Look upon my future works, ye Audience, and rejoice.
I've hinted before at a few other projects after Fold, so here's an updated rundown. All titles are codenames, so don't expect to see them released under those names.
Don't expect dates on any of these. I could end up working on them in any order. But isn't that half the fun?
The next writing project is a go. Some thoughts before the button is pushed.
Over the weekend I decided Welcome to the Fold was ready to be written for real, and that the outlining and note-gathering phase of the project was pretty much done. After Thanksgiving weekend, I'll roll up my sleeves and get started — real life distractions be damned.
Starting any new project is always tough, because we want whatever we produce as soon as the gun goes off to be the thing we end up using. Fight that temptation, I say. I wrote the first chapter of Flight of the Vajra some four or five times before I found the voice, tone, situation, and approach the story needed — and even then I still wasn't totally happy with it, but it came closer than anything else I could come up with.
I used to never write story outlines. Here's why.
This will almost certainly destroy any claims I could lay to being part of the novelists' union, but here's a dirty, filthy, terrible little secret: Up until Flight of the Vajra, I never wrote story outlines. [Voices offstage: "Yeah, and we can tell!"]
Actually, I did do such a thing, once upon a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, etcetera, but nothing ever came of it. I'd outline, and halfway through the outline I'd find myself getting bored. Great, I'd tell myself, I went from having this terrific idea to leaving myself with a stupid fill-in-the-blanks exercise. I hated the idea of making what was supposed to be a creative act into a mere paint-by-numbers job — and even if it wasn't actually like that, that was sure how it felt.
On the kinds of reading and research I do -- and don't do -- as a prepwork for a project.
My comments about Berdyaev the other day got me thinking about the kinds of reading material I turn to when I'm in the run-up phase for a project. It's research material, but not the kind you might expect.
First off: when I'm working on a given kind of project, I read pretty much no other fiction of the same kind — assuming I can find anything that even comes close to it in my mind in the first place. Back when I was pounding out Flight of the Vajra, I didn't read other space opera, for several reasons: I didn't want to pick up ideas from those books (some of which wouldn't have belonged in my book in the first place anyway); I'd already read plenty of it in the run-up to working on the book, and had decided that stuff wasn't a model I wanted to emulate anyway, but instead look beyond; and a big part of what I wanted to bring to the material wasn't to be found in most of the rest of SF in the first place.
Second, the research material I scare up for a given project is about 50/50 factual and inspirational. The first half is "hard" stuff: historical research, real-world info about people, places, things, behaviors, etc. The second half, though, is more about the ideas behind something. Hence all of my ingestion of Aung San Suu Kyi and Thomas Merton when working on Vajra — I wanted more of that sort of thing in the book than I did David Drake (or even Heinlein, for that matter). I still think I had a little too much of the business where the way such ideas were included in the book was by simply having people sit around and talk about them — and maybe that's something I only single out for criticism in my own work because it's something I'd single out in others' works as well — but that's a discussion for another, longer essay.
A political struggle by itself wouldn't be the meat of a good story; it has to be something personal inside the political.
Turning yesterday's post over in my head left me with another issue: how interesting is it, really, to read about such a situation? I hearkened back to a criticism of Amadeus (the movie), which went "How interesting is Salieri's envy, anyway?" Meaning, can you really sustain a 2 1/2-hour film on no other fuel but a man's petty jealousy?
I imagine there's more to the film than just that alone, but those words did awaken within me a sense of how Welcome to the Fold has to be about more than just the mechanics of the frustrated politics of its players.
I also remembered United Red Army, the staggeringly boring Koji Wakamatsu movie about the self-destructing politics of Japan's left circa the late '60s. Doubly staggering since I was already fascinated by the subject, so if the movie couldn't even enlist my interest, it didn't stand an icicle chance's in a magma pool with most anyone else.
But the most glaring problem with the movie wasn't the subject matter. It was how the filmmakers assumed just putting the central subject on display — the dysfunction of radical utopian politics — would be enough by itself.
Why am I, the atheist, reading a book of religious philosophy? Homework, but some other things too.
I'm currently reading Nicolas Berdyaev's Slavery and Freedom, a good example of a terribly-written brilliant book. Berdyaev's ideas are stimulating stuff, but his writing style is so leaden that I'm not surprised the book has remained consistently undiscussed.
His premise is that personality is the one truly human atttribute, and through that we find God — and not the God of the Bible or even the church, but the God that those other things can only point to. He also seems to be of the same mind as Maimonides in that spiritual literalism is a mistake, that the words of prophets are actually more powerful as metaphor than they are any other way.
You're probably wondering what a staunch atheist is doing reading this material, and no, it's not a know-thy-enemy thing. Well, not that alone. If I had someone like Berdyaev on my side, I wouldn't mind, as long as he kept out of my hair about my own beliefs.
The deal is this: Both Welcome to the Fold and at least one future book I'm considering touch on many themes Berdyaev brings up, and it behooves me to be well-equipped. With Fold, it's the idea of personality as the sacred, and how dehumanization debases both the one being dehumanized and the one doing the dehumanizing. The way this unfolds is not always obvious, and I'm still digesting what the book says (again, Berdyaev's plodding prose doesn't help), but I expect a lot of what's brought up in it to be examined in Fold and beyond, even if only indirectly.
There better be something new under the sun, or else!
