The Individuality of Animals

Have you seen March of the Penguins? It’s a documentary about emperor penguins in Antarctica that made a big splash (har, har) a few years ago. The penguins “nest” far from the sea (they don’t actually make nests) to avoid predators, but this means they’re far from their food source. Since getting to food requires a loooooong walk, the males incubate the eggs while the females leave for several months to feed. Then the females return, and the males get a turn to walk to the ocean and fish.

The whole thing is quite amazing, but one thing that really struck me is that, among all these thousands of penguins, the parents are able to recognize one another and their chicks with no problem. How? The males are generally a bit bigger than the females, but their markings are the same. They sound the same. They move the same. To me, emperor penguins look pretty much identical.

Recently, this video came across my Fb feed. ‘Cause, you know, I’m a bird-watcher, so delightfully geeky stuff like this tends to come my way.

If you’re like me, you were struck by the very clear differences among these blue jays (which are, by the way, one of my very favorite North American species). Once the video-maker begins to point them out — myriad differences in shades of blue, eye shape, black lines around the eyes, etc. — they’re obvious. But until she begins, they aren’t. Until watching this video, I would’ve thought blue jays were largely indistinguishable from one another.

It makes me wonder whether any animal species is really as homogeneous as I feel emperor penguins are. Probably not. Perhaps the perception of homogeneity is a symptom of outsiderness: when you’re looking what is other to you, you don’t notice the differences that the other easily sees in its own kind.

If that’s the case, I’d like to lose my outsiderness more often.

Free Speech: Don’t Assume Reason’s on Your Side

I’m as strong an advocate of free speech as you’re likely to find. I think there are plenty of things we should choose not to say — certain racial epithets, for instance — but if you want to go ahead and be an ass and say them, I’ll defend your right to do so ’til the sun goes down. Applying social pressure in an attempt to shape speech choices is fine with me; restricting absolute speech rights is not. I expect other people to treat my speech in the same way.

To many people in the west, this attitude is utterly normal. Expected. Assumed. I know not all European countries safeguard speech to the degree we do here in the U.S. (where it is, for instance, perfectly legal to deny the Holocaust, and you can wear whatever religious symbols you choose), but in general, I think people living in western nations are steeped in a free-speech ethos.

That’s great. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

But there is a problem: the free-speech ethos is so enveloping that it’s hard for us to understand why or how anyone might be against free speech. This inability to see “free-speech cultures” from the outside means that we’re taken by surprise by events like the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It is simply inconceivable to us that there are people out there who truly believe that freedom of speech is not just unnecessary but actively bad.

Over the last day, I’ve imagined defending the concept of free speech to some sort of fundamentalist. In today’s world, we might tend to assume this fundamentalist is Muslim, but many other religious traditions have also had powerful impulses against free speech. So let’s just make this fundamentalist — I’ll call him “Bob” — a generic monotheist and leave it at that. In my head, the conversation goes something like this:

Me: I know you find this artwork religiously offensive, but the right to free speech must trump any one religion’s views about what is and is not offensive.

Bob: Why? Why should the right to free speech be more important than what God says about how we’re supposed to behave?

Me: I don’t share your beliefs about how God thinks we should behave, so they don’t apply to me.

Bob: Sure they do. It doesn’t matter what you believe. It matters what’s true, and what’s true is that God has said we are not to do what this artwork does. Your disbelief doesn’t have any impact on what’s true. God’s rules apply to you whether you think they do or not.

Me: But don’t you see that we live in a religiously pluralistic society? We all have to get along with one another — Christians, Jew, Muslim, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, pagans, whatever. If we try to take one religion’s rules about what is and is not offensive and impose them on everyone else, we’ll have endless strife and bloodshed.

Bob: Your underlying argument is flawed. We shouldn’t be living in religiously pluralistic societies to begin with. Such societies should not exist. All those other religions are wrong. Everyone needs to convert to my religion, which is true.

Me: You can’t force everyone to give up their own religion and follow yours. They’d be miserable. Religious beliefs are deeply personal and connected to people’s cultural heritages. Every person must have the freedom to follow their own beliefs.

Bob: Nonsense. Beliefs are either true or false. Many people believe things that are false, and their wrongness endangers themselves and others. What’s a little misery now compared to eternal damnation? Your live-and-let-live attitude is actually cruel. You’re denying the majority of people in the world the opportunity to know the truth and be right with God. If they were forced to convert, some percentage would come to truly believe in the truth, and the world would be better off. Permitting pluralism is irresponsible; it’s a sign that a society doesn’t care that most of its members will be damned.

Me: …

I have no answer for Bob, at this point. There is no convincing way for me to argue against what he’s saying.

