Plot Points

I got an email the other day from an old friend.  Coming from someone with whom I’ve been close for many years, the contents of this email were more than a bit mocking.  Now, most of that mocking —err, “catching up” to kids nowadays — had nothing to do with this blog.  One part however does pertain:

 “Now that you’re on the whenever-the-hell-you-feel-like-it plan for posting…”

Wait…what?  I deny that!*

*Also, I am not overweight!  I just have big bones!  Harrumph.

“…when the f—k are you gonna write about COVID?”

First off, only I can swear on this blog, goddamit!  And secondly…COVID?  Really?!  Haven’t we heard enough about that shit?  What, should I write about the bubonic plague, too?

At this point — with my fiction-writer-hat firmly on — there are really only two interesting subplots to the ongoing COVID drama.  The first is the impact this pandemic/crisis/stress-event is having on society itself.  Look, disease and outbreak and pandemic are probably the most influential things in human history; they have had effects on us far more significant and far-reaching than any nation-state, war or political event.

What, you don’t believe me?  The aforementioned Black Death rewrote life, society and culture  throughout the world.  The only change that can be considered even close to comparable is the First World War, and that really only “rewrote” Europe…

No, not the fall of the Roman Empire, not the Crusades, not Genghis Khan, not even the Second World War affected the world more than the bubonic plague.

Then you throw in tuberculosis…

And smallpox…

And leprosy…

Welcome to the history of the human race.  The governments of man are insignificant in comparison to the power of disease.  It is the small things — the tiniest of things, in fact — that have truly driven the evolution of human development, culture and society.

At first, I thought COVID was an ephemera.  I thought is was something that would come and go quickly.  I thought it was the disease equivalent of the Kardashians, to be honest.

I was wrong.

Oh, the disease itself can’t bear a candle too those true monsters I mentioned above, but the simple truth is that COVID is here to stay; it is endemic now, rather than pandemic.*  But the effect of it?  The true impact of COVID is far more psychological and social than physical, and that impact is amplified immeasurably by the “right-now” nature of modern communications and media.

*Note for the historically curious — the bubonic plague is actually endemic, too.  It is endemic to three places in the world (parts of India, Mongolia and the US) if I remember correctly, with periodic outbreaks elsewhere.

The problem really traces back to the fact that it has been a long time since humanity felt at prey to the natural world.  A long time since we were not — perceptually, at least — in control of, well, everything.  Oh, we have long known that nuclear weapons are a genie that can and will destroy us as a species if we let them out of the bottle.  We know that, but only in the most passing, intellectual way.  We do not feel it.  It is not visceral.  It is not truly real, not to a species and culture whose every history and proclivity is so totally focused on the emotional and the immediate.

COVID is real to us because of the deaths, yes…but also because of the social and political reactions to it.  COVID has had the most direct, powerful impact on human society since “we” watched millions die in the days of mid-20th century.  The effect — still playing out, mind you — looks to be more far-reaching, too.  Will it equal the world-changing impact of the Black Death or the First World War?  Very doubtful…but it has already far surpassed the impact of the Spanish Flu.  It has even, arguably, outrun the impact of polio (socio-politically, not physically).  

That, to me, is the first great subplot from COVID.  That is the background to a story yet to be written.

The second…

Oh, the second…

It could be argued that the second is but an unintended consequence of the first, but my own personal beliefs and outlook give it more weight.  What is that second? I hear you ask…

Acquiescence.

Humanity is notoriously fractious — rebellious, even — and given to protecting our personal needs and welfare pretty damned aggressively.  Now, different societies have different levels of this, I admit.  My own society — I was raised in the western US, and have lived the vast majority of my life there — strongly reflects the “ideal” of the strong, tough, independent sort.  Other places & societies differ.  And, yes, geography and topography have a dominant influence in this.  The outward bounds of culture — literature, music, art — merely reflect the spirit of geography and topology, they do not define it.  

And, yes, there are in fact very real, very physical reasons, why the Japanese culture — as an example — developed so differently from the culture of, say, Montana…

But…what about…

Let’s get down to brass tacks — and to why I why I think acquiescence and surrender are the second great subplot to the COVID pandemic — Australia.

