Be Careful How You Flesh Out Villains

In Star Wars (Episode IV), Darth Vader was what you might call a cardboard cutout of a villain. We never had any inkling of his motivations, hopes, desires, or fears; we knew nothing of his inner life at all. Yet Vader was a great villain. This goes against a doctrine in fiction which became popular in my youth that “two dimensional” villains were bad. Villains must have backstory and motivation!

Where did the doctrine of the three dimensional villain go wrong? It went wrong by not understanding perspective. A cardboard cutout is uninteresting because you can clearly see that the two dimensions are all there is to it. A shadow, by contrast, is interesting, because you know that there is something far more complicated to the shadow which you’re just not seeing. Further, villains are very difficult to make interesting for the very simple reason that in reality evil is banal. “The banality of evil” is, I believe, a phrase coined by the philosopher Hannah Arendt when she observed (and possibly interviewed) the leaders of the Nazis after the fall of the Third Reich. They had done monstrous amounts of evil, but were utterly unimpressive as people. Not only unimpressive in their persons, they were unimpressive even in their hatred. The men who had (through orders given to others) murdered millions of Jews didn’t even hate the Jews particular more than other people. It seemed like there should be something equally grandiose to the magnitude of the evil done, but there were just some small, unimpressive, even pathetic, men. This of course follows necessarily from the fact that evil is a privation of good. A man can be very, extremely good, but the maximum amount of nothing he can be is, well, nothing.

All of this adds up to the fact that realistic villains are very hard to make interesting. That is perhaps why so many people, in their desperation to do so, turned their villains into misunderstood heroes. It is not impossible to make genuinely interesting villains who are fleshed out—of these, Shakespeare’s Iago is the greatest—but the fact that it is hard means that those who are not up to the task should not try. In cases where you can’t show something, it is best to only hint at it. Readers have imaginations of their own, and if you give them an outline they will flesh it out, with more imaginative readers fleshing it out better than you would have. And even where they don’t, people can be content to not know everything, trusting that what they don’t know is rationally consistent. And as long as you don’t give inconsistent details in your shadow, that’s possible. It’s also where so many villains in the 1990s (and beyond) went wrong—they were fleshed out in ways that were completely incompatible with their actions.

The most egregious example which comes to mind is the Reavers in Firefly/Serenity. When they were mysterious, it was possible for them to be part of some ultra-satanic cult of madmen. Once they were turned into scientific zombies, they became ridiculous. Once fleshed out as victims of a peace-drug experiment, it made precisely no sense how they could cooperate well enough to pilot space ships, even space ships they didn’t take the best care of. The problem with high technology is that it requires complex maintenance. The Firefly would, fairly often, have gone nowhere had it not been for Kylie’s work in engineering. Somehow we’re to believe that rage-monsters managed to keep spaceships going with less work? Why? Did the rage-monsters luck into brand-new spaceships which could go ten thousand light years before their first scheduled maintenance? How did the drug-addled rage monsters even manage to navigate from one place to another? Because they were flesh out badly, there is no rational consistency possible for the viewer to imagine exists.

In short, the golden rule of story telling is: only flesh out what you can flesh out well.

The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head

I recently got a collection of Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. I’ve already reviewed The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention. It has elements which remind me of the current pulp revolution, which made me curious as to its publication. Unfortunately, publication information is not easy to come by; why books which collect short stories don’t see fit to include this information I cannot fathom. Anyway, this book says that The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head was first published in volume 61 of Pearson’s (a literary magazine) in June of 1926, so I don’t know if it would technically count as a pulp, but despite being about Lord Peter Wimsey, it definitely has pulpy elements. Since it’s approximately impossible to discuss short stories without giving spoilers, I will simply give a spoiler warning here and then discuss the story with spoilers. I do recommend the story—it was an enjoyable read.

(This is your last chance to go read it before spoilers, just so you know.)

We might loosely divide the story up into three acts. In the first act Lord Peter is in an old book shop with his ten year old nephew, who buys a damaged version of an old book which would be valuable in good condition. In the second act, a man approaches Wimsey and tries to buy and then steal the book. In the third act, Wimsey goes off to the home of the original owner and discovers that the book may be the key to a family legacy of pirate treasure.

The first act is rather prosaic, and has probably the most familiar elements of Lord Peter novels—interesting characters and engaging dialog. One gets the most flavor of Lord Peter’s banter when he is not active, so this is the part of the story which has the most Lord Peter flavor.

In the second act we get to see Lord Peter’s burglar alarms which, given the publication date of 1926, verge on being science fiction. The action was over relatively quickly, but in an expert fashion which reminded me of the supreme competence of the man of bronze, Doc Savage. Not nearly as over-the-top as Doc Savage, but then compared to Doc Savage most things are barely a fifth of the way up. Still, a theme in short stories from the time seems to have been hero worship; short stories are often forced to do a lot of telling rather than showing and there was clearly an appetite for the glories of achievement through hard work in those days. There was also, interestingly, a reference to Sexton Blake (in the quality of the rope-work used to tie up intruders). Mystery has always been a self-referential genre; it is a very long-standing tradition for fictional detectives to reference other fictional detectives as fiction. I think it works within mystery fiction better than it would in most other genres, which do better to pretend that their genre doesn’t exist within the fictional world in which they’re set. Science fiction characters should not, as a rule, read science fiction novels, just as sorcerers shouldn’t read fantasy novels and people in a love story shouldn’t read romance novels. (There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I suspect that these are sensible rules.)

The third act takes place in the decaying family estate from which the book came to the book seller. It’s also interesting to note that while modern retrospective dramas such as Downton Abbey or The Crown take place in families which still have money and therefore can afford the miniature villages which great houses could be—if they could afford to employ most of the villagers—when mysteries of the early 1900s were set in great houses, it was usually in great houses that were falling apart from (relative) poverty and neglect. This is no accident, of course. A house that is lived in has its secrets, but many of them can be found out simply by asking, and even the ones that can’t are often at least partially known by people who weren’t supposed to know them. A house that had been lived in requires investigation to find out most of its secrets. There’s also a much wider scope for motives to strange actions in a decaying great house since a functioning great house takes care of most of its occupants’ needs.

In The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head, the almost mandatory unkempt gardens  and Chinese pagodas symbolizing the bad taste of someone who came into money later in life are actually a key to the mystery. This is, I think, a good example of Chesterton’s dictum that the culprit should be, whenever possible, someone we would never suspect. Chesterton warned of the problem of there being only one person we’ve never suspected making that person the obvious culprit, of course, and praised Conan Doyle’s story Silver Blaze as being the best example of this trick (spoiler alert), since the horse’s presence is completely explained by the owner keeping horses for racing. In the same way, though the scenery isn’t a murderer, it is hiding the treasure and I think it a very good construction that the scenery we assume exists only to denote the conventional bad taste of a progenitor actually served the progenitor’s purpose; in a man-made lake the burier of the treasure actually made his little Islands to correspond to an ancient map in an ancient book. This may be the only example I know of in which the treasure map came first and the treasure was buried according to it. It is an ingenious device for disguising the treasure map.

Overall I strongly recommend this short story; unlike the previous one I reviewed I do expect to re-read it on occasion.

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention

I was recently given a complete collection of the Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. Some of the Lord Peter novels are among my favorite detective fiction—especially those involving Harriet Vane—but oddly I hadn’t really enjoyed the few Lord Peter short stories I had read. My mother—who introduced me to Lord Peter—gave me the collection saying that it was a mixed bag and I had the bad luck of picking the worst of them.

As I’ve mentioned before, in detective fiction short stories have a very different structure than novels do, not merely because the normal differences between the two media, but because a completely different sort of story is possible in a short story. Specifically: the puzzle. A short story permits a complex setup which is then unraveled in the end to the (possible) astonishment of the reader but a novel simply doesn’t permit of that sort of story. The thread can’t be stretched that far without breaking; there is no possible excuse for the detective spending so long without revealing what he knows. (TV shows have this problem, though TV episodes are more similar to short stories, and solve it by having the detective suddenly remember or realize something, in order to give the viewer time to figure the solution out.)

