The Big Idea: Dan Moren

We are all searchers of truth — some more than others. Dan Moren is thinking about the truthseekers in this Big Idea piece for his new novel, The Aleph Extraction.

DAN MOREN:

Truth is a binary concept: either something is true, or it isn’t.

Or is it?

As a certain Jedi Knight—and questionable teacher—once said, “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

When writing any story, truth becomes a much more slippery concept for the characters, the reader, and even the writer. That’s especially true when you’re dealing with the shady realms of spies, criminals, and legends, as in my latest novel, The Aleph Extraction,

As Aleph opens, Commonwealth covert operative Simon Kovalic and his team are sent after the Aleph Tablet, a legendary artifact that’s believed to contain secrets which could tip the balance of the ongoing Galactic Cold War. Are those secrets real? Is the artifact they’re searching for actually the genuine article? Does the “real” artifact even exist, or is it all just a myth?

The idea for the Aleph Tablet stemmed from my fascination with the Mesha Stele, an ancient inscribed stone that’s one of the oldest pieces of archaeological evidence mentioning events from the Bible. I first came across the Mesha Stele in one of my Near Eastern Studies courses in college and, as someone raised by a pair of parents who were not particularly religious—one a mostly secular Jew, the other a lapsed Catholic—I was captivated by discovering the “truth” of religion. With the customary self-assuredness of a twenty-year-old, I figured that hard evidence must lead in a direct line towards capital-T, universal Truth.

A year or so after I learned about the Mesha Stele, I was traveling abroad in France and turned a corner in the Louvre only to come face-to-face with the stone itself. But as amazed and awed as I was to see it with my own eyes, what didn’t happen was an Indiana Jones moment, where I was confronted by the incontrovertible truth, beams of energy shooting forth as from the Ark of the Covenant—probably a good thing, since ouch.

Maybe it was because the stone was smaller in person, maybe it was because it was just tucked away in some random alcove in a museum, but for me, the truth of it in that moment was less earth-shattering than I’d hoped. Ultimately, the Mesha Stele is a window into historical events, but it neither confirmed nor denied truth.

That was a milestone in a lifelong journey, where I’ve learned that “truth” isn’t always synonymous with “fact.” Truth can be far more personal, such as one’s belief in a higher power. It’s something that one needs to search out for oneself, and it can take a long time—for some, their whole lives. Others might never find it.

All of the main characters in The Aleph Extraction are searching for truth in one way or another. Kovalic wants to know if the suspicions about his boss’s ulterior motives are true; daredevil pilot Eli Brody wants the truth of what happened between Kovalic and their former team member Aaron Page; and new recruit Addy Sayers, well, she wants to know if the future that Kovalic and his team promise can truly live up to her expectations.

As an author, you have to know the truth of your story, even if your characters don’t. Keeping track of what different characters know—and, more to the point, what they think they know—can be a tricky proposition. As the omniscient force behind the scenes, you can see the whole picture, but you want to be careful about how you dole out that information to the characters and to the reader—especially, if you’re building for a big reveal.

Every story depends at least in part on withholding the truth, whether it’s your classic whodunnit or a mainstream literary novel. Fundamentally, if your readers know everything that’s going to happen, then there’s not much reason for them to keep reading.

Character’s points of view are a lens through which you can present the reader with a facet of the truth. Those characters may have doubts and questions, or they may be convinced that they—and perhaps only they—know the real truth. They may even avoid confronting truths that are inconvenient or uncomfortable.

By the time The Aleph Extraction comes to a close, all the characters have had to grapple with truth and decide whether they can live with it.

I can relate: the older I get, the more I come to grips with everything I don’t know—and may never know. Having recently turned 40, the idea of ever getting to some sort of universal Truth seems further away than ever, especially given the world we live in, where the very idea of truth has become a weapon to be wielded in the service of opinion.

Ultimately, I’ve reconciled myself to the idea that some truths are unknowable, destined to forever remain a mystery. Is the Aleph Tablet one of those? You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

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The Aleph Extraction: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Apple Books

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Reader Request Week 2020 #4: What It’s Like To Be a Cis Straight Man

Allison asks:

What is it like being a cisgender straight man?

