Random Thoughts, Fermented

I’ve let this post ferment for a few days.  Not because I was unsure of the topic itself, but to see if the way I wanted to write the post changed.  It didn’t change, so I’ll sit down now and see if I can put my thoughts together in a way that makes sense…

Oh, and — if you are wondering — yes, this whole thing has in fact been a massive violation of my “write it right then” rule.  And, yes, I am paying the price.  I had some ideas on structure and content that I “put off” as part of the fermentation process, and now they are just plain gone…

This is why we have rules, people!

Ahem.

One of the expectations in writing and publishing nowadays is representation and diversity.  For a sci-fi/fantasy guy like me, that is in fact half the fun.  I once described sci-fi as a still, rather than a filter…as a way to throw together a bunch of separate thoughts and ideas and opinions in order to ferment and stew them into something unique.

Now, every writer is different in how they do that.  My particular “brew” uses class, culture and language to portray the differences I chose to focus on in my background world-building, and in my characters themselves.  While race is certainly an element in that mix, it is not a dominant factor.  I made that choice intentionally, by the way.  I made it not because race is not worth tackling, but because I figured I had bitten off quite enough to chew with my commentary on economic and socio-cultural injustices, thank you very much.

Okay, so all of the above was written to set the stage.  To set the stage about expectations, about the portrayal of diversity, and about the mostly unseen/unpublished thoughts and intentions that writers put into their personal “brew” of world-building.

What got me to thinking about all of this?  Lord of the Rings, of all things.  First off, let’s be bluntly honest here — LotR is pretty much the whitest thing in existence.  It is that way because it was written by a middle-age(ish), white British guy in the 1930s, based on ideas and background material he created in the ‘20s.  Race and diversity were, to the very upper-middle-class Tolkien, things distant and unfamiliar.  That is why his portrayal of peoples that are, essentially, Blacks and Indians is distant and unfamiliar.*

*If you are a Tolkien reader/fan, you will understand that I am talking here about the Haradrim and “Eastern peoples,” of course.

I mention that not as a criticism of Tolkien, by the way.  I’m a historian — I take the periods and peoples of history for what they are, when they are.  No, I mention it because there is a move afoot — after the massive success of Game of Thrones — to make a new streaming series based on Tolkien’s background material.**

**Nerd Alert!! Don’t read this note if you aren’t a full-bore geek!  Everything I have read and researched says the series will focus on stories about Numenor in the Second Age.

Now, just the merest rumor of a well-done LotR show gets us fantasy geeks tingling in a big way.  Unfortunately, it also brings out the ignorant and foolish.  Given the current atmosphere in the US, it has brought to the sites talking about this (potential) series some of those troglodytic QAnon/ProudBoy racists we all wish would just go away.  A dark subset of the commenters have focused on how “wokeness” will ruin Lord of the Rings.  The worst catastrophe/desecration they can imagine is *gasp* the presence of black characters!

You can’t actually make this shit up: these “people” are literally screaming that LotR is for whites only, that there is no room in the stories for anyone else.  Just typing a blog post about that idiocy is pissing me off, let alone the true anger that comes if I think through the consequences of their juxtaposition of white-supremacy and literature.

The ideal, to me, would be complete neutrality in casting, by the way.  Do you know who would make an ideal Manwe for this new series?  Morgan frickin’ Freeman.  C’mon, the man played God and knocked it out of the park…could he ever do less as the chief of the Valar? 

On that note, I want to push beyond just Lord of the Rings for the rest of this post.  Why should we limit roles as “white” or “black” or anything else?  One of my all-time favorite movies is The Lion in Winter.  It is a favorite for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the powerful portrayal of an aging king, his troubled relationship with his fractious sons, and the bitter anger between the king and his estranged (imprisoned) wife.  Peter O’Toole did one hell of a job as Henry, but do you know who I really want to see in that role?  Idris Elba.  That man can freaking act, and I think he would bring a range of emotion — the strength of a warrior-king to go with the fear and dread of a man entering old age — to Henry II that would make it 100% awesome.

Oh, wait…Elba isn’t white.  We couldn’t have that.  A black man playing the role of a white king?  We could never have that!

Or could we?

If you have some spare time in your viewing plans, go watch Bridgerton on Netflix.  Throw aside your preconceptions and expectations, and just watch.  Yes, there is one brief “head nod” as to why half the cast is black in a show ostensibly set in London in the Regency period, but that nod isn’t actually needed.  The acting is very good, the characters engaging, and the show a wonderful illustration of what can happen if we stop worrying about “white” or “black” roles, and just let creative talent shine.

By the way…would someone please find a vehicle to cast Denzel Washington as Richard III?  Imagine that man’s intensity and ability to bring an audience close giving life and depth to that incredible role?

