The Hard Way

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Because, well, you can’t go wrong with a good Dickens quote!

So, anyway, getting to my post…

Err, more specifically, getting to reactions to my last post: either I’m an over-reacting loon who is trying to turn a “minor flu” into the Black Death…or, I’m an under-reacting loon who is trying to turn the “the new Black Death” into the common cold.

Got it.

As a writer, by the way, if you ever manage to piss off both political/cultural sides, you’re probably doing something right.

I’m gonna let both sides keep going in their preferred brands of tunnel vision, by the way, without further addressing that particular topic.  Nope, instead I want to touch on something that we can all* pretty much agree on: we’ve had it pretty damned good.

*Yeah, right, all.  When did all of us ever agree on any-freaking-thing?!

One of the consequences of this epidemic may — hopefully — be a return of the hard-won wisdom that we have lost over the years and decades.  Look, let’s boil it down to the basics — it is, depending on our age, our grandparents or great-grandparents who last had to learn the hard lessons of survival amidst disaster.  It was they who last had to truly learn how to be self-sufficient and careful.  It was they who last had to well-and-truly worry about care and consequences and the cold, bitter hand of reality smacking them on a daily basis.

For those of us born in the US or Western Europe in the last 75 years or so?  Yeah, we’ve had it pretty freaking good.  Be honest — at least with yourself, if you can’t be honest with anyone else — who among us has had to truly learn the need for savings?  Who among us has had to truly worry about the damned world ending?  Who among us has had to develop a personal relationship with fear and disaster, and life lived on the knife’s edge of death?

Oh, I’ve courted death…I’ve been in situations where my life was on that knife’s edge for survival.  No, I never fought in a war — wrong brother for that one! — but I have done stupid shit, beyond frolicking with bears and chasing wolves.  I’ve done stupid shit like hike this trail in the midst of a biblical thunderstorm:SkyRim_01-670x1024

As I was saying, I’ve been on the edge of disaster, but — and this is the important bit — I CHOSE that edge.  I chose it every single time.  Worse (or better, depending on your outlook), I chose to walk that edge in situations in which I was knowledgable and in control.  I did not have it thrust upon me.  I did not have the Universe itself cry out to me, “You think that’s bad?  Hold my beer!”

My grandparents did.  Like so many others of their generation, they lived through the best of times, and the worst.  The rest of us?  Yeah, the “worst of times” has not really been on the radar.  Not yet, anyway.

Let’s be clear, COVID-19 is not the worst of times.  It’s not even close.  If you want the worst of times, go re-study what the Bubonic Plague did to the world.

What this current epidemic is, however, is a nice little reminder of just what could happen.  It is a Black Swan event to clue us in to just how bad shit really could get.

We’ve been complacent.  We’ve been comfortable.  We’ve been, if you want brutal honesty, soft.  We’ve had it too good for too long.

We have to re-learn the wisdom that we’ve spent so many years disparaging.  We have to re-learn the value of saving, of having money put aside to cover our asses when the world falls apart.  We have to re-learn the necessity of being able to handle our own stuff: to fix a leaky faucet, to repair minor car problems, to protect our friends and family.  Crap, a huge percentage of our population has to re-learn the ability to simply walk a mile!

To be even more gloomy-blunt — for when things really do go to hell — we have to re-learn to forage and hunt, and to survive.  A common isolation joke in my little corner of Montana is, “Who cares if the store is closed?  I’ve got plenty of ammunition…”

And, no, I’m not going all join-a-militia-in-Idaho crazy, thank you very much.  What I’m saying is that COVID-19 is a reminder that the worst really can happen.  Our forebears learned that lesson the hard way, and now we have to, as well.

