What Not To Read When the World is Falling Apart

Let me tell you about what I’ve been reading recently. First of all, over the past week, I’ve been reading a lot of news about the horrors in El Paso and Dayton. As well as the continuing horrors in Washington, D.C., and most of the rest of the world.

Just before El Paso and Dayton, I had finished reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a beautifully written dystopia filled with all the horrors that people of color already face in many of our cities every day. It ends on a hopeful note, but on the way takes the reader through a lot of violence and terror and despair.

Last weekend I attended ArmadilloCon, Austin’s convention for readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy. One panel was about what has recently been dubbed #hopepunk fiction. Panelists asked whether readers were becoming weary of a steady diet of dystopia. I’m pretty sure our answer was “Yes. Now what?”

At the convention, I bought two books from an up-and-coming Native American author, Rebecca Roanhorse, and found myself with plenty of time on my hands to read them this week after I fell victim to the latest virus traveling through the social circles my grandkids travel in.

Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts are skillfully crafted stories with larger-than-life characters in a post-apocalyptic world in which the gods and heroes of the Diné (Navajo) nation manifest in some stunningly impressive ways. Great stories. Very violent. Every character morally gray (which is fine). Many of them a very dark gray. And of course, since Roanhorse is writing a trilogy, book two ends with some sense of resolution followed by one of those “OH MY GOD, NO!!” moments that are the mark of the great writer who knows how to get you to buy her third book.

So there I am–sick, depressed, steeped in the eerily parallel violence of dystopian fiction and breaking news. What to do? I thought I needed a break, a different book that would pull me out of my funk. Maybe something contemporary. So I went to my bookshelf and found a nice hardback I’d picked up sometime back and carried it upstairs with me last night for a good restorative bedtime read. I was only a few pages into the book when I remembered what it was about. This was Elizabeth Crook’s Monday, Monday, which begins with the 1966 tower shooting at the University of Texas. Her description is slow-motion and elegant as a dagger. I broke down in tears as I laid the book aside.

I didn’t sleep well.

This morning I woke a bit late and scurried around in order to make my breakfast date with my son and his family. If anything could pull me out of my funk, the grandkids could.

Tacos and donuts and grandbabies. I was definitely feeling better. Well enough to share with my daughter-in-law what I’ve been going through. She confessed that she’d just finished re-reading Pollyanna. Maybe I’d like to borrow it? Tempting, but…no.

You see, I don’t want to just hide from the violence and hatred. I don’t want to cover it over with prettily-painted, trompe-l’oiel wallpaper and pretend it’s not there. I just want to see something in our world, something in us, that can reassure me that we’re more than this, better than this.

Show me some hope.

Driving home I remembered something from my college days that I had worked into the second book of my Recall Chronicles. Malia, the main character in Shadow of the Hare, is alone in a little hotel in India, struggling to cope in a post-apocalyptic world.

“I read for a while, [she says] struggling through a short story in French that Simone had shared with me. It was about a little blind girl whose parents, with collusion from the village priest, had conjured a beautiful and perfect world for her, never let­ting her encounter anything ugly or sad. She was so angry when she discovered what they’d done, what the world was really like. “Je ne veux pas etre heureuse,” she cried. “Je veux savoir!” I liked the story. I don’t want to be happy—I want to know. I made a cup of tea and read it again.”

That story has stayed with me all these years and it has kept me asking questions, never content to rest in my privilege or comfort, always wanting… to know.

Here’s what I know now: I want both. Yes, I want to know. But I also want to be happy. I DO want to be happy, dammit. And I want you to be happy, too.

My job as a writer, especially as a writer of speculative fiction, is not to write #grimdark, violence-filled dystopian and apocalyptic stories devoid of hope; nor is my job to write pretty #noblebright fiction in which saviors magically come to our rescue. No, my job is to face the reality of #grimdark and somehow dig out of it… some shred of hope. Some deeply human determination to hope in spite of everything.

They say we have to write the stories we want to read. Okay, then. If all goes well, my book will be out early next year.

(A version of this essay was read earlier today at Austin Writers’ Roulette, hosted by Teresa Y. Roberson at Malvern Books.)

Timely…

Unwinding

(This is a “Tale of the Timecrypters”, a species of time-travelers invented by author Seth Abbot, a character in my upcoming novel, THE FOURTH TIME.) 

The future was already lost. The only hope was to retrieve their past, reposition it, and hope for the best. They would eventually be known as “Timecrypters”. They knew this, but preferred to call themselves “Travelers”.

The scenario in which they found themselves was occurring in what the carbon-based alpha species of this rather pretty blue-green planet referred to as the year 2015 CE. Travelers tried to make note of these timeposts, as otherwise they were inclined to forget where or when they had been coming from as well as where or when they were going. It was easy to get caught up in scenarios, these convoluted meanderings of present circumstances laden with residues of past occurrences and hints at future possibilities. As noted, these hints had recently faded away into absence.

