We remember our own lives, mostly… but what if we had access to memories beyond our own lives, and not just in the form known as “books” and “recorded media”? J.D. Moyer offers a vision of how that might work in The Last Crucible, and also touches on writing about memory in such memorable times.
The Last Crucible’s big idea is the Crucible technology, an artificial parasite that has survived the fall of Earth-based civilization into the 28th century. The Crucible integrates with its host’s nervous system, slowly emulating and enhancing consciousness via a quantum supercomputer. When the Crucible passes to the next host, the simulated mind of all previous hosts survives.
The first two books of the Reclaimed Earth series explored how the Crucible technology could go wrong, but in The Last Crucible, the technology works as intended, creating a powerful community of minds that operates more-or-less harmoniously. When Jana accepts the Crucible into her own body, she also takes on the responsibility of protecting her village, which has survived the centuries only because of the vast knowledge and experience carried on through the Crucible hosts.
The Crucible allows a kind of immortality, but at a price: the hosts must share a physical body, and negotiate who gets to control that somatic form. Jana allows her previous hosts to perceive through her physical senses, thus losing any semblance of privacy (and subjecting herself to ceaseless advice and commentary). But she gains access to knowledge and experience stretching back centuries, including a host who personally witnessed the environmental havoc that ushered in the fall of civilization and the construction of the ringstations that still orbit the Earth.
I wrote The Last Crucible in 2020, a year of historical events so outrageous that I wouldn’t have believed them had they been described to me five years earlier. A real-estate conman in debt to the Russians as president (with a very good chance of four more years — or more), the KGB’s ideological subversion plan to destabilize the United Status coming to fruition, a global pandemic, the global rise of neofascism, religious extremists and conspiracy kooks gaining real political power within the US government, catastrophic wildfires and flooding; it was as if every dystopian novel ever written was manifesting in reality, simultaneously: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Parable of the Sower, Fahrenheit 451, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi series, but all at once in a jumbled mess, straining credulity.
And yet everything (pandemics, fascism, religious extremism, climate disruption) has happened before, in one way or another, and humanity has found a way through. Not unscathed, not whole, but still evolving and developing. That was the thread of optimism I clung to while writing this book, that wisdom and the close examination of past experience might ultimately guide us to a better, saner, more compassionate future. Jana’s communal mind, her consorteria of past hosts, provides her with this wisdom, even though the Crucible extracts its price.
Anyone who is paying attention knows that human life in the 22nd century will not be “business as usual.” Fascism and religious extremism are both symptoms of false nostalgia, a longing for an idyllic past that never was. The way of life considered culturally and economically “normal” for centuries (externalizing environmental costs, treating finite natural resources as infinite, economic exploitation of non-whites and labor in general, male control of female bodies, systematic/industrial cruelty to animals) has led us to climate chaos, worker revolt, endless war, and renewed demands for equity. Change is the only option.
Our neighbor Bob texted Krissy and told her to tell me to get out my fancy camera because something big was about to come down the road. He was right; about twenty minutes later, and preceded by the Ohio Highway Patrol blocking off the road and providing an honor guard, this big damn truck rumbled down the pavement, carrying… well, I think it’s probably part of a wind turbine, but honestly I don’t know.
Why our road? Probably because it’s rural and there’s not a huge amount of traffic, so shutting it down won’t inconvenience too many people, and because from where the road connects to the main street of Bradford, about a half mile down, the road is one long straight shot west all the way to the Indiana state line. Which is good because I can tell you, watching this thing turn onto our road for ten minutes, this rig is not exactly good on curves.
And that’s our excitement today! Welcome to rural America, folks. You never know what’s going to happen next.
Fantasy and science fiction are often considered two sides of the same coin, but Jason Sanford has another theory about both, and in today’s Big Idea, he shares that hypothesis with you, and why it’s important for his novel Plague Birds.
Is fantasy the end result of all science fiction?
I’m not talking about the marketing categories separating those two genres, both of which I deeply love. Instead, I’m talking about how people approach our world’s advanced technologies even as these technologies change who we are as humans. I’m talking about the anti-science attitudes that are spreading across our world using the very tools resulting from our understanding of science.
It is impossible to separate humanity from our tools and technology. Our species has been shaped by our tools for countless generations. Fire, stone tools, agriculture, written and printed language, metal smithing — these are merely a few of the tools and technologies that altered humanity to massive degrees. And some of these tools were used by humans for incredibly long periods of time. For example, various species of humans used Acheulean stone hand tools with relatively few changes for well over a million years.
And just as these earlier technologies helped shape who we are as humans, today’s technologies will do the same.
I’ve long been fascinated by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, which says that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While Clarke’s law is frequently used to discuss possible futuristic technologies such as the teleporters of Star Trek fame, the law actually has greater relevance in how we approach the impact of current technologies on our lives.
I fear we’ve reached a point in our history where technologies have outpaced humanity’s desire to understand them. Many people in our world don’t seem to understand or care about the science behind how the touch screen on their smartphones works, how blockchain technology enables bitcoins, or how algorithms decide what they see on social media. Yet these are merely three of a number of technologies that are now reshaping our lives.
All of these technologies started out as science fiction, but they may as well be fantasy — may as well be magic per Clarke’s third law — based on how many people today approach them. If the technologies powering our modern world were actually based on magic instead of science, I suspect far too many people wouldn’t care as long as their cell phones and other gizmos worked.
