Yesterday my first novel, Alex, hit an incredible milestone: 1,000 reader reviews on Amazon.com.
When I published the book three years ago as an independent author, I never would have guessed that I could hit this level. There are authors out there selling significantly more books than I am, that have a bigger backlist and more readers than I do, that don’t get half this number of reviews on their best-selling novels. I certainly never expected to get the kind of review volumes normally reserved for Stephen King books.
If there’s one thing that writing has taught me, it’s that the definition of “success” is fluid. To one person it might mean sales, to another it might mean connecting with people on an emotional level. To another the definition might morph, constantly taking on whatever shape is necessary in order to disqualify that person’s achievements to date. I’ll admit that I’ve struggled with that last one in the past.
But man… it’s hard to argue with that number. I’m still astounded by the idea that 1,000 people have even read a book of mine, let alone that that many were affected enough by what they read (one way or another) to leave a review. Yesterday my son saw Alex’s product page and asked what the review number meant. After I told him, he said, “What?? A thousand people?? I never knew my dad was famous!” In that instant I realized what my personal definition of success was. I also realized that I’d hit it.
I want to write a lot of novels. My plans have been disrupted over and over again since the moment when I had planned to focus on writing more heavily, which is a constant source of trepidation for me and a fact that I am always beating myself up with. But today, I’m cutting myself a little slack.
One thousand? Wow.
I just watched the preview for your new movie Saving Christmas, coming this weekend to select theaters nationwide. I’m not sure why I did that. Normally I try to avoid stuff like God’s Not Dead, and Noah, and Son of God. I am clearly not these movies’ target audience, yet I always want to see them because of the vague feeling I get that I’m being talked about behind my back. What can I say, this time I failed my Will save. I saw that Saving Christmas was listed in this coming weekend’s showtimes, and my morbid curiosity overwhelmed my common sense. I wanted to let you know that I came away from the experience… troubled.
First, fair disclosure on my personal outlook on this. I’m an atheist, so I obviously don’t believe that Jesus was the son of god. I don’t mind that you do, but I, personally, don’t. I’m also a liberal, so I’m okay with people practicing whatever religious holidays they’d like as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or require me to participate (and yes, that includes Christianity). If you’re still willing to listen to me after those admissions, I’d love to mention a few things.
I know Christians have a real history of persecution, and that the idea for the “War on Christmas” probably grew out of this history. But like many of the most recent claims of Christian persecution, to an outsider, it feels like the War on Christmas has less to do with any Christians that are actually being persecuted and more to do with the religious right’s insistence that no one who disagrees with them should be allowed to have any fun.
Let me use your own words, from the first half of your preview, to show you what I mean. In a tone that I think is meant to be whimsical and mildly befuddled, you narrate, “Do you ever feel like Christmas has been hijacked?”
Let’s take a closer look at that sentence. Specifically, the word “hijacked.”
For something to be hijacked, it does of course have to belong to someone first. The clear implication here is that Christmas belongs to Christians. Therefore, if a non-Christian has any involvement in it, they’re “hijacking” it. In other words, from the first sentence of the preview, it’s clear that what’s important about Christmas is who it excludes. Non-Christians, please shut up and sit down. Christmas is only for Christians.
You then go on to explain who exactly is hijacking Christmas: “All the commercialism.” I could actually get behind this idea; there is a ton of commercialism associated with Christmas, and I do feel like it takes away from the more important message the season can offer. But given that you never mention this again, I’m left with the impression that this is a straw man. Thankfully, you quickly move on to the real threat: “Those who want to replace ‘Merry Christmas’ with ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’… whatever that means.”
Ah. Well, Kirk, as one of those people who’s fine with both phrases, give me a chance to explain what that means to me. It’s actually not that complicated, and maybe if you listen to it with an open mind, you’ll even see where I’m coming from.
See, around December of each year, there are a lot of religions and belief systems that celebrate some sort of holiday. Christmas is one of them. Christians (as you probably know) celebrate this holiday to proclaim their joy over the birth of their God’s son, Jesus Christ, whom they believe was sent to earth to die for them and cleanse them of their sins. Another one is Yule, a pagan holiday that recognizes the winter solstice. Yule is a celebration of the fact that the shortest days of winter are gone, and from this point onward, the days only get longer until spring comes (personally, I can dig this; those short winter days are depressing). Hanukkah is another one you may have heard of. This is a Jewish holiday that celebrates and commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There’s also Kwanzaa. I know, I know, you probably don’t think Kwanzaa counts because it was only started in the ’60s and it was made specifically for black people, but did you know that actually a lot of holidays were modeled after other holidays, but re-made in such a way that they’d be more inclusive or relevant to a particular group? Even your Christmas originally was! And as a guy who feels a little homeless at the holiday season, since “Christmas” doesn’t really want me anymore, I can understand where they’re coming from on this. Yes, it’s a real holiday, and yes, real people—people my kids go to school with, people I work with—celebrate it. Bear with me. And I know you’re probably getting a little overwhelmed, but in fairness to myself, there’s also HumanLight, which is supposed to be a Humanist celebration, all about how incredible the human species is and how we should look out for each other and generally try to be good people. I’m a quasi-Humanist myself, but I grew up celebrating Christmas and so did my wife, plus “HumanLight” is kind of a dorky name for a holiday, so we generally celebrate on December 24th and 25th instead, like we’re used to.
