such as 2017-18. Compared to earlier pandemic flu seasons (e.g., 1957, 1969), it’s not that bad, especially to children.

Of course, people of all sorts are dying from it. That much is true, and my heart cries out for every last one of them. Stopping our lives, ending our livelihoods, is not the answer. People, otherwise healthy people who aren’t senior citizens, die from the flu every year. My cousin did in 2014, and he was 35. That’s the main reason I feared for my life when I was sick back in December; looking back, the symptoms my brother and I showed match better with the Wuhan virus than with the flu, and each week brings new evidence pointing to the conclusion that it was in the US far earlier than we were told. If that is what we had, it didn’t kill us, just like it won’t kill the overwhelming majority of people infected.

Epidemiology isn’t my goal here, however. I merely wanted to remind anyone reading this that the virus, while indeed a serious threat, is not the apocalypse hyped by the media. Common sense, good hygiene, and early medical treatment will help in most cases, and that’s no different from the flu, or the pneumonia that almost put me in the ICU in 2000, or even the common cold.

Now that all indications are showing us on the downslope of the curve, I’d rather look to the coming recovery effort, and the people—the patriots—who have started that conversation in the most public fashion. The Reopen America protestors are doing exactly what Americans should do when they perceive the threat of government tyranny: take to the streets and let your voice be heard. Civil disobedience is alive and well, and that is a good thing. It’s an American thing.

The movement is unpopular, alas. Reopen protestors are mocked and derided. Those who report on them in a favorable light are called out. A quick perusal of Twitter, for instance, will turn up some truly awful behavior. Suggestions that anyone protesting should be required to waive any right to medical treatment. Naked threats of calling Child Protective Services on parents who let their kids play outside. Worst of all, the holier-than-thou smugness of those who would willingly lock themselves away for months, if not years, over something with a 99.8% survival rate, solely on the basis of an appeal to authority.

A past generation would call such people Tories; in modern parlance, they are Karens. I call them cowards. Not because they fear the virus—I did until I learned more about it, and I accept that some people probably do need to be quarantined, and that some commonsense mitigation measures are necessary for a short time.

No, these people are cowards because they have sacrificed their autonomy, their rationality, and their liberty on an altar of fear, offerings to their only god: government. It’s one thing to be risk-averse. We beat worse odds than 500-to-1 all the time, but there’s always a chance. To live your life paralyzed by fear, unable to enjoy it without worrying about all the things that might kill you, that’s a terrible way to live. I know. I’ve been there. But never in my darkest moments did I consider extending my misery to the 320 million other people in this country. That is true cowardice, to be so afraid of the future that you would take it from everyone else.

Protest is a powerful weapon. The Vietnam War proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Fifty years ago today, four Ohio students paid the ultimate price for wielding that weapon. But they died believing what they did was right. They died free, because they died in a public expression of the freedom each of us is gifted the day we’re born.

Better that than dying alone in your safe space.

Heal me, I’m broken

I’m almost ready to give up.

The world has gone completely insane, as you may have noticed. Now I wonder whether I was already there. What I don’t wonder, however, is whether I should care. Because I don’t. Not anymore.

For years I have mostly kept my political leanings off Prose Poetry Code, because I felt it just wasn’t the place. Yes, I did the “Social Liberty” thing a long time ago, but that was about it. Even those posts never actually advocated a particular ideology; they were nothing more than a thought experiment where I tried to derive the inalienable rights of the Constitution from a set of first principles.

Well, what I’ve learned lately is that nothing in the modern world is apolitical. And so PPC can’t be, either. At this point, I believe I have nothing left to lose by throwing my opinion up here. What’s going to happen? I’ll lose my job? Nope. Don’t have one, and I doubt I’ll be getting one in the near future, despite my best efforts. Put on a watchlist? Already there, most likely. My girlfriend will leave me? That presumes I would have a chance of keeping her otherwise, and that assumption is hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

In other words, I’m already a broken man. This can’t break me any more than I already am, so why bother keeping my opinions bottled up?

Panic

Let’s start with the only news story we’ve had for the past month: coronavirus. No, I’m not one of those people who think it’s a hoax, a conspiracy to cover up the “real” truth of 5G towers and chemtrails and whatever else the Alex Jones types have come up with. It’s a real virus that’s affecting real people.

That most emphatically does not mean it’s all the media has made it out to be. Slowly but surely, solid numbers are coming out, and they very often show just how overblown the danger is. Asymptomatic rates of 20-50%, if not higher. Antibody presence in 15% or more of a random sample. An actual fatality rate closer to 0.3% than the 2-7% we were initially told.

And it doesn’t take much looking (though you do have to go off the beaten path of mainstream media and celebrity Twitter feeds) to find reports from everywhere in the US—with the notable exceptions of the New York and Detroit metro areas—of half-empty hospitals, of doctors and nurses being laid off or furloughed, of a growing realization that this was not the apocalyptic disease we were told to expect. The “best” model, the IHME model from the University of Washington, overshot Tennessee’s cases by a factor of 20! Minnesota’s special snowflake model is calling for a 30,000% increase in coronavirus deaths (from approximately 70 to over 20,000) between now and the end of summer!