This returns me to my thought experiment that perhaps fantasy is the end result of all science fiction. By this I mean that even though people accept the advanced technologies and tools reshaping our world, they approach these technologies as if they were some type of magic instead of actual science. As if the science behind these technologies is merely opinion, or wrong belief, or fake news that can be argued against.
This results in two problems for humanity. One, it makes it more difficult for people to understand how new and emerging technologies might deeply change our societies and lives. Second, this lack of understanding also appears to be spawning an anti-science attitude around the world, a belief that it doesn’t matter how science actually works or what the results presented in scientific studies actually say. That the science behind our modern world can be ignored or discarded if you simply disagree with it.
You see this attitude in how many people are refusing to get the life-saving COVID vaccines because they don’t trust the science behind them (even though they also believe an unproven horse dewormer is an effective treatment). All of this is happening despite humans knowing about and practicing forms of vaccination for centuries and the science around vaccines being extremely solid and relatively easy to understand.
You also see this anti-science attitude in how the severe threat of global warming is ignored or discounted by far too many people, merely because what needs to be done to save our planet may not be politically expedient to them.
In my writings I’ve continually explored the conflict presented when people are surrounded by advanced technologies yet don’t attempt to truly understand them. This is also the big idea around my novel Plague Birds, which is set in a science fiction world where artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation are not understood by most people even as that world’s societies resulted from those very technologies.
While Plague Birds is science fiction, it reads like fantasy and is weird and dark because I fear that’s the future we’re rushing toward.
I don’t know what the answer is to people not understanding the technologies reshaping our lives. Obviously education is part of it, especially science education. But I’ve also seen engineers and physicians and other highly educated people who fail to understand the technologies around us, or who practice science with one hand and discount it with the other. After all, just because you understand one aspect of something doesn’t mean you understand everything.
Perhaps there is no single answer. Perhaps all we can do is try to be humble. To accept that none of us understands everything. To listen to others but also remember the vital difference between sharing opinions and facts. To remember that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.
And most importantly, we need to always remember that the science behind the technologies shaping our lives doesn’t care if we fail to understand it. But we may end up caring a lot about what our lack of understanding science eventually does to both humanity and our world.
Today’s the first day of autumn here, and the weather is rainy and gloomy, and temperatures have dropped by more than 25 degrees from yesterday, and yet the crabapple tree right off from our front porch decided to send out a few optimistic blossoms this morning. These blossoms are even more errant than you might expect because the tree they’re on is now largely dead; it effectively passed on this spring, simply a victim of time, and we’ve made arrangements for it to be removed and replaced. So not only are these the last blossoms this tree will offer this year, but the last blossoms it will ever have. It was a good and lovely tree and I want to honor its last efforts at beauty and renewal, and share them with you. Here they are.
Interesting video from the Kurzgesagt folks about whether individual action can make a difference on the climate change front. The short answer is no (no matter how much you as an individual work to decarbonize your personal life, it’s literally a fraction of a drop in the bucket in terms what the total change required would be), and the longer answer is yes (vote out politicians who do not prioritize climate change issues; collective economic and social action will eventually tip the scale).
Of course no one likes it when “No, but also yes” is the answer. But it’s in line with everything I know, and it’s a reminder that the focus for climate change is less on what one does in one’s own individual life, and rather more on what’s to be done to haul the major companies and corporations and economic sectors which account for the vast majority of negative climate change activity into line. More bluntly, it’s less about you and more about Shell and Delta and Tyson Foods and so on, no matter how much they try to put all the responsibility back on you.
I think about this a lot. I live a high carbon life, as it were, and have in the last several years tried to do the work to offset my own footprint by doing the usual things like cutting back on meat and/or buying locally raised meat and produce to lower transport carbon, by making sure our next car is electric, buying carbon offsets for my air and other travel, keeping track of and supporting sustainable initiatives, etc. And obviously I also vote and invest with an eye toward climate policy and initiatives. I do it with full awareness that on an individual level, any personal change will shift things only microscopically here and now, but also with the awareness that a) if I don’t do it today, who will, b) this is all for the long-term. Also, you know. It cuts down my personal hypocrisy load a bit, which is never a bad thing. And also, if we can’t get oil and agriculture and construction and technology and other industrial sectors to massively overhaul, my carbon offsets and local produce will mean diddly.
I’m optimistic that we will move ourselves in the right direction for all of this, but I also know enough about our current and political systems to understand we’re not going to move near fast enough and that the rest of my life, at least, will be spent watching the world be pound foolish for not having been penny wise when it could have. This is pretty much baked in at this point, pun intended. What we’re doing now is finding out how much we’ll mitigate the change that is already here. I’m doing my part, and you should, too. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that.
There are emotions we all experience, because we experience other emotions first. In the Big Idea for Under the Whispering Door, author TJ Klune talks about one of those follow-up emotions, and why it’s so important for the novel.
Under the Whispering Door is, at its heart, a book about the power of grief. No two people experience grief the same way. Whether it be because of our beliefs or the circumstances surrounding why we’re grieving, it’s a unique experience that varies from person to person.
And yet, there is still something universal about it. The loss of a loved one, the loss of an opportunity, the loss of a pet or a life not quite lived the way we wanted, we’ve all been through some form of grief. After all, if you live long enough to learn what love is, chances are you’ll know grief too. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably grieved over someone or something. It’s inevitable.
