Solitary shell

I’ve been thinking a lot about mental disorder lately. My own, of course, are at the top of the list.

Seven weeks ago, I embarked on a guided, if self-paced, program of cognitive behavioral therapy. (CBT, but be careful when you’re searching for the acronym!) I’d heard good things about it, that it can, for some people, help treat depression and anxiety about as well as the medication and professional psychiatric help I can’t afford. So I thought I’d give it a shot. I had nothing to lose. If it didn’t work for me, I’d be back where I started, and the only cost would be two months of my life. A fair trade, if I’m honest.

The program is based around a book called Retrain Your Brain. It’s made of seven weekly sessions, each covering one “step” of the therapy. The first step, logically enough, is identification. What’s wrong? Why do you think you need therapy?

For me, that was fairly easy. I suffer from depression and anxiety, and those have only grown stronger as 2020 has progressed. Watching the world burn isn’t as fun as the Joker makes it seem.

The impetus for starting this program came in early August. I’d gone through a few rough weeks. I was sleeping 15 hours a day and still feeling like I couldn’t get enough rest. I was just lifeless, and it affected everyone around me. It strained my relationship with my mom, my brother, the woman I love…everyone most important to me. Worst of all, I felt like giving up. Waking was a chore. Even writing was all but impossible. I hated myself and the world around me, and there were times when I was ready to join people like Kyle Rittenhouse in the fight against tyranny. Sure, it might cost me my life, but maybe I’d be able to make more of a difference in dying than I believed I had in living.

That was when I realized I had to make a change, so I started looking into getting help. Problem is, I’m poor. I’ve been trying to find a steady job for two years without any luck, and a white man isn’t going to get financial help from the state in 2020. Going to a therapist, then, was out of the question. (I’m a little glad. I don’t like the thought of getting on antidepressants.) Fortunately, the internet has resources for the downtrodden.

I took advantage of those resources. I sat down on a Friday evening seven weeks ago and started following directions. Reading, writing, soul-searching. That first week didn’t seem like much, but it was a start. I identified my strengths and weaknesses, I got a diagnosis (moderate depression, but of the atypical sort, as well as generalized anxiety) and a plan of action. In painstaking detail, I explored how my mental problems have affected every part of my life.

A lot of people make light of depression, or simply don’t understand it. “Just be positive,” they’ll say. “Look on the bright side.” It’s not that easy. When you’re depressed, there isn’t a bright side. Everything’s dark and bleak. Combined with my anxiety and a deep, deep fear of failure, that kind of thinking is crippling, because not only were things bad, but I couldn’t even imagine a way to make them better!

The natural progression of the therapy program helped somewhat. After identifying my problems, the next step was to set goals for myself. Nothing much for me; I’m about the humblest man you’ll ever meet. I wanted to lose a few pounds, because who doesn’t? I’m still trying to get a job, still working hard on Rhea, the programming language I’ve been developing for almost a year.

Having the goals in black and white has been beneficial. I’ve made more progress on Rhea in six weeks than I had in the six months before. I started a set of online courses on edX in an attempt at padding my resume, I’m working out (almost) every day, and I even wrote a song. I went looking for a new hobby, something I hadn’t tried before, because you know how much I love learning new things.

Part of this CBT program involved keeping track of my activities. Scheduling them beforehand, then recording on a scale of 1-10 how I felt while I was doing them. I did notice that the early 3s and 4s gave way to 7s and 8s. And that’s honest. I wasn’t padding the numbers like a state health board with coronavirus deaths. I was writing down my true feelings, and they were better.

Retrain Your Brain has a number of case studies, supposedly by the author (he’s a therapist who specializes in this kind of therapy), which it uses as examples of how to do it. So a woman in one study was feeling old and useless because she was out of work and childless at 37. A man had lost his job and was scared he wouldn’t be able to support his family. At times, I felt like I was reading a biography of myself. The similarities were striking, and that got through to me. These are people just like me. They have the same problems I do. And they must have conquered them, or else the author wouldn’t be holding them up as examples. For once in this horrible year, I had a glimmer of hope.

