How Much Fantasy?

Science fiction authors tend to try to get the science right — or at least, we’d like to hope they will. There are many exceptions. We know a lot more about physics and biology today than was known even 50 years ago, so it’s not quite fair to the authors of the Golden Age to expect that they would avoid falling into what would today be classified as silly mistakes.

In Asimov’s famous robot novels, the robots had vacuum tubes for brains, because the transistor hadn’t been invented yet. He gets a pass on that one. Still, we feel entitled to hope that an SF author today has done his or her homework.

It’s harder to criticize a fantasy novel for not getting the science right. I mean, it’s fantasy! We know there are no dragons or unicorns. We know magic spells don’t really work.

But while a fantasy author has free license to invent cool magic systems and exotic creatures, readers will feel inclined to draw the line somewhere. If a character in a fantasy novel survives being frozen in a block of ice for days on end, we would naturally expect that there’s some magic-based explanation. Playing fast and loose with basic physiology is not advisable.

At the moment I’m contemplating doing a total rewrite of a novel I wrote during the last couple of years — a rewrite so complete that it might as well be a new novel. In addition to the thorny plot problems I hope to fix, I’d like to address a couple of the world-building deficiencies around which I skated rather too blithely.

Seasons, for instance. Have you noticed how many fantasy novels set on other worlds have Earth-type seasons? Our own planet has seasons because of its unusual 23-degree axial tilt. There’s no reason at all to suppose that another Earth-type planet would have seasons.

The approximately 24-hour day is probably too fundamental to want to tinker with. If your planet rotates every seven hours, you’re writing science fiction, not fantasy.

How about moons? This is a trickier question than it may appear. Our own planet has, if we’re to judge by what we see in our own solar system, an unusually large moon. And only one moon. Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto all have multiple moons, but with the exception of the Pluto/Charon system, the other moons we know of are all much smaller than the planet around which they orbit. And of course Venus has no moon at all. We might guess that a planet in a fantasy novel could easily have more than one moon — and indeed, this is one of the cues fantasy authors use to make it clear that the story is not set on our own Earth.

But what would happen if Earth had two or three moons? First, some of them would be orbiting much further away than others. For that reason, they would be much smaller optically. And probably smaller physically too. If one of them was as large as our own moon, it would distort the orbits of the other moons in chaotic ways. A cataclysmic collision would not be out of the question.

On the other hand, if all of the moons are significantly smaller than our own, plate tectonics would operate poorly, if at all. There would be little volcanic activity on the planet. As a result, the distribution of elements might be quite different: The planet might be metal-poor, for instance.

And what if we go the other direction? What if we desire to give our fantasy planet a moon that is larger than the Earth’s moon? It would have an atmosphere. Clouds would drift across its face, and that would be a lovely literary effect.

Unfortunately, a larger moon would cause a major literary problem due to tidal locking.

Our own moon is tidally locked to the Earth. That’s why it always shows the same face. When two bodies are closer to the same size, they will both become tidally locked a lot sooner — like, millions of years sooner. The planet’s day will lengthen until the day is the same length as the month. The moon will always be visible on one side of the planet and never visible on the other side. And because the days will be very long, the temperature swings between day and night will be horrendous. This will impact the biology of all the animals and plants.

Kiss that big cloud-wrapped moon goodbye.

I’ve also been thinking about a red dwarf companion star with an elliptical orbit of 80 years or so. This 80-year cycle would substitute nicely for seasonal variations. Or would it? The gravitational pull of the companion star would probably make the orbits of the inner planets chaotic, and that would lead to all sorts of literary (and evolutionary) complications.

Maybe I should stick with one moon and four seasons. But that feels so lazy from a literary standpoint. I’m going to have to think some more about this.

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The View from Here

I’m strictly an amateur armchair cosmology fanboy. If I wanted to do the math that physicists do, I’d have to spend five or six years studying full-time, and even then it would be a struggle. But it’s fun to think about the questions cosmologists grapple with.

There’s a great deal we don’t know about the universe. Scientists gather masses of data and make brilliant guesses that are well supported by the data … but as most physicists will readily admit, modern physics is tattered around the edges.

For starters, we don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. Our best guess is that the universe began in a titanic explosion (the Big Bang) some 13.5 billion years ago — but what caused the explosion?

One school of thought is that our notions of cause and effect are based on the flow of time, but since time itself came into existence in the Big Bang, it makes no sense to talk about a prior cause. There was no “prior.” That may be a true statement about the nature of time, but I’m afraid it begs the question.

Physicists are now aware of a set of numbers (called constants) that define the way the universe works. If any of those constants was even slightly different, the universe as we know it would not exist. But they’re just numbers! Numbers are not things; they’re abstractions. How could the Big Bang, which was a very physical event, have included abstractions as essential components?

We don’t have a clue about that.