I think a lot about what might happen to us when we close our eyes for the last time. It’s not because I have an unhealthy fascination with the idea of death, but more because it’s one of the great unknowns, a mystery with no firm answers. No one really knows what happens, at least no one living. Is there something more beyond this life? Is there a Heaven? A Hell? Somewhere in between? Are we judged over every little action we made, the good weighed against the bad? Do people who lived in service of others get a better deal than those who didn’t? Or is there nothing at all? Is this the only chance we get to do anything, and once done, there’s nothing else?
I don’t have these answers. At best, I’m a lazy agnostic, but I think I consider myself that because it’s easier than to believe in one thing specifically, only to be proven wrong. I’m not knocking anyone’s beliefs, whether personal or those found through religion, but I often find myself questioning what comes next, and what it all means. I’d like to believe that we continue on, somehow, and that there’s more that awaits us than we can know in life, but I can’t ever really bring myself to commit to it. My faith is filled with questions that I don’t know how to answer.
But I do know grief. I know the power it has to eat away at you until there’s nothing left but an empty husk. Denial: thinking that this can’t be happening, this isn’t real. Anger: the ranting and raving about the unfairness of it all. Bargaining: I’ll change, I swear I’ll change, we can fix this, I’ll be better, I’ll do better. Depression: that old black dog that bites down and chews you up until you’re in shreds. Acceptance: a ludicrous thing that we must get to because it might mean there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
So many stages of grief, and there’s even more than I’ve listed here. These steps aren’t something everyone goes through, and even if they do, it doesn’t mean there’s a specific order. I’ve bounced from acceptance back to denial at the drop of a hat. I’ve stayed in anger for so long, it becomes all I know. I’ve bargained, making dramatic proclamations that if I get what I want, I’ll do whatever it takes to show that I’ve earned it. Depression? Hell yes. I know that one probably better than all the others, like I’m in quicksand and no matter what I do to try and escape, it only makes me sink further.
I lost my father when I was five. My uncle that same day. My grandfather, my grandmother. Friends, family, pets. A partner taken far too soon, leaving behind a ragged hole where he should be, making me laugh and calling me out for my bullshit. I’ve lost people, good people who didn’t deserve to go when they did. I’m not unique in that regard. Everyone has lost someone. Again, grief is different for everyone, but I think we all wonder what we would do if we had more time. What would we say? What would we ask? What would we do if we had one more day, one more hour, one more minute? Would we hold on just a little bit tighter? Would we say everything we’d kept secret?
I don’t know. It feels like a mantra, that: I don’t know. I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know what I’d do if I had just one more moment with those I’ve lost. I don’t know what I’ll do when it becomes my turn to find out. Will I be brave? Perhaps. Will I be scared? Oh, yes, I think I will be. But I’ll have the answers, then. I’ll know.
Under the Whispering Door was never meant to answer the question of what comes next for us after we die. I wrote this book because I was still wrestling with my own grief, and when I’m lost in such a way, I do the only thing I know how to: I write. And through this story, I found a measure of peace. I found my catharsis, and when I finished, I knew I’d done what I set out to do: I found a reason to believe, to have hope, even if I still don’t know what comes after this life.
There are still days when I’m angry, still days when I’m bargaining or caught in a web of depression. But acceptance comes easier now, and even though I wish things could be different, I can’t do anything to change the past. Even if this is all there is, I want to try and leave this world a little better than it was when I came into it. It’s the least I could do for being able to love as I have, even with all I’ve lost.
And maybe that’s the point. To try. To live and love and grieve, but to still try. What more could anyone ask of us?
Read an excerpt (click the “Read Excerpt” link on the page). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
Tomorrow’s the first day of Autumn up here in the northern hemisphere, and while the persistent cloud cover here in Bradford suggests I will not be able to get a shot of tonight’s sunset to bid the season farewell, I can offer this version of “The Boys of Summer” by Bree Sharp. Enjoy, and welcome, fall.
(is passed note)
Oh, wait, that should be, is definitely clowning around. Well, sort of.
Look, he’s here to explain it all, I’ll just let him do it, okay?
I’m loathe these days to try and give the “big idea” for my books, as all my elevator pitches sound like parodies of proper ones. A Man Lies Dreaming? “Adolf Hitler as a Private Eye”. Central Station? “A science fiction novel where nothing happens”. By Force Alone? “The Matter of Britain as a gangster saga” (OK, that one at least sounded more commercial, I just forgot to mention the Jewish kung-fu and the aliens when I pitched it).
There is something very appealing to me about the inverse-pitch. The absurdity of concepts put together that should never, in truth, be put together can lead to a sort of new illumination, even profundity. Or it can slip on a banana skin and fall head first into a custard pie, of course.
So for The Escapement, I blithely went around telling everyone I was writing a “clown western”. What I didn’t take into account – simply because it never occurred to me! – was that people in publishing really, and I mean really, hate clowns. It turns out it’s not just people in publishing, either. So I would watch publishers edge away and run from the table at what was, after all, yet another ridiculous elevator pitch. You know, the ones that really shouldn’t work.
It becomes a running theme in the book, of course. This hatred of clowns. Their alienation. That uncanny valley. “I cut and I cut, trying to find the answer,” says Professor Federico The Magnificentearly on to the Stranger and Temperanza, standing over the dissected corpse of a Whiteface. “Why aren’t they funny!”
Alone of all the people on the Escapement, it is only the Stranger who has a strange love of clowns. That love might come from the ambiguity of what the Escapement actually is. Is it a secondary world, filled with god-like forces, circuses and bounty hunters, train robbers and clowns? Or is it a projection, an imaginary construct created by a nameless man as he sits by his dying son’s hospital bed?