Musical Note — the song below, for those of you who disparage video games (for which I’ve written, goddammit!), is from the soundtrack of a game.  It’s a great song, off a great soundtrack album, and it kinda fits our world of isolation and quarantine and looming disaster:

Climbing The Second Mountain

I’ve mentioned before that my news and opinion reading is pretty dang broad.  I do my best to take in info and viewpoints from all across the spectrum, then run all of them through my own perspective (and BS filter) in an effort to come up with something approaching the “whole picture.”

You come up with some surprising results that way, by the way.  You come up with writers that you like — that you take quite seriously — even though you may not agree with the policies and positions and opinions they express (I’m looking at you, Richard Cohen).

That’s rare, however.  More commonly you find those writers who simply make you shrug, who are there just to read in the moment.  Every once in a while, however, one of those “blah” people surprises you…every once in a while you find a column or an essay that makes you sit up and take real notice of someone you had dismissed for years…

I ran across one of those this past weekend.

Maybe it was because the piece had nothing really to do with politics, but rather was about life itself…about life, and second chances.  Given that I, in the essay’s terms, am on my “second mountain,” this piece really resonated.

I cannot for copyright reasons quote the entire thing here, but I am going to put a pull-quote to give you an idea of what he has to say, along with a link to the piece itself.  It is…erm…a terrible title for the piece, by the way.  The headline has nothing whatsoever to do with what is actually written, but that’s not the author’s fault…blame the editors for that one.  Ignore the title and just read the essay, it’s worth it.

David Brooks, “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy”

“Life had thrown them into the valley, as it throws most of us into the valley at one point or another. They were suffering and adrift.

Some people are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. They get angry, resentful and tribal.

But other people are broken open. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces.”

Decline and Fall

When you write speculative fiction, one of your biggest tasks is world-building.  Whether you’re writing a star-spanning sci-fi civilization, or a medieval kingdom in fantasy, that world-building is just as key as are your characters.  If the world is neither compelling nor unique, pretty much no one is going to give your (presumably brilliant!) characters a chance to reveal themselves…

Now, I do a lot of prep and background work long before I write a story.  I do it for my characters, yes, but for my “worlds” also.  In fact, I probably do a bit too much.  I work out details and histories and facts that no one will ever see, especially given the tight focus I like to keep on my characters.  I do that background work — that invisible work — because I think the depth and “reality” are necessary.  Characters are shaped by their society, and their society is shaped by it’s history.  A Pole and a Czech are not far apart in space, their respective societies are not far apart in respect to the time the modern iterations have existed, but their histories…their histories make for vastly different people and outlooks.

I started thinking about world-building over the last couple of days not because of the work I want & need to do on a new story, but because of the news.

Yep, the news.  The real world, boring, obnoxious news.

One of the favorite tools of the speculative fiction writer is the “empire in decline.”  From the decline into senescence of Tolkien’s Gondor to the fall of Moorcock’s Melnibone…

From the disintegration of Martin’s Seven Kingdoms to the disintegration of Asimov’s Galactic Empire…

Hell, from the fall of Lucas’ Old Republic to the destruction of just about everything in the Walking Dead, the decline and fall of a civilization offers far-too tempting — and far-too effective! — a backdrop for any speculative writer to ignore.

Of course, I’m not just a writer, I’m also a historian.  More than that, I’m a historian whose academic training is in the decline of the Roman Republic, and its transition to Empire.  That training and knowledge tends to give me a certain perspective on, and fascination with, civilizations on the wrong side of the peak.

560d2cee9dd7cc10008be5e5-750The thing about all those declining kingdoms and empires in stories is that they are there to give the characters something to look back to, something greater and more wonderful to hope/dream/aim for.  They’re plot devices as much as they are world-building.  That’s why you never (or very, very seldom) see good stories place the protagonist as a member of a civilization at or near its peak, not unless that power is something to be hated and overthrown.

And you certainly never see a protagonist sit amidst all the power and splendor of a dynamic, vibrant empire and say, “You know, this is all going to shit…”

So, as I said, I’ve been reading the news: You know, this is all going to shit.