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention is interesting in that it’s almost a very short novela rather than a long short story; certainly it lingers on the characters and atmosphere in a way that is more the domain of novels. The characters and atmosphere being one of the strengths of Lord Peter this is a point in its favor, but it never really fleshes the characters out enough for any of them to be really likable. I know that likability can be overrated; perhaps it’s better to say that we never really learn enough about the characters for any of their concerns to matter. Lord Peter views his surroundings with a sort of detached air and nothing counterbalances this. This is true of almost all of the Lord Peter stories, but in the good ones he has some other character to counter-balance this with attachment. Even where that isn’t Harriet Vane, as in, for example, Clouds of Witness, there is still the fact that people Wimsey cares about care whether Wimsey’s brother will be hanged for murder. Here, Wimsey doesn’t want to be involved and gets dragged in by others who don’t want to be involved either. This doesn’t ruin the story, but it certainly doesn’t help.

The mystery itself is really several (related) mysteries, but they’re not at first obviously related to each other. Even that would be fairly normal, except that there is no particular reason to solve the first mystery except for the sheer curiosity of Lord Peter. Granted, a ghostly coach passing in the night would arouse curiosity, but at the same time the solution simply drops when Lord Peter discovers it. It has no significance at the time. In fact that’s probably my real complaint: the story never sets up the mystery properly; everything happens and then we’re presented with the mystery and its solution in rapid succession. On the other hand, I will say that I appreciated Lord Peter ruling out a supernatural explanation of the ghostly coach no on a priori grounds since that would be unsound, but because the apparition didn’t bother his horse at all, as one would expect a ghost to. It was a nice touch of rationality in a character who does not believe in the supernatural (Sayers famously said that Lord Peter would consider it an impertinence to believe he had a soul).

Overall I enjoyed reading the The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention, but it’s hard for it not to be marred by comparison to Sayers’ best work. I recommend reading it, but I doubt that I will reread it often.

Predictability vs. Recognizability

Something I didn’t talk about in my post on writing formulas and formulaic writing is that not all predictability is bad. In fact, there is a great deal of any story which one wants to be predictable. If we are reading a murder mystery, we will be irked if there is no murder, and doubly irked if there is no mystery. And if the mystery is not about who murdered the victim, we will be very hard to win over. I think that G.K. Chesterton summarized it when he said that as a boy, he would put down any book which didn’t mention a dead body on the first page. (And once again I can’t track this down. I need to get better at actually sourcing Chesterton quotes.)

Now, while these examples are obvious, they illustrate the point precisely because they are so obvious as to not normally be worth mentioning. When we complain of fiction being predictable, we don’t mean simply that we were able to predict elements of what was in the story. In most cases, that we are able to predict elements in a story is, in fact, a necessary prerequisite to being willing to read the story at all. It is good advice not to judge a book by its cover, in so far as that advice goes, but I think you will find that a book with a completely blank cover (that is, having neither words nor pictures upon it, so that there is no suggestion whatever of what is behind the cover) will not get read very often.

I do not bring this up to be pedantic, but because those cases where we do not say what we mean often conceal interesting truths. Certainly it has been my experience, anyway, that whenever a man says, “everyone knows what I mean” he is wrong. Usually the more certain he is that he is universally understood, the more wrong he is, because the only person who can be completely convinced that everyone understands him is a man who’s never found out what anyone else thought he meant. But, be that as it may, I think that this is a particular interesting topic because what we really mean reveals much about how we enjoy fiction. It also reveals the real reason why books should never be reviewed by people unfamiliar with their genre.

Chesterton once said that an artist is glad of his limitations:

You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.

And so it is with fiction; the elements which we want to be predictable form what sort of story it is. And this can get very specific. Within murder mysteries, there is the sort of story which can be referred to as an armchair cozy, and within those, there is a yet more specific sort of story which can be referred to as a Christie. Armchair cozies tend to feature a very intelligent detective who uses his wits more than his fists, and Christies tend to have that intelligent detective, at the conclusion of the story, gather up all of the witnesses and suspects into a room and explain the facts as he found them and then set them into an orderly and coherent picture, while clearing away red herrings, lies, and mistaken inferences others had been making.

Now, there are those who criticized Agatha Christie’s work because it always ending with the detective gathering everyone together and summarizing the plot prior to revealing the solution as being predictable and formulaic. These are, in a sense, the mortal enemies of those who love the form of the Christie and feel the lack in the ending of the Maltese falcon, where the solution to the mystery is a mere afterthought. To those who take these plot elements to be part of the form of the story, a story which does not include them is defective. To someone who does not take these plot elements as part of the form of the story the stories are predictable and formulaic.

Which is to say, whether writing is predictable and formulaic is in no small part a matter of how one conceives of the story before one reads it. If one thinks of science fiction as just plain old literature, all of those space ships and other worlds become very predictable and formulaic. Thought of as romances, murder mysteries sure do use the same old device to bring the couple together—if they even remember to have a couple to bring together. And so forth; in a sense this is just remembering that a thing can only be good when thought of as what it is—hammers make terrible pillows, etc. But things like hammers and pillows are relatively clear in what they are while stories rarely fit perfectly into any genre and thus are always defining new sub-genres. Indeed, the fact that there is a type of murder mystery called a Christie testifies to that very fact since they are named for stories with plot elements like those found in many of Agatha Christie’s stories.

And there is a sense in which even thinking in terms of genres is a mistake with fiction because it implies a comparison; it is always a mistake to allow the goodness of one thing to eclipse the goodness of another thing. Perfect happiness cannot rest on infinite novelty since infinite novelty is not possible. (Perfect happiness must instead come from the ability to appreciate a good which has already been appreciated, whether in some greater good, or in the thing itself already experienced.) That said, in a world with imperfect creatures thinking within genres is unavoidable and so a clever (or charitable) author will help the reader to understand what sort of story he’s getting into and what he may expect, that he will know where to look for surprises. Because a large part of enjoying a story is knowing where to look for surprises in it.

(There is the obvious exception of books with “twists”, that is to say, books which signal that they are one sort of thing and then suddenly reveal that they are something else. Being more a re-reader than a reader of new things, my own opinion is that these are rarely good stories because the twist is typically a gimmick. Having managed one thing to startle the reader, the authors of twists often seem to not bother themselves with putting in anything else which is novel, and so there’s no value to re-reading them. There are exceptions to that, though, where the books are worth reading even if you know the twist, so I don’t mean to over-generalize.)

At this point I suspect that the relationship of this post to whether writing formulas encourage formulaic writing should be clear. If the reader is familiar with the formula and reads stories written according to it as if the formula defines a genre, then formulas will not encourage formulaic writing at all (except in so far as they elevate formulaic writing that otherwise would have been unreadable to the level of being readable, as I discussed  in the post I linked above). On the other hand, if readers do not understand the formulas as a type of writing, there is a good chance that they will find fiction writing according to the formula to be formulaic because they will be looking for novelty in the wrong place.

This same phenomenon can be seen in music appreciation, by the way. A friend of mine who studied music in college pointed out that each type of music has its typical structures (allowable cords, cord progressions, repeats, and so on) inside of which musicians play around and differentiate themselves. Those familiar with these structures hear the music as music, while those who aren’t familiar with these structures will often hear the music simply as noise. This is why new genres often gain popularity with the young, who have not imprinted on already accepted musical structures and who can easily adapt to a new musical structure. Later, they spread as those who need more time to learn new music’s structures finally do.