Perhaps it’s both. I wanted to write a very simple book for once. A linear adventure story. A fantasy without The War on Terror (Osama) or the Holocaust (A Man Lies Dreaming) or Israel and Palestine (Unholy Land). I wanted to write about train robberies and murderous magicians (in the stage performance meaning of the word), of people hanging for dear life from a clock tower like Buster Keaton, of buried clocks still ticking life and of train engines powered by ghosts. Instead I wrote a fairytale about a father searching for a flower to cure his son’s illness. The heart of the Escapement is in that doomed quest. It grew in the telling (as old Professor Tolkien once said) and it became its own thing. So…
Somewhere there’s a place where clowns roam the land and toy trains run along toy tracks across vast distances. It is a place anyone can visit but few do. It is full of hidden dangers, a place where a chthonic bomb could turn the people of a city into pink flamingoes, a place where giant statues roam and circus people flourish. Somewhere out there the Stranger rides in search of the Ur-Shanabi, the Flower of Heartbeat rumoured to grow beyond the Mountains of Darkness. But the road is long, and directions often change on the Escapement. He has been searching for a long time… And somewhere else a father sits by a hospital bed, where a boy with a clown doll clasped in his hands lies hooked up to machines, and the clock on the wall ticks relentlessly.
Welcome to the Escapement, Stranger.
And when the rainy day is a Monday? Well, forget it. He’s just gonna nap through the whole darn thing!
Also, for those of you born after, oh, 1971, who might not get the reference:
There, now you’re all caught up. Hope your Monday was a good one, rainy or not.
Bethesda and Arkane have made some of my favorite video games in recent years, most notably the Dishonored series, which had a delightful balance of worldbuilding and the ability to magically hoist bad guys into the air, all the better to stab them in the neck. When they announced Deathloop, which promised all the stabby joy of Dishonored with a nifty retro sci-fi aesthetic and a wild time-loop mechanic, I was all in. Now that I’ve dived in for about twelve hours worth of gameplay on my PC, I can absolutely say that as a game, it lives up to its advertising and is a whole lot of fun to play. Also, there’s no way you should buy it right now, because getting it to run on a PC is a huge fucking nightmare.
I noted this yesterday on Twitter:
This is not an exaggeration. When I open up the game on Steam, it’ll get to the opening splash screen and then close, throwing up a huge dialog box of crash data. So I open it up again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and eventually if I open it up enough, it’ll work and I can play. Why does it work on the fifth or eighth or eleventh try? Got me. My PC, although not new, is not meagerly specced; it fits the game’s minimum system requirements with some headroom. So that’s not the issue. It’s just temperamental, and when I say temperamental, I mean I’ve discovered that Deathloop has a better chance of opening and being playable if, while I’m firing up the game, I also have Chrome open and am actively scrolling through a Web page. Why? Who the hell knows? I don’t and I imagine neither Bethesda nor Arkane knows, either.
Which, you know, is a problem. I shouldn’t have to rely on janky heuristics and finger-crossing to get a multimillion-dollar, AAA major studio game to open on a computer that fits the game’s minimum specs, and neither should anyone else. Some people are pointing fingers at the game’s DRM system, while others are noting it plays poorly with modern graphics cards, or whatever. At the end of the day, however, a new game should be able to be played out of the (these days virtual) box, or at the very least have a reasonable explanation for why it cannot.
When the game can be played, it’s pretty terrific. As a character named Colt, you wander about a time-looped island trying to figure out how you got there and why another character named Julianna is going out of her way to kill you. Along the way you discover that in order to break the time loop, you have to kill eight “visionaries” (think: level bosses), and you unlock various quasi-magical skills to do it as you go along. The gameplay is fun, the story is compelling, and it’s fun murdering a whole bunch of temporally-locked jerks who are trying to kill you. When it works, it’s probably my favorite game of 2021.
But it doesn’t work enough, and when it does work, it runs the risk of suddenly not working anymore (the latest crash involved the game telling me to “infuse” a weapon I didn’t have, and didn’t give me a way out of the screen it had put up to have me do it, and when I tried to alt-crtl-del my way out, it shut down). Given all the reports on the Internet about Deathloop, I know I am far from the only one having problems with the game on PC (I understand the PS5 version has its own problems as well). The excellent game experience is deeply and terminally compromised by the overall user experience.
Which is why I say: Deathloop on PC is awesome, and I absolutely cannot recommend it. This game needs to be patched waaaay the fuck out before I can suggest that anyone else spend $60+ dollars on it.
Further, game studios should not ship games that don’t work. I bought Deathloop on day one, because as a video game player, Bethesda and Arkane earned some credit for their previous terrific games. But here on out, I’ll be waiting a month or two (at least) before buying any game of theirs on PC, because they can’t be trusted to make a game that runs on day one. That’s bad news for both, since a game that’s not bought on day one has a much better chance of being a game that’s not bought at all. But them’s the breaks, when you ship a broken game.
Sometimes, the killer hook for a thriller isn’t a plot point, or even the first line of the novel, but something else… something that comes even before that. Lee Matthew Goldberg explains in this Big Idea for his latest story, The Stalker Stalked.
LEE MATTHEW GOLDBERG:
The first germ of a Big Idea I had for my novel Stalker Stalked was the title. After writing eight books, none of them summed up the plot so succinctly: What if a stalker finds herself stalked as well?