It should perhaps be confessed that the narrator of this story is also a Traveler, but since Travelers have no native linguistic equivalent of first person pronouns, it is easier for them to relate this story as a third-person tale. Verb tenses are also problematic, but they will have done their best.

The expertise of Travelers – Timecrypters, as you say – lies in their ability to navigate the currents of the time-space continuum by accessing small breaches between eras and universes. And when they say “small” they mean really minutely tiny. So tiny, that they can’t actually move through the breaches themselves, sending instead nano-robots equipped with photonic projectors and holistic transmitters, by means of which they can manifest whatever forms seem spatio-temporally appropriate and then projecting their consciousness into that form. Because they are not just communicating with these forms but rather BECOMING the form, they sometimes forget, as it were, which when they’re in and become more involved than perhaps they should have been in specific scenarios. It is always being a risk of this particular mode of travel.

The prime movers in the scenario related here appeared to be energy and moisture and the changing distribution of these across the blue-green planet’s surface. Ah yes, mundane, mundane. Exactly. The most fundamental facts so often appear mundane to those who exist by means of them. Have you ever tried to explain water to a fish? Don’t bother. They don’t get it. Likewise the alpha species of this blue-green planet, a terrestrial species, didn’t get their own reliance on the time-currents that distributed energy and moisture for their sustenance.

There were more proximate factors in the scenario, namely Mario Verguenza – the richest specimen on the planet in terms of the things the alpha species valued most – and Gandida Raksha, who exemplified their highest ideals of personal beauty and sexual desirability.

The lifeways of the planet at this juncture in the scenario were facilitated by means of energy that was having been mined from below the surface, where is storing over many eons. Of course it all comes first from their star – a rather unremarkable mid-sized star – and was having been being transformed into physical form by an exceptionally efficient and truly admirable process they called photosynthesis. The photosynthesizers carried much of this fixed energy to their graves, where it was stored and was now extracted for use.

Rather than ingesting this stored energy for direct benefit, however, the creatures of this planet had taken to burning it in various inefficient and wasteful contraptions to produce a wide range of goods that, as far as Travelers could see, had no benefit. They also consumed a lot of it in simply scurrying as rapidly as possible from one place to another. As a byproduct of these activities, the efficacious balance of energy and moisture transfer essential to their life processes was being severely – no, terminally – disrupted.

They didn’t really care about this, even in the fleeting moments when they almost understood. Among those most notable for not caring were Mario Verguenza and Gandida Raksha. They reveled in the reckless accumulation of useless goods and scurried from place to place more than most.

The Travelers were having produced a particularly endearing photonic small canine, which Gandida had quickly adopted and carried with her everywhere. They also produced a specimen of an unobtrusive variety of small brown bird, free to fly about and observe more broadly.

It became obvious to the Travelers that Mario was bent on extracting and incinerating every last ounce of stored energy from the planet. They felt the quivering disruptions in the continuum. They sensed the disappearance of the future.

During the late nights when Mario and Gandida were engaged in non-reproductive sexual activity and early mornings when they slept, the lapdog and the little brown bird convened to compare notes.

“It is palpable,” the little bird said. “These people have consumed their future.”

“Shouldn’t there have been some doing to help?” asked the dog.

“It’s so hard not to get involved,” the bird replied, with a sad, down-drifting twitter.

“If Travelers could have gone back to where this scenario began, to see if it might be tweaked? Just a little bit, understand…” The dog rested its head languidly on a paw and twitched an ear.

And suddenly they were inside a building where metal objects with four wheels were assembled. The term “Model T” comes to mind. The Travelers were taken the form of cockroaches skittering about in the corners of the factory, and as they look at the heavy boots of the workmen, they felt the vulnerability of this particular form choice.

“Is this where it started?” one of the cockroaches said.

“Unlikely,” said the other.

The scene shifts again, and they were in a beautifully appointed sitting room. There are chairs of carved mahogany, upholstered in intricate tapestries. Heavy brocade curtains hang at the windows and brass ornaments gleam in the light of a blazing fireplace. A corpulent gentleman sat on one of the chairs, smoking a cigar, while a gentlewoman in rustling silk sipped tea or coffee from a delicate porcelain cup held in a hand sparkling with jeweled golden rings. The Travelers occupy the forms two of mice hiding behind the wainscoting.

“Can you feel it?” said one mouse, its whiskers quivering with excitement.

“Yes, it manifested strongly here,” the other replied. “This is where the future begins to disappear. But what is it that was happening?”

They both sat very still for a couple of minutes, training ears and whiskers this way and that to get a better read on the time currents flowing through this scenario.

“It’s the desire, isn’t it?” said one.