But did you notice something cool about those different holidays? Every single one is about celebration. All these different holidays, from all these different walks of life, from all these different kinds of people—they’re all about celebration, and loving one’s family, and recognizing the things that make life good. That’s not a bad thing, man! That’s an awesome thing. It’s something we, as a species, can be proud of. And it’s something I personally would like as many people as possible to be a part of.
See, you probably think “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” are just generic terms, created for the sole purpose of excluding Christmas from ever being mentioned, but that’s not the intent at all. A lot of people would say maybe they are generic, but they’re intended to be inclusive—as in, if I don’t know for sure what holiday you celebrate, I’ll just say “Happy Holidays” to be on the safe side. And that might be true, too, but it’s not what the words mean to me. To me they mean a lot more.
To me they recognize this incredible history that we, as a human species, have. They recognize that for some weird, wonderful reason, a lot of human beings have something to celebrate in December. They recognize that for most people, something wonderful is happening around this time. People are thinking of their families. They’re giving gifts. They’re getting together and seeing each other. They’re listening to music. Like you said in your own preview, they’re dancing and celebrating and feasting. And even though they may all have their own unique reasons for doing so, isn’t it incredible that so many people from so many different traditions celebrate around this same time? Isn’t it humbling, and worth recognizing? These are happy holidays, and we, as a human race, can all recognize that. The phrase is about bringing us together and celebrating the most awesome things that all of us have in common: family, love, and of course, good food.
In my house, Christmas is a celebration of family and the time that we have on this earth together. I hug my wife and kids a little tighter, I get to see my mom and her partner and my in-laws and my grandfather, and we all give presents and eat lasagna. The kids love it, and so do I. I can maybe understand why it would miff you a little that we call it “Christmas” despite not actually believing in Christ, but really, we were raised with the holiday and this whole Humanism thing is fairly new, so I’d hope you can cut us a little slack while we try to figure out something else to call it. And like it or not, that whole Santa Claus thing is a part of Christmas too, and I do feel like our kids have a right to that. Really, since you have your own Christmas celebration to go to, is it that big a deal what we do in our own home?
I guess what I’m trying to say is, you can celebrate Christmas and still recognize how cool the Happy Holidays are as a united force. You can put up nativity scenes and celebrate however you’d like on your own property, where it doesn’t make my kids feel bad for being from an atheist house, and we’ll even still talk about it respectfully if we happen to drive by. You can hear someone say “Season’s Greetings” and recognize that they mean it respectfully and joyfully, and you can even wish people “Merry Christmas” without feeling like you’re on the front lines of the War on Christmas.
Because the worst part about this whole War on Christmas idea is that it loses sight of the things that you love about this time of year. Come on, man. We both know what this time of year is about, and it’s not war.
It’s peace on earth.
My goal this year was to release two books: A Season of Rendings and another, “Alex-ey” type book with a TBD title. I’ve spent the year to date working hard on Season, but it turns out the idea of writing a novel of that length and complexity in six months had absolutely no basis in reality. Given that its predecessor, Children of a Broken Sky, took about 10 years to write, I suppose this information shouldn’t surprise me.
Put simply, there is no way I’m going to finish Season this year. That leaves me with two options.
1) Plow forward on Season and release it when it’s ready, probably late next year.
2) Take a break to finish the other book, already nearing the 10% mark.
I’ve decided to go ahead with option 2. The book is tentatively titled Todd.
If you follow me on Facebook, you’ve heard me complain about this already, but Season is really complex and difficult to write. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy doing it – I do. I love the setting and the characters and I am really psyched to share the events of the second book. But it goes slowly, because it is the second book in a 6-part series and it’s fantasy. You might think fantasy would be easier to write because you can just make up the world as you go along, but that’s not the case. Every few paragraphs I have to stop to double-check some bit of minutiae and make sure I’m not making a mistake. Can I use the word “ounce?” Am I spelling this First Tongue word correctly? Am I referring to events from the last book correctly? Is this a good place to foreshadow something that happens two books from now? Do I want to foreshadow that event? Have I decided for sure that’s how things are going down?
Contrast this with Todd, which involves two main characters in a story told in the real world from a first-person POV. The themes are established and straight-forward; I know the beginning, middle, and end. Opposite Season, writing Todd is downright free-wheeling.
There is a phrase many authors are familiar with, regardless of their stripe: “Publish or die.” I quit a day job nearly two years ago to spend more time writing books. I refuse to let a year go by without publishing a novel.
I want to re-emphasize that Season is not going away. I will spend more time working on it next year, and I’m still in the process of getting the cover done as we speak. I’m not leaving the The Redemption Chronicle; I’ve put too much effort into it and loved the place for too long to abandon it. But I do need to be realistic about how much time it takes to write. My electrician once asked me if TRC would be my Dark Tower. Maybe the answer is yes, in more ways than one. Dark Tower came out more-or-less piecemeal over a number of decades. I don’t plan to let TRC run out that long, but if I were to focus on it exclusively, my output would probably drop to one book every couple years. That’s just too slow. And the truth is, I would be disappointing a number of my fans who started reading with Alex and don’t really read fantasy. The better solution, I think, is to keep writing the “Alex-ey” books (I have six or seven write-able ideas) and work on TRC between them. That way, I can try to keep everyone as happy as possible, including myself.