Supporters of the draconian measures we have endured will say that those worst-case scenarios are if we don’t lock everything down, lock everyone up. But that’s simply not true. The IHME model takes into account “social distancing” measures (and that phrase disgusts me on many levels, but I digress) as of April 1, though its cheerleaders don’t seem to notice or care.

Pandemic

The problem, as ever, is polarization. If anything, I consider that far more of a threat to our nation than any virus, because it’s a much more insidious disease. Even today, you can take a look anywhere, whether online or real life, and see America increasingly divided into two camps that seem to be inhabiting two different realities.

On the left, you hear cries to keep the lockdowns until there are no more coronavirus deaths. Which is unrealistic, even if you discount the fact that hospitals are overcounting those deaths in an attempt to make back some of the money they’re losing by postponing elective surgeries. Add in the very real possibility that a vaccine might be years away (assuming it’s even possible—we don’t have one for the common cold, and that’s sometimes caused by a coronavirus), and…what’s the plan? We become the Morlocks, never seeing the sun except when we brave it to scrounge for a meal?

Every day you extend what we can only call the imprisonment of millions of Americans only makes the situation worse. Mental health is declining sharply—my own included. Suicides are rising, and I have no doubt that they will outnumber legitimate coronavirus deaths by the end of this year; whether I’m included in that tally is, I’ll be honest, an open question. For those fortunate enough to have families, they’re seeing increased incidence of domestic violence, child abuse, and other nastiness. Those are sure to take yet more lives. And that’s not even counting the lives that may never be, thanks to this isolation.

But the right isn’t any better, because they can only look at things through one lens: economy. Yes, it’s bad, and getting worse. Small businesses are failing, and big business is no longer booming. Unemployment is off the charts. Literally, as in the charts, much like the unemployment applications, were never made to handle such a vast segment of the workforce applying for benefits at the same time. Yet those wounds can be healed in time. We recovered from the Great Depression. We recovered from the Spanish Flu. Both of those were far more damaging, whether to our economy or our populace, than this virus.

Focusing on the economy, however, minimizes the impacts the lockdowns are having in other areas. Humans are social animals, and we evolved to socialize in person. Face to face, not through a computer or phone screen. Technology is wonderful. It’s the mark of progress, the symbol of all we have achieved. But it can’t replace the real world yet. To say that Zoom or FaceTime or Duo can substitute for actually being in the same room as a loved one, for actually having the chance to hold your newborn nephew, for actually doing the things you enjoy doing, is laughable. To say it’s more important to reopen the barbershop down the street is dehumanizing. It makes us nothing more than cogs in a machine.

Pan-democratic

We are more than that. We are human. And, as Jefferson wrote, all humans are endowed with certain inalienable rights, chief among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nothing in the Constitution says those rights are invalid in a time of crisis, because the very idea that we should protect them, enshrine them, rose from a time of crisis.

If police can stop a peaceful protest because the protestors are standing too close together, then why even have a right to assemble? If it takes federal intervention to stop a state from scanning the license plates of cars sitting in a church parking lot on Easter Sunday, how is that free exercise of religion?

The greatest thing about the Bill of Rights, I have long felt, is its purpose. Jefferson, Madison, and the other Founding Fathers did not create a document that said the government granted these rights. Not at all. Instead, they made a list of the most important rights that we have just by being born, then said, “Let’s make sure these can’t be taken away.” The First Amendment starts with the words “Congress shall make no law…” because the writers knew that Congress would eventually try to make those laws. (In fact, they barely had to wait: the Alien and Sedition Acts came about during John Adams’ presidency!) All through the Bill of Rights, you can see that this is not a list of what the people can do, but what the government can’t.

Yet they are. And in a much more dangerous fashion than in the dark days after 9/11, the days of the Patriot Act, of “extraordinary rendition” and the TSA and a hundred other small cuts. Now, it’s easier to point out the amendments still intact, because they number one: the Third. And I’d wager that’s only because state governors haven’t found a way to put the National Guard in peoples’ homes to make sure they stay far enough apart.

We can change this. We can end the tyranny if we all work together, if we cast aside our petty tribalism. Forget about Team Red versus Team Blue. Think about Team Red, White, and Blue. Stand up to those seeking ever more power over your life, your livelihood, the things you hold dear, the things that make you who you are.

We have an election in November. I had intended to run for the office of state representative, but the coronavirus stopped that. I couldn’t go from door to door for petition signatures to get on the ballot. But I still have a voice and a vote. Anyone, regardless of party affiliation, who supports a continued lockdown based on faulty data, media hysteria, and wishful thinking will receive no help from me. Those who wish to deny me freedom are my enemies. It’s as simple as that.

I may be broken, but maybe I can help others put their pieces back together.

Another review

Once again, I feel compelled to review a bit of media. In particular, it’s an album. Call it a sign of the times, I guess.

