Brain Waves

I’m angry at my brain. It no longer functions the way it once did.

I’m 74 years old. I don’t think this is Alzheimer’s. It’s just being old. My brain still functions pretty darn well, but not in real time. Sometimes it takes a little mini-vacation between one thought and the next.

For the past two weeks I’ve been making a point of doing some serious piano practicing every day. I enjoy playing the piano (when it’s going well — no guarantees). I’d like to keep at it, because it’s good to have a few regular activities that you enjoy, especially when you’re old and you live alone. So, piano.

I learned piano as an adult. Because of that, the neural pathways in my brain will never be as secure as the pathways with which I play cello. I get that. There will always be a little more insecurity in the piano technique. But the literature for one piano by itself is hugely more extensive than the literature for one cello by itself. So playing the piano is a lot more musically rewarding.

My brain plays assorted tricks on me. Occasionally it skips a note entirely. Sometimes it knows the notes but forgets the fingering, which causes a train wreck a few notes later because my hand can’t get to the next pattern of notes. Sometimes the visual center suggests a wrong note. Sometimes the message “reach further for the next note” goes to the wrong hand. Sometimes a finger touches the right key but doesn’t press it down far enough to make a note. Sometimes a message goes out to a finger too soon, so that the note is played early. Once in a while I forget the fingering entirely and have to open up the music book to consult the fingering for a piece I’ve been playing for years. Sometimes I know the harmonic content of a measure so the brain will pick out a wrong note to play because it fits the chord. Sometimes I get distracted by an itch or by thinking about what piece I want to play next.

Lately I’ve started seeing a few sequencing errors (heading off in the wrong direction after a passage that’s very similar to another passage elsewhere in the piece) — I never used to have that problem. The other day I started a piece I’ve been playing for years and played the second fugue entrance in the wrong octave. That has never happened before.

I have about two dozen wonderful pieces memorized. Haydn sonata movements, movements from the Bach suites and partitas and the Well-Tempered Clavier. As I try to learn a couple of new pieces and struggle with the same measures day after day, it occurs to me that today I probably couldn’t learn some of the pieces I already know, because the learning process is not working very well. The ability to store and sequence new patterns is getting shaky.

Should I continue to struggle in the hope that somehow things will improve if only I practice more industriously? Should I give up the piano entirely because it’s just too painful to watch things fall apart? Or should I wander into the living room a couple of times a week and bumble my way through the pieces I already know without worrying about the assorted mistakes and without trying to learn anything new? Would massive doses of coffee help? Is my brain not getting enough oxygen because I forget to breathe while concentrating on what my hands are doing? Who knows?

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The Anti-Trans Wave

In recent months, Republican legislators in state governments across the U.S. have introduced a torrent of bills that attack LGBTQ rights. If enacted into law, as some of them surely will be, these bills will cause both hardship and pain to hundreds of thousands of people. It’s easy to be disturbed about the trend — and yes, I’m disturbed. But it may be useful to address a deeper question.

The question is, what the heck is going on here?

As an armchair amateur pop psychologist, I’m an expert at analyzing the motivations of people I’ve never met, based on very fragmentary information. (Insert wink-face emoji here.) With your kind indulgence, I’d like to take a fling at answering the question.

A full list of these bills would take up many pages, and it would be wearisome to read. A good source for further and perhaps more recent information is the website of the American Civil Liberties Union. You can also find an attitude-laced list on Wonkette. Currently the ACLU is tracking more than 400 of these vile bills. Let’s hit a few of the highlights.

A bill in West Virginia proposes to prevent children from seeing or hearing about “transvestite and/or transgender” people. The language of the bill includes this paragraph: “For the purposes of any prohibition, protection or requirement under any and all articles and sections of the Code of West Virginia protecting children from exposure to indecent displays of a sexually explicit nature, such prohibited displays shall include, but not be limited to, any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances or display to any minor.”

The problem here lies, first and foremost, in the words “exposure” and “display.” The bill doesn’t simply prohibit in-school educational activities but relates “to the prohibition of obscene materials in or within 2,500 feet of West Virginia schools.” As a result, the language of the bill could easily be applied to prohibit a trans parent from dropping their child off at school in the morning or picking up their child after school. People would see the parent, and that’s exposure. Also worth note, this language would be added to a section of the legal code on “distribution or exhibition of obscene matter to minors.” In a nutshell, the existence of transvestites and transgenders is considered, by West Virginia Republican senators Michael Azinger and Vince Deeds, obscene.