So that’s the plan. I’ll keep you posted on Season’s progress and expected release date. In the interim, I can promise you that Todd will be available by the end of the year.
My daughter graduates preschool today.
She’s excited for Kindergarten and thrilled to be a big girl. But she’s also sad that she won’t be able to see many of her friends anymore. She’s cried when she thinks about how much she’ll miss her teacher. We’ve tried to comfort her the best we can: by reminding her she’ll make new friends, that she’ll see some old friends at the elementary school that she didn’t get to see much this past year, and that we’ll come back to visit her old teacher and classmates. These efforts don’t really help too much, and I understand that. They never helped me either. The truth is, she will grow up. When we come back to visit, she’ll be older; in a couple years, she’ll barely be recognizable. On the other side of the coin, her teacher will get older too. There will come a point, if the visits continue, when my daughter looks at her old teacher and is struck by how old she looks (the same, of course, is true of her looking at us). She may not realize it, but fundamentally, she’s not just mourning the specific people and situations she’s losing. On some level, she’s mourning for the fact that nothing is forever.
It makes me feel like everything ends. It makes me wonder what the point is, if everything eventually falls apart and collapses. It’s easy to get fixated on this idea, and find myself sinking. Time starts to speed up; I can see it accelerating around me. I can turn around and find my daughter is a sassy 17-year-old know-it-all. I blink and she’s 34, with children of her own, and my wife and I are elderly. After that, we’re gone, and it’s just my children, and in another blink, they’re gone too. Little moments like a preschool graduation are snapshots of tiny instants in this rushing river. They make me slow down and take note of what’s happening at that moment, but paradoxically, they also make me acutely aware of the entire path: everyone changing, nothing staying the same, all rushing toward their end.
That makes me sad, if I let it. But there is more to the story. It’s not just that things end and things change. It’s not just that my life is finite, and when it’s gone, everything I’ve experienced disappears.
That rushing river, itself, is part of something more: a raging rapids that extends backward to the beginning of time, and forward to infinity. Laid aside the entirety of the cosmos, my life, my childrens’ lives, even the entire experience of the human species, is nothing but a flicker of lightning in the darkness. A split second of light, instantly forgotten. Seen from this vantage point, there are two ways to go: I can realize that absolutely nothing matters in the grand scheme of things, or I can realize that the scope of the universe – its incredible, mind-numbing vastness – does not erase the value of this moment.
Somehow, I get swept into that raging river and end up back where I started: looking at my daughter, smiling and radiant in her special graduation-day dress. Our entire experience may be a flicker of lightning, but that bolt is blinding. What comes tomorrow will come. What matters most to me is this moment.
I won’t say, “I never want to lose it.”
I won’t say, “It will never come again.”
It is here now. She is who she is, and I am who I am, and I love her more than anything. The existence of tomorrow does not negate the value of today. In all of the vast universe and the infinite expanse of time, I am here, kissing my daughter, bearing witness to the miracle that is her growing up. “Lucky” doesn’t begin to describe it.
In this moment, I realize the meaning of the word precious.
Anyone who knows me personally knows I played World of Warcraft for six years or so. I was a Guild Master, I co-led and moderated a huge outside-of-game community raiding organization, I main-tanked, I crafted, I logged on at least once every 24 hours to run dailies, I raided 2-3 times a week… I was into it. And for all that, I was considered casual.
I left, as many of my friends did, when I heard the announcement about Mists of Pandaria (MoP), the latest WoW expansion, which features kung fu pandas. Yes, yes, I realize Blizzard has stated repeatedly that they are not kung fu pandas, and in fact, they had the idea for Panda People a long time before anyone else, but… whatever. They’re kung fu pandas, and they annoyed me. I’d already been losing interest in the game – most of my guild had left to join other guilds, after Blizzard’s new “Guild Leveling” scheme basically gutted little guilds like mine, and the time investment necessary for raiding was just too backbreaking – but I still enjoyed playing alone and exploring new zones and just dinking around, basically. The dorky expansion premise killed what remaining interest I had, and I finally quit my account in early 2012.
You don’t leave something that has sucked up that much of your attention, your imagination, and your blood, sweat, and tears without having a deep, sneaking suspicion that you’ll be back one day. In my six years in the game I saw countless players leave, only to come back when the next expansion hit or after a few months when the shakes became too violent. I didn’t delude myself when I left; I figured there was a very good chance I’d be back. I went about my life and waited, expecting that any day I’d say, “What the hell,” and fire the game up again just to see.
Since I was a teenager, some game or other has always dominated my attention. There’s always something that is the default topic for idle brain thoughts in my head. It’s been one MMO or another for a number of years, but before that it was Diablo, or Magic: The Gathering, or even good ol’ D&D. When I quit WoW, my brain had a vacancy, and I actually ended up getting back into Magic. It had been about 15 years since I was really into it, and it had evolved a ton. There were hundreds of new, interesting mechanics, the game rules had been significantly improved and tightened, and there was over a decade of cards that I had never seen – thousands, all told. It pulled me back in hard, and between that and how busy my day-to-day life is, I hardly ever felt the urge to play WoW.