There’s even something analogous in looking at the “long hair” of the Beetles. By modern standards, their hair is within norms for businesslike hair styles. In fact, on this album cover they almost look like modern bankers:

Not quite; bankers do have an extremely recognizable style that has shifted only very little with the times. But in their time, the Beetles were icons of rebellion. Today, outside of a few niches like banking, we barely have any standard hair styles for men—except possibly that mullets are bad—and so nothing violates those standards. (Again, except mullets, for some reason.) But the curious upshot of those lack of standards is that if anyone’s hairstyle is recognizable, it is therefore derivative and boring. There is, I think, a lesson to be learned there.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 2, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the second day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I found an interesting referrer linking to my interview with the editor of Cirsova magazine. It’s a blog post by Rampant Coyote about how the covers on old pulps were often quite misleading. It’s an interesting post and I recommend reading the whole thing. I found this part especially interesting:

The covers … well… as much as I love them now, they aren’t great representations of the stories themselves. The Weird Tales cover here, for example… if you’ve actually read “Queen of the Black Coast,” the only thing about this image that resembles the story is the monster. Kind of, but it’s supposed to be more ape-like. The dude is not Conan, and the girl isn’t acting (or dressed like) like Bêlit. In the story… well, Conan pretty much meets his match in Bêlit. She is a bloodthirsty, avaricious, fearless pirate. She commands some men and slaughters others, and her name strikes fear in the heart of captain . As I recall, she’s the one who does the rescuing (if posthumously… it’s complicated. They borrowed that idea for the 1982 movie. Read the story, it’s awesome!)

This was in part an effect of the business model of the time, or more properly of the specialization involved in having a publishing house. The people who commissioned the art for the covers were people who had a keen sense of what sells books, which was their job, and not nearly so much of how to accurately represent a story in a picture, which was (in practice) no one’s job. This is one thing that always annoyed me as a reader and something I’ve fixed as a self-published author. Since I commission the cover art, I have the artist depict a scene from the book. Whether that negatively affects sales I don’t know, but I far prefer the honesty of it.

Anyway, I had gotten so used to the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” being used metaphorically, especially about judging a person’s moral character from his looks, that I had all but forgotten that it was also literal advice based on how much book covers might be outright lies.

There is another very interesting section later on in the post, about what the stories were actually like:

This is especially true in some recent efforts I’ve seen to deconstruct / subvert older stories… folks should know what they are trying to build on. If you are writing a “pulp-style” story and you think you are being bold and original because it’s about a female warrior / pirate who totally has to rescue a Conan-analog character… it’s been done. Magazine covers notwithstanding, Howard has already been there. Lots of the pulps have. They may not be what you think they are.

Which brings up an interesting fact about the pulps: there were a lot of them. Writers wrote many stories, and though there undoubtedly were formulaic stories (any industry which needs a lot of writing is going to publish a lot of bad writing, for the simple reason that bad writing is easier to come by than good writing) writers of successful stories needed to come up with new things so as not to become stale. People did not buy the pulps because the previous issue sufficed for the new one, and subverting expectations is a very old trick for surprising the reader and keeping  his interest. It’s done much better by people who want to do it in order to make their stories interesting than by people who want to overthrow morality so that they have license to be bad, since the former will only subvert things which do no harm when subverted while the latter will subvert things which do a lot of harm, but the general concept of subverting expectations is not new at all. In fact, God even used that trick when he took on flesh, being born a helpless baby in an insignificant part of an insignificant country, in a stable for animals. As Chesterton said in The Everlasting Man, there is something very strange in picturing the hands that made the universe being too small to reach the enormous heads of the cattle.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 1, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the first day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

John C Wright has a fascinating review of ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D., by Philip Francis Nowlan. The story is better known as the introduction of Buck Rogers, who Mr. Wright notes is not known for this story but rather for the comic strip, radio play, movies, and later TV show in which he was the main character.

It’s an interesting review which is very much worth reading, but the thing which particularly caught my attention was when Mr. Wright, after detailing the bad aspects of how the story is written, then talks about why the story had such an impact, or in other words what was good in it. And the main thing was, roughly, the setting. It was an imaginatively great setting, full of possibilities for adventure. To over-simplify, the basic idea of a man frozen in time and emerging into a world of marvels who becomes great because he is able to merge knowledge now-forgotten with new marvels really captures the imagination in a strong way. There are other very interesting aspects, relating to the specifics of the story, which Mr. Wright outlines as important; how people are living a life of low civilization in hiding because a more powerful group of people are hunting them, and how they have grown strong through suffering while the more powerful group has grown decadent and weak through comfort. (Which is an interestingly Christian theme, by the way.)

Now, the curious thing about the power of a good setting, which is essentially the power of a good idea, is that good ideas are not generally regarded as very important by writers. I don’t mean that writers think that bad ideas make for good stories, but rather that usually a good idea is not the hard part. The hard part is writing the story. Furthermore, the same basic story, written by two different writers, can come out very differently, including one coming out well and the other terribly. As I remarked once before, bad as well as good stories can be written with the basic plot and setting of Pride & Prejudice, and indeed many have been. If anyone has ever read fan fiction in high school written by friends,  one will be familiar with how good plots can be made unreadable by poor execution. (Or by intermixing; one chap I knew gave himself the quickening from highlander while he was fighting the emperor from Star Wars. This did not turn out as well as mixing chocolate chips and butterscotch chips in cookies does.)

And there are plenty of examples of great works with completely unoriginal plots; I’ve heard it said that Shakespeare didn’t come up with a single original plot, and certainly at least his histories didn’t claim to be original. Further it is said that mediocrity borrows; genius steals.

And yet. It does seem like there are occasionally ideas which are just so good that they irresistibly capture people’s imaginations even if one can barely stand to read the stories they’re in. Light sabers were not the original energy swords, but aside from the flaming sword given to the angel guarding the garden of Eden, they are at this point the most iconic, and given how successful the prequels and now the whatever-you-want-to-call-them to Star Wars have been successful in spite of not always being very good, I think it reasonable to call the light saber a billion dollar idea. Though to be fair, they probably wouldn’t have been as successful without the Force. Be that as it may, this is an example of an idea which was extraordinarily successful in spite of sometimes bad execution. Like demonstrated in the video, The Totally Phantom Menace:

I don’t have any conclusions about such ideas; in one sense it seems counter-intuitive that they should even exist. And yet they seem to; there were well done lightsaber duels, but even a poorly executed lightsaber duel is fascinating to watch.

Glory to God in the highest.


God’s Blessings on January 31, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the thirty first day of January, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Today is going to be exceedingly short because I’m crazy-busy today. First, I noticed an article by John C Wright about the history of Buck Rogers I’m really looking forward to reading.

Yesterday I read an article by Jasyn Jones about the disappearance of pulp SciFi, Star Wars Stole Pulp. It was an interesting article, but I was even more intrigued because of a comment which gave a counter-point. First, the point:

Post-WWII was the era of the Campbellian Silver Age, the era of “Men with Screwdrivers” SF. Action and adventure were childish and frankly embarrassing, as were purple prose and laser swords. Barsoom? Silly. Buck Rogers? Childish. Northwest Smith? A gunslinger, not a scientist. And this was the age of SCIENCE.

Science was the focus, technology the touchstone. Stories had to be cerebral, intellectual. They had to be REALISTIC. Real science, none of this fuzzy-headed soft science stuff. SF had to shake off the wooly-headed thinking of Fantasy, the embarrassing antics of Space Opera, the adolescent focus on Adventure and Action. SF was serious business. Real Literature. It was time to grow up.

Then the counter-point, by someone calling himself K-bob:

I grew up reading the pulps because I could get a stack of them for 75 cents. I loved them more than comics, and some even had a few great illustrations. But I was also a kid when the Mercury 7 program began.

To me, the screwdriver period was new and exciting. Maybe it’s because I lived on the Space Coast back then and got to see astronauts live a few times. So I shifted to the New Kids because of the general level of excitement for real space exploration and engineering.

It’s very interesting to see that perspective, and the point about how Big Men With Screwdrivers (which is, I believe, a Niemeierian phrase, if inspired by Mystery Science Theater 3000) would have been fresh when it came out and moreover something that was exciting because it tied into the zeitgeist of an age which expected nuclear-powered flying cars in a decade or two. Going by descriptions of people who lived through the early post-war period, real life was a bit like living in the preface to a SciFi book. Basically, people thought of this as the near future:

It didn’t work out that way, of course. But if you think that the Stanford Torus is realistic, it makes a lot more sense why realistic tales of engineering in the near future would be so fascinating. I know for a fact a friend of mine who is very interested in space travel (he watches rocket launches over the internet and has as a bucket list item seeing one in person—a bucket list item he checked off). One of the things he loved so much about Andy Weir’s The Martian was its realism; how it was set in a plausible near future. And my friend does not really like literature; his favorite entertainment is usually about giant robots. One of his favorite giant robot shows involved robots so giant that they could hurl galaxies like frisbees and punch holes in the fabric of reality in order to get at different dimensions.