If there is nothing new under the sun, if the past in some shape or another always returns, then the future when it comes will be something familiar. At any rate what will never come — since it has never come before — is that hated, dreaded thing, a world of free and equal human beings. Particularly comforting to reactionary thinkers is the idea of a cyclical universe, in which the same chain of events happens over and over again. In such a universe every seeming advance towards democracy simply means that the coming age of tyranny and privilege is a little bit nearer. This belief, obviously superstitious though it is, is widely held nowadays, and is common among Fascists and near-Fascists.
Yes, the title's a nod to Ornette Coleman, and again these are thoughts that revolve around the world being built for Welcome to the Fold. It is essentially our world, albeit inhabited by a small, self-selecting subclass of what I guess could be called aesthetic revolutionaries. They want very much for there to be something new under the sun, and they are prepared to make it happen By Any Means Necessary.
What they are not prepared to do, though, is have this come about in a way that they cannot directly and scrutinously control. They want a new world, but they want it exclusively on their terms — they want it to be unfold just so, like a stage-managed tour cruise where you're not permitted to deviate from the menu or the itinerary. And god help you if they catch you not having any fun; then you're really in for a spanking!
History can't be stage-managed or cruise-directed. But everyone thinks they can do that. They sincerely believe that with the right intelligence, the right pressure politics, the right weapons, the right technology, they can somehow succeed where previous generations or regimes did not.
On improving the world: start at home, inside your own skin.
It is quite possible that man's major problems will never be solved. But it is also unthinkable! Who is there who dares to look at the world of today and say to himself, ‘It will always be like this: even in a million years it cannot get appreciably better?’ So you get the quasi-mystical belief that for the present there is no remedy, all political action is useless, but that somewhere in space and time human life will cease to be the miserable brutish thing it now is.
Who indeed would look at the world and suggest it could be no better? I doubt anyone does this consciously, but if they did, I imagine it would only be because they have a vested interest in keeping things exactly as they are.
Then again, the above-cited mystic's approach is no different in practical terms, is it? It's too easy to entertain a philosophy that insists you do nothing, and there are plenty of folks who are hoping you do as little as possible so they can keep sucking you dry.
On how the world ended a long time ago. (And how that fits into my new book.)
The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.
Emphasis in original.
Zen Master Seung Sahn (of Dropping Ashes on the Buddha) used to tell his students to think of themselves as being dead already. "A dead man has no desires," he pointed out. It all sounded morbid until I realized he was talking about something analogous to what is being discussed here. The point isn't to wallow in death, but to understand how our ideas about life and death don't correspond to life and death as we actually experience them, and to not remain slaves to something that is simply thought and memory.
On (not) taking refuge in one's art.
Sometimes an entire work can spring from a single sentence or even a few words. In Welcome to the Fold's case, it was the words "life must be lived historically, not aesthetically", as spoken by Professor Johnston.
I understand, at least as much as many other people, the need to escape into an aesthetic mode of living life. Maybe the word "aesthetic" brings the wrong things to mind, because that escape doesn't have to confine itself to any one particular mode. Religious asceticism is just as much an aesthetic escape as artistic bohemianism — or maybe it's better to say any of those things can be perverted into mere escapism.
This is part of why stuff like monasticism doesn't work for me. It's tempting to want to escape the corruption of the world we know by simply rejecting it, but it isn't that easy. The world always finds a way back in. Even Thomas Merton couldn't hide himself away completely in his abbey; he emerged from it time and again to engage with a world that clearly needed all the help it could get.
Look at all the stuff going into the new book!
As a sequel of sorts to the other day's posts, I thought I'd cite here some of the stuff I've been reading about for Welcome to the Fold. It's a major grab bag.
Exercise for the reader: Imagine as best you can a story that involves all these elements. Note down what it might be. Return here later to see how your idea compares against mine. A $10 Amazon gift card says they aren't remotely the same.
Seems that expanding one's frame of reference isn't always about aiming "higher".
With any project I work on, the more disparate and wide-ranging the sources that end up going into it, the more interesting the final result. For Vajra I ended up reading a good deal more Thomas Merton than I did Freeman Dyson, if you get my drift. Not to say that I was deliberately ignoring the nuts-and-bolts stuff (although I'm fairly sure the end result does tend to lean towards the lower end of the SF Hardness Scale), but that so many of the stories I've seen in that vein already cover that territory so well, why duplicate their work? If I had something to add to such a story that was mine, I'd rather it have been from a territory that complemented the uniqueness I wanted to bring to the story in the first place. (I did read a lot about programming, though, so I guess that counts.)
Time and again I've invoked the importance of getting out of one's bubble, but I don't think I talk enough about how genuinely difficult it is. Moreoever, I've always phrased it in terms of getting out by going up rather than going sideways or down. "Playing over one's head" is the term I keep using for it, but it might well be that the things we need to get out of our bubble for aren't "up there" somewhere but "down below". In the end it doesn't matter where they really sit; what matters is that you make the effort and come away with something for it.
On the use and abuse of escapism.
Lots of real-life stuff, not much blogging time, but I thought I'd file a follow-up to my post from the other day about the dangers of imagination and fantasy being a one-way street. (This was originally written during my lunchbreak at a conference I was attending for work, so my apologies if it seems a bit scattery.)
It struck me on re-reading the essay that I really didn't want to construct an argument in favor of people who flip up their noses at the likes of Harry Potter and feel all the better for themselves for having done so. Not my argument at all: I have nothing but pity for the Harold Blooms of the world, who see some things as being so far beneath them they can't even be bothered to lift the lid.