Bob inhabits a different world than the one I live in. To me, offensiveness is deeply subjective. What offends one person does not offend another. Things aren’t offensive or non-offensive; rather, they are found or not found offensive. That’s because what is true, in the largest sense, is mysterious to me. I don’t think we have access to that kind of certainty.

I look at Bob, who is utterly convinced of the absolute truth of his beliefs, and then I look at someone else — “Sally,” let’s say — who is utterly convinced of the absolute truth of her beliefs, which are not only different from Bob’s but incompatible with them. And I think, “Who am I to decide that Bob’s right and Sally’s wrong, or vice versa? The only possible solution is to let both Bob and Sally do their thing, safeguarding the rights of each.

But Bob doesn’t think that way. For Bob, what’s true is clearly knowable and absolute. When everything is clear, freedom of speech is simply an opening for falsity to creep in and mislead people. People who think like Bob thinks cannot be convinced of the value of free speech.

It’s worth noting that my attitudes — the uncertainty of truth, the value of pluralism — are based on values and beliefs just as much as Bob’s attitudes are. There’s no higher level of reasoning I can call on to convince him that pluralism is good. It’s simply what I believe, and I probably believe it largely because I was raised in a culture that embraces it. Given Bob’s beliefs, his views are no less “rational” than mine. If he’s right about the nature of God, then his attitude makes perfect sense.

I just don’t think he’s right.

But he does.

This is the sort of difference that leads to insolvable problems. And bloodshed. Lots and lots of bloodshed.

A New Version of Nolander

So, between bouts of planning on Isolate, I’ve been doing a round of revisions to Nolander. Mostly I’ve been tightening up sentences and fixing details, but I am making a couple larger changes. It’s just about done. I’m hoping to send it to my formatter in the next couple days.

First, I’m adding some additional material to the end of the last chapter (the last one with Beth, before the epilogue), to give the story a bit more of a concluding feel. I haven’t deleted anything from the old ending; rather, I’ve added an additional scene. If there was one consistent complaint about Nolander in readers’ reviews, it was that the book “just stops.” I think that’s an accurate criticism and that I can make it better without changing the story.

The other larger change I’m making is to shift the Ghosteater point-of-view chapters into straight third-person. Originally, I had Beth (a first-person narrator) becoming a third-person narrator in those chapters. Some readers have thought that approach was sort of cool, while others have found weird and distracting. Since I expanded the POV characters beyond just Beth and Ghosteater in Solatium, I decided it was better to just use straight third-person for all of them. This change doesn’t alter what happens in the Ghosteater chapters. It just removes a layer of filtering between Ghosteater an the reader. For instance …

From the silence, Ghosteater watched me kiss Graham. He could smell our arousal. It brought back ancient memories from the time …

… becomes …

From the silence, Ghosteater watched the male and female humans kiss. He could smell their arousal. It brought back ancient memories from the time …

This may strike some readers as a less interesting approach, but I think most will find it more transparent and less confusing. After all, Nolander never deals with the question of why Beth might be able to see events through Ghosteater’s POV.

Examples of the kinds of details I’ve changed: since publishing Nolander in 2012, I’ve read that many paleontologists now believe somewhere between many and all dinosaurs had feathers, so I’ve given the minis of Octoworld plumage. They’re theropods — part of the clade that includes modern birds — and almost certainly would’ve been feathered. Also, I’ve removed most discussion of “castes” to cut down on the amount of info being tossed at Beth early in the book. Castes are still part of the Emanations world, but I realized Beth doesn’t really need to know about them in detail early on. There are a number of small changes along these lines — correcting, tightening.

I’m delighted to be able to do this kind of work. The success of the Emanations series really depends on the quality of  its first book. Nolander is the “funnel” into the series — it’s the free book that people can pick up to see if my writing appeals. So it needs to be as strong as it can be. The ability to make improvements to an existing book is one of the great strengths of indie publishing. It must be so frustrating for traditionally published authors to find a typo or a plot hole in a book — or just to realize that one of their earlier books could be stronger — and never be able to fix it.

So, why am I explaining all this? I’m trying to decide whether to ask Amazon to offer an update of the book to all existing owners. When Amazon offers an update, owners of the book who check their libraries in the cloud will see an option either to keep the version of the book they already have or to download the update, which would copy over and replace the old version. (Amazon will not reach into your library and change stuff without your permission, except in very unusual cases.) Updates are pretty common, but usually they don’t include substantive changes to the book. Some readers might be displeased to find that they book they remember reading has been altered.