I recommend reading the rest of K-bob’s comment, because he talked about how this fresh and exciting new trend grew stale, as most fresh and exciting things do. And I’ve no doubt that the cultural marxists and the snobs had a hand in making SciFi worse—it is in their (fallen) nature to do so. It’s a bit like expecting scorpions to sting. But when that is given proper weight, I think that K-bob is onto something; that Big Men With Screwdrivers was able to push aside older and better things in part because it was fresh and new and in part because it spoke to an age that lived in very unusual conditions. Most people these days think of nuclear power in terms of weapons and disasters; those who are familiar with nuclear power (I know a nuclear engineer) think of it in terms of cheaper electricity with no carbon footprint. But in the post-war period nuclear power was going to turn us into gods and propel us to the stars. Given how detached from reality those expectations were, it is perhaps understandable why they found realism to be fantastic.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 23, 2017

God’s blessing to you on this the twenty third day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Well, I missed yesterday. The odd thing is I didn’t even notice that I did until I was writing out the date for today’s post. My apologies; yesterday was an extremely hectic day. I took my middle son to a classmate’s fifth birthday party, and there was a magician there performing for the children. I was surprised by how accurate depictions of magicians doing children’s parties on television turned out to be.

On a slightly related subject, I recently saw this rant by Harlan Ellison:

It’s a very interesting subject about which much can be said. First I’d like to mention that given the way he uses a German pronunciation of Dachau, I might have not realized he was talking about the Nazi concentration camp either, though I’m certainly aware of it. I’m only really used to seeing it written.

The copyright on the video is from 1993, and Ellison says that the story was from a few years ago, and given that at the time he was in his late fifties, that probably doesn’t mean just two years. (The older people get, the longer a period of time is covered by “a few years”.) So we’re likely talking about the late 1980s, or at the latest the very early 1990s. That makes this story especially egregious (if it’s not a matter of pronunciation) because Dachau was in living memory then; plenty of soldiers who fought in World War II were in their sixties and seventies in 1990; it was only 45 years after the liberation of the concentration camps. Incidentally, having grown up in the 1980s, I imprinted on the idea of World War II being in living memory for many people, which it isn’t any more. I’m sure that there are a few World War II veterans still alive as of the time of this writing, but World War II ended 71 years ago.

Anyway, it is a real problem that modern people are not well educated in history. The ever-increasing efficiency of distribution is making this all the more the case; with tends of thousands of books being published every year, it’s impossible to know more than the tiniest handful of them. Of course, this has long been the case; the great library at Alexandria is estimated to have had somewhere between 40,000 and 400,000 books. Even without television, no one could be familiar with them all.

This was, in part, why there was the idea, within education, of teaching the classics. It ensured that there was a common set of references that (educated) people could make that others would recognize. There was also the part about the classics being very, very good, of course, but that’s a different subject. Actually, it’s not, entirely, because the excellence which made the classics, well, classics, also made them not very accessible. This meant that the classics were in a head-on collision with widespread education, and not surprisingly widespread education won. But that’s not really what killed off the classics. Secular education was what killed off the classics, for the very simple reason that nothing secular transcends time.

This is almost true by definition, of course; especially if one permits materialists in the room what counts as secular is purely bound by the moment, and inherently has no consequence past the conditions it has bequeathed to us as the present moment, together with our (pointless) memories of it. But even apart from that, even if we permit a little bit of humanity to leak in around the edges of strict secularism, such that we actually consider ourselves to have some continuity with the past in a more meaningful sense than the historical curiosity of how present conditions came to be, it doesn’t matter very much because there are too many crimes in history for remembering them to be practical. No one’s distant ancestors were innocent of others’ blood, so on purely practical grounds—to borrow a phrase from Pride & Prejudice—in matters such as these a good memory is unpardonable.

The result is that as education became secular, it forgot history. It also forgot classics of literature and art because human nature is not a thing to be learned, but a thing to be made. Of course, having jettisoned all standards (it can take a generation or two), there becomes no reason to mold human nature into one shape rather than into another. The only thing we have to decide between alternatives is our inclinations, and to simply do what our impulses dictate requires no action. One cannot become an adept at doing whatever you feel like. So in the end, the mastery over human nature which was the goal becomes a total passivity. Learning about the raw material of human nature is useful for forging a new human nature, but since in the end the secularist has nothing to forge it to besides what it already is, he quickly discovers there’s no point to even knowing what it is. Even if there is no value to knowledge conceived of beyond control, people who do not desire self-control have no use for self-knowledge.

At which point the only value to any sort of modern classics which replace older classics is that of shared reference, but the problem is that there’s not much call for shared references. They’re not of practical value, and people with nothing to communicate don’t need a language to do it in.

As I was writing this I was thinking of the book The Catcher in the Rye, which I recall disliking. It’s a relatively recent book which is highly praised in the sorts of places which should rightly make one suspicious of it. And there’s the fact that I couldn’t remember any of it so I had to read Wikipedia’s plot summary to refresh my memory. From what I can piece together from my memory augmented by Wikipedia’s plot summary, it’s the book of a horribly disaffected boy who doesn’t fit into his world and feels very dislocated because no one gets him. But there’s nothing to get; he’s empty. There’s nothing to say about nothing. He wanders around New York City trying to find something, but looks in all the wrong places. It wouldn’t have sold nearly so well if he actually wandered into a church and realized that nothing but God could fill the emptiness inside of him, but it would have been a far more worthwhile book. But then perhaps my memory is faulty. According to Wikipedia, it was highly praised by noted promise-breaker/tax-raiser George H. W. Bush.

Anyway, while the cultural illiteracy which Harlan Ellison complains about is certainly a problem for science fiction authors, it’s somewhat combatable by picking a niche audience and writing for them. For example, you can rely on Christians getting (at least fairly commonly made) biblical references. As Chesterton said, the modern world is one wild divorce court. But in himself, Christ brings all men together.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 19, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the nineteenth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I recently read Brian Niemeier’s free short story, Izcacus. It was an interesting read, both while I was reading it and afterwards. It’s a good use of fifteen minutes. Unfortunately short stories lend themselves to short reviews, because (when well written) they’re so tightly written that talking about them gives away too much information. At least I have that problem. Russell Newquist would probably find a way around it, as he’s very good at writing reviews, I’ve noticed.

But I am going to talk about Izcacus, so this is your warning that there will be spoilers. If you don’t like spoilers, stop reading here (until you’ve gone and read the story, at which point please come back).


Or here, that would work too.


Even here, really. But that’s it. The next paragraph will have spoilers in it, so stop reading now if you haven’t read it and don’t want to encounter spoilers.


I should begin by saying that I went in knowing that Izcacus was written as an attempt to bridge the gap between religious vampires and scientific vampires. So I didn’t some at it with perfectly fresh eyes, as it were. That will naturally color my thoughts on the story, but probably it has a bigger impact on my reaction to it than my considered thoughts about it.

The first thing I find interesting about Izcacus is that it uses what my friend Michael referred to as epistolary narration. That is, several characters narrate the story in the form of emails, letters, blog posts, journal entries, and most interestingly letters to a dead brother. It’s by no means an unheard of device, but it’s not overly common, and as Michael reminded me, it is also the narrative device in Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I doubt that coincidence is accidental, though I haven’t asked Brian about it. He uses the device well and avoids its weakness—it can easily become very confusing to have multiple narrators—while taking advantage of its strength. In particular, it allows a lot of character development in few words, since the voice of the character tells you a lot about them. Not merely the words they choose or their commentary, but also what they choose to talk about and what they leave out. Editorial decisions tell you as much about a person as creative decisions, if they tell it to you more subtly.

