Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know

We are all human, analog creatures, never completely this or that, and we all slide in and out our of better selves as we make our path in this world.

Every so often I write something I like. I reread it and think I’m not sure where that came from but that’s profound. Then it passes, of course, and I go on writing normal stuff.

I had that experience when the lead sentence here showed up while I recently wrote a post about world peace for my qigong instructor and friend at Flowing Zen. None of us are completely this or that, and it’s worth remembering in our current heated political climate. It’s also worth remembering as we each reach inward, embracing ourselves for what we are.

What I am is a worrier, among other things, and I know in my heart that it is tied to my story-telling abilities. If you want a mind that makes up exciting scenarios from everyday events, well then, you get a mind that sees exploding cars, intricate scams and paranoid plots around every corner.

But there are limits to how much worrying a healthy person can do, and, to be honest, recent events in the international arena have catapulted my concerns to an unhealthy level. That’s where coping mechanisms come in.

Last November, I developed a new habit to calm my mind. I already do qigong, which is wonderful for creating calm, and I do a good bit of yoga as well. Gardening helps also. But sometimes I’m sitting at my computer and I read something disturbing and I need a quick reboot without leaving my seat. Sort of an “instant calm.”

And that’s when I play solitaire. I go to the World of Solitaire site, zip through a two minute game while breathing deeply, and somehow I’ve trained myself to emerge calmer. I don’t know why it works, but for me it does.

“Where do you the get the ideas for what happens in your stories?” It is a question I get asked. Okay, I do get many ideas from the things I worry about happening. But every once in awhile, I am able to get one from something that kept me from worrying, like in the scene below.

I got a real kick out of how my psychic hero Ariel finally sorted out a particularly complicated set of future probabilities. I hope you enjoy it too.

She wandered back into the hut she shared with Teddie and Vanida, and sat the kitchen table. She was trying to save the last bit of battery on her phone and her computer, so she aimlessly dealt out a hand of solitaire from a deck of cards that had been provided. She had played the game years ago on a computer, which made it more fun because it was easy for the player to redo moves.

But this would work to relax her. She started the game, doing the obvious first then moving on. Okay, now put the red five on the black six. Wait, which red five? They were identical choices. She went down one path. Not so good. Try the other five. Much better. She’d win going that way.

Geez, this game is like my life with premories, she thought. One choice is insignificant and another makes all the difference and you can’t tell the two kinds apart. And, you can’t tell which of your important choices will yield a good outcome for you because it’s not always about good decision making. Sometimes it really is random.

She kept dealing and thinking and replaying and after awhile she wasn’t so much paying attention to the cards as she was in a sort of trance. Teddie was the Two of Clubs and her mom was the Queen of Hearts and for some reason she was the Nine of Spades. The man who ran Reel News was the King of Diamonds, of course, but there were two of them; no, not really, the Jack of Diamonds was pretending to be the King which made no sense.

The worst of it was that the Ten of Clubs was trying to get that Jack to kill Queen of Hearts who could only be saved by the King but he wouldn’t know it and the Jack of Hearts who was Nell could stop the King of Diamonds but only if the Queen of Clubs who was Yuden did some random thing she probably would not do.

Ariel leaned forward and put her head between her knees and took deep breaths until the dizziness subsided. She could do this, use this, to see the arbitrary combinations and how the little things worked together in ways in she’d never understood before.

She dealt again. And again. A different sense of how events tied together began to connect for her as she used the cards to sort out a complex tapestry that would have confused her logical mind.

After awhile Camille came in and lit the gas lamp, saying nothing. A little later Fernando brought her a sandwich. She mumbled thanks but never touched it. She just kept playing.

Not long after Teddie and Vanida tiptoed by her as they went to bed. Sleep came early in a world without electricity. By then, every card had taken on at least one identity or location or time. Some had many of them. It didn’t matter. After a while the confusion subsided and the interrelation of all of them made perfect sense to something deep within her brain.

(Images shown are from the various victory images used at the World of Solitaire website. They add an extra bit of fun to the game.)

(For a companion piece to this post, see Worry about those you love and write about what you know.)

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The Future of Christmas

treeI write speculative fiction because asking “what if” is my favorite form of mental entertainment. Today I bought a Christmas tree, and a gift for a child I’ll never meet, and I started the process of figuring out what to buy for my own already well-supplied family.  While standing in line to pay, the speculative part of my brain kicked in, and I began to wonder what Christmas would be like in a hundred years, or even two. In my novel d4, I try to get my readers to think 337 years into the future, all the way to the year 2352. So then, what do you think Christmas will be like in 2352?