I ask because I’m a trans woman who spent 50+ years living (or at least trying to live) according to the assumption that I was a man, but could never make any sense of the men around me. I couldn’t figure out why they did what they did, nor how they they related to one another. I just never “got it.”

By contrast, women have always made sense to me (even when I thought they were being cuckoo), and I find I can even relate to most trans men reasonably well.

I don’t know if you can do anything with my question, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

I can’t speak for all cis straight dudes, but I can tell you my experience of it, which is:

Being a cisgender straight man is thoughtless.

By which I don’t (necessarily) mean that being a cisgender straight man is about being “thoughtless” (i.e., a heedless jerk, unintentionally or intentionally), or that it means we cisgender straight men are all thoughtless in that manner. What I mean is that because being cisgender, and straight, and a man, are all cultural defaults, I don’t have to expend any sort of thought on being them or relating to world as those, if I choose not to.

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to not think about these particular things. I just… don’t think about them. I don’t think about my gender expression or my sexuality or my maleness pretty much the same way I don’t think about geese, or garden hoses, or Nepal. They’re not things I have think about on a regular basis, and I don’t have a particular interest in any of them, so, yeah. What’s it like to not think about Nepal? If you can imagine that, you can imagine me not thinking about my gender expression, or sexuality, or maleness.

I mean, I can think about my cisness, and my straightness, and my maleness, just like I can think about Nepal. I could concern myself very passionately about Nepal if I wanted to, learn all about it beyond what I know now, which is mostly that it’s the place where we keep the Himalayas and Kathmandu, something something Doctor Strange and Marian Ravenswood, aaaaaand that’s about it (Oh! And it has a pennant for a national flag). If I do think about Nepal in a more than cursory manner, I might learn something, and appreciate more about the world and my place in it, and possibly become a better person with a larger understanding of others. It might behoove me to learn more about Nepal.

But, and this is the thing, there is no actual penalty for me if I don’t. I live in the US! I have no business with Nepal at all! If I don’t think about Nepal, my life does not materially or significantly change. Thinking about Nepal is optional for me. Just like thinking about my cisness, straightness and maleness. I can think about these things, or not.

So frequently I don’t! I don’t have to give much thought to my gender presentation, because my gender presentation largely follows the norm, and as a result, when I’m out in the world no one thinks of that presentation as remarkable or objectionable, and I don’t feel any internal conflict between who I am and how I present.

I don’t have to give much thought to my sexual identity, because my sexual identity also largely follows the norm, and there is, almost without exception, no penalty for being straight in our culture. I don’t have to explain it or rationalize it or defend it. It just is.

As for being a man: Well. No one’s telling me what to do with my body, or making me uncomfortable being in the world, and again with very rare exceptions I don’t have to worry about going from one place to another, or being anywhere, or how to dress or how to exist, etc. I don’t have to think about much of anything about being a dude.

When you don’t have to think about these things all the time, guess what? You don’t! I can expend my brain cycles on other things, not relating to existing in the world. Which makes existing in the world, and this life, less difficult for me than for a lot of other people. I may have touched on this before, a time or two.

In our society, the highest privilege is being able to have the option not to have to think on your privilege, or lack thereof. As a cis straight man (who is also white, and also able-bodied, and also well-off), all my privilege checking is allowed to be optional and conditional. I do check in on my privilege, and try to understand it, and try to be a decent person in navigating it. But most of the time, I’m just getting on with my life, in a world that’s designed to be largely frictionless for who I am.

What’s that like? It’s pretty great, if I think about it, which I suspect I do more than many cis straight dudes, but still not nearly as much as people who aren’t cis, or straight, or men. Most of the time, I simply take it for granted, because I can, and because I have other things I want to think about.