Until last night.
Yesterday I downloaded Hearthstone, a brilliant little coup devised by the evil geniuses at Blizzard to prey upon people like me with a WoW background who are easily entranced by good collectible card games. The game is polished and fun. It has a collectible element, a deck-building element, and enough similarity to the WoW CCG from a few years back that anyone who played that or Magic feels immediately at home. And, of course, the portal to the game, battle.net, is replete with temptations to play WoW – not least of which is a little button that reads, “10-day free trial of Mists of Pandaria.”
Last night, flush from my tenth victory in a row in Hearthstone and suddenly reminiscing on the good old days, I clicked that button.
I was shocked by how quickly the install happened. I remember re-installing WoW and all its expansions a few times over the six years I played, and it was always a tedious, difficult experience. It would take hours for everything to download, and usually something would get screwed up along the way – some patch misapplied or bit of wayward data stuck in my computer’s craw. I expected to leave my computer downloading overnight, and probably to have lost interest by the next morning. Instead, the game was playable in less than 15 minutes. I glanced at the window, saw the little glowing “PLAY” button, and finally said, “What the hell.”
My old server and all my old characters were there, like they’d just been waiting for me. I picked my priest, Challice, one of my two level 85s (the max level when I had quit), and suddenly found myself on griffon-back, flapping peacefully in place over the Twilight Highlands.
Had I really left poor Challice on the back of a griffon, hovering in mid-air? I felt terrible, like a parent who suddenly realizes he’s been ignoring his children. I remember that I really enjoyed playing her, and got a sudden urge to go kill something – but first, I had to re-map some of my keyboard and mouse keys, because I was having trouble moving. It didn’t work like I remembered.
In the process of doing that, any enticement I may have felt to play again crumbled.
The menu was a little different than I remembered, and Challice’s powers were so many and so varied that I would’ve had to study for twenty minutes just to figure out my casting rotation again. I had never been quite as familiar with her as I had been with my main character, the warrior. While I pushed different buttons and tried to remember what did what, I stumbled across the guild screen, and the game told me the old guild leader had been gone for too long. “Do you want to take control of the guild?”
I used to be the guild leader, but when I left, a friend of mine acquired the title in much the same way the game was prompting me to take it now. I hit no, figuring that honor should go to my warrior, Elkheart, who had been the guild leader for the entirety of its active existence, and switched characters so he could do the honors. But if I had been confused looking at Challice’s powers, Elkheart’s left me baffled.
Everything was mapped to the keyboard keys exactly where I had left it, but much of it functioned differently. The talent window was a complete stranger. Even the powers I recognized used terminology I didn’t completely understand. For example, “Shield Block” made you block everything for x seconds. You might think “block” means “block,” regardless of how much time has passed, but in WoW it was never that simple. Did a block negate damage from an attack completely? Did it decrease it by a certain amount? If the latter, was it based on a fixed percentage, or a variable value you could influence? Was it derived from your stats somehow?
This simple question left me reeling. When I had been chest-deep in WoW, playing every day for hours, the answers to questions like these had come as easily as breathing, and had felt nearly as important. I’d thought that since I remembered how to use most of Elkheart’s powers, it wouldn’t be a big deal to play again, but not knowing how block worked was too fundamental.
I went into the guild window, thinking to ignore this conundrum for the time being and reclaim Elkheart’s place as Mr. Bitches, the Guild Leader. But he didn’t get the same prompt Challice had, and while I hunted for it I came face-to-face with the guild roster, which may have been the census of a ghost town.
Pages and pages of characters, along with the timeframe since they’d last logged in: 11 days for one character, a mule for a player who was still in the game, but the rest were 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, 3 years. I switched to another window, a history log, and saw a litany of characters that had left the guild, both in the time period I was playing and in the year following.
I looked around Stormwind, the capital city where Elkheart had spent two years waiting for me, and it echoed the ghost town theme. There were a few characters around, but it felt nothing like it once had.
I had expected to feel some of the old spark, the old desire to get new abilities and explore new parts of this sprawling fantasy world. I had expected to see someone I knew, even though I recognized that expectation was patently ridiculous, or feel a hint of the old pride I’d used to have when idly looking over Elkheart’s gear and stats.
Instead, everything felt hollow. Nothing was left but the signs of the people who had gone. The world felt flat and used, less like a mysterious temptation to explore and more like a rundown alleyway. And the gear and the stats were nothing but gibberish.
I ran out of the gates and killed a few rabbits and bandits, just to shield slam something again. I remapped my jump button, so I could leap about gaily while I did it.
Then I logged off and went to bed.
A year or so ago I had a little argument with a couple friends of mine about whether human consciousness could be transferred into a computer. (Incidentally, yes, this is why they are my friends.)
I’m still not certain if they were actually advocating for the position they took, or just playing devil’s advocate because it seemed to be flustering me so much, but they argued that human consciousness could be transferred. The basic idea being that if you could copy all the data out of a human brain and into a storage unit of some kind (say, a hard drive), then destroy the original at the exact same time, what you’ve done is “transfer” consciousness out of a human storage unit and into a digital one.