Second is that one of the problems that every horror author is faced with in the modern world is that horror and modern technology don’t blend well. I don’t mean that they can’t, but a person with a cell phone can—in normal circumstances—call for help so that they won’t feel alone. Of course, that doesn’t always do much. (There was a news story a while back about a russian teenager who called her mother on the phone while a bear was eating her. She died before any help could arrive. More locally, there was a hunter who shot himself with a crossbow and called 911 but was dead before they arrived. If a broadhead cuts a major blood vessel, you can bleed to death in as little as about 45 seconds. I’ve seen a deer pass out in about 20 seconds.) But there is still a big difference in mood between knowing that help is on its way and won’t arrive in time versus not even being able to call for help. By setting the story on a remote mountain without cell service, and further where they had to trespass russian law to even be, this problem was solved very neatly. There are plenty of very remote places in the world and if you haven’t told anyone that you’re going there, no one will ever come looking for you there. (One reason why the Pennsylvania hunter safety course emphasizes telling people where you are going hunting and when you will be back, every single time.) Structurally, I really like this.

The mood is done well about isolation and danger and so on, but in general I’m far more interested in structure than mood—possibly because I have a very powerful and active imagination and can imagine the mood for myself even if it is not described, but my philosophical side rebels against plot holes. Pleasantly, there are no plot holes in Izcacus, which I appreciated. And the structure is very interesting indeed when we come to the central point of the story: vampirism. Izcacus, we find out, means “blood-drinker” in the local dialect, and the mountain climbers eventually find a cave with some old but suspiciously fresh corpses. And here is where Brian marries religious with scientific vampires. Vampirism is a form of demonic possession, but possession requires the cooperation of the possessed. And so the demons have created a virus—which walks the line between living and inanimate—as a means of entering healthy hosts. The virus acts in its natural fashion to weaken the host; by putting them in extremes of pain and weakness, the host becomes more willing to accept the possession which will rid them of the pain. And as the story (or rather, one of its characters) noted, after death the body becomes merely material. This is a very interesting take on vampirism, adding some very interesting technical detail to the mechanism of becoming a vampire. It’s not as blood-centric as vampirism traditionally is, and in fact one weakness of the story is that it isn’t made very clear why the vampires are called blood-drinkers at all. No one is exsanguinated that I can recall, and any wound seems to suffice for entrance of the virus. Granted, one of the characters was bitten on the neck, but another seemed to be infected by a cut on her shoulder. And this is somewhat inherent in the nature of blood-born viruses. If saliva will work for transmission, blood-to-blood contact will as well. (As will semen-to-blood transmission, but fortunately Izcacus is not that sort of story.) So while it’s an interesting step forward for the mechanics of vampirism, it seems to come somewhat at the expense of some of the (recent) traditional lore of vampirism. (Update: Brian clarified what I misunderstood.)

(That is not in itself bad, of course; I gather one staple of horror is re-interpreting older horror stories so as to create fresh lore; essentially producing a sense of realism by treating previous fiction as existing but inaccurate. Horror is not one of the genres I normally seek out, so I’m not very familiar with its conventions—or perhaps I should say its unconventions. And if you want to take that as a semi-punning reference to the undead, I’m powerless to stop you. But if you do, please feel a deep and lasting sense of shame because of it. That’s not really a pun.)

But, what it sacrifices in traditional vampire lore, it makes up for in the reason why anyone is going near the wretched things in the first place. My two favorite vampire stories are Dracula (by Bram Stoker) and Interview with the Vampire (the movie; I’ve never read the book, which a good friend has told me isn’t as good; the screenplay for the movie was written by Ann Rice who wrote the book, so it is plausible that her second try was better than her first). In both cases the vampires can pass as living men and come into human society on their own, though in Dracula he does at first lure Jonathan Harker to his castle in Transylvania by engaging his legal services. But it is really Harker’s legal services which are required, there, he isn’t interested in Harker as food (at least not for himself). In Izcacus the vampires are not nearly so able to pass in human society, so the humans must come to them. This is in line with other stories (most of which I haven’t seen or read) where the humans venture into the vampire’s territory. I think that there the lure is some sort of treasure, whether real or actual, but while greedy protagonists make for relatively pity-free vampire chow, they don’t make for sympathetic protagonists. In Izcacus there are really two motives which drive the characters; a noble motive which drives all but one of them, and a far more sinister motive which drives her. The official reason for this clandestine meeting is to recover the bodies of people who had died trying to summit Izcacus, while the hidden reason is to recover samples of the disease which was the reason the Russians sealed off access to Izcacus in the first place. Thus it is the backers of terrorism who are funding the expedition in the hope of retrieving such a virulent virus to be used as a bio-terrorism weapon (thinking of it only as deadly, and not as diabolical). I find that very satisfying because instead of a pedestrian tale like greed going wrong (who doesn’t know greed will go wrong?), it’s the much more richly symbolic tale of the problem with making deals with the devil. As Chesterton noted, the devil is a gentleman and doesn’t keep his word. The devil may promise power, but has no interest in delivering on it. I’m told there’s a line in one of the tellings of Faust where after selling his soul for knowledge, mephistopheles tells faust he doesn’t have that knowledge to give, whereupon Faust is indignant that he had been lied to. As I understand it, Mephistopheles basically said, “I’m a devil, what did you expect?” It’s one of the reasons why I’m so fond of the short form of the baptismal vows in the Catholic rite of baptism. “Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?” It’s a terrible idea to expect the devil to keep his promises; it’s more his style to bite the hand he’s shaking.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 11, 2017

God’s blessing to you on this the eleventh day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Yesterday I put up a quick video I did about Occam’s Razor:

So far it got 105 views in the less than 24 hours it’s been up compared to 85 views for my quick review of Groucho Marx’s autobiography which has been up for almost four days.

This is something of a testament to the effect of making videos on subjects which people are interested in. I’ve heard that described by some popular youtubers as the viewers won’t let you make videos off of your main subject, which seems unfair to me. People have limited time and watch what they find interesting. I’m certainly no exception to that and I doubt that more popular youtubers are either. Not everyone finds everything interesting, and while certainly some people grow to trust a youtuber and watch whatever they make because that trust has been rewarded in the past, most subscribers subscribe because they like something that a youtuber does and want to see if he does more of that. Which strikes me as entirely reasonable.

But it also brings up the interesting and complicated question which Russell Newquist and I talked about as the chief one of the age in which distribution is nearly free: discoverability. If a youtuber makes videos about swords—a fairly popular subject—and one of his videos gets widely shared, that will result in him getting discovered by a fairly large number of people. This has compound effects because youtube makes recommendations for watching videos on the basis of how many people have watched a video before, so more watched videos tend to get more recommendations, and hence even more views. Good for server caching for fast playback, bad for unknown youtubers. Be that as it may, it does mean that a great deal of discovery for youtubers tends to be relatively narrow. It also poses a big problem for people just starting out: with no views on your videos, youtube (effectively) won’t recommend them, including ranking in search results.

What eventually got my videos views and hence my channel subscribers was when I met some people on Twitter with similar interests and more twitter followers, and who told their followers about my videos. Technically this can be called promotion, but it’s actually far more organic than that. I made friends based on shared interests, then made something which I thought my friends would find interesting and so I showed it to them, and because of the shared interests they told their twitter followers about it. That got me enough views to start getting youtube recommendations, and my channel has been growing since. As of this writing it has 217 subscribers, which is up by 54 subscribers over the last 30 days. (In the last few months I also did a few hangouts with other youtubers, which helped to gain me subscribers because there was enough overlap in what we did that some of their viewers checked it out and found my stuff interesting too.)

So this does illustrate the importance of sticking with things; every video, or every blog post, or every novel, or every whatever is a lottery ticket, and most win at least very small; but small adds up over time and a few big ones can really be significant since viewers and readers (etc) tend to stay. It also illustrates the benefit of making friends. And contrary to sleazy salesmen depicted in movies, the best thing about this is that friends helping each other is mostly in mutual interest. At least these days in the age of cheap distribution. Back when having a book printed required an investment of thousands of dollars in a book run then access to a distribution network that was very expensive to maintain, it was possible for someone to do you a big favor where they gave you a lot and didn’t get much in return commensurate with what they gave you. But for someone on twitter, telling their followers about something their followers will probably find interesting reinforces why the followers are following. After all, they’re following in order to come across interesting things. And there’s no point in them promoting something which their followers won’t find interesting, because their followers won’t click through and won’t stick around if they do; the result being that everyone’s interests line up.This sort of promotion is not asking for something like a free commercial from a TV network, it’s much closer to telling a friend about a book they’ll enjoy reading. Only you happen to be the author.