My last novel The Ancestor had recently come out, a historical thriller about a man who wakes up in the wilderness with amnesia, believing he was frozen in time from the Gold Rush era. It required a lot of research, since a good chunk takes place in the late 1800s. I’d also written it after my father passed away and death really permeates throughout the book. So, coming off that, I needed to write something lighter. I’ve penned Sci-fi and YA too, but I’m most at home writing thrillers, and luckily, the title just popped into my mind.
From there, the novel began to form. My stalker Lexi would be obsessed with reality TV and fixate on the star of a horrible show called Socialites about six rich frenemies navigating the NYC socialite scene, everything Lexi aspires to be. She’s a pharma rep, hawking drugs to doctors, and addicted to Monolopins, little blue pills which she refers to as her “my blue heavens”. After her boyfriend breaks up with her, Lexi’s splits from her own reality: hallucinating and imagining herself as one of the Socialites, with the star Magnolia Artois as her best friend.
But while she’s stalking Magnolia, Lexi begins to see a shadow of a person outside her window, following her on the train, staring at her from across the club. Is it the “my blue heavens” causing these visions, or is someone after her for nefarious reasons? One of her exes, a doctor who knows she’s stolen pills, her best friend Pria, a detective investigating her case, or maybe, Magnolia herself turning the tables? If Lexi wants to survive, she needs to use her own stalking prowess to overcome her pursuer.
After heavy research for The Ancestor, the research for Stalker Stalked was very different. I watched a lot of really terrible reality TV. I wanted to get in the headspace of the self-absorbed people who are on these shows, but also those addicted to them. On TV, a heightened reality is created that’s not entirely fake, but played up for the cameras, all with the notion of keeping eyeballs glued and sponsors happy.
With social media these days, anyone is accessible in some form. It’s how Lexi stalks Magnolia, and how she becomes stalked as well. We put up a shiny version of our lives on display, a sliver of our realities to gain likes and followers. For lonely Lexi, it becomes her means of interacting with the world. It’s something I struggle with as well. As an author, you’re meant to have a social media presence. I’ve had publishers ask how many followers I have to do promotion, and it never seems enough. Gone are the days of a J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon who don’t need to promote their work. We’re required to feed this system now, but at what price?
For Lexi, the journey she goes on in Stalker Stalked is one of self love. How did her past shape her into the needy individual she became, and is there happiness waiting for her at the end? She wants to be noticed so much that she enjoys being stalked. It gives her a purpose, a never-ending cycle where she feels safe and loved. For her to move forward in life, she needs to break this cycle, turn off the TV, cancel her social media accounts, and fully unplug.
Sometimes that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
Our hibiscus plant nearly died because after keeping it in a heated garage all winter, we replanted it too early in the spring and it got snowed on, so the hibiscus flowers this year have been few and far between. It just makes me appreciate the ones we have gotten. Here’s today’s.
Travel broadens the mind, or so they say, but for Monica Byrne, travel to a particular Central American country did much more than that — and the result was her novel The Actual Star, which (disclosure!) I liked so much I gave it a blurb, and participated into an author Q&A, which you can view at the bottom of this Big Idea. For now, read on as Byrne explains what travel gave to her, and what she did with it.
“Where does your inspiration come from?”
Writers dread getting this question. Don’t feel bad if you’ve asked it—now you know!—and it’s extremely common. Most writers have a stock answer. Some are vague (“everywhere”), some are sarcastic (“the mail”), and some are entire lovely essays (thank you Neil). Whenever I try to answer, I get tongue-tied about how inspiration isn’t really discrete, it’s more like a whole life orientation, and blagghh, what am I trying to say, anyway…
…but now I have my stock answer. It’s one that might surprise you. I’ll tell you how I got it.
Rewind to the day that altered the course of my life: January 21, 2012. It was a Saturday.
I’d been traveling in Belize, in honor of my mother. She’d taught there in her twenties and never got to go back before she died. For me, it was a pilgrimage, worth it even though it had wiped out my bank account. I figured I’d see the places she’d lived, check out the tourist attractions, and probably never return.
Then I signed up for a tour to an ancient Maya site called Actun Tunichil Muknal. I heard from other tourists that the trip would take a whole day, because the cave was deep in the jungle, but they didn’t tell me much else—just that I had to see it for myself. So I showed up the morning of the tour and thought, sure, let’s have a whirl. I’ve seen stalagmites before.
Ten hours later, I emerged from the cave, soaked to the bone, and said to my guide, “I have to come back.”
Why did I feel the way I did? Giddy and choked up, like I was in love? Like I wanted to turn right back around and go back in and press on, deeper into the mountain, farther up that river, and never stop? Especially when the ancient Maya regarded the place as a realm of terror—why was I so happy there? When my group came out of the cave, I felt like my whole body was ringing. Like I was on drugs, or possessed. I was embarrassed at how strongly I felt, and kept lingering in the euphoria, talking to the guides, talking to fellow tourists, going out to dinner and still talking about it to anyone who would listen. It made no sense. I just wanted to go back.
I didn’t know how or when I was going to come back, because I was broke. All I had waiting for me was a handful of freelance editing gigs. But the conviction remained so strong that when I came home, I sat down and bought a plane ticket back to Belize with the last of my savings, before I’d even taken off my shoes.