It’s not even clear that the universe is a place where logic is reliable. Logic works very well in our local area: If Bob is in the kitchen, we can deduce that Bob is not also in the bedroom. That’s logical. But logic was invented by Greek philosophers 2,500 years ago — and they did it without performing a single scientific experiment. Dare we assume that they somehow stumbled upon a set of rules that governs the entire universe, rigidly and forever?

Physicists in the 18th and 19th centuries had a hard time with that. It seemed to them that light had to be either particles or waves. It couldn’t be both, because that wasn’t logical! But eventually, in the early 20th century, it became clear that light is both particles and a wave at the same time.

At the very least, the grandiose supposition that logic always works (when speculating about the Big Bang, for instance) would seem to require some sort of proof. Unfortunately, you’d have to use logic to construct the proof, so even if the proof worked, you couldn’t trust it.

I have serious questions about dark matter and dark energy too, but we’ll save those for another time. What I’ve been thinking about lately are electrons.

There are squillions of electrons in the universe, right? There are probably a thousand trillion of them in your body right now, and the universe is vastly larger than you are. So here’s my question:

Why is it that all electrons are exactly alike? Why is it that some of them aren’t, perhaps, a little more massive than others, or a little more highly charged? Why is it that when oscillating around the nucleus of an atom (any atom, anywhere), all electrons exhibit exactly the same behavior? Why shouldn’t the Big Bang have produced a large or infinite variety of different electrons?

To put the question slightly more rigorously, why does the Pauli exclusion principle work? Pauli’s concept works nicely to describe the phenomena that physicists investigate, but why is that the case? Have all of those squillions of electrons taken grad courses in physics in order to learn what they’re supposed never to do? No, clearly we need a better explanation.

It seems to me that it’s a bit too easy, too glib, to look at an electron as a thing. An electron is not a thing. It’s not a little tiny lump of stuff that obeys certain laws. That would require either that the laws be an external force acting on the electron to force it to conform, which is pretty clearly not what’s going on; or, alternatively, that the laws are somehow embedded within the tiny lump of stuff which is an electron, and that makes no sense either.

As far as I can see, an electron simply is the behaviors that it exhibits. There’s nothing at the core of the electron, tucked away somewhere within the whirling cloud of  behaviors. An electron has spin, but there’s nothing spinning. An electron has charge, but there’s nothing that has that charge.

As a thought experiment, we might imagine an electron drifting alone in an entirely empty universe. Just one electron, nothing else. In such a situation, the electron would have no mass, spin, or charge. Those characteristics exist only with respect to its interactions with other particles. (Or “particles,” if you prefer.) It’s not just that we can’t define a charge of -1 without adding a proton to this nearly empty universe; I’m saying that there would be no such thing as charge. Charge is a quality that exists only with respect to the interactions in which an electron engages.

Right now I’m leaning toward the idea that our own universe contains only one electron. And, I guess, one quark. And maybe I should say “electronness” rather than “electron.” If there’s only one electronness, and it’s everywhere, there’s no need to explain why all those separate electrons behave in an exactly identical fashion in every experiment we can devise. They’re not separate particles; they’re all the same essential thing (whatever that is). Our universe resonates in a constant state of electronness and quarkness.

If you think this idea has implications for our sense of identity as separate individuals, I won’t argue with you. I suspect it also has implications for the physics of the Big Bang, but I wouldn’t know. I can’t do the math.

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The Sleep of Reason

Sometimes I have to think about things for a while, in a vague and disorganized way, before what’s bugging me snaps into focus. As I’ve continued to mull over the controversy within which the Unitarian Universalist community has lately become entangled, I think maybe I’m starting to get a glimpse of the root from which (to mix a metaphor) the poison vine has sprung.

You might think the root would be racism, but no, that’s not it. For one thing, the goal of the gang of ministers who have been attacking their colleague, Reverend Todd Eklof, is to eliminate not just racism but also sexism, heterosexism, cis-genderism, able-ism, and presumably any other engine of social discrimination and marginalization whose muffled putt-putt-putt and smoky exhaust they detect emanating from behind the wainscoting.

Just to be clear: I applaud that goal. I share it. The problem lies not in the goal itself but in the methods they’re using to try to achieve the goal.

In the original Open Letter to Eklof, we find this: “We recognize that a zealous commitment to ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ over all other forms of knowing is one of the foundational stones of White Supremacy Culture.” And in the letter of censure issued last week, we find this: “…we cannot ignore the fact that logic has often been employed in white supremacy culture to stifle dissent, minimize expressions of harm, and to require those who suffer to prove the harm by that culture’s standards.”

I’m seeing a connection between those two quotes and what a friend of mine said when this thing first erupted a couple of months ago: that her goal was to listen harder to people who have been marginalized, traumatized, discriminated against, etc. Now, my friend is a lovely person. She’s also a computer programmer by profession. What I think she was saying was that her approach to understanding the controversy is to set aside her rational thought processes in favor of simply witnessing — and accepting at face value — the expressions of pain coming from the people in those marginalized communities.