Australia, when you get right down to it, is geographically a hell of a lot more similar to the sparsely populated reaches of Montana than it is to the necessarily dense population centers of Japan or Singapore.  And yet Australia has willingly surrendered, due to COVID, more freedom than any other place in the world.  The Australian people have willingly surrendered their personal liberty and independence.  Period.  And there is no going back for them.  They have chosen a dubious safety over freedom in ways that no other country or populace has come close to mirroring.

Look, I think anti-vaxxers are nuts.  Hell, I think the anti-mask zealots are also nuts; as nuts the pro-mask zealots.  I think masks in general — at this point — are nothing more than kabuki theater to make folks feel good, but when someone asks me to wear a mask, plain-and-simple courtesy means I wear a damned mask.  

I wear a mask, but surrendering all human interaction?  Even a misanthrope like me wants to go out for pizza and a beer and be with other people once in a while.  You expect, to be honest, folks like Americans and French to protest because…well, we protest everything.  But when the far more complacent and compliant Germans and Danes start protesting restrictions, too?  Yeah, that right there a sign.  But the Aussies?

*Sigh*

The Aussies have given up.  Plain and simple, they have given up.  Their post-COVID society will be unrecognizably different from what it was before.  For everyone else it is a matter of evolution, but for them?  For them it is revolution.  And not the good kind of revolution.

That is the acquiescence I find so fascinating: the willingness to give up all vestiges of freedom and independence for an ephemeral notion of safety.  And, yes, it is an acquiescence that has been used in plots and settings many times before.  In many, many books, plays, movies — even video games! — it has been used before…and will be again.  It will be used again because it is powerful…and because it carries with it such an element of truth to give with the shiver of dread.

Think of my second great COVID subplot as a question: Just how much are you willing to surrender to be ‘safe’?

I have my answer.  The Australians have a very different one.

{Musical Note — I had one song in mind when I started to write this post, but this one works so damned well I just couldn’t say no…}

Yet Another Post That Started With A Point, But Lost It…

I’ve been busy over the past week or so.  Oh, not too busy to think and write, but still busy nonetheless.  The fact that it is a business of my own creation and choice makes it a thing very different from those days when “busy” meant running to meetings I didn’t want to attend, with people I didn’t want to talk to, in places I didn’t want to be…

In that life, busy meant miserable.  Busy also meant trying to pass the day ever more quickly so I could get to those few hours of “non-busy” in the brewery taproom, spending time with those with whom I did want to talk.  Compared to those days, nothing will ever be “busy” again…

Thank God.

This busy-ness — the busy-ness of the last few days — has been a thing important to me on both a personal and a professional level.  And, no, before you ask, I have not shared it here on the blog.  It isn’t yet time.  When that time does come, however, you can rest assured that I will talk — probably non-stop! — about it here.

Even in the midst of all that busy-ness, however, I have been making time for myself to do more reading.  Now, as is usual for me, I have been focusing that reading on history.  I know, I know…you are very surprised by that.  I mean, who would ever have thought that I read history?  My God, before you know it I’ll be talking about crazy shit like astronomy and cosmology!

Ahem.  Never mind.  Let’s just /sarcasm and move on…

My reading of late has gone back to what is perhaps the greatest well in all of European history for stories of power politics and intrigues and ruthlessness: the English Wars of the Roses.  Look, there is a reason why Shakespeare’s most impactful characters and plays comes from his cycle about this period.  Hell, it was for the very same reason that modern writers take the Wars of the Roses as the basis for something like, oh, a million stories.  Shit, every single bit of Game of Thrones came from this freaking period!  Even the dragons!

Err…well…maybe not the dragons…unless, of course, you want to postulate early canons and artillery as “dragons”!

Err, sorry about that.  Give me a moment to /nerd too…

There, that’s better.

So, I’ve been reading about the Wars of the Roses and, well…shit.  What writer can not think about characters and plots with that particular bit of history in front of them?!  Even better — or worse, depending on your point of view — I’ve been diving back into the stories and details about the death of Edward IV; the machinations of his queen, Elizabeth Wydville; the ambitions of his brother, Richard of Gloucester (yeah, I pretty much refuse to give him the royal styling of Richard III — sue me, I’m convinced of his guilt); and all of the ruthlessness and maneuvering around the fates of the Princes in the Tower.

