Personal meanderings about speculative fiction.

Compassion, Misplaced

This video, which came across my Facebook feed, annoys me.

Did you take a look? Okay. It’s very unlikely the duckling is feeding the fish out of “compassion,” as per the caption someone added on Facebook. Rather, the duckling is dipping its food in the water to soften it. Dabbling species like mallards do this routinely. You won’t find a domestic duck-care site that doesn’t remind you to offer water along with food, so that your ducks can do their thing.

So, what’s wrong with seeing this duckling as feeding the fish? Why be the Grinch who destroys the dream of nature as compassionate? Isn’t it a harmless, feel-good mistake?

Well, it’s simply not true. That alone is a defense. I wouldn’t be an educator if I weren’t invested in the idea that getting your facts straight matters. And I wouldn’t be a writer myself if I didn’t care about noticing details — like how the duckling moves away from the fish at a number of points. ‘Cause, you know … they’re taking its food. You can see people pointing this stuff out in the YouTube comments. Which is, perhaps, why the video is now making the rounds on Facebook, where, divorced from those skeptical comments, it’s been shared more than 6,000 and viewed almost 12 million times.

But more than that, seeing this as a Golden-Rule-following duckling destroys duckness and replaces it with humanness. When we anthropomorphize other species, we’re saying, “I’m not going to bother getting to know you as you really are. Instead, I’m going to assume you’re just like me.” And pretty soon, everything we look at in nature is just a mirror, showing us ourselves. Us, us, us … it’s all about us. It all is us — shells of other creatures, stuffed full of us. Our values, our priorities. It’s an unintentional but nevertheless profound kind of narcissism. Other creatures are not allowed to be themselves, and we’re not required to interact with the alien and the other, coming to understand it on its own terms instead of ours. We just take a pass on all that.

Real compassion is great, and one of the things that makes it great is that it’s unusual, not universal. Other species do display altruism; we certainly don’t have a lock on it. But those species that don’t display it, even those whose behaviors disturb us instead of charm us, still deserve to be known as they are.

Risks, Benefits, and Refugees

Like most people who are tuned in to current events, I’ve been hearing a lot, over the last few days, about the wisdom of admitting refugees to the U.S. As of Tuesday, twenty-six governors had voiced a desire to stop or delay the settlement of Syrian (and some other) refugees in their states (source). Whether governors actually have the power to deny refugees entry to their states seems unlikely to me, but for my purposes here, it’s the thought that counts.

These governors are thinking that one or more of the refugees we admit might actually be a terrorist in disguise. Or that one of their kids might grow up to be a terrorist. Despite the fact that the U.S. is quite capable of growing its own terrorists, it is, of course, perfectly possible that a refugee might be, become, or parent a terrorist. Even the best screening cannot unfailingly predict human behavior stretching decades into the future, and people arguing in favor of settling refugees in the U.S. do their position a disservice if they suggest that no refugee could ever become a terrorist or the parent of a terrorist. If you stake your argument on that kind of absolute claim, then your entire position collapses at the first exception, and whatever the situation, we can pretty much count on there always being an exception.

What we need to do instead, I think, is consider risk and benefit in a careful, rational way. Let’s use a less emotionally charged issue as an example: vehicular deaths. It’s well known that higher speed limits lead to increased traffic fatalities. Accidents that occur at higher speeds are more likely to be fatal because the g-force applied to the body is so much greater. The best airbags and seat belts in the world can’t help much with the fact that the organs in your body are going from 60 mph to 0 in half a second. That means all the fluids inside your organs are slamming up against structures that did not evolve to withstand those impacts. Even if you don’t suffer any blunt force trauma and remain safely inside your vehicle, a high-speed accident can kill you (source).

Cars have become a lot safer. Even as our population has grown, traffic fatalities have shrunk. That said, they’re still awfully high: between 30,000 and 35,000 people die this way in the U.S. every year. We could stop many of these deaths if we were to institute a nationwide maximum speed limit of 25 mph and all abide by that limit. Yes, it would take longer to get places, especially when traveling long distances. But saving, say, 25,000 lives a year would be pretty great. That’s tens of thousands of people who would suddenly not lose a parent, spouse, child, sibling, or friend. Not to mention a whole lot of non-fatal injuries prevented. Seems like a powerful incentive, right?

But instead of reducing speed limits, we’re raising them. When I was learning to drive, the nationwide speed limit was 55 mph. Now it’s as high as 85 in some places.

We can map high speed limits in terms of risk vs. benefit:

Risk Benefit
33,000 deaths and 2.3 million injuries (2013 numbers) convenience; economic benefits of faster shipping; the pleasure of driving fast; etc.

Now, I like driving fast. And I like my Amazon Prime free two-day shipping. And I’m not eager to have my 45-minute commute become a hour-and-a-half commute. I am, in other words, a typical American: pretty much willing to trade many thousands of lives, families forever disrupted, and hideous injuries for cost savings and convenience. When I think about it rationally, it doesn’t seem sensible. The risk is so great, and the benefits are so superficial. And yet, I am not out there trying to start a 25 to Save Lives movement.