  1. Will there be such a holiday? Will the world have moved away from organized religion and its celebrations entirely? I know many Christians worry that someday there will only be a secular holiday season. If church attendance world-wide continues to drop, maybe this could happen. Or perhaps another religion will manage to convert so much of humanity that its traditions will replace Christian ones much the way Christian customs wiped out pagan celebrations. It could be an existing religion, I suppose, but I think something so sweeping would almost have to be something entirely new that takes hold over the next hundred years. What do you think? Is this possible?
  2. Will there even be humans left to celebrate it? You know: asteroids, aliens, computers taking over, epidemics, nuclear war and so on. Or will the humans who are left be far to concerned with mere survival to celebrate anything?
  3. On the other hand, maybe human existence has become so easy and pleasant that the need for holidays is all but gone. Every day is party day when your replicator can make you anything you want for free, you know. Christmas could be something history buffs remember, back when there were needs and wants.
  4. Perhaps the trend to commercialism continues, with the world’s yearly economy now dependent on the population of earth overspending every December. Perhaps laws dictate how much each family must spend as a minimum. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which the ads start in February, and the decorations go up in August. By October the gift-giving slackers begin receiving notices from the state.
  5. Then again, maybe Christmas is much the same as it is now, except we finally get hover boards and flying cars. About time.

What I do know is that those who try to predict the future by extrapolating from the present make poor predictions. All of my above scenarios are extrapolations, and sure to be off of the mark. Check out this paragraph from d4:

Baldur stared out of his office window, considering black swans. Not real black swans, of course, but the theory for which they stood. As a man well schooled in all types of economics, Baldur was acutely aware of the occasional occurrence of an event that was outside of the realm of normal expectations and yet appeared so obvious in hindsight. He knew these metaphorical black swans by definition went on to produce significant consequences, and they were thought by some theorists to in fact be what drove human history.

I’ve come to agree that “Black Swans” are the main agents of changing the future in significant ways. Whatever December 25, 2352 is going to look like on earth, the big differences between now and then will be due to things that have not occurred to you and I, and yet will appear very obvious in hindsight.

One other way to try to imagine what sorts of changes 337 years could bring would be to look harder at a Christmas Day 337 years ago. I couldn’t find much specifically from 1678, but I found this wonderful excerpt from The Painter’s Apprentice, a book by historical fiction writer Charlotte Bettes. It is from her December 2012 post called Christmas in 1687, on her blog which is simply called simply Charlotte Bettes. Please check it out and contrast the day she describes with your own celebrations this year. How different is it, really? And do you think the characters in her story could possibly have predicted those differences? No, I don’t think they could have either.

For other slightly offbeat looks at Christmas, see my posts “Christmas is Not about Love, but“, “The Women of Christmas” and “Duct Tape and Christmas Cards.”

 

Taking care of your own kind (a science fiction quiz)

It has been decided that one of the finer features of the human race is that humans do not only think of themselves. When it comes to survival and even happiness, this species usually takes quite good care of those they love, often makes sacrifices for others, and sometimes even risks their own lives for those they identify as being “one of their own kind.”

Recent world events have caused certain entities to ask the question “What exactly constitutes ‘your own kind’?”

You have been selected to take the following very short quiz. Please tend to this matter soon. Quite a bit may depend on your answers.

your own kind 2There is no need to send the completed form anywhere. Merely answer, even in your own head, and the information will be received where it is needed. Thank you for your participation.

Save “Minority Report”, an intelligent look at seeing the future in the future

surfing rainbowsThe little boy in the desk next to me in first grade insisted that there were other earths. I thought that the little boy was cute but crazy, and I went to the school library to investigate his strange claim. Yup, these things were called “planets” and they were real. Wow. Who would have thought. My attraction to him only lasted another month or so, but I have been fascinated by outer space and by science fiction ever since.

Today, I have a degree and years of work experience in the field of science. When it comes to reading and writing, science fiction is my first and greatest love, even though I am probably overly critical of sci-fi based on bad science. Mind you, I don’t object to no science. If the writer gives me a soul searching story of love and growth and in the process invokes a barely explained phenomenon called, I don’t know, whiskey holes and they are what allow the story to happen, I’ll go with it. I can suspend disbelief with the best of them. What I can’t handle is explanations that are just plain stupid or wrong.