If you don’t know, by the way, that final phrase refers to the 12 year old King Edward V, and his nine year old brother Richard, Duke of York.  Now, no work of history can get into the reality of those two boys because, quite simply, all we can definitively say about them is that their uncle imprisoned and murdered them in order to seize the throne.  And in that simple sentence I just typed there lie literally millions of words of stories and characters and conflict as inspiration for a fiction writer!

The Princes in the Tower

There is a record, from a contemporary writer unaffiliated with either political faction of the day, about how people used to gather across the Thames from the Tower to watch the imprisoned princes come outside to play everyday.  Then…one day…the boys just never reappeared.  It was only after that disappearance that everyday, average Londoners turned against Richard Gloucester.  It was only after that disappearance that people began to question whether a man so popular and respected could be so ruthless and evil.

I’m sorry, but just how can you not take something like that and run with it?

One of the things I find most compelling about the whole story is the fact that not a single one of the players involved gave a damn about anything other than their own power.  Elizabeth Wydville was a grasping, ruthless woman committed to cementing her own (unofficial) power and influence over the government of England at all costs.  Richard of Gloucester had more official and legitimate claims to power — as regent, not king — but that most certainly wasn’t enough for him.  Hastings and Buckingham (if you remember them from your Shakespeare!) wanted desperately to cement their own power…

And not one of those people, trusted with the care of two young boys unable to defend themselves as much as they were trusted with the care of England itself, cared one whit for any of their charges.  Nor did they, to get more to the point in terms of today’s world and politics, ever bother to pause and think about what was best for the nation or the people.

And in all of that you have…everything.   You have characters who are sympathetic, and characters who are detestable.  You have conflict and tension on multiple levels, from the personal to the international.  You have scheming and murder; evil deeds and cowardice; manipulations and mistakes; hell, you have a dude executed by being drowned in a barrel of wine (!). You have, when you get right down to it, an illustration over just a few short months of everything that makes humanity so fucked up and miserable…and so very human.

Richard III

Oh…also…if you extend the window out a bit, you do get a touch of justice, too.  Hastings and Buckingham were executed by their former master, Richard of Gloucester.  Not much later, Dicky 3 himself died at the hands of a man whose claim to the throne was laughably thin; a man who barely spoke any English; a man whose grandfather was nothing more than a Welsh groom with the good luck to marry a (former) queen…

That man, who became Henry VII, had his faults and problems, but let’s be honest here — he not only killed Richard of Gloucester, he married the dead princes’ sister and gave eventual rise to a magnificent grandchild in the form of Elizabeth I.  So well done, Hank.

Err…on a pointless history-is-complicated note: Hank7 didn’t actually turn out to be a terribly nice guy.  He wasn’t a hugely bad one, mind you, but he was certainly no shining, chivalric hero.  His mother, on the other hand, was one of the strongest and most remarkable women you’ll ever come across.  Which leads inevitably to a whole separate character-inspiration rant.

*sigh*

Anyone who says history is simple, and writing easy, is either crazy, or lying their ass off.

Raise a Glass to the Brave

Given yesterday’s anniversary, there’s only thing I can write about.  Only one thing worth the words, or the sentiment: Yuri Gagarin.

Now, the first iteration of this post moved past Gagarin and became a piece about the divides of nations that have prevented that brave, brave man from achieving the level of recognition he deserves.  It became about the rivalry and adversarial relationship between the US and Russia.

It became, in the end about the futile waste and foolishness that saw a brave, brave man ignored by two-thirds of the world.  Oh sure, that man was named a Hero of the Soviet Union…but who in the US or Western Europe, or that vast majority of Asia that lies outside of old USSR borders, remembers jack shit about him?

“Yuri who?” is all you’re likely to get if you bring up his name to the next person at the bar…

For those who have forgotten — or who never knew — let me remind you: a full month before Alan Shepherd flew Freedom 7 on a fifteen-minute-ish suborbital flight, Yuri Gagarin became not just the first human into space, but also the first to orbit the Earth.  A US astronaut would not follow into a similar orbit for damned near a year, when John Glenn flew Friendship 7 through three full orbits.

Today, we make far too much of “firsts.”  The first left-handed tailor to use right-handed scissors.  The first idiot to piss on an electric fence.  We celebrate the most trivial of firsts like they were the first summit of Everest…

…or the first human into space.