Nine years later, I’m sitting here writing this on the day The Actual Star comes out. It’s a novel about the cave, yes. But it’s also the story about the origins and destiny of humanity, as told by three brave, vulnerable, fallible people making their way through history, from the collapse of the ancient Maya elites to a far-future utopia. I could never have guessed the full dimensions of what was pushing to come through me, at the time; just that I had to serve it. That feeling became my characters’ feelings: repeatedly, they are overwhelmed by a physical, noetic certainty that they must act upon. In 1012, Ket is overwhelmed by the desire to make a blood sacrifice to help her royal family. In 2012, Javier is overwhelmed with love for a young tourist he’s only known for a day. In 3012, Niloux is overwhelmed by a sighting of Venus that causes her to rethink everything she ever believed. All of these feelings set the course of the book in motion.
And that brings me to my stock answer.
For me, inspiration comes from the body.The body loves what it loves, and it’s my job to follow its wisdom, especially when I don’t understand. Now that I look back at all the things I write, from start to finish, my body is always the instrument by which I measure its rightness. Does this excite me? Does it bore me? Does it resonate? Just…does it feel right? I wish I could be more specific, but the verbal originates in the pre-verbal. I wrote The Actual Star just because my body felt the way it felt in that cave. It took nine years and 160,000 words.
I’m grateful to have learned that so clearly—and to the ones in the cave, who taught me.
The annual reappearance of these particular cereals has arrived. Krissy saw these in a three-pack and assumed I would want them because I eat like a sugar-amped child, and she is not wrong! I do want them. But as it happens when I was an actual sugar-amped child, I don’t think I ever partook in any of these; they just never showed up in my house, in part because my mom was more of a granola-and-Grape-Nuts sort of person. I guess I’m making up for lost time now. Honestly, it’s a miracle I’m still alive.
Ideas come out of anywhere, and for Amanda Jayatissa, the motivating spark of the novel My Sweet Girl came out of being really, really, really annoyed. Hey, whatever works. Here’s Jayatissa to fill you in on the circumstances and what came out of that moment.
If there’s anything this blog has shown me, it’s that big ideas often lurk in the unlikeliest of places. They are sparked by things people have said years ago, inside jokes, thoughts that wriggle their way into your mind and don’t leave you alone. If you’re lucky, that spark will come from something wondrous. If your luck is of a more complex nature, sometimes that spark comes from something unfortunate. As unfortunate as astoundingly poor customer service at a bank.
I was in a bad mood already. I couldn’t help it. I was trudging my way through a disastrous WIP and my dissatisfaction with it colored pretty much everything else in my life at the time. I had woken up late, not had my coffee, was behind on a million mundane tasks, and here was this customer service agent telling me that they’ve “misplaced” my paperwork (again).
Of course, I didn’t make a fuss. I hadn’t been trained my entire life to be anything less than a picture of understanding. I ranted and raged inside my head while I made my way to my favorite coffee shop, and (finally caffeinated) did what most writers would do— I pulled out a notebook and pen and really ripped that customer service agent to shreds. Things I would never say out loud, some things I never even let myself think, were bubbling up to the surface. And after a while of this— my big idea— I was having a blast being angry. Which is how my main character, Paloma, was born.
My old WIP forgotten, I dived into this new voice I had found. A voice where I gave myself permission to think angry thoughts. To give myself a lens to look through situations that I faced myself when I lived in the US, where much like Paloma, I had to wear the mask of the polite, well-mannered model minority, trying not to take up too much space with my big feelings in the white spaces I had been trying to navigate.
And then, the next spark. Most of the thrillers I had read at the time (and I had read many, many of them) didn’t have a protagonist who was like me. Sure, they were mostly women, mostly in their 30s, and always racing against some sinister force before time ran out, but they were always white. And just like Paloma being brown impacted her story, these heroines being white impacted theirs. There was nothing wrong with their experiences. There were just other stories to tell also.
It took me a moment to make my peace with it. That this biting, sassy, layered woman had a story worth telling. That she was fully realized enough to be the Main Character in her story, not just a token exotic beauty, or (shudder) math geek that most brown women play.
Then, what I suppose was the biggest spark of all. It was okay that Paloma wasn’t likable. She didn’t have to do what every other brown woman navigating a white space felt compelled to do and conform to a set of ever-changing rules. Paloma didn’t feel bad for thinking the way she did or for her behavior. She was done with being a model minority. She was ready to step out into the world and take charge of her life. And so was I.
I often get asked if Paloma is me. The answer is no. Probably thanks to years of practicing yoga and a very understanding husband, I don’t have that much anger pent up inside me (until my next visit to the bank, that is). The more honest answer is that my love of green-goddess smoothies and mom jeans makes me exactly the kind of person Paloma would make fun of in her head.
Sometimes it can take a few sparks to ignite a big idea. Sometimes, a big idea can be born out of being really, really pissed off.
I woke this morning to the news that California governor Gavin Newsom has defeated the recall initiative against him, and apparently by a margin large enough that even committed conspiracists can’t make a claim that the vote was tainted with a straight face. Oh, some of them will, because they can’t not, but every time they do they weaken the argument for later by showing that there’s no election result they won’t claim “fraud” for, no matter the circumstances. So on second thought, go right ahead, conservatives, whine that this election was tainted.
Back in the real world, however, the result is not entirely surprising in a state where the Democrats have a 2-1 party registration advantage over the GOP, and where the conservative candidate’s pitch was that he planned to make California more like Florida, where the recent infectious peak of COVID (August 16) was almost four times higher than California, despite the latter state having far more people. “Make California More Infected” turns out not to be the winning slogan GOP folks seem to think it is.