I first discovered Nightwish in 2004, based on a recommendation from…Slashdot, I think. If I recall correctly (for something that long ago, I can’t say I do), it was the same “smart kids like metal” article that got me interested in the genre as a whole. But I kept seeing them at the top of a few favorites lists, so I checked out Once.

I was blown away. This was the kind of music I never knew I’d been looking for. My only real experience with symphonic metal before then was Metallica’s S&M live album, which was actually really good. Too bad the band immediately lost any goodwill by suing its fans, but I digress. Once left me hooked on not only a band, but an entire subgenre of music, and that hook has stayed in me for a generation.

Last week saw the release of Nightwish’s ninth studio album, cumbersomely titled Human. :II: Nature. (For the sake of clarity, I’ll discard the extraneous punctuation for the rest of this post.) Naturally, I’ve listened to it a few times already, and now I’d like to talk about it.

Music

This one’s actually 2 CDs, not that “CD” means much when almost everyone is going to listen to it in MP3 or Youtube video format. The first disc leads with “Music” as its opening track. We get a fairly long symphonic intro—always a nice touch, in my opinion—before what I see as a fairly traditional Nightwish track: upbeat, with lifting vocals that mix with the orchestral and metal music to create something that overpowers your ears while still sounding beautiful.

“Noise” follows, and it’s a sharp contrast. Where “Music” is almost soft, “Noise” is overtly harsh. The singing is closer to screaming, and there’s more…shredding. Which fits the lyrics, full of references to Black Mirror and allusions to the cacophony that is our modern life.

Farther down the line, “Harvest” is the 4th track, and I would call it a masterpiece. Poetic lyrics, a melodic sound, and a general feeling of goodness permeate the song. Between its content and the chorus of band members singing, I have to admit that I was, for some reason, reminded of “Baba Yetu” by Christopher Tin, the theme song of Civilization IV. “Harvest” just struck that same chord within me.

“How’s the Heart?” is another that left me feeling better. In a way, it’s kind of a sequel to the previous album’s “Elan”. (A common theme, as Human II Nature as a whole seems to be envisioned as a sequel to Endless Forms Most Beautiful.) But it stands alone just fine, and I see it as one of the most meaningful tracks on the album. My interpretation of the lyrics is simple. We’re all human. We all have needs, and ranking high among them is the need for socialization. In these times where that need, like so many others, has been forcibly suppressed, “How’s the Heart?” asks a question I can only answer in one way: it could be a lot better.

“Procession” immediately follows, and I look at it as another “sequel” to a song on Endless Forms Most Beautiful, this time “Edema Ruh”. There seems to be a common theme in these two albums of…watchers. Call them ancestors, angels, aliens, or animist spirits, but someone is watching humanity, as though we were performing for their benefit. They were here before us, they’ll be here when we’re gone. Above all, though, they’re curious. They want to see what we’ll do next. In “Procession”, they sound as though they’re getting tired of our petty squabbles and lack of inspiration. And I agree.

Disc 1 concludes with “Endlessness”, the only track with primarily male vocals. That’s one of the downsides of the album, in my opinion, but I understand. The band’s always been more female-fronted in its singing. Although I won’t say this is the best song on the disc, it holds its own, despite being fairly long. It’s a grand finale, and it does succeed at that. You feel like you’re at the end of a journey when it begins to fade.

But the journey is only halfway done.

The second disc is technically a single song, divided into eight parts collectively titled “All the Works of Nature Which Adorn the World”. It’s entirely instrumental, apart from the occasional choral vocals and a spoken word section at the beginning and the end, and…it’s a metal symphony. There’s no other word for it. “Vista” and “Aurorae” are stirring, “Moors” makes me long for…something. I’m not sure what, but it’s there. “Anthropocene” is a term I generally loathe, considering it a pejorative, but here it comes off as inspiring—if this be the age of humans, let us make it ours. (To top it off, this movement of the symphony even includes a version of the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal, the world’s oldest known musical work.)

“Ad Astra” closes the book on Human II Nature, and let me tell you this right now: nothing could have prepared me for it. Not only does the music build to a perfect crescendo, creating the sense that, while this story is done, ours hasn’t even begun, but the spoken section is moving, inspiring. It’s a passage from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, where he muses over the picture of the same name, a photograph of Earth as seen from billions of miles away.

Our whole planet doesn’t even take up a whole pixel of the image. Everything we know, everything we are, is nothing more than a dot, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” For Sagan, that’s a call to protect and cherish what we have. For me, it’s something different. Yes, we must ensure that our environment continues to support not only our lives, but also (and this is where so many environmentalists go wrong) our livelihoods and our standard of living.

To me, the pale blue dot is the beginning. It must be, because otherwise it would be our end. And that, I think, sums up my feelings on the meaning of Human II Nature. We were born of nature, yes, we are of nature, but we have outgrown it. Tsiolkovsky said it best:

Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.

“Ad astra,” the song’s title says. To the stars. At a time when tens of millions of Americans aren’t even allowed to leave their homes, we can yet dream of better times to come. We don’t have to be chained to the indignities of the present, the ghosts of our past. We can make a future that is greater.

Why? Because we’re human. We’re not the disease. We’re the cure.