Now, let’s look at a yearly risk-vs.-benefit table for admitting refugees to the U.S. To be generous to the anti’s, we’ll take the worst-ever year for U.S. terrorism fatalities as our measure of risk:

Risk Benefit
several thousand deaths; immediate injuries and possible longterm illnesses; economic disruption giving 10,000 desperate people a chance at a decent life

Admittedly, this doesn’t look so good. “Trading” several thousand U.S. lives in order to help 10,000 refugees could be seen as deeply irresponsible. Our governments’ primary responsibility is, after all, to protect us, not to help citizens of other nations.

On the other hand, we have to remember that the September 11 attacks have not been replicated. In a number of the years since, we’ve had zero domestic deaths linked to “Islamic” terrorism. Using this site, I’m counting thirty-three such deaths in the fourteen years since September 11. This article, written prior to this year’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, attacks, puts the figure slightly lower. However you count it, the number of people killed in the U.S. by self-identified jihadists is far exceeded by the number killed by right-wing extremists, such as the wretched specimen who gunned down nine people in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this year (source).

What this record suggests is that domestic jihadist strikes pose a minuscule risk to American lives during most years. In years other than 2001, more Americans have been killed by lightning and dogs. Large strikes like those on September 11 are, at least so far, rare. And even when they do occur, the lose of life is small compared to any number of other significant threats that may seem less scary. Like, for instance, car accidents (more than ten times as many Americans killed every single year). And hospital acquired infections (75,000 U.S. deaths/year). And suicide (about 40,000/year). And falls (about 30,000/year). And drowning (approaching 4,000/year). If it’s your loved one who’s killed in a domestic jihadist strike, it’s unbearable. But it’s also unbearable if it’s your two-year-old who’s mauled to death by a dog. Or your mother who goes in for routine surgery and dies of an infection. Or your husband who dies in a car accident. However we lose those we love, it’s unbearable.

So, here’s another way to think about risk: as comparative. We’re willing to trade some tens of thousands of traffic deaths for the convenience and cost-savings that come with high speed limits, but the governors of twenty-six U.S. states are unwilling to trade a handful of yearly deaths, plus the much smaller risk of a larger strike, to help tens of thousands of people who are absolutely desperate. You know how desperate–you’ve seen the pictures.

Let’s do one more risks-vs.-benefits table, this time thinking of September 11 not as a yearly event, which it clearly is not, but as a once-every-fourteen-years level of event (and even that may be way too pessimistic … maybe it’s a thirty- or fifty-year event):

Risk Benefit
High Speed Limits 33,000 deaths and 2.3 million injuries, on average convenience; economic benefits of faster shipping; the pleasure of driving fast
Welcoming Refugees at Current Levels 215 deaths per year, on average, plus injuries and economic disruption giving 10,000 desperate people a chance at a decent life

An average of 215 deaths a year … why does that terrify us so much? Why are we willing to “spend” tens of thousands of lives purchases fun, cost-savings, and convenience but are not willing to spend 215 on compassion?

I’m hardly an expert on this stuff, but this is how it looks to me: if I’m willing to accept the risks inherent in 85 mph speed limits for benefits that, frankly, aren’t all that essential, I should also be willing to accept the comparatively tiny risks that come with welcoming refugees to my community, especially since the resulting benefits go right to the heart of what it means to be a decent person.

What If You Had No Recourse?

There are no jobs, no schools, maybe no food. No place is safe — from bombs, from human predators, from your own government. If you get hurt or sick, maybe there’s a hospital miles away. Maybe there isn’t. The dangers vary from place to place. What’s consistent is that few are attending to your happiness, your rights, your life, or the safety of your children. Whatever the exact situation, it goes on and on. Two years ago, you told yourself it’d be over by now, one way or another. Things would’ve settled down. Four years ago you told yourself this. Ten years ago. But it’s not over; if anything, it’s worse. That’s because it’s no one person’s fault. No one group’s. It’s a mess that only gets messier, and there’s no shortage of blame. The real world has a hell of a lot of hydras, and no Hercules.

This is the refugee crisis of the 21st century.

Though actually, I suspect “crisis” isn’t the right word for it. To me, a crisis is a sudden event of finite duration. I don’t think these mass human migrations will end — not in my lifetime, at any rate. I think they’ll shift, like a river in flood cutting new channels, but I don’t think they’ll stop.

So I’m committing to donating 10% of my writing proceeds to Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. It’s not a whole lot of money, at this point, but hopefully, in time, it will grow.

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.

Why Do We Read?

I read because I love words.
But when I read, I get sucked in and forget about the words.
I read because I’m tired of talking to people.
But when I read, I end up talking to people about it.
I read because it relaxes me.
But when I read, I get excited.
I read because it helps me forget my cares.
But when I read, I start caring about a whole new batch of people.
I read because stories let me escape the world.
But when I read, I learn more about the world.
I read to forget that I’m going to die and so will everything else.
But death happens in books sometimes, too.
I read to be happy.
But books can make me sad.
I read because I love it.
But I don’t know why.