This requires honesty, of course, but the good news is that the incentives are lined up such that it only requires ordinary amounts of honesty and not heroic honesty. Compulsive liars will have problems, but by and large ordinary people with ordinary amounts of honesty and patience will only tell their friends about things their friends are likely to find interesting, and their friends are only likely to tell their followers/readers/whatever about things they will find interesting, and things will work out to everyone’s benefit. The only downside is that this requires time, but that’s not all that big a downside, when you think about it, because the alternative where stardom can happen in an instant is that it doesn’t last. Today’s hot model is replaced by next year’s hot model and forgotten about. And to some degree that works whether you’re talking about cars or people.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessing on January 5, 2017

God’s blessing to you on this the fifth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I’ve been watching a bunch of Camille and Kennerly’s videos. Well, mostly listening, but occasionally watching. Here’s one:

I find it interesting that unlike a lot of twins, they don’t seem to feel a need to distinguish themselves. It’s possible that this is just a show-business gimmick and that in daily life they always make sure to wear their hair differently, or wear differently colored clothes, or something like that. But in the videos they make no effort whatever to indicate which one is Camille and which one is Kennerly. According to the wikipedia page on them (which calls them the Kitt sisters), they seem to collaborate a lot. For example, they both did Tae Kwon Do together (until they gave it up to focus on the harp).  Apparently they’re both third degree black belts, which suggests that they’re fairly confident, or what will suffice, goal-oriented. It’s curious to speculate that might be why they don’t overly feel the need to differentiate themselves from the other. People with a sense of self don’t usually need to make sure others feel it. Anyway, I’ve got no conclusions about this; obviously I don’t actually know anything about them. I just find it interesting. (Fun fact: I have a friend who has an identical twin brother. At each one’s wedding the other wore a button saying, “Not The Groom”.)

Camille and Kennerly are fond of filming their videos in ruins, which are generally very pretty. Role playing games are very often set in ruins too, though for somewhat different reasons. RPGs need unrealistic arcs for characters to gain power (both heroes and villains, actually). Or more properly, they need unusual ways for characters to gain power. If there was a shop where for a day’s wages you could buy magically unbreakable swords of sharpness which could cleave through stone in a single blow, those swords would be an utterly unremarkable part of the world. Our modern steel knives are really quite amazing by the standards of the bronze age, but we can buy them for a few dollars at the store and no one writes a story where the hook is that someone has a tempered, high-carbon steel knife. Of course high carbon steel knives still can’t easily cut through stone, so it’s not the same thing, but on the flip side whatever can make a sword unbreakable can make armor unbreakable too. So there must be an explanation for why the heroes weapons and armor are rare. It being created by a great sorcerer is a popular enough explanation, but it’s usually a good idea to make the great sorcerers rare or some explanation must be given for why they aren’t the hero. After all, if they can create the hero’s weapon, they can probably kick the hero’s butt, and consequently the butt of whomever the hero has to kick in order to be the hero. A very practical solution to this problem is for the sorcerer to be dead. And not just technically dead, like a lich, but actually dead, as in, doing as much magic these days as the average door nail.

Plus this means that the hero gets to explore ruins to find his weapons of barely stoppable power (if they were unstoppable, where would the excitement be? and if they were very stoppable, why bother getting them?). And ruins are interesting because they’re so very suggestive. People lived in ruins, once. In fact, much of what makes ruins to interesting is that there were people who took them for granted. It’s a curious pseudo-paradox, but what makes most old things interesting is that long-dead people didn’t find them interesting. This is distinct from something like a monument, which, in general, we find interesting for the same reason that the people who erected it found it interesting, and so we don’t tend to appreciate it for being old nearly as much as we do with antiques. (The Statue of Liberty is impressive because it is large and detailed; we may appreciate the craftsmanship, but not generally the millions of tourists who came before us and appreciated the craftsmanship too.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 4, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the fourth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation, 2017.

First, if you’ve ever heard of Prince Rupert’s Drops, this video is awesome:

Second, yesterday and the day before, I talked about character growth. To continue with that idea, I think that the most interesting character arcs to see in adult characters is character revelation, not character growth. That is, we don’t want the character himself to change, we want circumstances to reveal what his character actually is. There are two ways this can happen; one is through action and the other through conversation.

Action is fairly straightforward. Talk is cheap, and many virtues are simply never tried by real life. Thus it is interesting to see circumstances where a character is put in a situation which requires a virtue and he has it. Far more interesting, though, is when a character is put in a situation which requires a balance of virtues, and he has them in a reasonable balance. Merely showing one virtue is what results in flat characters. Thus the hero needs to be brave, and is, and no one much cares. Well, outside of fiction for children. They’re thrilled by simple things, as Chesterton noted. But unfortunately the reaction to adults finding this uninteresting has been to try to make it interesting by having the adult fail at the virtue. Usually not completely, or rather not consistently; it seems like about half the time the hero who failed at first gets a second try and succeeds then. Yay. The other half the time, he fails but the writer is with him and circumstances make him magically succeed anyway. Yay. Of course part of what I don’t like is that these approaches have been done to death, but what I dislike far more is that they all involve the hero failing through a lack of virtue. Moral virtue, I mean. 80s action movies consisted almost entirely of heroes who failed through lack of natural virtue but who then acquired natural virtue. Usually the ability to punch quickly, hard, and in the correct spot. The Karate Kid is perhaps one of the best examples of this, where Daniel gets beaten up, then trains at Karate and manages to win. Though of course there is that kid part. Mr. Miagi is revealed over time, but he doesn’t really grow; it is his having already grown which is what allows Daniel to grow.

In terms of adults acquiring natural virtue, that is in part what the Christopher Nolan movie Batman Begins is about. Of course it does—sort of—have moral growth on the part of Bruce Wane too, but most of that is in the first few minutes. Mostly Bruce Wayne knows that he wants to use his wealth to defeat crime, but he lacks the ability to do so and his transformation is gaining that ability. The Batman comic series which came after Knightfall—oh, right, Knightquest—is about Batman, his spine having been broken by Bane, going on a quest to regain his ability to walk. He isn’t acquiring moral virtue, he’s acquiring physical virtue. Virtually every episode of Macguyver was about Macguyver acquiring the power necessary to defeat the villains through knowledge, ingenuity, and courage.

The problem with requiring only one virtue of the hero is that a single virtue isn’t all that hard. Don’t get me wrong—in real life many people fail to be virtuous in situations which require only a single virtue. But that’s between them and God. There’s no intellectual problem to be solved, and therefore nothing to interest anyone who isn’t that person or God. The thing that’s really interesting is when virtues must be balanced against each other. When courage must be balanced against compassion, or compassion against justice, or truth against justice; these are always interesting stories, though they often have disappointing endings if the writers are not wise. That’s the problem with writing really good stories: only good men can do it. There’s an interesting section in the, I think second, preface to The Screwtape Letters, where C.S. Lewis says that the Letters are only half of the book, the other half being the letters from an archangel to the guardian angel of Wormwood’s “patient”. But, Lewis said, he couldn’t possibly write them. The letters of a fallen creature like a devil can admit of faults, but the letters of a perfect creature would have to be faultless, and even if they contained no errors, the beauty of their style would be as integral to their perfect as would the wisdom of the words. A fallen man can reasonably presume put words into the mouth of a devil, but not into the mouth of an angel. (One reason there’s never been a successful novel with Jesus as a character.)

Telling the tale of a good but fallen man is accessible to other fallen men, but while you can fake virtue, you cannot fake knowledge. What is the right balance between two virtues which both have a legitimate claim requires quite a bit of that knowledge we call wisdom. There’s really no way around this, and I don’t think that the right solution is for fools to use crutches like making the hero vicious; I think the right solution is for writers to do their damndest to become wise. It will have more benefits besides making their writing better.