”And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Flashfiction: “Movin’ On Up”

Wake up and go to work. Come home for some TV and sleep. Check your accounts to make sure the paychecks go in, and the bills go out, at the right times…

Lather, rinse, repeat…

Hold on a second, something just hit me.

Holy shit, in the time it took me to type that last sentence, this post just changed from a random piece I wasn’t sure was even gonna work into a flashfiction piece (that I’m still not sure is gonna work, just like every flashfiction piece I write)!

I don’t know how it is for others who write, but, well, welcome to my brain and how the idea and creative process works…

At any rate, let’s give this a shot, shall we?  And to illustrate the “one hour rule” I have for my flashfiction pieces, I’m taking the idea that just hit me and starting to envision and write at 9:05 AM.  I’ll (hopefully) be hitting “Publish” no later than 10:05 AM.

{Note — it is now 9:55, and I am about to hit that “Publish” button…}

Movin’ On Up

He went to work every day.  Never late, never absent.  Hard work and dedication had paid off for him.  After four years on the second floor, in a tiny beige cubicle, the call had come.  He was on the way up, they told him.

Up he went, then.  All the way up…to the third floor, where the cubicles were grey.  The walls stood all the way to his shoulders, up there.  Extra space and privacy?  What more could he want?

His pay was up, too.  Oh, the taxes took a bigger bite, but his daily checks of the bank app on his phone were still satisfying.

Four more years, then.  Four years of overtime and vacations to Columbus.  Four years of satisfied little sighs when he checked his phone.  They had even come to know his name, his bosses.  Well, six of them knew his name, anyway, and that wasn’t too bad.

Finally, an extravagance.  Those satisfied little sighs when he checked his phone had grown larger and larger over the years.  They had grown until he felt comfortable enough to step up at home, too.  No more Columbus for him.  No sir, he was on the way up!

He shuffled back into the office after his week-long vacation.  Sunburnt, hungover and exhausted, the week in Sarasota had been everything he’d dreamed.  As tired as he was, he felt ready to face the next year with a renewed vigor.

He had his eye on that corner cubicle down the aisle from his.  It had a view, that cubicle.  A glance out the small window and he’d be able watch those going to and fro on the elevators.  He’d even be able to see the office doors.

They were the Promised Land, those offices.  The dream he never dare mention.  Life with walls and a door!  The ultimate goal.  He would reach that office.  He had confidence; hard work was always rewarded, wasn’t it?

And then, after the office?  All those satisfying little numbers on his phone would grow and grow until he that magic day when the hard work was no longer necessary.  Then he would be happy.  Then the trips to Columbus and Sarasota would become trips to Paris and Tokyo.  Then the drudgery would give way to adventure.  Then life would truly begin.

The years were a blur in his mind.  His wife and kids were a blur, too.  The hard work continued, and he continued on the way up.  Up to that corner cubicle he coveted.  Up, even, to that office.  So what if half of it was taken up with boxes of paper they had nowhere else to store?  It still had walls and a door.  It still was his own space at work.

The demands on his time were up, too, to go with the bigger numbers on his phone.  He hadn’t made the last few trips to Sarasota, however.  He couldn’t go, he’d told his wife, not if he he wanted those numbers to really climb.  

He’d make it up to her, he promised.  When those numbers were up enough, they would go to all of the places they never talked about.  When he was up enough, they would really live.

She had cried a bit, then.  Oh, she had tried to hide it, but he could feel her tears.  He would make it up to her, of course.  In the end, he would make it up.

The kids were gone by the time he reached the fifth floor.  His wife by the sixth.  But the little numbers, they were impressive.  Dreams became plans, then.  Plans for month-long trips to Europe and Asia and Africa.  Plans to see the world…to see all of the world.  This what he had worked for.  This was the way up.

The seventh floor and a new office.  Oh, not a corner office, but still one with windows and a secretary shared only with six others.  They all knew his name now, of course.  They all proved that by speaking at the funeral.

“He was too young…” they all said.  “He’d climbed so far,” they all said, “only to die at the top.”

He never did make those trips.

Musical Note — it’s an older song, and most definitely not one of the greats of musical history, but it still kinda fits…

Tribalism

A great deal — if not most — of the flashfiction pieces I create come about through the inspiration or influence of a particular song or lyric.  Similarly, a large number of these blog posts owe their inspiration/influence to something I happen to have read earlier in the morning…

Kinda like today.

The article I read was a screed against the “buy local” movement.  Actually, it is nothing so organized or profound as a movement, it is rather an impulse…almost an instinct, really.