In Nebraska, a bill called the Sports and Space Act has been introduced that codifies the meaning of “biological male” and “biological female” (with no reference to people whose anatomy is ambiguous or doesn’t match their chromosomes) for the purposes of limiting access to school restrooms and participation in school sports. It also opens the door to civil actions for people who feel “aggrieved” by violations of the act.

A bill in South Carolina, mirroring a similar bill in Oklahoma, would prohibit health care professionals “from making referrals for or providing gender transition procedures or services to anyone under twenty-six years of age.” That’s right, the bill says 26, not 18. Maybe there’s a Biblical justification for the number; I wouldn’t know.

According to the ACLU, “In 2020, 15 states introduced legislation that would ban — and in some instances criminalize — access to health care for transgender youth.”

Okay, that’s enough examples to give you the idea. To return to my initial question, what’s going on here?

At one time the Republican Party was deemed, at least in the popular view, to be the party that favored small government and upheld personal freedom. These anti-trans bills seem to stand that notion on its head. The bills clearly aim to use government action to regulate and prevent personal freedoms. Yet the party still favors the liberty to own firearms, so it’s not quite enough to say that the Republicans have traveled through the looking-glass and are now living in Opposite World. We need to dig deeper.

The social institution called “government” has always had a mixed bag of goals. Governments undertake measures to provide for the common good. This is normal governance, and not something to quibble about. They also restrict or prohibit private behaviors that are deemed harmful either to the individuals involved or to the social fabric. Not infrequently, governments also take measures to exalt and privilege members of the ruling class, and that’s a separate problem, but not one that need concern us at the moment.

For many years, Democrats and Republicans united in agreeing that homosexual acts, in private, were damaging to the social fabric and needed to be outlawed. They also agreed on laws criminalizing drug use and prostitution. So it’s perfectly comprehensible that Republican legislators today would try to regulate or ban behaviors that they deem harmful to the social fabric. That’s what legislators do.

But why attack trans people in particular? Is it just a witch hunt? Very few trans individuals are neo-pagan Wiccans (though I’ve known a couple), so the term “witch hunt” is meant metaphorically. Witches are usually hunted because they’re perceived as the cause of misfortune. For some people, the changes in gender norms over the past few decades are certainly perceived as a misfortune. This is ridiculous, but on that basis it’s legitimate to look at this type of legislation as a witch hunt. But a more fine-grained analysis is possible. We can look at the legislators’ bizarre and hateful actions in several different ways.

First, the legislators may be appealing to a specific part of their voter base, namely conservative Christians. This group is convinced (with here and there a bit of textual justification) that the Bible defines people as either male or female and leaves no room for waffling or wiggling. If you believe, with conservative Christians, that the Bible was inspired by God and contains accurate instructions for human behavior, you would quite likely view people who violate gender norms as defying God.

Deconstructing or debunking this view would take us far afield. It’s horseshit, but there’s no need to get into that here. Suffice it to say, these people really do believe it, and they mostly vote Republican. Doing what your constituents want you to do, at least when it’s convenient, is, again, normal behavior for legislators.

Second, some Republican legislators quite likely see trans rights as a wedge issue. If they can get these bills enacted into law and then supported by the Supreme Court, they’re in a position to apply the same legal reasoning to other personal behaviors that they would also like to control. The world has changed, and a lot of conservatives are not happy about it. This is typical of the conservative mindset, and always has been. They would like to return to an earlier era, or at least to what they imagine the earlier era to have been.

Jungian analysis might suggest that this is a manifestation of the Myth of the Golden Age — that the world was once wonderful before it began to decay: If we can only reverse the alleged decay, everybody (or at least our friends and neighbors) will be happy. Attacking trans rights can be viewed as a step in this impossible process. Jung might also suggest that trans people are sometimes viewed as the Shadow, the objectified Other onto whom unacknowledged desires are projected — the desire not to be locked into rigid gender roles, if nothing more than that.

Third, anti-trans legislation may be seen as a sort of payback. In recent years the liberals in governments, not only in the U.S. but in other parts of the world, have embraced social programs that depart from traditional norms. Gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, the teaching of evolution in schools, legalized abortion, programs of affirmative action, equal rights for women, and many other changes are seen, at least by some factions within the conservative community, as challenging their core values.

If you ignore and negate our core values, the thinking goes, then by golly we’re going to ignore and negate yours! Turnabout is fair play. Also, attacking trans rights is a way of taking a jab at liberals. They know liberals will be upset by these bills, and that’s the point — upsetting liberals.