That said, and like every other commentator out there, I would in fact warn people on reading too much into Newsom’s unrecalled status here, with regard to signs and portents about the nation at large. California really is sui generis when it comes to politics, and it’s not like Newsom is universally beloved. The vote to deny his recall had as much to do with Democratic (and Californian) annoyance at the GOP wasting everyone’s time (and Elder being a pro-COIVD dimwit with a shady history) than any referendum on Newsom himself. In my view as a former Californian who spends at least a little time keeping up with my former state’s politics, it was unlikely that Newsom would have been recalled in any circumstance, but if I were Newsom, I wouldn’t be smug about the result. He’s still got fences to mend, and not with the GOP.
The one thing I would take away from this result that I think does have national import is the idea the Democrats remain activated and hyper-aware of GOP electoral shenanigans. One of the reasons this recall was attempted at all was that GOP folks figured that the turnout in a recall election would be low, like any non-presidential year election, but even more so as there was nothing else on the ballot. Low turnout traditionally favors the GOP, because, among other things, the old white people who are the GOP base turn out for every election come hell or high water. But it looks like somewhere in the area of 13 million Californians turned out to vote in the recall, in a state with something like 22 million registered voters. That’s a very solid result for an off-off-year vote, and a reminder that Democrats aren’t taking their votes for granted these days. Hopefully this left-side ambition to vote at every possible opportunity continues through 2022 and beyond.
So, yes, congrats, to Newsom, who shouldn’t get cocky. Good riddance to Elder, although I suspect he’ll try again in an actual election year, which will be good for Newsom’s re-election chances. And as always, folks, remember to vote, each time, every time, no matter what.
Want a kid? Okay, but it’s gonna cost you. And before you say, “Yes, I know, I’ve seen college tuition these days,” read Calder Szewczak’s big idea for The Offset. The cost is something else entirely, here.
Having children might be one of the most cruel things a human can do.
No one consents to being born. It’s a simple fact, but one we don’t talk about all that much. Probably because the conversation is too fraught, too easily hijacked. Reproduction always takes place within a matrix of numerous power imbalances; those of class, race and gender, those instilled by heteronorms and biological norms. In turn, these are filtered through circumstance: accident, abuse, regret, hope. As soon as you lose sight of the contextualising nature of these factors—of the fact that reproduction doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it’s all too easy to find yourself debating who you think deserves full autonomy over their reproductive rights and who does not. The conversation can too easily slide into misogyny (bad) and eugenics (also bad).
So let’s tread carefully, then, and stick to the initial point: that being a biological parent is to enact a very unique sort of power dichotomy that is far from ideal.
Suffering has always been part of existence; disease, destruction and despair the unavoidable side-effects of being alive in the world. Sophocles knew it when he wrote: “What foolishness it is to desire more life, after one has tasted / A bit of it and seen the world; for each day, after each endless day, / Piles up ever more misery into a mound.”
What foolishness it is to introduce children into this world of suffering. We have always known this, yet we have always continued to procreate, making more and more people to undergo the trauma of life. Perhaps it’s because we’re all hopeless optimists, believing matters will improve, or perhaps it’s just because misery really does love company. Either way, the ethics are skewed.
We speak of life as a gift—that to be alive is something to be grateful for—which brings to mind the words of Germaine Greer: “The compelled mother loves her child as the caged bird sings. The song does not justify the cage nor the love the enforcement.” As much may be said of the experience of being alive. Whatever small joys may be derived from living do not themselves justify the creation of life.
In the modern era, of course, with all its medical and technological advances, you might be forgiven for thinking that the good can outweigh the bad, that—given the right circumstances—a child might be guaranteed far more years of stability and happiness than those of precarity and pain. But if that were ever true, it isn’t now. The climate crisis has changed everything.
The children of the next generation are already grappling desperately with how their forebears have all but destroyed the planet on which they must, somehow, find a way to live. Young as they are, they don’t have the comfort of knowing, like their parents and elders do, that (if they’re lucky) they might still die before things get really, really bad. What will these children’s lives be like with global temperatures notching ever upwards? How will they survive? Will they survive? What untold catastrophes will they endure along the way?
Given the likelihood of suffering to come, might it not genuinely have been better for them not to have been born in the first place?
And (whisper it) might that not have been better for everyone else, as well? Because children are part of the problem. More accurately, children of wealthy, developed countries are part of the problem. It’s no secret that having fewer children is by far and above the most impactful way to cut your carbon footprint. Switch to a plant-based diet? That will save you 0.82 tonnes of CO2 per year. Cut out a single transatlantic flight? 1.6 tonnes. Eschew your car in favour of public transport? 2.4 tonnes. But have one fewer child? 7.8 tonnes.
Whichever way you run the numbers, there’s only one conclusion: people are a net loss for the planet. The fewer of us, the better.
Funny, isn’t it, that it all essentially comes back to women’s reproductive rights? That familiar battleground. One could be forgiven for being a little suspicious; suspicious of how responsibility is being apportioned, suspicious of the bottom line being drawn. 7.8 tonnes for a child, but how many tonnes for an oil refinery? Or an eleven-minute passenger flight to the thermosphere?
It is this—the intersection of environmental activism with reproductive rights—that provides the central concern of The Offset. Core to the book is anti-natalism, the ethical view that one ought not to create new people. Although the concept has gained traction in recent years (you may have come across the man who sued his parents for bringing him into the world or various women who have gone on birth strike) it is still not widely discussed and has been rarely examined in fiction, to the point where the world’s foremost anti-natalist David Benatar has said that our book “may be a literary first in giving central place to anti-natalism”.