She told me she trusted the ministers who penned the Open Letter. She didn’t feel it necessary to read Eklof’s book and judge its contents for herself.

What my friend is intent on doing (or was doing when she said that; I’ll have to ask her if she has had any second thoughts) seems to align well with the ministers’ attempts to downplay or disparage Eklof’s careful use of rational, logical processes. Given a choice between accepting a raw expression of emotion on its own terms or, alternatively, engaging in a reasoned thought process that might provide perspective or allow a more nuanced interpretation, the ministers are coming down solidly on the side of judgments that are based solely on emotion, not on reason.

The Enlightenment is dead, folks. We’ve done an about-face here; we’re marching (or slithering) back into the Middle Ages.

The UU ministers are not doing this in a vacuum. To a considerable and alarming extent, our whole culture is sliding in that direction. Not that our culture was ever soundly based on reason, but 50 years ago we sent people to the Moon. Today we have an alleged President who lies repeatedly and enthusiastically, who is profoundly ignorant about almost everything — and millions of our fellow anthropoids happily chow down on whatever sort of shit he’s shoveling. Millions of people reject the use of vaccines, the evidence for climate catastrophe…. Okay, I won’t go any further with that. You know what I’m talking about.

I joined the local Unitarian Universalist church because I need to be part of a community, and it’s the only church in town where atheists are welcome. But at the moment, it appears one sort of orthodoxy (the theistic sort) is being supplanted by another sort that is just as toxic, or possibly even more toxic. The new orthodoxy, as represented by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association, seems to be that the use of reason is to be denigrated; that we’re to be guided henceforth by raw emotion. The expression of emotion is, ipso facto, valid, and must not be questioned.

Also, your emotions had better be the correct ones.

The danger here should be obvious to anybody over the age of twelve. If one bunch of Unitarians embraces one set of emotions as true and important, while another bunch embraces a different set, how the holy fuck are we supposed to sort out who’s right and who needs to learn better, if we can’t use logic or reason?

When logic and reason are gone, what’s left is force. Browbeating. Mob rule. When the mob is shaming you and you’re not allowed to defend yourself by an appeal to reason, you’re pretty much screwed.

Todd Eklof is being shamed for using reason. Shamed by his fellow ministers. And there’s no appeal from the court of unreason. All verdicts are final.

I don’t want to belong to a church that rejects reason. If that’s the consensus of Unitarian Universalism today, I’m tempted to say, “The hell with it. I’m outta here.” On the other hand, there’s this thing in the Sunday services about how each person is worthy and sacred. So … am I not worthy? Am I not sacred? Maybe I should just stick around and be stubbornly reasonable. What are they gonna do — kick me out for being annoyingly intelligent?

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Do I Hear the Fat Lady Singing?

No, it’s not over. (And in case you think my headline is an insult to people who are carrying around some extra body weight, perhaps I should explain that I was being deliberately ironic in running that risk. See how humorless this stuff can get?)

The Board of Trustees and Executive Team of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association has now issued a public letter of censure to Rev. Todd Eklof, whose book, The Gadfly Papers, disturbed a number of ministers. I don’t know how often such a step is taken by the UUMA, but I would guess it’s quite rare.

I discussed the Open Letter that a bunch of UU ministers sent to Eklof in a previous blog post, “Shut Up! You’re Not Liberal Enough!”, and in a couple of follow-up posts. To recap briefly, their Open Letter never at any point explains what it is about the book that upset them. Bizarre, you may say — and I would agree.

Eklof’s crime, as nearly as I can make out, is that he was calling for an open dialog on the topic of whether segments of the Unitarian Universalist community are overreacting or overreaching in their attempts to stamp out racism in the Unitarian Universalist Association. The position of the ministers who signed the letter, on the other hand, is implicitly but unmistakably that such a dialog would be dangerous — and therefore, again implicitly, that any and all efforts meant to get rid of racism within the UU community are to be applauded.

By implication, all of these efforts are based on perceptions of real racism. The possibility that some of them might be based on imagined racism, or that, if the racism is real, the remedy might be just as damaging as the problem — those are among the questions that we’re not supposed to ask.

And now the professional ministers’ organization of which Eklof is, I’m sure, a member has felt it necessary to smack him down more forcefully. Not content to deplore, they feel they must censure. Publicly.

The possibility that they’ve got their undies in a bunch over something that they should just have politely ignored, and that by persisting they may quite possibly be creating an unbridgeable chasm down the middle of their own religious denomination, seems not to have occurred to the Board of Trustees or the Executive Team. But perhaps I’m jumping to an unwarranted conclusion. Let’s let the BoT and the ET speak for themselves. Below, unedited except for the omission of the last part of the concluding prayer, is their letter of censure.

As in the earlier blog post, I will intersperse my comments paragraph by paragraph rather than holding them off to the end. The letter of censure is indented.