For example: the Back to the Future movies. Fun, but such bad science. The universe doesn’t get unraveled by time travelers. People vanishing into nothingness as their adolescent parents consider not marrying does not fit with modern physics of the past fifty years. In fact, most of the time when the story involves either predicting the future, or traveling to the past or future, modern science gets thrown under the bus to accommodate improbable plots.

I’ve been pleased to run across a few television exceptions recently, and then been distressed to discover that the ratings people do not share my tastes. Last year I found the short lived show “Almost Human” to be a fascinating look at the near future. It brought both brains and heart to the question of when does artificial intelligence become a life form and not a machine. What a shame it was cancelled, while sillier shows with more action or name recognition were kept.

This year, I was dubious about a TV series based on “Minority Report”, an okay film of several years ago. The pilot episode quickly established that the writers had found a clever way to pick up the story years later. While some things, like clothing, show a suspicious lack of change, other elements like the ubiquitous advertising, are clever and ring true. Episodes are spiced with amusing references to the past, like the photo of Obama that shows up on the money.

minority-reportThe plot itself revolves around the three “precognitives” once used by the police to predict and stop murders before they happened. Freed and given new lives, the three precogs part ways in a believable fashion. One uses his gifts for wealth and pleasure, one remains hidden and fearful, and the third is driven to help people. This last precog, Dash, joins forces with a cop and is the hero of the series.

I gave the original movie bonus points for postulating that the near future is almost set in stone but not completely. The possibly that a would-be murderer might change his or her mind at the last minute is the basis of the famed minority reports that the police chose to ignore in the movie. In the TV version, this probability curve idea plays a larger role, as Dash and his newfound friends set out achieve a less likely outcome than murder, time after time.

I really like how there is no angst about altering timelines. No one starts to vanish into thin air because Dash has changed the future. The writers understand that a lot of different things can happen and only the most likely one is murder. I appreciate that the show keeps this clean and simple, much as I believe the universe does.

I was hopeful that this series would continue to provide intelligent food for thought about both our near future and about how seeing ahead into the future might work. However, once again whoever rates sci-fi shows on TV has different tastes. Ratings are low and falling according to a fascinating blog about science fiction TV likely to be cancelled. I don’t know how one goes about trying to save a show, but this post is my contribution. If you like thoughtful sci-fi and haven’t seen Minority Report yet, consider watching it. And if your TV set is one of the few used to determine what shows live and die, please, just turn it on to Fox on Monday night  9 PM EST. You’ll be doing the rest of us a big favor.

If you could see the future, would you want to?

It’s a big choice. Move in together? Go back to school? Retire early, have a child, take the trip of lifetime, marry, divorce, or quit your job? All of our lives have a dozen or so of these pivotal decisions. We often aren’t sure which path to take, but we do know that whatever choice we make, it will effect us for as long as we live.

good sign 3So here’s the question. If you could see the future, would you want to? Let’s not go as far as having you see it every day. We’ll keep it simple. How about supposing that you have the option of being granted precognition only for each of your life’s major decisions. Say yes to my gift and you will be given premonitions for each remaining big choice you have to make. Do you want that?

Before you answer with that quick yes or no, consider. How does precognition work? (For the purposes of this discussion you do have to agree that it does work, at least in the imaginary world we are discussing.) What you probably want to know in each case is what decision will make me happiest.  Hmm. That’s complicated. Happiest when? At first? Overall, averaged over your entire life? Or would you rather go for comparing the single happiest moment along each path? Or how about the fewest miserable moments?

While you are reflecting on that, consider that your choices also have consequences for others. Would you like to know which decision results in the greatest happiness for the most people? Or maybe you’d just like to know what choice brings more joy into the lives of the the people you care about a lot.  By the way, can you even define that group? How about the ones you haven’t met yet?

Lucky for you, the make-believe premonitions I am trying to grant you are not so dependable. You don’t get statistical results. You get something akin to snippets of enhanced videos. You’ll experience a few seconds of the sights, sounds, smells and emotions you are going to encounter if you go down that path, along with a little knowledge about your situation at the time. I’ll make this easier by giving you an example.

You’ve quit your job and you are moving to a new location of your choosing. You’ve narrowed it down to three places. People, climate, opportunities and ambiance all interweave into different advantages for each.