In creating our anti-natalist society, we knew there were many real-world examples to draw on; horrifying methods, such as one-child policies and forced sterilisation, that have been used at various points across the world to cap fertility rates. But none of these were in keeping with the spirit of anti-natalism, which typically sees individuals freely making a commitment to never reproduce. Accordingly, in our fictional world, any rule of anti-natalism would have to be self-enforcing rather than imposed, something adhered to as a way of life or a cultural practice. The point was not a world where people were prevented from having children per se, just one where few would want to.
So what if every birth had a cost? What if bringing a child into the world meant your own life was forfeit?
There was an appealing balance to that: a life for a life. One in, one out.
Of course, if we were positing a world in which every child still had two biological parents, then there was the small matter of working out which parent would die. For all that we were constructing a dystopian world, we were nevertheless set on creating one that put queerness first. We had already decided upon our main characters: Alix and Jac, a lesbian couple who used ovum-to-ovum technology to have their child, Miri. But we knew that if we mishandled the mechanism of selection, we would still risk reinforcing the heteronormative.
The solution was straightforward. The decision would be given to the children of our dystopia, each of whom, on their eighteenth birthday, would have to pick one of their biological parents to die as a carbon offset for their own life.
And so the mechanism became a reckoning, a way to hand back power to the children (and so, too, the burden). It felt like something that parents and offspring alike could believe in as a resetting of the scales, a righting of a wrong, a restoration of balance. Something, in short, that would be cruel enough to match the cruelty of having been brought into existence in the first place. Of course, few anti-natalists would approve of such a drastic measure—their intent is to reduce suffering, not to increase it. But that is, perhaps, the point: that any attempt to clamp down upon and control reproduction can only ever increase suffering. The critical issue is not how many of us there are, but how we live—specifically, in developed countries. Our only hope is that, in speaking frankly about what it means to create life within the context of the climate crisis, we can, with renewed vigour, once more turn our attention to restoring the world for the next generation.
Another September 13, and another year of Whatever in the (virtual, electronic) books. For the site, an unusual year, in that I was not the sole writer here — through most of it Athena wrote nearly as much as I did (more accurately, I had more posts, but more of my posts were cat pictures and sunsets, so she probably wrote more words). I think that change of tenor was a pretty good thing. Athena is back at school at the moment and we’ll figure out to what extent she’ll be involved here while she’s also doing classwork. Could be a little! Could be a lot! Could be none at all! We’ll see, and whatever it is, that’ll be fine, because she has a life outside this site.
Me? Slightly less so. We still have a plague going on, thank you very much dunderheads who won’t get vaccinated, so despite a couple of memorable forays out into the world, I’m still mostly at home. Whatever continues to be the place where I write out my longer thoughts on the world. In the last year, with the exception of the events between the election and Joe Biden’s inauguration, in which we were living in genuinely historical times, it feels to me I’ve steered away from commenting on politics as much as I normally do, partly because of burnout (who could be blamed for that, honestly) and partly because much of the politics of the moment boil down to “aspiring fascists having performative tantrums” and “literally everybody else,” and that’s not interesting to me to write about. Politics right now makes me cranky, basically, which is why I’ve been putting my political thoughts mostly on Twitter. There I’m cranky in 280 characters or less, and then can immediately follow up with a picture of a burrito or the dog de-sequeakifying some poor stuffed animal. I don’t not write about politics here (go back just a few posts, you’ll see), I just write about it less frequently than I have at other times. That may change in the next year, going into a mid-term election year as we are. We’ll see.
For all that I find Whatever to be a pleasant thing to do, and to have. The last year in particular it feels like it hummed along nicely, as Athena did her writing and posted Big Ideas, and I posted and tended to other things. I especially miss have someone else post up the Big Ideas; it’s not difficult but it takes time, and I’m still posting more of them than I have in years past because book tours and physical appearances are still thin on the ground thanks to the pandemic, and authors need all the help they can get. Perhaps I’ll get an intern (I probably won’t get an intern). Regardless, in the last year it was nice to have it here, doing its thing, often without me.
The funny thing about writing on the site for 23 years is that it seems like the “blogosphere” is coming back around again, it’s just that now we’re calling it “Substack” and “Medium” and “paid newsletters.” Nevertheless the dynamic is still the same: One writes in one’s own space, and people come around to read it (or have it delivered by feed or email). What is old is new again. While I have both Substack and Medium accounts, I am unlikely to turn Whatever into a paid newsletter. I feel it runs against the ethos of Whatever to turn it into a job replacement. I don’t need another job, and I don’t need your money (this way; please buy my books). But to the extent that this new flourishing of personal media begins to pull people away from the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram triopoly of attention, so much the better. I mean, use those sites! I use them too. But then go other places too. Of course I don’t need to tell you this, you’re already here. Tell other people, maybe.
Whatever will, of course, go on. At the moment there is no plan to stop, or to much change how this site works. I write what I want to write here; you get what you get when you come here. That’s been the deal for 23 years and it doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon, unless I drop dead, which to be clear I have no intention of doing, but which might not be entirely up to me. I like doing what I do here, and there is no reason to stop or change. In a way it’s nice. Fashions come and go, online media empires rise and fall, trends wax and wane, and through it all Whatever is here, doing its thing in its corner. Come around when you like, it’ll be here. Which means I will be here. Welcome.