Now, one of the core aspects of CBT is learning to challenge negative thoughts. Depression and anxiety create a lot of those, and I’m no stranger to the dark side of my mind. My “irrational” self, as I’ve come to call it. Training myself to argue against that other self has been hard, but I can say it paid off.

Last Saturday, I was in the middle of a long and winding message to the woman I love (more on that in a moment) when the lights flickered. They then went completely out for a few seconds. “Ugh,” I thought. “I’ll have to turn my computer back on once it’s safe.” I finished the short essay I was writing, which I figured would be enough time for things to settle down, and I booted back up. So far, so good, right?

Lately, I’ve started using the Brave browser for a number of sites that have decided to stop supporting my beloved Waterfox. So Brave came up first, and I loaded up my fediverse refuge, Free Speech Extremist. (See my post from June 7, “Moving On”, for more about that.) As soon as the timeline began to load, the browser froze. No, everything did, except the mouse cursor for some reason kept responding. Even the light on my Caps Lock key didn’t toggle, a sure sign that I was dealing with a hard freeze.

No problem. Handled that before. Let’s reboot and…uh-oh. Now, the freeze came in the middle of booting my KDE desktop. Same symptoms, but now I can’t blame the browser, can I? Well, maybe. Another reboot got me to the desktop, where I started Brave, loaded FSE, and watched my computer grind to a halt yet again. What’s going on here?

“Much wailing and gnashing of teeth,” goes the saying. I didn’t gnash my teeth, but there was literal wailing. Because I was sure that something awful had happened when that power outage occurred. Something got damaged, and now I was dealing with the failure of my one connection to the world at large. I wasn’t scared. I was terrified. This was a full-blown anxiety attack, the likes of which I hadn’t had in almost two years. Everything came together at just the right time to make this perfect storm of fear and stress, and I hated it. I was less than an hour removed from congratulating myself for finishing Week 7 of the therapy, and now this? Where’s the justice?

Okay, Michael. Breathe. Remember the whole point of the therapy. So I challenged the negative thoughts with, as the meme goes, facts and logic. I’m a gifted problem-solver. I can work this out. It’s probably just the video card, because this looks a lot like when I found that shader bug in Star Ruler 2 a few years ago. If I turned off Brave’s hardware acceleration, no freezes. What about Waterfox? No problems there…until I loaded up Shadertoy. A very graphics-intensive site, if you’ve never been there, and it locked my computer up hard. So it has to be the video card.

I resigned myself to finding a new GPU—rather, a slightly older one compatible with my hardware and out-of-date OS. I explained the situation to my mom, since communication is a part of therapy. And then I took a shower. While I was in there, I had an epiphany. What if it wasn’t the card failing? What if it was a bad firmware update instead? When was the last time I did one of those? Back upstairs after the shower, I dug through the system logs and found an update from September 6. That should’ve shown up by now, or so I thought. But Linux, unlike Windows, doesn’t mandate a reboot after system updates, so I never did it. I kept telling myself I’d get around to it.

The power outage did that for me. When I rebooted, it loaded the updated firmware, which was buggy. A downgrade has, as far as I can tell, fixed everything.

The moral of this story isn’t that the latest firmware for an RX 460 on Debian 9 has a serious bug. No, what I’m trying to say is that I was able to work through this problem despite first thinking it was the end of my world. I broke down, but then I followed the steps I’d learned, and the result is that I found a solution. And that really made me feel better. Not that it was possible to feel much worse than I did during the anxiety attack, but I came out of it proud of myself for my diagnostic skills.

One of my goals was to feel more positive about myself and my abilities. I proved that I can do that. If only the rest of them were so easy.

The hardest, even beyond the life-changing goals I’ve set for myself, is also the most important. Depression and anxiety are not my only mental problems. I also have a sleep disorder of some sort, and this has a serious effect on my mental health. Again, the CBT process helped me identify the trouble and work to fix it.