16 August, 2019

Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof

Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane

Dear Todd,

As the leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, we are writing this letter of censure regarding the content and the manner of distribution (at the 2019 General Assembly) of your book, The Gadfly Papers. We hope this action will be received as an invitation into awareness, acknowledgment of the hurt that has been caused, and an opportunity for restoration, reconciliation, and engagement in the ongoing work of the UUMA, not as an attempted resolution of an “issue.” The content of your book has caused great psychological, spiritual, and emotional damage for many individuals and communities within our faith. Because of the widespread impact, we are making this censure public and distributing it to all members of the UUMA.

As in the original Open Letter, this letter of censure entirely fails to describe the “great psychological, spiritual, and emotional damage.” Nor does it identify, either individually or collectively, the “many individuals and communities” who have allegedly suffered this unspecified damage. We are left to use our imaginations on this vital point.

Surely this is a mistake. Surely a public letter of censure ought to explain what harm it is censuring. And just to be clear, I’m not claiming for a moment that there is no such damage in the book, though I certainly didn’t see any when I read it. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to censure one of your fellow ministers for writing and publishing a book, you damn well need to be clear about what he said in the book that can properly be characterized using such an inflammatory phrase.

I can only infer that the position of the Board of Trustees is that the harm is so bleeding obvious that they don’t need to explain what they’re about. That, however, is a measure of their arrogance. They’re so certain they’re right that they don’t need to explain anything. If you don’t get it all at once, in a blinding flash of illumination, you’re part of “white supremacy culture” (their term; see below). Hoo, boy.

I’m not sure how to read the quotation marks around the word “issue.” Do they think that Eklof’s book didn’t create an issue for the people who think he was wrong to publish it? No, that doesn’t make sense. As I read it, the quotation marks are meant to imply that the issues he raised in his book are not legitimate issues, and therefore are not in need of response or resolution.

As the continental leadership of the UUMA, our responsibility is to uphold our values and our covenant. We believe you have broken covenant. We write this letter to ask you to seek understanding of the harm that has been done and to work toward restoration. We would welcome the opportunity to help guide and support a public process of restoration, which we expect would foster widespread learning about what it means to be a covenantal faith.

How has Rev. Eklof “broken covenant,” exactly? That’s the elephant in the middle of the room. Has he broken covenant by writing a book? That seems rather too general a theory to be of any value; it’s the specific book that he wrote that, allegedly, has “broken covenant.” But how did the book do that? And how can he “seek understanding” when the Board of Trustees has so signally failed to provide any basis for developing such an understanding?

We understand from your book that you want to encourage robust and reasoned debate about the direction of our faith. However, we cannot ignore the fact that logic has often been employed in white supremacy culture to stifle dissent, minimize expressions of harm, and to require those who suffer to prove the harm by that culture’s standards. Further, we believe that dismissing testimonies of real people to the profound and pervasive pain of white supremacy culture and its many forms of oppression by simply categorizing them as safetyism or political correctness is both morally wrong and antithetical to our values as a faith tradition.

Here, as earlier in the Open Letter, the UUMA is explicitly dismissing the use of logic, on the grounds that logic has, admittedly, been misused in the past “to stifle dissent.” As I pointed out in my previous rant, the way to deal with the misuse of logic is to be better at it than the people who are misusing it. Dismissing the use of logic leaves you with no arrows in your quiver, other than, you know, childish whining, which is pretty much what we have here.

The question of whether logic is universally applicable or whether it is a reflection of some “culture’s standards” is not, I think, worth going into. Yes, the Greeks invented logic, and they were pretty much a bunch of white guys. But so what? Newton invented modern physics, and he was gay. Does that mean that the principles of physics are irrelevant unless you’re homosexual? Probably not.

It should be noted that Eklof does take aim specifically at what he calls safetyism. In his opening discussion of this, he refers to it as “blatant disregard for the free speech of others, especially by socially progressive students, [which] is increasingly present on college campuses….” We could certainly have a useful debate about the limits or dangers of safetyism! Perhaps he’s being insensitive. But in order to engage in a debate, the Board of Trustees would have to articulate their opposition to the the points Eklof makes (or attempts to make) in his book.

They’re not willing to do that: Note the word “simply” in the phrase “simply categorizing them as safetyism.” The word “simply” is a way of minimizing a whole topic — trying to make it disappear.

Here, as in the Open Letter, the ministers are using the phrase “white supremacy culture” as a verbal hand grenade, without troubling to define what they mean by it. As far as I can see, there simply isn’t a trace of “white supremacy culture” anywhere in the Unitarian Universalist community, so the use of the phrase is a red herring. If the Board of Trustees feels otherwise, it’s incumbent upon them to provide evidence, and to be prepared to defend that evidence using, ah, what we might loosely call logic.