The other option is just to put mobi and epub files of the new version up here, on my website, so that people can download the new “edition” if they want. They could sideload it to their Kindles and keep it alongside the older version they purchased on Amazon. This would also allow non-Amazon users to get the new version (I don’t know that the other ebook retailers have any equivalent to Amazon’s update feature). This is the direction I’m leaning.

Thoughts? Reactions? Suggestions?

Neutering Humanity: Atrocity and The Giver

→ This isn’t a book review; it’s me musing on a book. That means there’ll be spoilers up, down, and sideways. So if you haven’t read Lois Lowry’s classic YA dystopia, The Giver, now’s the time to navigate away! (But I don’t discuss the sequels.) ←

In my past life as a literature professor, I had a number of opportunities to teach young-adult lit. I always put The Giver on the syllabus. It’s a marvelous novel, far richer and more subtle than I realized on my first reading. Take, for instance, the pivotal scene where The Giver, an old man, passes a memory to the book’s young protagonist, Jonas, for the first time. The boy must take off his shirt and lie face-down on the old man’s bed. He is nervous and has no idea what will happen. The two are alone together. The Giver approaches, places his hand on Jonas’s bare skin, and transmits to him the memory of sledding down a snowy hillside.

For Jonas, the memory is momentous. All of its main features—coldness, snow, hills, exhilaration—are new to him. At some point in the unknown past, his culture embraced “sameness.” The weather is always warm and pleasant. The land is flat. People look the same. They feel no powerful emotions. They don’t remember such things exist. They have no history. They see in black and white—literally. Their lives are without notable suffering. All memories of what people used to be resides with The Giver, and it is Jonas’s job to take them on.

The scene of Jonas’s first memory has tones of the Christian fall, but in The Giver, the transgressive acquisition of knowledge is figured as powerfully good, potentially salvific. And yet, there are hints of danger. Readers may feel a little uncomfortable as the Giver approaches the half-naked, anxious boy lying on his bed. What happens when man touches boy is a loss of innocence, but of the mind instead of the body. The slightly creepy tension preceding the memory is picked up later, when The Giver gives Jonas his first memory of pain—again a sledding scene, but this time the memory culminates in a fall and a broken arm. Lowry doesn’t shy away from suffering.

As  Jonas takes more and more of the memories his culture has left solely in The Giver’s keeping, he comes to understand that his people have been neutered. Every possible source of conflict and tension has been removed from their lives. Their sexuality is chemically suppressed. They have been genetically engineered to look the same. They are not permitted imprecise language. They are not permitted choices or emotions. Everyone must fit the mold—the old and the difficult and the uncanny are euthanized. Eventually, Jonas realizes this stripped-down version of humanity is unacceptable. People are so much less than they once were, and in their ignorance, they commit evil. He flees, releasing his powerful memories back to the community. One assumes the knowledge they convey will change his people forever, just as it changed him.

Jonas’s choice is portrayed as essential. If he had not fled when he did, his baby brother, Gabriel, would’ve been euthanized. (The biblical resonances of the brothers’ names are hard to ignore.) And, of course, his people had to be freed from their shadow-lives of sameness.

Or did they?

Was the state of Jonas’s people truly a wrong crying out to be righted? Presumably, in the book’s unexplored past, people like us sat down and decided to neuter themselves. They decided that “sameness” was the way to go. Why?  I’d ask my class. Why would people like us decide to become people like them?

There’s a Wikipedia page I’d visit at this point in our discussion: “List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll.” The page is just what it sounds like—a list of the times our species has managed to kill the most of itself. It offers a quick, harsh look at the kind of things that might motivate a species to neuter itself. The Mongol conquests: 30 million dead (possibly as much as 7.5% of the planet’s human population at that time). World War II: at least 41 million dead. Famine during China’s Great Leap Forward: at least 15 million dead. Native American deaths during European colonization of the Western Hemisphere: at least 2 million.

What shocks me most about the list is that most of the events’ death tolls are only estimates. Ranges. Did World War II kill 41 million or 70 million? The famine of the Great Leap Forward: 15 million or 55 million? Native American deaths: 2 million or 100 million? Obviously, some scholars’ estimates must be wildly wrong. That’s not the point. The point is that we killed so many of each other during these events that counts can be off by tens of millions.

At what point do you decide, as Jonas’s ancestors apparently did, that your species is too murderous to continue in its current state? At what point do you decide that a life of reduced vibrancy and feeling for all is better than one of profound suffering for many?

But they kill old folks and babies! my students would say.

Yeah, they do. But they kill because Lowry built that into them. They’re literary creations, not real people. So the question becomes, Why is euthanasia such a prominent part of Lowry’s dystopia?