Now, I don’t have a problem with the basic premise here – that the data in the human brain can be copied/uploaded. I’m sure it can. The problem I have is pretending that destroying the “original” – or, as we sometimes call it, murder – doesn’t have any implications for the process.
The conversation bugged me because I couldn’t articulate my opposition very well. I kept saying something vague about how the two entities (original and copy) would be facing different directions and having different experiences. But now, finally, months and months later, Susan Schneider did it for me.
Here’s the line that grabbed me: “If Theodore were to undergo this procedure, would he succeed in transferring himself into the digital realm? Or would he, as I suspect, succeed only in killing himself, leaving behind a computational copy of his mind[?]”
Ding, ding, ding. She hit perfectly on my issues here.
My friends had argued there was no difference. If my brain is destroyed at the exact same instant that the digital copy becomes live, my stream of experiences is uninterrupted. All the data in that set of experiences is being perceived by the consciousness in the exact same way. The opinions, memories, and life-shaping events are all the exact same. Because there was no divergence in experience, goes the argument, the copy is still fundamentally me.
I don’t agree. I think Ms. Schneider’s got the right of it. In essence, what you’re talking about here is a remarkably adept and difficult act of illusion. You’re destroying one consciousness and creating another at the same time. Just because you do it under a blanket and try to gloss over the details doesn’t change the fact that a consciousness is being destroyed. The illusion can easily come apart at the edges with even the slightest deviation from this hypothetical (and, by the way, absolutely perfectly executed) script. If I (the original) am destroyed just an instant after the copy goes live, it can make all the difference. In that instant I can change my mind about agreeing to the procedure, and that data is lost. The “new me” never “knows” that it changed its mind at the last instant; this shows that we’re talking about two consciousnesses, not one. If I’m destroyed an instant before the copy goes live (instead of simultaneously), then the cracks show. During that intervening second, there was no “me.” There is an instant of universal experience that neither I nor my copy ever experienced. I wasn’t just dead during that time. I actually didn’t exist at all.
But suddenly, when the switch is flipped, I exist again?
My point here is not that the procedure has to be executed flawlessly to work. My point here is that these questions demonstrate that you’re not talking about a single consciousness. You’re talking about two. The copy may be a perfect copy of my consciousness as it existed at a single point in time. It may even be “another” me. But that doesn’t negate the fact that the original exists or existed. Murdering the original me to try to maintain the illusion of a single consciousness is just that – murder. (Unless I agree to the procedure, perhaps because I’m terminally ill or something – then it may not be murder, but it’s still a copy, not the same consciousness.)
To put it another way, say your daughter has a pet goldfish and it dies while she’s at school. You go out and get a new goldfish. By all outside appearances, it is identical. It is the same size and completely indistinguishable from the original goldfish. Its behaviors are completely identical. You plop it in the bowl, and when your daughter comes home, she has no idea that the first goldfish died.
Just because you successfully tricked her into thinking the new goldfish is the same as the old one, doesn’t mean the first goldfish is still alive.
Another example, more closely tied to the actual scenario. It seems to me that the safest way to perform this procedure would be to keep the original subject alive during the copy, if possible. That way, if something went wrong, you could retry it without harming the individual until absolutely necessary. Of course, that opens the door to the possibility of multiple copies of the same consciousness, and also quite clearly demonstrates a deviation in the knowledge of the copy and the original. At some point, you’ll have to tell the original person, “Okay, that copy went off without a hitch and we’re going to kill you now.” That person will then have to agree or change their minds. Do you kill them anyway? After all, you have a copy now, so why should this legacy copy’s opinion matter?
What we’re really talking about here is copying data, no different than the way zillions of bits of data move around our world every day. But when we send a file over email, the original file stays on our hard drive. When we download an .mp3, a source .mp3 remains on the server. Take the example of a manuscript. I have an .ftp file with about 45,000 different copies of the Alex, Rebecca, and Children manuscripts. (Especially Children. Yeesh.) If I send someone one of those files, they can edit it, delete it, or do whatever they want with it. Likewise, I keep an original, which I can also change, merge with something else, or do anything else with. If I delete the original, we pretend that it’s just one continuous document and we all agree to only use the new one that was sent over. But the two documents are completely separate. I may have deleted the original, but I could just as easily have continued editing it, kept it for nostalgia purposes, or just totally forgotten I had it. If that had happened, the two files would’ve diverged very quickly. Any changes in one would not affect the other. They become unique sets of data.
Of course, deleting a manuscript copy is no big deal (provided there’s a backup). But when you stop talking about “just data” and you start talking about consciousnesses embedded in a file (or a human brain!), it seems to me that you need to re-examine all the assumptions you ever held about the sanctity of data.
Deleting information is one thing. Deleting enough information that it’s actually considered a “consciousness” is something else.
That then opens a whole host of new questions: Is it ethical to delete the consciousness as long as it’s not “active?” For example, if it’s actually just a file of information, but not perceiving, thinking, or interacting with the world in any way? Should a file on a server be treated the same as a sleeping person, or maybe as a comatose person?
Fascinating questions. I should write a book about this.
The following is a paraphrased version of a true conversation I had with my son this past weekend at the Mall of America.