We believe that you have violated the spirit of the Ethical Standards in our Code of Conduct detailed in our Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry, which call us to:

  • Honesty and diligence in our work
  • Respect and compassion for all people
  • The work of confronting attitudes and practices of unjust discrimination on the basis of race, color, class, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, physical or mental ability, or ethnicity in ourselves and our ministry settings

Oh, good. They’re going to give us some specifics. Let’s have a look. Evidently the Board is accusing Rev. Eklof of not being honest or diligent. Gee, you’d think some evidence of that particular violation would be forthcoming, but I guess not. Having written several books myself, I can testify that diligence is required, so we’re left with an accusation about the book’s honesty. If the book is dishonest, how is it dishonest? Specifics, please.

Has Rev. Eklof failed to show respect and compassion for all people? This, it seems to me, is crux of the matter. The real accusation against him is that he is not taking the testimony of persons of color, members of the LGBTQ community, or disabled people seriously enough. He is not showing sufficient respect or compassion for them. And never mind his good works in the Spokane community; you won’t find a word of praise on that subject anywhere in the letter. No, as far as the UUMA is concerned, he’s just a nasty, nasty man. (And white too. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention that.)

How much respect and compassion are enough, and how are respect and compassion to be shown? I can certainly understand that his book hurt some people’s feelings by implying that their grievances were, in some cases, overblown, or that their methods for attempting to bring about redress for legitimate grievances were inappropriate. But if one is required to silently acquiesce as to the truth of the things people are saying and the demands that they make — if that’s the only way to show respect and compassion for them — then we have a serious problem. And that’s precisely the difficulty that Eklof’s book addresses! In accusing him of lacking respect and compassion for all people, they’re trying to dismiss the content of his book without discussion. They’re saying that the only way for him (or anybody else) to show respect and compassion for the oppressed would be to acquiesce to all of their demands and, rather than raise critical concerns, remain silent.

That’s a violation of the 4th Principle of Unitarian Universalism. The 4th Principle calls for a “respectful search for truth and meaning.” But you don’t search for truth by asserting baldly that you have it and the other guy doesn’t. No, the Board of Trustees has fucked itself.

The third bullet point alleges that Eklof has failed to do “the work of confronting attitudes and practices of unjust discrimination….” But here’s the thing: That’s not what he set out to do in his book. What he set out to do was to deflate the overreach of those who raise the flag of discrimination in ways that don’t actually make sense.

Here’s a quick quote from the book, which I trust will show what I mean by that. “Around the world societies have developed different criteria for discriminating against others. For some it has been economic class, for some it has been caste, for some religion, and, here in the U.S., such discrimination has largely been based on [the fallacy of] race, where it has been the privilege of whites to discriminate against nonwhites, leading to hundreds of years of genocide, slavery, inequality, segregation, poverty, police brutality, mass incarceration, and all the other horrors of injustice that go along with such cruelty and bias. Hence, it’s understandable that many of us cannot help but associate such discrimination with ‘whiteness,’ including many whites troubled by their own feelings of shame and guilt. Nevertheless, it’s about as reasonable to conclude being white automatically makes one a racist as it is to conclude being Muslim makes one a terrorist, or to conclude a mostly white organization is white supremacist as it is to conclude a Muslim organization must be a terrorist organization.” [Brackets in original.]

What Eklof is objecting to is the concerted attempt on the part of a bunch of angry, determined people to make white men the bad guys, quite irrespective of what those men may or may not have done as individuals. The fact that he’s being attacked for raising this concern is a strong indication that he’s right. (For the record, there are some important women of color who agree with him!)

As we call you to be accountable to your colleagues, we also call ourselves, as UUMA leadership, to be accountable to our members and to our covenant and values. We recognize that our current ethical standards leave room for ambiguity about what kinds of speech and behavior are racist and oppressive. Our commitment to the ongoing work to revise our Guidelines, clarifying expectations of anti-racist, anti-oppressive conduct in the practice of ministry, seems more crucial each day. We are also working to revise the accountability processes to ground them in values of justice, integrity, and healing rather than in their current legalistic frame.

How that will play out remains to be seen. I doubt I’ll have the patience to wade through the revised Guidelines, but I’ll bet anybody five dollars that the revisions will make matters worse, not better.

In passing, I wonder whether the UUMA is holding itself accountable to members who feel that the letter of censure was a mistake. Not being a member, I’m not in a good position to learn whether that’s happening.

It is our deepest desire, not to exclude people, but to welcome everyone into this work, recognizing that our members represent a wide spectrum of perspectives, experience, readiness, and willingness to engage. While we wish to be sensitive to that spectrum, we also must balance that against the stark and painful fact that people of color, indigenous, trans, disabled and other marginalized communities have testified over and over again to the spiritual, psychological, emotional, physical, and moral damage that racism and oppression have caused. Those impacts are not up for debate.

Let’s see if I understand this. They want to welcome everyone — but they want to welcome everyone “into this work.” If you aren’t committed to the work in the way they define it — if you’re not “willing… to engage,” they’re damn well going to exclude the fuck out of you. And they’re refusing (again) to debate the issues that Eklof raises in his book.