At the beginning of last week, I had shifted into a nighttime schedule. I’d go to bed around 9 in the morning, wake around 6 PM, and stay up through the night. And I felt awful. Back to the lazy, lifeless, irritable thing I’d been. A thing, not a man, because I really did feel less than human. I hid in my room for most of the week, rarely talking to anybody. I also hid from the woman I love; the message I was composing when the power went out was the start of my attempt at…apology? Penance? Contrition? I’m not sure what word works best, but it doesn’t matter yet.

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that I identified both my self-defeating behavior and the underlying cause of it. When I’m “off track”, as I’ve come to call it, I suck. I spent last week feeling worthless. Today, by contrast, I got up before 6 AM, and I feel like I could run a hundred miles. Two weeks ago, when I was waking around 9 or 10 in the morning, I was fine. Once I got off track, I went downhill. There’s no other satisfactory explanation.

CBT isn’t supposed to help with sleep disorders. Retrain Your Brain flat-out gives up on that one, regurgitating the tired old anti-insomnia spiel. But it did help me find the problem, and now I can work on tackling it. Another goal I’ve set myself.

Therapy: when it works, it works. This kind has, on the whole, worked for me. It hasn’t solved all my problems. It hasn’t even given me the tools to solve them myself. Despite that, I believe it has been a net positive. Thanks to CBT, I’m better than I was seven weeks ago, and I feel that’s only the start. I know it’s not a quick fix. It’s a process, a path I have to keep walking, but now I can at least find the path. Before, I was just lost. Now, I’m found.

I only hope I didn’t find myself too late.

Thoughts on: The Lightbringer series, by Brent Weeks

I don’t often do book reviews. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it’s mainly because I feel I get too immersed in a novel. For things like the Summer Reading List Challenge, I’ll do my best. Otherwise, I’d rather talk in more general terms than a single work.

Well, let’s do that, then. Instead of reviewing a book, I’d like to offer some thoughts on an entire series. Specifically, the Lightbringer series, written by Brent Weeks, which I just finished reading.

This fantasy novel series consists of five entries, making it as much of a trilogy as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Lately, it seems that five-part series are gaining popularity, as this is the fourth I’ve really delved into in recent years. (The others, if you’re wondering: Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle; Django Wexler’s Infernal Battalions; and The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham.) I will say that I like this better than the traditional trilogy for genre fiction. It allows more room for expansion, more detail, and an overall slower pace. Some of my favorite things, in terms of reading.

The rundown

As this isn’t a book review, I won’t go into great detail about each individual novel, but it helps to know something about the story.

First off, the list:

  1. The Black Prism
  2. The Blinding Knife
  3. The Blood Mirror
  4. The Broken Eye
  5. The Burning White

Each has its own story, but they are by no means self-contained. Later installments directly continue storylines started earlier, and The Burning White begins with an author’s note that some of its events are concurrent with the conclusion of The Broken Eye. So it’s very much a series, not an anthology.

The overall story revolves around a war between the corrupt, bureaucratic Chromeria and the anarchic White King. In the first novel, those seeds are planted, and they grow throughout the series, coming to a climax in The Burning White. Along the way, we follow a small cadre of characters who play various parts on both sides. Almost all are larger than life, or else they become so. There’s magic, cloak-and-dagger politicking, lots of humor, and an incredible number of battle scenes. Something for everybody, assuming you’re into epic fantasy.

And I would call it epic. Lightbringer features world-changing magical powers, godlike entities, ancient secrets, and anything else you might look for. Weeks builds the tension and the stakes as the series progresses, so it feels natural that the farm boy grows into a hero for the ages. It’s “The One” told in a good way.

Worldbuilding

In my opinion, the absolute best part of this series is its worldbuilding. You know I love that. (If you don’t, just read, oh, anything else I write on here.) As we’re dealing with fantasy, that includes what I consider the most innovative aspect of Lightbringer: its magic system.

The whole thing is based on light and the spectrum, hence the “Chromeria” name above. Magic users in the setting are able to draw on light to activate their powers, which manifest in one of two ways: an effect or a physical substance called luxin. Different colors have different powers, though the people of the setting divide the rainbow into only five colors—indigo and violet are left out. So blue is the highest, and it covers intelligence, rationality, and general left-brained thinking. Not bad for my favorite color.