Just put your mind back into that morning: Thousands of tons of highly explosive fuel were set to propel a basically untested craft into an environment completely and totally inimical to life.  The courage of that first man to strap himself into that thing…

The courage to put aside thoughts of his wife and kids…

The courage to nod and give a thumb’s up, knowing death rode just a few feet behind him…

Look, let’s be honest: the Soviet Union is not a country folks look back to for inspiration or reassurance, or competence, even.  But the Russian men and women of courage?  Those who — in the terms of one of my favorite books — had the Right Stuff?

Raise a glass, then, to Yuri Gagarin.  Raise a glass to one of those few men so brave — or so crazy — that they extended the boundaries of our entire species.

Oh and, by the way, if the first human-crewed ship we send to Mars is NOT named the Gagarin, there’s something freaking wrong with us!

A Bit of (Non) Random History

For some reason, the American media just gets all sweaty and shaking when the British royal family comes up for discussion.  That same media also loves a juicy family scandal, so when the two can be combined that sweaty-and-shaking thing turns into a flat-out orgasm pretty damned fast.

So, Harry and Meghan have been in the news lately, thanks to an Oprah interview session artfully crafted to maximize their future earning power as US-based influencers and celebrities.  Yes, that does in fact make them pretty much the Kardashians, but that’s what the public wants, so…

The historical snark in me, however, just can’t let the mediagasm pass without a bit of historical perspective.  Hey, I indulged my space-nerd side a couple of posts ago, so why not let my poor history-nerd side out of its cage for a few minutes?!

Let’s list, for just a moment, some of the — ahem — highlights of Prince Harry’s family history, shall we?

Henry I (very likely) murdered his eldest brother and (very definitely) imprisoned his middle brother for 30 years in order to sit his throne…

As prince, John conspired with the king of France to keep Richard I (the Lionheart) locked up indefinitely in a German prison.  Later, as king, that same John got drunk and personally murdered his 16-year-old nephew in order to secure his grip on the crown…

Edward III seized all goods and possessions from the Jews, then expelled them from England on pain of an agonizing death…

Richard II used to make people — well, nobles and rich commoners — sign blank confessions which he would keep handy in case anyone got uppity, or failed to send him enough money…

As regent and protector, Richard of Gloucester murdered his nephews — the 12-year-old King Edward V and 9-year-old Richard of York — in order to seize the throne and become Richard III… {And you wonder why “Richard III“ is in the top three of Shakespeare’s plays?! I am currently watching on Amazon, by the way, Ian McKellan’s fantastic version of this play}

Henry VIII…well, good ol’ Harry 8 executed pretty much anyone and everyone who possessed so much as a single drop of old Plantagenet blood besides himself and his kids (including a 9-year-old boy and a 70-year-old woman)…

Speaking of his kids, Queen Mary I very much lived up to the nickname that history has since surrendered to an alcoholic haze: Bloody Mary.  She was so ardent a catholic, in the days of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, that in her five year reign she burned at the stake more protestants than did the Spanish Inquisition in its entirety…

And let’s not leave the recent royal kids out of the loop, shall we?  Edward VIII, who popular fiction and perception has romanticized as abdicating the throne because of a love affair with an American divorcee, was (quite literally) a fascist who said — after WW2, mind you — that Adolf Hitler “wasn’t such a bad bloke.”

And Prince Andrew…err, let’s just skip Epstein and underage hookers until things like criminal charges and prison sentences are settled… [Edit: sorry to Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, for screwing up the reference — it’s little Andy that is the creeper, not Edward]

Oh, and that list above leaves aside some of the most remarkable — and bloodthirsty — women in history, who sat not on the throne but behind it as Queens Consort:

Eleanor of Aquitaine, who spurred and guided her sons to rebel — repeatedly — against her husband, and their father, Henry II… {Yep, Eleanor and Henry are in fact the two main characters in one of my favorite movies: “The Lion in Winter”}

Margaret of Anjou who, quite literally — and quite accurately — was the model and inspiration for Circe Lannister…

Hell, looking back at that list, it’s pretty much Charles and William who need to watch their backs, not Harry and Meghan.  Given the family history with siblings and close relations — and Meghan Markle’s full-bore Kardashian-ness — one has to wonder just how long it will be until someone goes all Corleone…