Grounded in our mission, with profound sadness for hurt that has been caused, and with deep longing for the promise of what can be, we close with this prayer of lament:

Spirit of Reason and Passion,

We hear again the cries of pain from those of marginalized identities

Pain inflicted all too often in the name of UU values and principles.

I’m going to omit the remainder of the prayer of lament. I was going to omit the whole thing, but I think the second and third lines tell us something important. Those lines allege (without evidence) that the values and principles of Unitarian Universalism are “often” used to inflict pain. This is a direct slap at Rev. Eklof, and it’s a direct slap at anyone who disagrees with the position of the Board of Trustees and the 300-plus ministers who signed the Open Letter.

What they’re saying is, if you don’t agree with us, your principles are not the true principles of Unitarian Universalism. If you don’t agree that we’re right, you’re causing pain. There is, in the crabbed and rigid world view of the people who are responsible for this letter, no room for true dialog.

What a pathetic mess. You have to wonder how a bunch of supposedly intelligent, supposedly liberal people could jam their collective heads so far up their collective asses.

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Hand-Waving at Plot

If you read books about how to write fiction, or attend workshops, you’ll pick up lots of bits of useful advice. The trick is in understanding how to apply what you’re learning.

A few people had recommended Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree, so when the Kindle edition was offered on Amazon for two bucks, I bought it. Yesterday I finally got around to starting it.

It’s dreadful. But not in any immediately obvious way. I had to mull it over to try to figure out why I’m not connecting with the story. What seems to be amiss is that Shannon is using the trustworthy elements of effective plotting without understanding how to actually do plot.

Both chapter 1 and chapter 2 begin with dramatic confrontations that ought to be exciting. And yet they’re not exciting. I’m tempted to quote the entirety of the short scene that opens chapter 2, but let’s see if I can summarize.

An assassin is creeping toward the queen’s bedchamber. He has acquired a key and sneaked past the sentry. (How he managed these coups we’re not told, though it’s implied that the sentry went off to relieve himself.) Shannon wants to start at the most dramatic moment, and starting at the most dramatic moment is often a good idea. So he already has the key, he has got past the sentry, and here he is, is inserting the key into the lock.

As he opens the door, another character drops silently behind him from her perch in the rafters. (Rafters? Let’s not worry about that.) He steps into the queen’s bedchamber. The other character — her name is Ead, she’s one of the primary characters in the story, and this is the moment when we first meet her — covers his mouth and stabs him in the ribs. Somehow she manages to do this (a) in complete silence and (b) without letting a drop of blood spatter her. He dies. She slips away “into the shadows.”

Well, there you go. That’s bound to be exciting, isn’t it? But let’s step back and look at a few weak spots.

First, Ead is the primary character, but the scene doesn’t start in her point of view. The point of view in the opening paragraphs flops around a bit. Some of it is omniscient, some seems to be from the assassin’s POV, and then toward the end of the scene we’re in Ead’s POV. At this point the reader has no idea that Ead is an important character. To establish that fact — to anchor her in the reader’s mind — the entire scene really ought to have been from her point of view. On top of being structurally better, it would have been a more dramatic scene.

Second, let’s consider the very first sentences in the book. “He was masked, of course. They always were. Only a fool would trespass in the Queen Tower without ensuring his anonymity….” This is flatly absurd. There are no surveillance cameras in the story: This is a late Medieval scenario, with daggers and muskets. And here’s a masked stranger wandering around in the queen’s private rooms in the dead of night. If anybody sees him, they’re more likely to raise the alarm if he’s masked than if he’s not. And if a guard apprehends him, the very first thing the guard will do is rip off his mask. The mask won’t help him at all, unless he has been apprehended and is running away — but it’s night! There’s no light. No, the mask is just Shannon’s flimsy attempt to add suspense, even at the cost of lost credibility.

Third, it soon becomes apparent that Ead is a sort of secret agent. She’s a good guy, but nobody knows she’s secretly protecting the queen. Somehow she has learned that an assassin is approaching. We’re later given the impression that she has magical senses, so that’s all right. But why wait until the assassin has opened the door of the bedchamber? Why not stab him five minutes earlier, as he’s coming down the hall? Because the scene is not yet in Ead’s point of view, the author is relieved of the annoying chore of having to explain that.

Waiting to stab him until the last possible moment is an attempt to add plot excitement. But consider the implications. What if the guy bites her hand when she tries to cover his mouth, and then shouts, waking the queen? At that point Ead’s double identity as a secret agent will be exposed. Ead is taking an awful chance here, but there’s no explanation of why she had to take the chance. I usually refer to this sort of situation by saying, “She knew it would work because she had been looking over the author’s shoulder and reading the plot outline.”

Fourth, when a stranger is found stabbed to death in the queen’s very bedchamber, there’s no follow-up. The queen never summons the guards and demands that they search the palace for other intruders. The question of how the assassin got the key to the bedchamber is never investigated. The question of who stabbed him — the queen doesn’t seem to care about that. Incident over, assassin dead, case closed.