As I write this, I am sitting in a small coffee place owned and operated by a local entrepreneur, staffed by local residents.  The coffee I am drinking was, of course, roasted in the “big city”…the city that is all of an hour away.  The baked goods I try unsuccessfully to resist are made just around the corner from this little shop.

Before I moved to Yellowstone, I lived in the “Napa Valley of beer” in northern Colorado.  The taprooms in which I wrote were owned by local folks who spent their own blood, sweat and tears to get the operations off the ground.  The beer was poured by local residents with rent or mortgages to pay.

At my favorite local place I can play chess on a homemade Star Wars set.  I can lose several (hundred) hands of cribbage to the old guys pretending to teach me.  I can get randomly tackled by a posse of over-familiar great danes.  I can, even, argue economics and politics with guys who will buy me a beer and have my back in any fight that follows.

I would rather have my four bucks for coffee and a bagel go to Anna and Alex and everyone at the Tumbleweed — and my beer money go to Don and the folks at Grimm Brothers — than to any faceless, anonymous outfit worried more about stock prices and investor relations than the personal and financial wellbeing of their staff and customers.  I would rather, in the end, see my friends prosper than go to some bigbox — or go online — in order to save a buck or two.

If you think the urge — and, yes, I will call it the instinct — to “buy local” is somehow nefarious, foolish or wrong…well…then…

God help you, because I can’t.

That article was to me an unfortunate, miserable symptom of the greater condition that is currently killing us.  That condition is the corruption and death of the one thing that truly lies at the heart of civilization and society, the one thing that truly defines, well, us: community.

We have killed community.  We have more than killed it — we have poisoned it, hung it, shot it, burned it, then buried it under the bleachers of the bloody gladiatorial show with which we have replaced it.

The most obvious destruction is of course in our politics.  No longer are the various sides adversaries, opponents even, they are now enemies.  It is no longer about beating an opponent, about one idea and viewpoint taking its (temporary) position at the top.  No, now it is about destroying the enemy.

Politics no longer holds any form of hope or help, it holds only hate and vindictiveness.  That is true for both sides, I should add.

We no longer live in true, natural communities.  We no longer live among neighbors different from us.  We no longer hold dear the fellowship and support of friends who have their own opinions, and their own worth.

No, for far too many of us, “community” has come to mean living and socializing only among those with whom we agree.  We read only the news that reinforces our own beliefs.  We visit only those websites that mirror our views.  We shop only at stores that openly display the “proper” allegiances.

We pay lip service to diversity of thought and opinion, and to the inherent value of those who believe differently…but it is just that, lip service.  Five minutes after saying that all views should be presented, we will send our kids to schools that admit only one viewpoint.  Five minutes after saying that all views should be heard, we will seek to remove a book, or silence a speaker, or walk away from a conversation, because they are “out to destroy us.”

If you admire UC Berkeley and refuse to listen to a Ronald Reagan, or to read a Jonah Goldberg, you are guilty.

If you admire Hillsdale College and refuse to listen to a Ruth Bader Ginsberg, or to read a Noam Chomsky, you too are guilty.

If you throw up your arms and condemn others as worthless or evil or out to destroy, you are guilty.

And, yes, I am just as guilty.

I am guilty of harming our community — of damaging that which should hold us together.  I have thrown up my arms and yelled at the words, both written and spoken, of those who I condemned as idiotic and nefarious and and destructive.  I am guilty of refusing to listen to, and to read, those who I find repugnant and hate-filled.  I am guilty, even, of shying away from interacting with — of sharing community with — those to whom I don’t want to listen.

How do we fix it?

*sigh*

That’s a big question.  No, really, that’s a properly big fucking question.  That’s the kind of question a writer can spend a million words trying to answer, and still not get his arms all the way around the solution.

It is, in part, an answer of faith.  Not of one faith, but of all faiths.  The Christian must learn from the Hindu, the Muslim from the Buddhist, the Jew from the Taoist.

But it is more than that.

It is a thing of hope, of that which which draws us together rather than that which divides us.  We must celebrate those (few) ideas we still have in common.

In the “old days” we shared a common language of entertainment — we shared stories and songs, movies and shows, even teams and sports, that we could all embrace and celebrate.  Now?  Now we have Balkanized into tiny fiefdoms separated by uncrossable chasms.

In the past, we shared holidays and the turning of the seasons in common.  Now, even the calendar causes dissension and anger.

We have to get past that.  We have to get past all of that.  We have to do the hard work of actively looking to find and celebrate the ties that bind, rather than follow the easy path of cultural and political tribalism.  The tribalism I hear in so much of what my friends and family say and do — the tribalism I hear in so much of what I say and do — is going to destroy us.