Going down the line, green is mainly for raw strength, yellow covers a nebulous sort of balance, orange works on fear and similar emotions, and red covers “passions” such as anger and lust. But here’s where the trick comes in. Some of those who can use these powers also have access to other parts of the spectrum. They can literally see into the infrared (“sub-red” in the text, to represent their lower state of advancement or something) or ultraviolet (“super-violet”) parts, even though this is physically impossible for human eyes.

Believable it is not, especially when you get into the rare magic users who have access to the forbidden “colors” of paryl (high-frequency microwaves) and chi (long-wavelength X-rays). Still, it’s fun, and there’s a lot of deep thought behind the lore. Yellow is supposed to be the balance color, for example, but it’s the most unstable when brought into material form, meaning that the spectrum is a source rather than a sink. Tetrachromats exist and are known; they’re the only ones who can properly stabilize yellow, and (this is accurate) they’re almost always women. One of the main characters is red-green colorblind, which comes into play. Infrared magic controls fire and allows one to see heat, naturally enough. Despite the fantastical parts, it’s logical, something I believe is the hallmark of a good magic system.

Downsides are necessary to explain why magic hasn’t taken over the world, and Lightbringer gives a pretty good one. People can only use a finite amount of color magic in a lifetime. They even have a visible manifestation, in the form of “halos” of the color they’ve drawn on that slowly grow to fill their irises. Once they burst through, that’s a sign that the magic has begun to take over the user’s mind. Responsible people go to a willing sacrifice. Those who don’t become “wights”, and are often hunted. And this forms the central conflict of the series.

The Burning White gives a midichlorian-like explanation for the process, but that’s not necessary. What matters is that it all comes together. Using too much magic drives you insane, says the common lore. But what if that’s wrong? What if you could reverse the process? Some people are immune, so it makes perfect sense that these would reach positions of power.


Beyond the magic system, Lightbringer offers a somewhat atypical fantasy world. There’s a mishmash of influences from Europe and the Middle East, with the primary empire called the Seven Satrapies (satrap comes from Persian). Religious and magic-related terms and names tend to be Latin or Greek. Fallen immortals all have names drawn from Near Eastern mythology, such as Abaddon and Belial. One territory is full of Irish influences; another uses Hebrew. Very little fantasy, though.

Technology is another important part of a fantasy setting. Here, Weeks bucks the traditional trend of the High Middle Ages, instead placing his world in a kind of early modern era. Gunpowder weapons are common, from cannons down to pistols. A number of mechanical devices exist. And the technological progress is deftly interwoven with the magic system: lenses, glassmaking, anything to do with light is far beyond the circa 1600 feel of the rest of the world.

Magic and religion also tend to have a curious relationship. With Lightbringer, they’re again combined in a reasonably intelligent manner. The Chromeria represents a monotheistic (and very Catholic) faith, while the enemies are often described as pagans. Cosmic beings lesser than the creator deity exist. Many of them are called “fallen”, mirroring Christian legend. Prophets abound on both sides, and some of them even have a true gift. The sacrificial ceremony for magic users who have gone too far is a sacred one. And so on. Again, smart, and a good use of existing pieces.

The culture, much like the naming, shows a number of influences. Fortunately, modern identity politics doesn’t seem to be one of them. One minor character is a confirmed lesbian (the text uses the term tribadist, another of those little details I like). The protagonist is described as having darker skin, but it seems to be closer to Mediterranean or Arab than African. But that’s about it. Races and sexes mix freely. Merit and magic are the ideals for advancement, although political connections often overshadow them. It’s refreshingly escapist.

The characters

An innovative magic system, a sensible cultural context, a lack of annoying modernity. The setting for Lightbringer comes closer to my preference than anything I’ve read not written by Brandon Sanderson or, well, myself. But setting does not a story make. We need good characters, too.

Well, here’s where things start to get a little hairy. Yes, this series has some great, memorable characters. The protagonist, Kip, begins The Black Prism as…not one of them. He’s an overweight loner who spends his days being bullied by neighbors, his nights abused by his mother. Beaten down, no friends, the object of mockery. Hmm. That sounds awfully familiar.