Fifth, Ead herself is never in any trouble in this scene. The way to create excitement in your plot is to put your main character in jeopardy, but Shannon failed to do that.

Sixth, there’s too much rhetorical distance in the scene. Not only is more than half of it in omniscient, but when we drop into Ead’s POV we never get a word about her thoughts or feelings. She has just killed a man! How does she feel about that? Remorseful? Triumphant? Guilty? Does her gut quake at how nearly she blew it this time? Is she sweating? Trembling with relief? Breathing hard? The author fails to tell us.

Seventh, there’s very little visual detail. Is the assassin wearing a Lone Ranger mask? A ski mask? An Old West kerchief over his mouth and nose? We’re not told. More significant, this scene is set indoors in the middle of the night, but at no point are we told either that there are light sources or that it’s dark. Visual details are vital for anchoring the reader in the scene — far more important than a random authorial intrusion such as this: “With the other hand, he unsheathed a blade. The same make of blade the others had used.”

What difference could it possibly make what sort of dagger the assassin was carrying? There’s no follow-up on that. A reasonable inference would be, it doesn’t actually matter. The author seems to have tossed in that sentence fragment as a feeble way of letting readers know this isn’t the first attempted assassination. Not that that matters much either, as there’s no subsequent indication of why sinister forces are intent on assassinating the queen.

This isn’t self-published fiction, folks. I wouldn’t bother dissecting it if it were. It was brought out by a large indie publisher. How the editors at a publishing house could have let this mess slip past them — it’s a sad commentary on the state of the industry, really. But at least I only wasted two dollars, and I got a nice blog post out of it.

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Sync or Swym

Carl Jung was either the mystic for psychologists or the psychologist for mystics, take your pick. For reasons that will become apparent in a moment, I recently tackled his essay on synchronicity. After 50 pages or so, I’ve been forced to conclude that Jung was a very silly person. My respect for him has flown out the window.

I thought I ought to look at this essay because I’ve been thinking of doing a lay sermon for my local Unitarian Universalist church on the subject of Tarot cards. The topic is just irreverent enough to interest me; it has overtones of spirituality, but talking about it in a Sunday service is almost a gentle jab in the eye to those whose ideas of spirituality are more conventional. (Not that there are a lot of that sort of people in a Unitarian congregation.)

There are two ways of looking at the process of reading a Tarot spread. (“Spread” is the term for a layout containing some cards arranged in a conventional pattern.) We can assume that the cards were dealt entirely at random, or we can perceive some sort of non-random ordering principle that seems to have guided our fingers to select those particular cards on that particular occasion.

Jung used the term “acausal” to describe synchronicity. That is, he felt convinced that certain things happened even though nothing was causing them to happen. (He then spent quite a few pages trying to explain how this might work, an attempt that of course reintroduces the idea that there must be a causal explanation. A very silly man, as I said.) When a spread of Tarot cards is laid out in a way that appears meaningful to the card reader, there is no real possibility of explaining what could have caused that meaningful combination of cards to appear. The fall of particular cards can’t remotely be ascribed to a knowable cause, yet it appears, surprisingly often, to contain relevant meanings.

Sadly, Jung’s discussion of synchronicity makes repeated reference to the ESP experiments of J. B. Rhine. Jung accepted Rhine’s findings uncritically. Rhine used a set of 25 cards decorated with abstract symbols to try to detect extra-sensory perception. He thought he had found solid evidence of it, but later experimenters were unable to duplicate his results. Rhine was either deluded or (less likely) a charlatan.

Jung also attempts, in his essay, to find meaningful correspondences in certain types of astrological data. Sadly, his search for evidence consists mostly of dumping a whole bunch of data onto the page and then finding a few numbers that seem to be greater than would be expected by chance. This is not, in any sense, a scientific approach, and the fact that he did a statistical analysis of the data doesn’t make it scientific. The technical term for what he was doing is “cherry-picking.”

The long quote from Albertus Magnus on the subject of magic … well, Jung was a very silly man, that’s all. Quoting Medieval monks as if they were authorities whose insights ought to be taken seriously was quite in character.

Nonetheless, it’s an odd and persistent fact that meaningful coincidences do seem to happen. I’ve experienced three or four that were truly bizarre. So did Jung, and there’s no reason to doubt that his anecdotes were honest. I expect this sort of thing happens to most people at one time or another. What are we to think about that?

The best I can manage is to suggest that the universe does seem to exhibit a mild, intermittent tendency toward meaningful order. The fact that the first human being to set foot on the Moon was named Armstrong seems, from all reports, not to have been an intentional gesture on the part of anybody at NASA. It just happened. Likewise the fact that the lunar mission that got into deep trouble was Apollo 13. Nobody planned that, but 13 is widely considered an unlucky number, and there we are.

I rather like Jung’s term “acausal.” Trying to explain such phenomena is pointless, because they aren’t caused. There’s no reason behind them, no underlying mechanism. In addition, we can’t use scientific methods to search for an explanation, because there’s no possible way to drag meaningful coincidences into the laboratory or analyze them statistically. Science can give us no answers.