The other twitched its nose in agreement. “Even so,” it said at last. “The desire for objects, things, experiences of faraway places. Maybe the desire to feel exalted? Outside this space there is readable a similar desire to have what is in this room. And of course, there can never be enough for that.”

“Is there anything that can have been done about it? You know, to prevent what transpires from here and consumed the future?”

“Maybe it’s just the way they are,” the second mouse suggested. “Maybe they were simply destined to be a species with no future.”

“You know that’s not the way things work,” the first mouse scolded. “There’s no such thing as destiny. You’re absorbing their way of thinking. Get hold of yourself.”

The second mouse scratched its head with its back foot. “Sorry,” it said.

The first mouse closed its eyes thoughtfully. “What if these ones had never acquired these things? What if they had to rely more on things from their own place? You know, their own resources?”

The second mouse perked up its ears. “Maybe if their temporality had been shifted somehow. Grabbing a piece of the past and repositioning it in such a way as to give them a chance to have emerged in a different way.”

The scene changes once more and they are on a ship at sea. They are no longer mice, but instead rather large and nasty rats, gnawing vigorously at some thick ropes. The ship lurches side to side, backward and forward in a dreadful tempest. The wind howls and waves smack loudly against the timber hull. The ropes the rats have gnawed through give way. A mast cracks and then crashes onto the deck, smashing a hole where water enters. The two rats climb onto a piece of floating debris as the ship disintegrates. And because they are really Travelers and not rats at all, they can read the names inscribed on the disintegrating hull of this ship and two others equally doomed – Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria. There are sailors flailing about in the storm-tossed waters, desperately clinging to anything still afloat.

As dawn breaks, broken bits of wood, a few empty barrels, and a couple of corpses bob aimlessly in the calm waters.

On the time horizon, the future glimmers.

Madness, I Tell You!

The Mad Hatter's New Hat

“Are you mad?” she demanded. “Have you completely lost it? Helloooo!”

I listened carefully. I’d always wondered exactly what this thing we call madness might really be. Maybe she would explain it to me. I was increasingly convinced that either I or everyone else was hopelessly mad, although I couldn’t tell which it was. Maybe if I had a better understanding of madness, I’d be able to decide.

I’d done some research.

The word “mad” occurs in my dictionary between the words “macule” and “Madagascar”. A “macule” (or “mackle”) is a printer’s term referring to “a spot, especially a blurred or double impression caused by a slipping of the type or a wrinkle in the paper.” I thought this might be a clue.

Madagascar, of course (formerly Malagasy Republic), is a large island off the southeastern coast of the African continent that I knew from my anthropological studies to be home to a collection of rather prehistoric primates long since extinct on the continent where monkeys and apes evolved and prevailed. Madagascar has no monkeys or apes – except for Homo sapiens, an invasive species. It does have dozens of species of lemurs as well as the exceptional sifaka, which moves by means of sidewise leaping. I thought this could be a clue as well.

To be mad, I thought, is like being caught somewhere between a blurred line on wrinkled paper and a sidewise leaping primate.

Etymologically, the word itself – “mad” – derives from the Old English gemaedde, meaning “out of one’s mind”. This evolved in Middle English into a meaning of being “beside oneself.”

As a student of Buddhist meditation, I find this intriguing. One of the goals of meditation is to be able to observe dispassionately and objectively one’s own thoughts and feelings. In other words, I suppose, we could say, to take up a position outside of one’s mind, as it were, or beside oneself as opposed to remaining hopelessly embedded and ensnared in one’s thoughts and emotions.

Interesting.

Is that madness?

Apparently so.

To be “mad” can also imply anger, although I don’t think that’s what my friend meant. I knew her usual term for that was “pissed off”. It’s true that anger can drive one mad. Also other people…

Then there is the question of rabies and rabid, “mad” dogs. Which brings up the altogether puzzling question of mad dogs, Englishmen, and midday sun, which, to be perfectly frank, the English have very little experience of.

There is something I recall about being far from the madding crowd, which often sounds enticing. And some seductive notion of a kind of “madness” that is liberating and wild and impetuous.

“Hello!” she said again. “You’ve really lost it this time! Gone off the deep end. Gone ‘round the bend. Mad as a hatter!”

“Do you know why hatters are mad?” I asked. “It’s because of the mercury they used in the production of the felt for the hats. Mercury poisoning,” I said.

She shook her head in despair. “You’re mad,” she said again. “You’re absolutely stark raving mad.”

“Did you know that the term ‘stark raving mad’ first appeared in Henry Fielding’s The Intriguing Chambermaid in 1734? But yes,” I said at last. I sighed deeply. “Yes, I believe I am mad. Would you care to join me?”

(This piece was originally presented at Austin Writers Roulette “Spark of Madness” on Sunday, September 13, 2015.)