“I want Drilla Grilla,” my son said. My son, like any healthy seven-year-old American boy, always wants something (or several somethings). Normally I talk to him about what it is, why he wants it, why it’s cool, etc. That day, for some reason, I tried something different.
“And after you get Drilla Grilla, you’ll want something else.”
“Yeah,” he answered immediately. “Probably Stink Bomb.”
“But even after you get that – even after you get all the Skylanders – you’ll want something else. You had all the original Skylanders, and they just made new ones. After these, they’ll make more. They just want to make sure you keep buying things.”
“Yeah,” he said, with a tinge of regret. “I never got all the Skylander Giants.”
“Do you think it’s possible to get everything you want?”
He mulled this, then said, “I don’t know. Probably.”
“Did you know that no matter how much you have, or how much money you have, you’ll always want more?”
He gave me a skeptical look.
“If you had as much money as Daddy,” I said, “would that be enough?”
“But I want more money than I have. Did you know even the richest people – with billions of dollars – aren’t happy with what they have? They try to find bigger and bigger things they can buy. You can see them on TV, trying to buy whole islands.”
His mouth dropped. This was completely unreal to him.
“My point is, you will always want more than you have. Always. You might be happy for awhile when you get something you’re after, but something else will always come along. If you don’t want to always feel that way, you have to look at what you do have and figure out what makes you happy. That’s why we’re always trying to say we should be happy with what we have.”
“Yeah,” my son said. He gave a long pause. “I really want Drilla Grilla.”
I’ve given a lot of thought to this whole idea of never being happy with what you have. I’m no theology scholar, but I know there are a lot of philosophies and religions dedicated in some way or another to getting around it. In Christianity and Islam (spoken in the same breath!) you’re supposed to realize everything in the world is ephemeral and the real treasure is in “Heaven.” In Buddhism you’re supposed to reach total denial of self and thus eliminate your desires. I’m not Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim, but I’ve always thought recognizing and mitigating this constant discontent was a laudable goal. But this morning, without warning, something in my brain pointed out a sudden, glaring conflict with this idea and another set of ideas I’ve recently internalized.
This other set of ideas is pretty simple: I want to be okay with who I am. As a person, but also as a human being. As a human being, I get hungry. I get horny. I get sleepy. There are all manner of natural urges that are constantly clamoring for attention against my intellect. I spent a long, long time believing that some of those urges were evil manifestations from the devil. (I’ll give you one guess which urge ranked at the top.) I’m over that now. Those urges are human. They’re part of me and [nearly] everyone has them. They’re essential to the propagation of the species. We evolved that way. I can’t stamp them out anymore than I can make the sun rise in the west. Sure, I can manage them, and it’s important to do so. Too much of any one indulgence is always bad. But there’s no need to be ashamed of the traits that make me human.
The conflict then becomes: what if constant discontent is a trait that makes us human?
I told my son last weekend that we all always want more; that none of us are ever truly satisfied. I recognize that it’s pretty pompous of me to speak for the entire human species, but when you’re a dad, sometimes you’re put into that role. I’m sure there have been a few exceptions – I’m talking less about the Jesuses and the Buddhas here than I am about far-flung cultures that maybe aren’t as consumer-oriented as mine – but by and large, I think that discontent, that constant wanting, is something most humans have.
So if it’s ingrained, how do I mesh that with my other belief – that I shouldn’t be ashamed of or seek to deny the things that are ingrained in me as a human?
As I was writing “I can manage them, and it’s important to do so,” above, I momentarily thought, “Ah, I’ve figured this out. It’s just like all the other urges – it just needs to be managed.” Now, three whole paragraphs later, I’m not so sure. The other urges I mentioned can be sated. They always resurge, but they can be sated. I’m not sure The Constant Discontent can be, at least not in the same way. The problem is, sometimes we want what we can’t have – and we still try to get it. Sure, if you get the Skylander you’re after, you might be happy for a little bit. But you’ll always want another one.
Devil’s Advocate says: “Isn’t that just like eating or having sex? For most people, they do it, they’re happy, then they’ll get the urge to do it again.”
I’d argue it’s not. The Constant Discontent morphs. It gets more ambitious. If we get all the little things, we want the medium things. If we get the medium things, we want the big things. If we get those, we want the huge things. If you look at the spectrum of the human species and the strata of wealth, this is what you see. It’s not the same way with the other urges. “Last time I only ate a quarter-pound burger; this time I must eat a half-pound!” “Last night I slept eight hours… tonight I must sleep ten!”
Part of the joy I’ve discovered in not shaming myself about my human urges is that I can actually enjoy satisfying them. It’s pleasant. My entire psyche was designed to take pleasure in the things my lizard-brain is telling me to do. But again… not so with the Constant Discontent. The things you acquire grow stale. And… I’m not sure how to explain this, but I’ll give it my best shot… sometimes I just get tired of wanting all the time.
“Maybe it’s not a human trait,” Devil’s Advocate supplies. “Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe you don’t need to be less human – maybe you need to be less American.” This is a tantalizing argument, except that the phenomenon is recognized around the world, and in texts that pre-date America by quite a bit. America might have managed to focus the Constant Discontent to a laser-like focus, but I don’t think we started it.