The cynic in me says the path down to hell is steep.  It says we have fallen so far into the pit, we can climb out only through the blood and death and disaster of war and strife.  The little kid in me, however…

That little kid says we can still change.  That little kid says — hopes, anyway — that we can still listen without screaming “Socialist!” or “Fascist!” at each other.  If we cannot…

If we cannot, that path to hell is one way.

Faith, and the Loss Thereof

Okay, so I think I’m over my fit of temper from the last post.

Err…

Well…

I think I’m willing to work through it, anyway…and that’s almost as good, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I still think WordPress has achieved an entirely new level of moronicity* with their changes, but I’m going to try and struggle through.  And, yeah, some of that willingness to struggle is the ubercompetitive pride that I usually try to hide: I ain’t gonna let any other sonofabitchasswagon beat me! The less said about that side of my personality, the better.

*Why am I a sci-fi/fantasy writer?  Because I freaking LOVE to make up words!

Ahem.

So, where does that intro lead me?

Not into the following post, as a matter of a fact.

I, err…

Look, when the hell have I ever planned one of these posts?!  Yeah, yeah…I come in with an idea of what I want to talk about, but that original idea generally lasts about as long as a Twinkie at a table of 7th graders.  Once I start hitting the keys — once the words start to flow — that original plan is nothing more than a barely remembered aftertaste…

There’s been a conspiracy of late.  No, not THAT conspiracy!  No Satan-worshipping pedophile deep-state resistance for me, thank you very much.  No, this conspiracy is worse.  It’s a conspiracy of those I love, and those I read, and the world itself.  It is a conspiracy to remind of that which I no longer am; of that which I have left behind.

I just finished a new fantasy series that really put the capstone onto this “conspiracy.”  The first two books in the trilogy were good.  Good, but not Tolkien/Jordan/Martin good.  Just good.  They were also pretty basic, with not a lot of undercurrent and subtext to go with the plot and characters.  Then the third book…the third book went and pulled the rest of the clubs out of the bag.

Oh, the message wasn’t what you would call subtle…not even close, in fact.  This was CS Lewis-style allegorical fantasy, rather than Tolkien-style high fantasy.*

*If you don’t know the differing views and philosophies those two close friends brought to their respective works, you should probably go back and study more…

The backdrop for this is that I used to be a Christian.  I still consider something of a Christian, although I am far, far closer to a Deist than to any of the **intentionally skipping controversial comments here** flavors of “Christianity” that so dominate the US today.

So what got me to thinking about this?

That third book.  I copied out and emailed to myself several quotes from that book, but I’m only going to use here the first of those.  Mainly because it was the one that got me to thinking, but also because it is the one that I think has the most to say to modern US-style Christianity (note — I’m editing the quote here to be more general, but book details are at the end of this post):

“Because that’s not how it works. Faithful people suffer and evil people prosper all the time[…]you must know that is true. Besides, if our actions are driven only by reward or punishment—eternal or otherwise—then they are motivated by greed and selfishness, not faith or love. That is where so many people go wrong, even those who say they believe in [God]. They obey because they think it will make their lives better, rather than themselves. And that is very much the wrong reason.”

Why am I not a Christian?  Two reasons I’ll give you — and a third I will keep to myself, thank you very much.

The first, and primary, of those is that US-style Christianity is all about fear and punishment and force.  Do this or go to hell.  Live like this or go to hell.  Believe this or go to hell.

That there is some Kool-Aid-drinking, mind-control bullshit…especially when fed to children.  If a “god” loved me so much he would send me to Hell for even questioning, I’m quite happy to play for another team.

The second of the reasons is that Christians — mostly, but not exclusively, US-style — can’t leave well enough alone.  They can’t let anyone else get on with their life if that life conflicts with their own prejudices and intolerance.  And, yes, this second reason is basically a subset of the first…

But every so often my own prejudices and snap-judgments get challenged.  Every so often you talk to, or listen to, or read, that person who can iterate something different.  The best stories, by the way, can iterate something different.  Oh, it doesn’t have to be religion — arguable, shouldn’t be — but it has to be something meaningful.

Why do Joe Haldeman and Ursula LeGuin and Robert Heinlein and George Orwell still resonate as sci-fi writers?  Because they wrote far more than they wrote.  Their words were about more than plot and character, their words were about the freaking world…about life, and all the bullshit that goes with it.

I’m not going to hold James Islington up in that company — his books were good, but nothing near that good — but he gets all the credit in the world for making me think and question my usual knee-jerk dismissal of “message” writing.

My rule on this, by the way, is if the writer is someone with whom I would like to sit down and have a drink and talk through what they wrote. The list of such writers is pretty stinking small, but Islington (and his message) has made his way onto it.

Well done, sir.

**Note — The specific book in question is “The Light of All That Falls” from the Licanius Trilogy by James Islington.