Maybe she put that in there because if she hadn’t, it’d be a lot harder to believe Jonas is making the right choice. Maybe readers would look at Jonas’s people and think, Slavery, the Holocaust, the Gulags, the Belgian Congo … maybe we need neutering. Maybe we deserve to lose the memory of snow.

For me, The Giver asks the same question Kurt Vonnegut does in Galapagos: Would we be better if we were less? Lowry says no. Vonnegut doesn’t.

I might be with Vonnegut on this one.

The best blog I’ve ever read

Speculative fiction tends to ask impossible what-ifs? “What if zombies showed up?” “What if SETI got an answer?” “What if your neighborhood was plagued by the serial-killing ghost of a golden retriever?” Test cases for the extreme, right?

But there are plenty of everyday what-ifs, too, because every person’s experience is different. You can always look with curious empathy toward another and ask, “What if I were more like you?” “What is your experience of being human?” Reading helps us ask these questions. These questions are the place where fiction and nonfiction come together into the seamless empathy-engine known as writing. In this sense, all writing is speculative.

There are a lot of blogs out there. The best one I’ve ever read makes me ask what-ifs like these: “What if I had an intellectually disabled adult child?” “What if that child were terminally ill?” “What is it like, as a parent, to accept that you will care for your child from birth to death?” “What is it like to do that as a single parent?”

Check out Catherine Lea’s Happiness: Optional to see how one person does these things. (With love. With exhaustion and perseverance. With humor. And with sharp-eye perception that goes right to the center of herself and others.) Start at the beginning and read to the present. You won’t be disappointed.

Then come back and tell me about the best blog you’ve ever read.

Genre Fiction and the Speculative

I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of why and how speculative fiction fits into “genre fiction” box.

I chose the metaphor of a “box” quite intentionally. Being “boxed in” is a defining feature of genre fiction. Mysteries are mysteries because they adhere to the rules of that genre. The same goes for romances. And for techno-thrillers. These rules aren’t always stated, and they’re certainly stretchy and, over time, mutable. But they have some  firmness to them; their elasticity is limited. Stretch them too far, and they’ll break. While what results might be a good story, it will no longer easily fit the expectations of a genre’s readers. Marketing that story as fitting into a genre whose rules it breaks can be risky. It must pay off sometimes, but I bet it often doesn’t.

definition and etymology of "speculate"

screen-capture from Google:

But speculative genres … are they “boxed”?

To “speculate” is to wonder or hypothesize outside the constraints of evidence. You can speculate about anything and arrive at any conclusion you like because you never have to back your ideas up with facts, images, data, or a quotations. Sounds pretty unboxed to me.

Why are genres such as science-fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream, superhero, dystopian, apocalyptic, and alternative-history considered “speculative”? Well, part of it has to do with impossibility: we don’t have fast-than-light travel, there are no monsters, and history went down the way it did. I think of this as the nuts-and-bolts approach to defining the genre—speculative books depend on settings or plot points that can’t exist or happen in the real world of the present day.

But another way to think of the speculative genres is more philosophical: they ask, “What if?” You can imagine an author leaning back in her chair, rubbing her chin, and thinking, “What if Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated?” Or, “What if we met some aliens, but we couldn’t understand them?” Or, “What if that guy working at the 7-11 turned out to be a faerie prince?” “What then?” she says to herself. And she writes a book about it.

Maybe parts of her story are formulaic because some of these questions have been asked quite a few times. But the larger agenda that prompts them is impressive—it’s to free humanity from the constraints we know it operates under and see what happens when something that can seem tired and old, reality, is replaced by the new. Under impossible circumstances, do we become more human? Less?  Or are we fundamentally unchanged? Perhaps our circumstances don’t make us. Perhaps we always are as we are.

These philosophical underpinnings, oriented as they are toward a freeing from constraint, seem to me fundamentally non-boxy. But perhaps there are currents of generic constraint within speculative fiction that counter these loosing impulses.

I think I’ll have to leave the pot simmering on the stove a bit longer; I don’t have a clear answer to this one, as of yet.

Staging a Comeback

My blog, The Active Voice, has been dormant for the better part of a year. Mostly, I ran out of time.  Cross-country moves, a new job, little kids … devoting time to blogging seemed impossible. Plus, I was struggling to finish my second book. What writing time I had needed to go to that project.

But now we’re settled. It’s time to make time for the things I really want to do. Blogging is one of them. And Solatium is finally nearing completion. I’m holding out hope that Spring Break (in March) will give me the uninterrupted time I need to wrap it up.

So here goes. I’m aiming for a post a week. Welcome aboard all over again.