As a politics geek, and a history nerd, the realization that I am living on the downslope of such an empire, that every passing year in my country will be worse than the last, is troubling and depressing.  To think that we are no longer capable of things that seemed so simple just a few years and decades ago…to think that every crisis, every problem, will just get worse…

*sigh*

But as a writer?  As a writer, that thought offers all kinds of possibilities and ideas…and challenges.  We can’t forget the challenges.  To create hurdles and problems that have meaning, that matter, is not easy when you’re talking about a society at or near its peak.

Writing-Exercises-1024x512Writing and thinking about all this has inspired a bit of a writing exercise (that will probably never see the light of day…just like most of my “practice” exercises): can I create the basis/plot for a story that works in a similar setting?  Can I create a fantasy or sci-fi setting and circumstance that sets a protagonist willingly and happily amidst a power actually at its peak?  Can there be stakes and challenges that mean something in that setting?

Phrase o’ the Day: Ectoplasmic Tommy Gun!

Hrm…  Okay, so I’m still playing catch-up on posts, which means I think it might be time for the writerly equivalent of the puzzled shrug…that old slacker favorite, the list:

  1. I read a few news bits over the last couple of days about the State of the Union.  More specifically, about postponing or cancelling the thing because of the government “shutdown.”  To these pieces — and to the concept of delaying/cancelling — I say, “Well, duh.”  Is there a more pointless or pathetic example of kabuki theater than the freaking State of the Union?  For a long, long time the damned thing was just a letter sent to Congress, not the spectacle of imperial excess and extravagance that we have now.  Shit, all the Constitution requires is “notification” to Congress of the state of the union (note the lack of capitals!).  coronation_of_nicholas_ii_by_l.tuxen_(1898,_hermitage)What it does not require are speeches carefully scripted and crafted with *wait for applause* moments.  What it does not require is the expenditure of millions of dollars on something we already know will be cheered by one team and booed by the other, regardless of content or message.  What it does not require is empty pomp and circumstance and ceremony from 500+ people who can’t even do their fucking jobs.
  2. Ahem.  Rant over.  Thanks for your patience.
  3. Britain and the EU.  Oh, Britain and the EU…  As a history-nerd, I absolutely love the political maneuvering and shenanigans on display.  As an English history-nerd, I am completely appalled by the sheer incompetence on display.  I mean…shit…how in God’s name can you make the US Congress look like freaking workaholic geniuses?!?!  winston-churchill-with-tommy-gun_a-g-7613085-0Churchill isn’t turning over in his grave, he’s off getting pass-out drunk.  Every single person at Westminster — both government and opposition — should be happy his ghost is just doing that, by the way…otherwise he’d be stalking the halls with an ectoplasmic tommy gun, taking them all out.*  Look, I love both England and Europe as a whole…but the EU is an idiocy.  As a trade union, it’s great.  As a common market, it’s perfect.  As the “ever closer union” trying to force 27 very, very different nations/peoples/societies/cultures to turn into some bastard-mutant-child of the worst parts of France and Germany, it’s nothing more than the rankest insanity.  Unfortunately, like every single example in history of “technocrats” and “elites” who “know better,” who know “what’s good for you,” they won’t — they can’t — let even one single person slip from their control…
  4. *Churchill 2: He’s Back, And He’s Pissed! — hey, I’d pay to watch it!
  5. It’s gonna snow again in a couple of days…and I can’t freaking wait.  After the last dumping, I took off for a moderate off-trail hike.  Now, it can be hard in Colorado to find “untrammeled wilderness” without having to go deep into the mountains, but a nice knee-deep coating of snow with no footprints from anything or anyone but the wildlife is a nice freaking start. I’m getting the itch again, by the way, for one of those 6-month jaunts off to…err…well…nowhere in particular.  Go back to Krakow or Tallinn or Prague as an illegal alien, working tour gigs and bartending…or hike the Pacific Crest Trail…
  6. Yep, there’s a song for #5 too!: