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!:

What Could Be

I had this great plan to put up some details about various hikes I like, to keep going with the “Yellowstone Practical” idea. I even started a post on that for today…

As you can tell from the lack of a morning post, I didn’t really follow through. Not because I couldn’t have, but because something else rose in my mind last night. Now, I’ve mentioned before one of writing’s primary rules: when an idea comes to you, YOU WRITE IT!

Last night I, err, did not write it. I didn’t quite forget the thought, but I did have to spend the better part of today reconstructing it while I worked in the store.

At any rate, here goes:

I spent some time reading the news on my day off. I know, I know…that is always a mistake. You’d think I would know better by now, but nope.

Most of the crap I was able to ignore, but something stuck with me: the whole damned NFL-anthem-flag controversy. How the hell is this still a thing?

Look, I realize I am not the most grown-up person in any room (including a room full of kindergarteners), but even I can see how stupid is this whole thing. And by stupid, I mean everyone involved. I know we’re talking about the confluence of politics, culture and sports here, but isn’t there someone who can be the adult in the room?

Apparently not.

So, what the hell, I’ll throw in my two cents. Actually, I’ve got two opinions/thoughts here, so I’ll round it all up to a nickel.

First of all: I am a sports guy. All of my life I have been a sports guy. More than that, I have been a team sports guy. Team sports are the everyday embodiment of self-sacrifice. Well…at least…they should be. In all of the bullshit, dating back to last year, I saw very little conception of team-first. I saw an awful lot of “me-first”, but not much else.

I will, however, call out for credit those that did put team first, that acted like the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. I think the Seahawks nailed it last year when they linked arms as a team. Much as I detest Jerry Jones, the Cowboys this year got it right, as well.

Those teams that had no unity? Truly sad.

And the cowardice of those that simply hid away in the locker room and hoped to bury their heads? Beyond sad, beyond weak, and well into the territory of truly pathetic.

Right or wrong, at least the other guys picked a side. I’ll always take someone who picks a side, whether I agree or not, over someone who tries to ride the fence and please everyone.

Okay, so that’s the first bit. The less important bit. Now comes the second part…

By definition, no society, no country, no people is perfect. To dredge up an old quote, “All are judged and found wanting.” The United States is anything but perfect. The flaws in our society today are manifold…and, in many cases, obvious.

Hell, I write about many of those flaws: about the exploitation of the weak, about the vast, indefensible chasm between rich and poor, about the evil one human can do to another for the smallest of reasons, about the suffering and despair that suffocate so many lives…

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think and dream of better. That doesn’t mean I think we as a species, as a society, as a country are irredeemable. If I thought that – if I bought that deeply into cynical nihilism – it would be time to just plain give up, and that I refuse to do.

To redeem ourselves, however, we need aspirations. More importantly, we need aspirations that can pull us together. We need symbols, and dreams, that we can all share.

I cannot comment on other countries, nor other peoples, but to me the dream of what the US could be is one of those aspirations. But to get there we have to value in common the effort and work it will take to get there.

The American flag is just a bunch of fabric stitched together, in one sense. It is nothing more than a glorified bed-sheet tied to a stick. In another sense, however, it is something very different: it is a symbol of what could be. It could/should be, when you get down to it, something to unify, something to symbolize all of our aspirations.

See the problems…speak out on the problems…give your time and your money and your life to fixing those problems…but dream and aspire together. Value what could be together.

You and I don’t have to agree. We can argue and debate and oppose each other all we want, IF we both believe in and value where we’re going…value what could be.

If, however, we hold nothing in common – if we share no aspirations or dreams – then we are doomed to strife and discord. And, eventually, to the disintegration of the little that still holds the many, many different strands of the US – as a nation and as a people – together.  In the end, all we will have left is the regret of what could have been.

A Full-House

“Your bet…” prompted the transgender girl slowly turning into a boy, looking to the left.

A shake of the head and a quick reply from the big, straight guy in that next seat. “I need another beer, first.”

“I’ll get it.” This from the rail-thin gay kid on the other side of the table as he stood and stepped over to the ice chest.

“Keep betting like that and you’ll need more than beer,” laughed the blonde, tougher-than-she-looks ex-cop.

In the background, a tall and aging server – head shaven to hide receding hair – is still throwing his all into hitting-on the pretty girl from Romania. She laughs and shakes her head; she still has a boyfriend back home.

College is a long time ago for me…err, both stints are a long time ago. It has been, over the years, hard to remember the semi-forced intimacy of that period. That period when boundaries are expanded, when preconceptions are shattered, and when new ways of looking at life are learned. That time when you well and truly grow up.

Six months ago, most of my friends looked like me. Most thought like me. Some even acted like me.

Now?

Now I play games with a transgender girl-turning-into-a-boy. Now I have real, meaningful discussions with a rail-thin gay kid. Now I feel avuncularly protective of a tougher-than-she-looks ex-cop. Now I laugh (with all the empathy and understanding of the fellow-aging) at a trying-oh-so-hard server*.

Six months ago, not a single one of us would have spoken three words to the others. Hell, none of us would’ve so much as entered each other’s orbit, let alone become friends. I’m a straight, white guy who is addicted to hockey and writes in brewery taprooms…what the hell do I have in common with any of these people?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

*Note: there are far more characters – and friends! – up here. The cast above, however, illustrates better than anything the variety…and the chasms crossed.