And before I go, here’s Camille and Kennerly playing Pahcabel’s Canon in D:

Glory to God in the highest.

Good Morning December 29, 2016

Good morning on this the twenty ninth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

Yesterday, I wrote about a post by Brian Niemeier. He stopped by and left a comment I found very interesting, so I’m copying it here:

Hi, Chris. I can certainly empathize with your problem.

Here’s a piece of advice from a friend who is far more financially astute than me: If you don’t have money, you can substitute time.

That advice dovetails nicely with a second key principle of indie publishing that I didn’t have space for in the OP, which is learn to do as much as you can by yourself. If you can do an hour of online research per day, take a community college night class, or attend a web seminar on cover art, formatting, or web design, you’ll gain skills that will slash your overall publishing costs.

And even if you don’t have extra time for learning new skills, producing professional quality books doesn’t have to be expensive. On average, each of my books cost me around $650 total to make and get to market. Building good professional relationships is key.

God bless,

In other news, I read this post by Russell Newquist. (If you missed my interview of him, here it is.) It’s in response to this post by Daytime Renegade, which was pondering the purpose of his blog. These posts bring up two things to me, which to some degree are variants on what Russell said. The first is about traffic growth. This blog has yet to gain much traction, or at least in ways that I know about. I’m not sure how much wordpress’s page view metrics capture people who read my posts in the wordpress news feed (supposedly 30 people are subscribed to my blog) and in RSS readers like newsblur. It might or might not, I just don’t know. My youtube channel certainly has gained more. As of the writing of this post I’m up to 182 subscribers, and there the subscriber count certainly followed something like an exponential growth pattern. (The mathematician in me really wants to point out that 1.000001n is exponential, but very close to linear.) But certainly it’s the case that since youtube recommends things based on view counts and just what people happen to watch, small numbers of views result in small numbers of recommendations. As one gets more views, one gets more recommendations, and hence more views. And thus more subscribers. But even without youtube’s recommendation engine, the same thing happens by way of more normal recommendations. In blogs this is shares on social media as well as other blogs linking to and talking about blog posts. Few readers generate few links and shares, but more generate more. The exponential growth curve is (more or less) inherent to the platform. It’s not merely how things work, it is (absent advertising) how things have to work. As Russell and I talked about in our interview, with production costs approaching zero, the key problem of our age is discoverability. And it is discoverability which produces this sort of growth curve. Patience may be the most practical of the virtues.

The other thing which I thought about was the subject of uniqueness, as Russell put it, or being an expert, as Daytime Renegade put it. Russell is right that originality is overrated. Russell gives this example:

You feel like none of your thoughts are new – but this is precisely because of all the time you spend reading: reading books, reading news, reading other blogs. You make the mistake of assuming that your readership is already familiar with all of the ideas you’re familiar with, because of course everyone else has read all the stuff you read. Doesn’t everybody?

In a word, no. Even other highly intelligent, highly educated people haven’t read everything you have. They can’t. There are hundreds of thousands of blogs on the Internet today. Roughly 1,000 new books are published every day on Amazon, with roughly five million already available in their Kindle catalog. Nobody can possibly read all of that, even if they’re independently wealthy and all they ever do is read.

That is, he gives the example of having read something that many if not most of your readers haven’t, so passing it on is giving them something that they could have gotten elsewhere, but didn’t. That is valuable, but there’s another reason that originality is overrated: in a somewhat different sense, originality is guaranteed. God is simple, but creation is complex. Every being in creation reflects some unique aspect of the goodness of God, and moreover created things work together to synergistically reflect some aspect of the goodness of God which they can’t reflect on their own. (This is related to how composite beings are real, which hyper-reductionism misses.) And rational creatures such as ourselves are each given the ability to appreciate some aspects of the goodness of God. I like archery and another man likes roller coasters; we each some some aspect of the goodness of God reflected by these created things which the other does not see. To some degree we can share these things—especially by describing the wonder of them through language. But also we can teach each other how to see these things. And here is where the guaranteed uniqueness comes from. Because each of us sees some different aspects of the goodness of God, whenever we describe anything to others, we do not describe it in precisely the same way. What is important, what is not; what we emphasize and what we don’t; what connections we make and what analogies we use—all these things may be similar, but will not the same, as what everyone else does when describing the same insight or truth. And equally true, not all readers will find all choices, emphasis, connections, and analogies intelligible; it depends on what they have been given to see. So having the same truth explained in many slightly different ways can really be of value to many people; as they find the people who explain truths in ways they find easy to understand, things they have have encountered before become intelligible. For all people, it’s quite possible that there are more than a few people who can’t learn from a smarter blogger than you just because what that blogger can give and what these people can receive are not compatible.

This is getting absurdly long so I’m going to cut it short, but one of the big themes of creation is that of delegation. When we feed a hungry person, we become God’s gift of food to that person. When two parents create a child, they become God’s act of creation of that child. In this way, by delegating his power to us, God incorporates us into himself. (This makes the incarnation, and the ancient Christian saying that God became man so that man could become God especially relevant, I think.) But it seems that within creation there is a great deal of delegation too. It’s easy to see in professions where people make tools for others to use, and so we share in each other, but this is specially relevant in intellectual matters. Geniuses can rarely explain things well except to very intelligent people, and very intelligent people can rarely explain things well except to intelligent people, and so on. There is variation, of course, and teaching is a learned skill, etc. But for those who think that they have nothing to contribute, it is no small matter to take the work of someone greater and make it intelligible to someone lesser. We all have our place within the hierarchy of being, and the greats often need the merely highly intelligent in order to have any impact at all. Socrates may have been the wisest man who lived, but his wisdom would not have helped nearly so many people were it not for an army of teachers who followed after him to explain his wisdom to people who couldn’t get it directly from his words.

God bless you.

Our Love for Formative Fiction

I think that for most of us, there are things which we loved dearly when we were children which we still love now, often greatly in excess of how much others love these things. And I think we’re used to heard this poo-pooed as mere nostalgia. But I think that for most of us, that’s not accurate.

Nostalgia is, properly speaking, a longing for the familiar. It is not merely a desire for comfort, but also a connection through the passage of time from the present to another time (usually our childhood, but it can be any previous time). As Saint Augustine noted, our lives are shattered across the moments of time, and on our own we have no power to put it back together. Nostalgia is, properly speaking, the hope that someone else’s power will eventually put the shattered moments of time back together into a cohesive whole.

But when we enjoy formative fiction, we’re not particularly thinking of the passage of time, or the connectedness of the present to the past. And the key way that we can see this is that we don’t merely relive the past, like putting on an old sweater or walking into a room we haven’t been in for years. Those are simple connections to the past, and are properly regarded as nostalgia. But when we watch formative fiction which we still enjoy (and no one enjoys all of the fiction they read/watched/etc as a child), we actually engage it as adults. We see new things that we didn’t see at first, and appreciate it in new ways.

What is really going on is not nostalgia, but the fact that everyone has a unique perspective on creation; for each of us there are things we see in ways no one else does. Part of this is our personality, but part of this is also our previous experiences. And the thing about formative fiction is that it helped to form us. The genuine teamwork in Scooby Doo, where the friends were really friends and really tried to help each other, helped me to appreciate genuine teamwork. It’s fairly uncommon on television for teammates to actually like each other—conflict is interesting! every lazy screenwriter in the world will tell you—so when I see it in Scooby Doo now, I appreciate it all the more than I’ve grown up looking for it and appreciating it where I see it. This is one of the things I love about the Cadfael stories, where Cadfael (the benedictine monk who solves murders) is on a genuine team with Hugh Berringar, the undersheriff of Shropshire. This is also one of the things I love about the Lord Peter stories with Harriet Vane—they are genuinely on each other’s side with regard to the mysteries.