If you think about the human species and everything it’s accomplished, I think a lot of it can be traced back to two main traits of our species: 1) Curiosity (and the intellect necessary to satisfy it), and 2) The Constant Discontent. We grow and grow and grow. We spread everywhere. We encounter problems – lack of water, disease, inconvenience – and we set out to conquer them. Having the intelligence to do so isn’t enough. We need the drive to do it, too, and I think that’s where the Constant Discontent comes in. We’ve done a lot of damage this way – global climate disruption, genocide, causing the extinction of species. But always wanting more isn’t always bad. It’s produced some great things, too – antibiotics, the occasional peaceful society, art, and (this is me, here) video games.
I’d love to wrap this up with a little bow and bring it full circle to a conclusion. I’d love to say, “I don’t think the human species’ Constant Discontent will ultimately lead it to the destruction of the planet it lives on. I’m sure we as a species will redirect our Discontent to help us get at things we really want – like survival of our species.” But the sad thing is, I’m not sure that’s true. One thing I’ve realized (which led to my atheism) is that just because I wish something were true, doesn’t mean it is true. I see evidence that we can get our Discontent under control on a global level… but I also see evidence that we can’t.
All that musing, and I’m left no closer to any answers than I was when I started. All I can do is keep chewing on it, and try to figure out what it means for me personally. I don’t call it “Constant Discontent” lightly. I do think it’s really constant. Fundamental. In some sense, it reminds me of a more scientific/agnostic version of Original Sin. I don’t like being discontent all the time. I don’t like that every time I get something, I think about something else I want. A common theme in religion is that denial of these wants can bring peace. Peace sounds nice… but at the same time, it’s not the only thing I want, either. : P Desire, in its own way, is also fulfilling.
I’ll keep chewing on it; maybe there’s an answer, maybe there’s not. It’s ironic, in a sense, that I even want an answer.
But my son’s birthday is coming up. While I try to figure it out, I’d better get online and hunt down a Drilla Grilla.
I’m an extremely introspective person, nearly to a fault. When I was working a normal day job, I was able to keep my darker musings where they arguably belonged, shoved into the back of my head, to be handled in the dark before I fell asleep or maybe coughed up like cud to be chewed on a long commute. Any long stretches of idle thinking during the day were invariably interrupted by whatever the latest crisis at work happened to be, and I was usually too busy to really let myself dwell on anything. All this stuff just sat there, simmering at the bottom of some dank well in my head and producing a vague disquiet that I could ignore most of the time (but never completely).
Now, though, you could argue I dwell on stuff for a living. This is both good and bad. My writing usually comes from all those dark musings; Alex and Rebecca were just the culmination of a bunch of dark musing at once. But too much musing… well, I wouldn’t quite call it depression, but spending every waking minute pondering the meaning of life, worrying about the climate, worrying about what my kids will be like as teenagers… I’m not sure it’s healthy. When I’m writing an “Alex-ey” novel, the writing flows straight out of that dark well. But with the arrival of Children, “Alex-ey” novels are not the only kind I write.
I spent a good deal of time while writing Children feeling like I had grown too mature for it. Alex and Rebecca were srs books, exploring deep themes. Children, on some level, was a fantasy book about kids kicking ass. Yeah, I’m doing it a disservice saying that. I recognize it’s fairly deep on its own merits, and yeah, I have a lot of things I want to say through that series. But I couldn’t shake the voice, hissing out of that well, that insisted Children was a step backwards. “This is stuff for kids,” it said. “You’re going backwards. You’ve outgrown this. This isn’t srs.”
My Alex-ey books are great ways to express the stuff that comes out of that well. They’re cathartic; they help me deal with my issues and put them out there to see who can relate. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the meaning of existence. I believe, more or less, that humanity was a wonderful cosmic accident – but where is the meaning in that? I don’t mean that question rhetorically. That question shouldn’t be read as, “There’s no meaning in that.” That might be one of the possible answers to the question, but the question itself is intended honestly. What is the meaning? Where is it? Does each person find it for themselves? If humanity is really alone in the galaxy, or even just the solar system, do we have some kind of responsibility to ourselves, our descendents, and our fellow evolved organisms? If so, why? We are a truly incredible life form, unique on our planet. If there is no absolute moral law (and I’m not sure there is), does that responsibility come from our senses of wonder and love, from being true to ourselves?
Blah, blah, blah.
I want to explore that question, I really do, and there is a story in my mind that explores it with gusto. I want to write it. But here’s where I run into a problem: I want to write A Season of Rendings first. Children is an introduction. It hasn’t gotten a ton of reviews yet, but many of the ones it has gotten point out correctly that its ending begs for a second book. From the perspective of being a fair author, I need to write the sequel. From the perspective of making money at this job, I need to write a sequel.
But if writing is all about expression, will Season serve that function?
Glance back at the title of this post, and maybe you’ll see where I’m going with this. This morning in the car (where my best musing always happens!), I had an epiphany that helped me break through two months of mental logjam:
Expression doesn’t need to be the only reason for writing.
Once, before I started taking myself so goddamned seriously all the time, I used to write for fun.