If you take my gift, you’ll see yourself in one location, standing miserable in the rain. You did like the idea of Seattle, remember? The scene shifts. There’s you, surrounded by friends laughing. You don’t care that it is raining outside. You have a sense that this is a celebration, and one of something important. Oh no. Now your alone on your couch crying. Does it have anything to do with what you were celebrating? Maybe not. Wait. Your holding a bloody knife in your hand. What? You glance down and see that you are cleaning a fish. Good grief. You take up fishing in Seattle? Forget that.

What about Sante Fe? Charleston South Carolina? The images and feelings that go with them march through your brain. Is that baby your child? Your grandchild? Does this little person make you happy? Or does it matter if they do? Does this little person cure cancer? Is curing cancer really a good idea? Your head is starting to hurt and you’re thinking that this seeing the future was not such a good idea.

IMG_1105That’s because the future is what you always knew it was. A mess of events and emotions that will take you through highs and lows and all the boring stuff in between as you love and live and make the best of things wherever you are.  It is true that maybe Seattle or Sante Fe or Charleston would have brought you something particularly special or awful and maybe that would have been good to know.  However, odds are much greater that all three choices will bring some good, some bad and whole a lot of whatever you make of it.

So take my gift or not. The secret is in knowing that it doesn’t much matter whether you do or not.

(For more thoughts on how my characters’ superpowers might affect their lives see my post Not writing books about shallow people leading exciting lives.)

Predicting the future, or shaping it?

If you were an adult in 1984, you probably felt a little schadenfreude delight that year as you realized that the world you lived in wasn’t a nightmare of government control. “Take that, George Orwell. You were wrong,” many of us thought with a certain amount of smug joy.

1984For the truth was that English teachers had seen to it over the years that many otherwise uninterested people had read George Orwell’s classic 1984, and pretty much everyone else had needed to skim it well enough to take a test or write a paper about it. It is an amazing book, and my sixteen year old self certainly sunk deep into the horror of having my every thought and moved watched by Big Brother. That response still helps shape my politics and choices, and I suspect that I am not alone.

Today it occurs to me that in spite of the many legitimate complaints about government intrusion into our lives, thanks to George Orwell we are considerably less likely to live in an “Orwellian” society. He didn’t predict the future. He, and an army of teachers, shaped it. What an amazing thing.

Fast forward to 2015.

I also read a tremendous amount of science fiction by choice in the 70’s and early 80’s, which means if it was written between 1955 and 1980 I probably read it. But I missed much of the older stuff, including Frederik Pohl’s The Space Merchants, written with C.M. Kornbluth in 1952. An old copy of it landed in my hands recently by way of my father.

bookNormally I can’t read the novels of others while I am writing, but the strident 50’s tone of the prose is so different than my own that I gave this one a try. I’m a third of the way into the story, and am I glad I did. Pohl envisions a society every bit as creepy as Orwell’s. In his future, the government is a fairly powerless puppet of the very rich, and the average human lives in fear of the warring corporations that fight with guns and advertising for the dollars of every consumer. It is the same dark vision of hopelessness, but presented with a villain that is the polar opposite. Unregulated free enterprise has turned the planet into a wasteland and left unprotected citizens addicted to products laced with additives to ensure “product loyalty”.

I’ve got quite a bit of reading left to do on this one, and don’t know if Pohl and Kornbluth can sustain this story line for the entire novel, much less for the sequel The Merchant’s War written in 1984 and included in this volume as well. I suspect it never reaches the heights of prose that 1984 did, and that’s a shame. For while an entire society learned a deep-seated fear of government control from George Orwell, that society never developed the equally important visceral distaste for a world in which no regulations at all allow citizens to be equally abused by those with power and no scruples.

Dalai2It is true that the theme of “evil greedy corporations” often makes its way into popular fiction and other entertainment today, but no poet crying out for sensible consumer protection from industry and greed has captured the imagination of the general population in the same way that George Orwell did. Perhaps more importantly, no such novel has endeared itself to the teachers of literature, and found itself in the hands of so many who would not otherwise have chosen to read it. No one frets about how we might be becoming a “Pohlian” society, at least not in circles I frequent.

I think that is too bad, and sad for all of us. There is more than one way for our freedoms to disappear and for our time on this earth to be made joyless, and as a society we would be better off if we shared a deep distrust of all dystopias.  How different would our world be today if Pohl and his horrific vision of the future were as ingrained into our collective psyche as Orwell’s vision?

(For more about why I think The Space Merchants is a clever and under-appreciated story, see my posts I Know Sexism When I See It?, The Kinky of the Future and Through the Eyes of Another.)