When I started reading The Black Prism in 2011, I saw a lot of myself in Kip. He quickly became one of my favorite main characters in fantasy, simply because of how real he was. This was the escape I needed: someone like me becoming better. By the time I finished The Burning White nine years later, I have to say that my opinion hasn’t changed. The character did, yet so many of the more mundane changes mirrored my own.

Specifically—and I realize I’m digressing here—Kip gets forced into a political marriage, then comes to love his new bride. She started out in the first book as just another bully he had to face, the stereotypical “mean girl” at school who sabotaged his entrance exam and made fun of him for being fat and awkward. Later, we learn that she has plenty of her own problems. She’s highly intelligent, but people consider her a bit of an airhead because she’s, well, busty. Her sister’s orientation brings her further mockery, and events conspire to bring her low at the same time Kip’s rising.

Kip thinks he’s unworthy of someone so beautiful; I think the same. His wife tells him it’s okay, that they can make things work as long as they have love and trust; my partner says the same. Some of the moments they share in The Burning White rang so true to me that I was almost brought to tears. “I have to help her help me,” Kip thinks at one point, words I needed to read at the perfect moment. “I believe in you,” she tells him at a pivotal point, “but that’s not enough for you, is it? You have to know. For you.” We’ve had that exchange almost word for word. During the final book’s climax, Kip tries to find a way out of a…predicament, and he reflects on all the things he could have done better: “If. If. If.” I wrote those exact same words in a therapy workbook last Friday.

So I’m emotionally invested in the protagonist, far more than in any other series I’ve ever read. But the rest of the main cast is strong. Karris goes beyond the “warrior princess” angle to become not just the strong, independent woman Hollywood wants, but a true leader. Teia has a winding story arc that only ends after a series of epilogues to make Peter Jackson blush; she embodies loyalty and angst and even teenage hormones in a way that leaves her endearing, if a little insane. In later novels, Kip’s soldier bodyguards grow into heroes in their own right, while the head villain of the tale is a proper megalomaniac.

That’s not to say everybody hits the right note. The secondary protagonist is Gavin Guile. The Prism, leader of the Seven Satrapies and the Chromeria, commander of the victorious forces of the civil war a generation before. He’s an interesting man, for sure. His dark side is creepy, but you can see that he tries to hide it as best he can. But Gavin is one of the main problems with the story as a whole, and here is where we enter spoiler territory, as well as my biggest problems with the Lightbringer series. If you don’t want to know the big twists, skip the next section.

The twists

Brent Weeks is a good writer. He’s a master at worldbuilding. He can describe cinematic action scenes in a way I envy. But he can also come up with some of the most ludicrous plot twists I’ve ever seen. The kind of thing even writers of fanfiction would call unbelievable. His other series, the Night Angel trilogy, became legendary for this. I’ve never read it, so I can’t say whether it’s worse than Lightbringer in that regard, but I dearly hope it’s better.

Mostly, the fault I find is that everyone is related, and the relations are downright convoluted. Kip discovers in The Black Prism that he’s Gavin’s son. Except that Gavin isn’t actually Gavin. He replaced his twin brother at the final battle of the civil war they fought twenty years ago. One brother or the other slept with a random woman from the town nearby, and thus Kip was conceived. Except that Gavin’s father claims he actually did that. Meanwhile, Gavin’s other son, Zymun, is a psychopath. Oh, and Karris is his mother. And her brother is the main bad guy.

It only gets worse from there. The real Gavin is alive, we find out in the first fifty pages of The Black Prism. He’s being held in a secret dungeon underneath the Prism’s tower. Except that the fake Gavin goes to kill him one day, only to find he was never there at all…despite a dozen or more chapters from his point of view! The whole thing is a trip, and you can’t blame it all on magic. Some of it has to be the author’s fault.

It’s as though Weeks stopped seeing the forest for the trees. The set-piece reveals are excellent. On their own, I’d eat them up and clamor for a movie version. Too bad they don’t fit into the narrative.