Season doesn’t need to be as deep or heartfelt as Alex (there are very few things that ever could be). It doesn’t need to be as timely as Rebecca. It comes from a D&D campaign I ran over 15 years ago, and that in turn came from ideas and stories I’d had as a kid. No wonder it feels childish to me now: it is. But that’s not a bad thing. A lot of fantasy these days (I’m looking at you, GRRM) is gritty and realistic, but what originally drew me to the genre was the sense of wonder. The epicness, if you will. Big things going on, world-shaking events, almost always with a single hero or group of heroes at the eye of the storm. I watch my kids playing with their toys and having these epic fights. When I was doing that, that was what I wanted to express: the awesomeness of good vs. evil, the furious clashes of magic, the small people taking the big risks.
The voice from the well says, “Those are childish ideas.” But are they? I’m not so sure. I think we’re most in touch with them, maybe, when we’re young – but that doesn’t mean they don’t have merit. Sometimes people say they read certain genres to feel young again. Maybe I can write a certain genre to feel young again.
The voice from the well says, “Good vs. evil? The power of god? You’re an atheist. Not only do you no longer identify with these concepts, writing about them as if they’re real lends them credence they don’t deserve.” This argument has been bothering me a lot the latest couple months, but I’ve realized something else: the great thing about The Redemption Chronicle is that it’s fantasy. Yes, Akir was an invention of a fifteen-year-old mind trying to come to terms with a God he didn’t understand by imagining a world where that God more directly influenced events. A world where true believers could work miracles – not just in some dusty old book, but in the here and now. That fifteen-year-old grew up and turned into an atheist, but in many ways, his exploration of this fantasy helped facilitate that atheism, not impede it. Besides, writing about a god in a fantasy world doesn’t mean I believe in one. I don’t believe in the Pulse, either.
And good vs. evil? It may not be as clear cut as it used to be – I don’t think the Ten Commandments have much to do with it – but I still believe in right and wrong. I still love it when the side of right wins, especially against impossible odds.
And last but not least, let’s not forget that I need to get out of that well sometimes. There’s no better way to watch days of potential writing disappear then to get sucked into it, suffocating in the darkness at the bottom. Expressing that darkness can help me escape it. But ignoring it – for god’s sake, doing something else – can help, too.
The ideas in that well are not going away. After Season, I’ll dive in headfirst. Maybe you’ll be able to relate to what I come with; maybe it’ll tap into some secret dark well of your own.
In the meantime, though, Seth has some ass to kick.
This is gonna be fun.
They come out of nowhere; even when you expect them, they’re unexpected. Every now and again, our regular lives are disrupted, and we’re reminded of the existence of death. If we’re lucky, these events are infrequent. We can move past them and get back to normal. If we’re unlucky, they happen more often.
I had several in a row a few years ago; most for people I didn’t know personally all that well, but one for my grandmother, a person I loved very much. That was when it struck me – really struck me – that thinking about “getting back to normal life” is a bit wrong.
Death is normal. Or, put another way: “Normal” includes death.
You hear it all the time: “death is part of life.” We’re all going to die someday. But for our own sanity we have to take this information and encapsulate it, file it away in a mental folder labeled, “Do not read.” If I let myself dwell on it, I get really depressed, really fast. If I think about the truth – that I’m going to die, that my children are going to die, that my wife and my mother and everyone I’ve ever known is going to die – it’s overwhelming. It can shut me down. I know this, because I’ve opened that folder and looked inside, and felt its contents seize me. I’m an atheist, but at times like those I envy people who believe in a defined afterlife, and I can understand why they accept this belief. It helps fight the fear of death like few rational things can; but it’s not for me.
It is a beautiful feature of the cycle of life that, if everything goes according to the default, I won’t see my children die, and my mother won’t see me. Usually, people see their parents go first. It makes it easier to set aside the notion of one’s own death. You can feel like you’ve been passed a torch, like it’s up to you now, and you’re going to soldier on. And that may be true to some extent, but an even deeper truth is that we’re all on a conveyor belt. There is no getting off it. Seeing a grandparent die feels natural, to some extent, but seeing a parent die can leave you shaking. That conveyor belt is moving. You’ve watched two generations go over its edge, and now, you can see the edge yourself.
I went to a funeral this morning for the father of some dear, long-time friends of mine. It was a Catholic service. I sat in the back and stayed quiet; I wasn’t there for solace in the service, but to be seen by my friends – to let them know I had come. I have a lot of old issues with churches of all stripes, but for the first time in years I was able to remain for an entire service without feeling guilty about not participating, ashamed that I wasn’t a believer, or desperate to leave. I was there for my friends. I didn’t believe in a lot of the message that was spoken, but I was still able to recognize wisdom when I heard it.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
A time to be born, and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
Even as an atheist at a Catholic service, I was able to draw peace from this verse. It is beautiful, and it is true. I hope my friends were able to draw some peace from something they heard, too; some belief or insight that will help them cope with the pain of their parents’ loss and the fear of that conveyor belt. I wanted to provide that for them, but I couldn’t. I saw them at the wake last night, and at the funeral today, but there was nothing I could say or do to ease their pain, short of just being there.
And, maybe, saying this.
Jason and Jim and Jenn: Life is short, and scary, and sometimes sad. But mine is better for having you in it, and I’m so glad you are.