That being the case, we can’t assert with confidence that the fall of Tarot cards is random or objectively meaningless. Maybe sometimes a spread is an Armstrong moment. Maybe it’s especially likely to be an Armstrong moment if the question we’re asking of the Tarot is urgent and has a strong emotional charge. Who’s to say?

I incline to the belief that the meanings we find in the cards are projections of our own unconscious (or conscious) thought processes. The cards are like Rorschach ink blots. On that basis, reading the cards is far from a useless undertaking. Giving your mind a nudge — looking at a life question from a fresh angle — is always a good thing.

But let’s not forget that that process has a potential dark side. This week I was reading about Charles Manson, it being exactly 50 years since the horrific murders his followers carried out. Manson believed that the lyrics on the Beatles’ white album were personal messages to him. He projected a lot of insane ideas into those lyrics. So I think we need to be a little careful about finding hidden messages in cards, comets, or the flight of birds.

The real test isn’t, “Am I finding something meaningful here?” The real test, if there is one, is more along the lines of, “These new thoughts I’m having — are they loving, and are they accurate?”

The answer to that question won’t be found in the cards.

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The Crime Scene

This is the stuff they don’t teach you in books on how to write fiction.

Don’t get me wrong: There are some great books on how to write. But they all tend to emphasize the basics — first, because that’s what most aspiring writers need; second, because the advanced stuff tends to be specific to whatever book an individual author happens to be writing, so it’s tough to generalize in an instructive way.

So here’s how it is: I have this novel. The second draft, which was a major revision of the first draft, is already finished. It’s a mystery, and also a fantasy (there’s magic in it), and also leans toward the Young Adult genre, as the lead character is a 17-year-old girl. Her cousin is murdered, and the authorities have strong reasons to think she did it.

I’m not going to reveal the details. What follows will be spoiler-free.

I had drafted the story as a whodunit. The reader doesn’t learn who the killer is until near the end.

It gradually dawned on me, however, that the second murder doesn’t make sense. The killer would not have done that! The killer has a much less risky way to solve <his-or-her> problem. But the second murder is absolutely necessary to the story. It can’t be changed.

After setting the project aside for a couple of months to let my unconscious work on it, I realized that the way forward is to have the killer do what the killer would naturally do — and that action doesn’t get the results that the killer wants. At that point, the second murder becomes a whole lot more plausible.

Problem solved, right? Well, not really. In order to show the reader the killer’s thought processes, I would like to put the killer’s actions onstage. Those info-dumps at the end in which the villain thoughtfully explains what he or she did are one of the most awful cliches in action-oriented fiction. We don’t want to go there.

If I put the killer’s actions onstage, the novel won’t be a whodunit any more; it will be a crime novel. That, in itself, is probably a good thing. I’ve read way too many Agatha Christie whodunits, and they have weaseled their way into my creative unconscious. The whodunit is basically an old-fashioned genre. The modern mystery genre leans more toward crime novels and police procedurals. Sometimes we don’t know who the killer is, but the tension comes from physical danger, not from the sleuth’s interviews with suspects and witnesses.

In fact, the chapters in which my sleuth plods along, interviewing suspects and witnesses, were already striking me as a bit dull. The identity of the killer is really not that hard for either the reader or the sleuth to guess, so what’s the point of interviewing the footman? (Okay, that’s a spoiler. There’s an interview with the footman.)

Writing a few new scenes from the point of view of the killer is easy. I’ve already written three, and I think they’re good. But at this point in the creative process, those chapters of interviews and other encounters with suspects have become quite tedious. There’s no rising action in them, just a lot of innuendo. (Maybe the housekeeper did it because she’s angry that the inheritance didn’t go to the temple!)

But if I cut those chapters, the story starts to feel thin. We never get a solid picture of the world that my lead character lives in, or of her emotions. She doesn’t know who the killer is. She’s floundering around in a swamp of fear. So should I cut those chapters?

This is the stuff they don’t teach you in books on how to write.

I can see half a dozen possibilities. (a) I can strip out all the whodunit interviews and cut to the chase. (b) I can have suspicion center quite early on on the real killer, but make it appear to the good guys that that person can’t possibly have anything to do with it, thereby forcing the reader to get frustrated with how dense the good guys are being as they investigate a bunch of irrelevant stuff. (c) Just keep everything and don’t worry about it. Readers probably won’t mind (d) Try to find ways to insert genuine rising action into those interview scenes, thereby further complicating the plot in ways that may not be easy to control. (e) Ditch the crime novel scenes. Leave the killer’s actions offstage and unknown, and go back to the straight whodunit format. (f) Keep the new scenes, but withhold them until much later in the story. Then put them all together in a solid chapter of flashback-dump.

What would Elmore Leonard do? What would P. D. James do? What would Michael Connelly do? Food for thought.


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