I could say the same for the entire climax sequence of The Burning White. All told, it takes up about a third of the book, almost 300 pages with barely a break to breathe. And it feels like a snowball that turns into an avalanche of insanity. Magic flying everywhere, a conspiracy unmasked, people on all sides looking for whatever advantage they can find. Climax, for both the novel and the series as a whole.

But Gavin’s storyline goes in a different direction. He’s been tasked by assassins with an impossible mission. I’m not making this up. He’s sent to kill God. It makes more sense if you’ve read the books, but not a lot more. Problem is, he’s fully willing to do it. He’s an avowed atheist due to the benevolence paradox, so he wouldn’t even mind succeeding. Then he meets a figment of his imagination in the form of his dead younger brother (this series has a ton of those) who causes him to have a complete change of heart and a renewal of faith. That transformation felt so forced that I almost started rooting for the bad guys. The most skeptical man in the world suddenly becomes the most zealous? The swiftness with which it happened made me think far less of both Gavin and the writer who created him.

So much else happens in that novel-within-a-novel that it’s hard to keep track, and the carefully crafted setting tends to go out the window. Just about every main character ends up going full-on Super Saiyan, none so much as Kip and Gavin. There was always an element of the mythic in the series, but this sequence ramps that up to absurd levels. It left me turning pages frantically, wondering what would happen next, yet dreading how it would be written.

The verdict

That, I think, is an apt description of Lightbringer as a whole. It’s a flawed masterpiece. There is a great story in there. The magic system is top-notch, and the setting as a whole just clicks. I found, after years and years of searching, a character that truly felt like me, who even grew with me. A million and a half words over five books and almost a decade, it’s still what I’d call time well spent.

Yet I’m troubled, because I feel it could be so much more. Some of the red herrings were too predictable. Not all of the twists made sense. A few plot threads were left incomplete. I cringed at the prose more than I have for any other book. The whole thing is ambitious, but that ambition sometimes comes out a mess.

That said, I loved it. Flawed though it is, Lightbringer is epic fantasy, with heavy emphasis on the “epic” part. That seems to be the Brent Weeks style, which is fine. (I tend to write “lower” fantasy, and I do like to read it more, so maybe that bias is coming through in some of my criticism.) Often, I wish a series wouldn’t end. In this case, I’d gladly read ten more books in the setting. Because, no matter our preferences, we could all use an escape from time to time.

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!

Summer Reading List Challenge 2020: Number one

I actually finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been so caught up in other things that I forgot to post my thoughts on it. And since I’m persona non grata at my old fediverse haunt, this is probably the only place you’ll see 2020’s entries in the Summer Reading List Challenge.

Science (non-fiction)

Title: Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors
Author: Matt Parker
Genre: Popular science
Year: 2019

The author is an Australian living in Britain, so you’ll have to forgive the misspelling in the title. Never fear, however. The rest of the book more than makes up for it. Humble Pi is a fun little look at some of history’s oddest, funniest, or occasionally deadliest math fails. The Gimli Glider, a jet airliner forced to land on an airstrip definitely not built for it, all because someone read the intended fuel load in pounds instead of kilograms. NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter, which crashed into the Red Planet because of a similar units mix-up. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the “flash crash” of 2010, overflow bugs, and secret islands, all these and more are covered in an irreverent, yet knowledgable, style.

I consider myself a recreational mathematician. I’ve read books about numbers and math since I could read, so going on 35 years now. I love this kind of thing. And I’ll admit that I already knew of most of the stories in Humble Pi, but not always the details. Parker does a good job of explaining those to the lay reader, while keeping the interest of someone who doesn’t need hand-holding. He’s deliberately vague in a few cases, which irks me. Fortunately, those don’t distract, and he makes up for it with good descriptions of things non-experts wouldn’t even care to learn. SQL injection attacks, for instance. Or statistics as a whole.

All in all, unless you’re deathly allergic to numbers, you’ll be entertained. Why? Because you get to see that, no matter how much everyone wishes it would, math just doesn’t go away. And people make mathematical mistakes the same as in any other field. Which is great for readers, as who doesn’t like to laugh at a billion-dollar corporation or government agency failing at something we’re taught in elementary school?

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.