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?