It would be nice if everyone had the luxury I do, to be thoughtless about who they are because there’s no reason not to be, and they won’t be materially penalized by the culture, and by other people, for who they are and how they choose to be in the world. And that, at least, is something I should be thoughtful about, and try to work toward, as I move through this life.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

Reader Request Week 2020 #3: Becoming More Ourselves

Who are we, really? Or as dchotin asks:

My grandmother used to say that as she grew older, she didn’t change, she just became more the way she was. I’ve always thought there’s a lot of truth to that – people don’t really change as they grow old, but aspects of their personalities become highlighted. Do you think that’s true? What do you see being highlighted in yourself?

I think your grandmother can be correct. But a lot depends on the person, and their choices.

Take, as an example, me. I very strongly feel a thread of continuity from the person I was at fifteen, and the person I am at 51 — the things I see in my personality as virtues are there at fifteen, waiting to be developed, and the things I see as flaws are also there, ready to be unleashed. At fifteen I was already observant and lazy and funny and attention-seeking and sensitive and manipulative, and so on. All of it there, all basically ready for me to start making choices about which of these things I would put into play, and paying attention to which of these things would get me what I wanted.

At 51, I am still observant and lazy and funny and attention-seeking and sensitive and manipulative (and so on), and I am also the sum of my choices about how to use all of those tools, both positive and negative. I have to say that broadly speaking, the choices I made have turned out pretty well for me: I got to be who I wanted to be when I grew up, and getting to be who I wanted to be when I grew up did not turn out to be a curse. And I think that the people who knew me at 15 can (and in fact, do) look at me now and say, yup, we could see the person you are now in the person you were then. I’m me, as I’ve always been me, just refined.

Which is great — except that I’m also aware that, had I made different choices, or if my life circumstances had been a little different, my life now could be wildly different in a number of ways — and yet the people who knew me at fifteen could still look at me and say, yup, we could see who you are now in who you were then. All the ingredients of who I am would still have been there. I simply would have mixed them differently, and gotten different results.

So your grandma is right. But she’d largely be right no matter what would have happened in the course of a person’s life — different circumstances require different aspects of one’s personality to come to the fore. Barring trauma that materially changes aspects of one’s personality, we play the personality cards we were dealt by our genetics, in the game that is provided by our environment. This last sentence is, shall we say, a grossly oversimplified metaphor for life. But I think you get what I’m aiming for.

I do often think about how my life would be different — and how I would be different — if certain things had turned out differently. Who would I be now if I had a stable childhood? If I had not gone to the high school or college that I did? If I had not gotten the first job I did? If Krissy and I had never met? If I had written a thriller instead of a science fiction book when I first sat down to write a novel? In every case, who I’d become then would not be the person I am now — but the person I would be is someone I think could still see a continuity to that fifteen-year-old me, and probably see the person he was now as, if not inevitable, at least highly probable.

Which is to say that out in the multiverse, there are many different iterations of me, each of them a lot like me, all logically derived from the same 15-year-old me, but different enough that I strongly suspect you would be able to tell us apart after a few minutes of conversation. It would be fascinating to get to meet some of them and chat with them and see how their version of life had gone up to this point. If some of them were novelists, we could totally swap books, and then suddenly all of us would have a decade or so of new novels to release without having to work at it! I like this plan. Because, remember, I’m lazy.

I will also note that at age 51, I’m not done with this — I am still making choices and I’m still deciding which parts of my personality to put to the front, and that will have an effect on who I am at 52, and at 60, and at 75 and so on (provided I live to these ages). I am reasonably cognizant of my virtues and also of my vices at this point in my life, so that’s nice. But that doesn’t mean I’m always going to make good choices, because I’m human, and you know how they are. I’m lazy and be petty and cranky and mean and tired and occasionally dimwitted just like anyone else. I’m not perfect, and I know that about myself.

Often, when I am confronted with choices I have to make, or wonder how to be in the world, this is what I do: I cosplay as a better version of myself, and choose my actions accordingly. This has the short-term advantage of generally helping me to make better choices, and the long-term advantage of, if you pretend to be a better version of yourself long enough, the chances of you actually becoming that better version are somewhat higher.

And then when you do, you can look back and see that who you are is who you’ve always been. Just, as your grandmother said, more so.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)