And when I mention Scooby Doo, I am of course referring to the show from the 1960s, Scooby Doo! Where are you? I have liked some of the more recent Scooby Doo shows, like Scooby Doo: Mystery Inc., but by and large the more modern stuff tends to add conflict in order to make the show more interesting, and consequently makes it far less interesting for me. Cynics will say that this is merely because none of these were from my childhood, but in fact when Scooby Doo: Mystery Inc. had episodes where the entire team was functioning like a team where everyone liked each other and were on the same side, I genuinely enjoyed those episodes. (Being a father of young children means watching a lot of children’s TV.) The episodes where members of the team were fighting or the episodes where they split up were by far my least favorite episodes.

It is possible to enjoy fiction for ulterior motives, or at least to pretend to enjoy it for ulterior motives. Still, it’s also possible to enjoy fiction because one is uniquely well suited to enjoying it, and few things prepare us for life as much as our childhood did.

People only Read What is Published

(In a sense this post is a generalization of the fundamental principle of science, but it’s worth looking at that generalization in detail.) It is obviously true that people cannot read what hasn’t been published because if it was not published, it would not be available to read. From this utterly trivial point we can predict several non-trivial things which in a fallen world will reliably be true about many of the people who create for publication.

Actually, there is a second fact which we need, but it is only slightly more controversial than the first: people do not re-read material often. If we put these two together, for a creator to be read as often as possible, they will need to publish a lot of work. There are exceptions, of course—I’ve re-read Pride & Prejudice around twenty times now—but in general this holds true and is especially true of anyone who wants to make an ongoing living from their creative work. (It’s also true of anyone who simply wants ongoing attention even if they don’t make any money from it.)

In order to publish frequently, a person must have many things to say, and this is the crux of the problem. There several ways to have a lot to say, and—outside of explicit fiction—only one of them is good. The good way is to study the world and talk to the wise so that one becomes wise oneself. This is a long, hard road, and it will be inevitable that there will be things which come up in popular discussion which might be well-read if one could write them, but one simply doesn’t know enough to write about them well. Many people take this long, difficult path, and it is good idea to not lose track of them when you can find them.

There are much easier ways to have a lot to say, though. Making stuff up is the easiest, but also the most dangerous way, as a number of disgraced reporters and academics have proven. Outright lying is very hard to defend and also very offensive to readers. Several orders of magnitude safer is explicit speculation. You can see this in articles that have a question mark in their title. “Did [Famous Politician] Buy And Eat Sudanese Sex Slaves?” is an article that can be based on as little as a trip to the Sudan—or a neighboring country if necessary—and the politician being the sort of person who would do that sort of thing. It’s not hard to make things seem plausible, especially if one picks things that aren’t as extreme as this silly example. There are many variants of this approach, too. One can speculate about the implications of what it would mean if someone in a position of authority were to say something. One can also speculate on why a politician won’t say something at a particular time. Since a politician can’t say everything in every speech, there will always be a wasted opportunity to talk about. If the important people aren’t sufficiently obliging, one can also talk about what other people are saying about what was—or wasn’t—said.

Speculation on its own is not very interesting, however. One wants not only to publish material, but to have people read it. For that the writing must seem important as well as new. Now, it is possible to write about important things through hard work coupled with the patience to wait for important subjects to come along. But once again there is a much easier way to do this: throw perspective out the window. There are variants, of course, but they at their heart they all consist of some sort of skewed perspective. Probably the most popular is to take whatever topic one is writing about and imply that it spells the end of civilization as we know it, or if it isn’t utterly trivial even the death of any possibility of happiness in this world. Extrapolation is a very useful tool for this.

When exaggerating, the easiest approach is to assume that the world is static and project all trends out to infinity with no reactions to the trends or changes in behavior. Now, human beings have many flaws, and chief among them is that most of us do very little by principle. This is why so many people profess terrible principles—what’s the point in considering the truth of something one has no intention of living by anyway? But there is an upside to this, and it is that extrapolating out from people’s bad principles to their actions is usually quite misleading. The more principles have terrible results, the more people ignore the principles—sometimes even going so far as to reinterpret them to mean the opposite of what they originally meant. Whether this speaks well of the people or not, it is simply unreasonable to pretend that they will stick to their principles as things get worse and worse. Civilizations do die off, but at vastly lower frequencies than publishing cycles demand.

There is also the flip side of this coin—science reporting always has to include some section about how the discovery will cure a disease, make people thinner, make phones thinner, finally bring about the electric car, or at least significantly impact half the population’s life within the next few years. The overwhelming majority of them won’t, of course, but on the plus side this provides some grist for the worry mill because [political bad guys] will prevent the good things from happening. And don’t forget that every change hurts someone. Interestingly, this constant stream of good things coming in the future, rather than being here in the present, may also help to raise people’s ideas of what can be expected about life now—it really sucks in comparison to how good it will be ten years from now—so even without spin this works synergistically with the world-is-ending articles. Focusing people’s attention on what they don’t have is a great way to make them discontent and in need of an explanation for that unhappiness.

I should probably also point out that since really interesting new facts come along fairly infrequently, if a person is sloppy with their facts and doesn’t check into whether the things they have heard as facts are actually true, this will make them far more likely to come across “facts” which seem important. (Scientific studies with small sample sizes and no pre-registered hypothesis are a goldmine for this.)

The point, of course, is not nearly so much that all of this is a temptation to disciplined writers, but that it is a selective pressure which greatly rewards undisciplined writers and punishes disciplined writers. When considering the big picture, it doesn’t much matter whether disciplined writers resist temptation because the undisciplined writers will succeed and do very well regardless. And writing is not a zero-sum game. Undisciplined writers who trick people into reading material of exaggerated importance will increase the amount of reading that goes on. (Which editors who come up with headlines have known for as long as there have been headlines.)

But more more reading is not always better than less reading; reading which unbalances the mind through doomsday predictions breathlessly uttered makes people less able to understand truth spoken calmly. People also have finite and often small amounts of time and mental energy for reading, so consuming large amounts of exaggerated fluff can squeeze out real reading, even where it doesn’t habituate a person out of being able to do it.

(And everything I’ve said here applies to things that are watched or listened to just as much as for reading. As the saying goes, it’s not the medium, it’s the message.)

The takeaway is very simple: be very careful in how much news and news commentary you consume, and remember how big a selective pressure there is on the people who are giving you the news to exaggerate and distort it.

Writing the Story Is Left as an Excercise for the Reader

I came across one of the stupid things that replaced email forwards but doesn’t have a name yet which (erroneously) claimed Hemingway once bet people he could write a short story in six words, and wowed everyone with how moving and profound yadda yadda:

For sale, baby shoes, never worn.

We’re supposed to imagine the tragedy and the sorrow of the parents who lost their infant child, etc. And yes, there could indeed be a very sad story of loss and grief behind these words. Or there could be a story of someone with a healthy, happy baby who was given more baby shoes than they could actually use by friends and relatives. It could even be the story of someone who had baby shoes and realised that the things are utterly pointless because babies can’t walk and once the child actually arrived the practicality of real parenting set in and they set the stupid things aside. Maybe it’s a science fiction story in which an alien used a replicator to duplicate baby shoes. Maybe it’s a spy-thriller in which the baby shoes were used to hide secrets. It could be anything at all.

Now, I have heard people defend this sort of thing on the grounds that this provides a wide scope for the imagination. It does, but only because it doesn’t provide anything else. It provides as wide a scope for the imagination as a blank page, because it basically is a blank page. If the reader is willing to do all the work, this sort of thing is super easy. Here’s one:

“Bottoms up,” he said, and died.

That can be about someone in a suicide pact, or perhaps a man being executed who got a last drink before execution. Here’s one in five words, though I’ll grant it’s not original:

And then there were none.

That one is about a serial killer on an isolated island. Here’s one in four words:

I knew love once.

A person who fell in love while on military deployment but could never find her again when he went back. Three words:

Call me Ahab.

Modern retelling of Moby Dick from Ahab’s perspective, because I saw a poster for Wicked in the train station today. Or if that’s too derivative, how about this:

I died, once.

Story told by a ghost or sci-fi where medicine can bring the dead back to life? You decide! Two words:

Me: Tarzan.

A new Tarzan reboot by someone who can’t afford the rights to a superhero. One word:


You write the rest, I’m tired of this.