Fourth, trans people are an easy target. The government of the United States is, in many ways, profoundly dysfunctional. Making actual improvements in your constituents’ lives is hard work, and often turns out to be impossible (if you even want to do it, which many legislators don’t). In order to create the appearance that you’re doing something that will be effective, you introduce a bill that’s easy to explain and narrow enough to appeal to voters. Actually improving the health care in this country, for instance, is a complex challenge. Instead, let’s restrict health care access to a small bunch of people in a marginalized community and then make speeches in which we loudly proclaim that we’re taking urgently needed action. See? That’s much easier!

Fifth, they’re building momentum. Republican state legislators already enjoy disproportionate power thanks to gerrymandering and voter suppression. They’re looking forward to an era when the whole government of the U.S. will be Republican-controlled, in spite of the fact that only a minority of the public supports the values they espouse. The more they can whip up fear and anger, the more power they can accumulate.

Sixth, the legislators may be ideologues. Some of them have quite likely accepted uncritically the idea that men are men and women are women, and they feel no need to examine the idea or learn details that would undercut their assumptions. Like most ideologues on both the left and the right, they lack empathy. The real human impact of their ideology doesn’t concern them.

Another facet of the ideology is the notion that gender identity and gender-variant behavior are learned — that young people can be seduced into taking up these beliefs or activities. There may be some tenuous basis for this idea; I’d have to do more research, and in the end you and I might disagree. But even if there’s some basis for thinking that in some cases it may be true, it wouldn’t be a problem unless the legislator already felt, because of the ideology they’ve embraced, that these identities and behaviors are wrong and should be discouraged or prohibited. If somebody learns to play tennis, the fact that tennis-playing is learned behavior is not likely to upset anybody.

None of these explanations requires that individual legislators actually dislike trans people. They may, they may not. Calling their actions “transphobic” is too easy. Instead of slapping a quick label on it, you may want to step back and think more deeply about what’s going on.

So what can we do? It’s tempting, at this point, to fall back on the standard liberal trope about grass-roots organizing. Share your liberal values with your neighbors, contribute money to a social justice group, organize a protest march, and so on.

This just in: Protest marches haven’t accomplished anything since the Sixties. Against the Vietnam War they were a dismal failure, and I can’t see that much has changed since then. A protest march may make you feel good, and you may meet a few like-minded people, but do you seriously think Republican legislators will be swayed by your protest march?

I wish I were convinced that such actions would turn the tide, but I’m not. And I don’t think we can rely on our courts to set the country on the right path. The courts have become, not infrequently, part of the problem.

If there’s a solution, it starts with the admonition, “Don’t get mad. Get busy.” Run for office. Yes, you yourself. Can’t do that? Okay, then get busy as a volunteer for a candidate who has expressed your views clearly and unambiguously. And if you decide to run for office, take the time to educate yourself about the many problems affecting your community. Think carefully about the real underlying issues, and don’t be misled by pat slogans. Don’t settle for easy feel-good measures without looking closely at possible unintended consequences. You may need to compromise on actions, because in a political world nobody gets everything they want — but don’t compromise on your values.

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Lame & Queer

Apparently, Ursula Le Guin’s son has knuckled under to the forces of political correctness. He has consented to a few editorial changes in her children’s books. (You can read his explanation here.) The words “lame” and “queer” are being excised in favor of words that won’t make ladies clutch their pearls and blanch.

It’s true that words change their meanings. A hundred years ago, the word “gay” still had its original meaning. It meant “happy” or “festive.” You just plain can’t use it that way if you’re writing a book today. But that doesn’t mean we ought to go back through the works of Dickens and change it. A lot of people are seriously disturbed (or claim to be) by Mark Twain’s use of the word “nigger” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. To these people I say, “Fuck you. Shut up. Go away.” This word was used occasionally by other writers as recently as the 1920s. Some of them were racist, some of them weren’t.

If kids are confused by the words in books, let their parents explain to them that the meanings of words sometimes change. Part of educating your kids is explaining the world to them.

Let’s be clear: The reason people feel a need to change the language in books is because they fear that certain words will hurt other people’s feelings. They may not express it that way, but that’s the justification. And what a pathetic justification it is! Do we really want to live in a world where no book ever gives rise to painful feelings? What sort of world would that be?

But because I try to be honest, I’m wondering whether I would apply the same argument to those Confederate statues. They hurt people’s feelings, and they were erected in a historical period that is different from our own. Is it right and appropriate to pull the statues down, or should they be let stand?

I will put forward, tentatively, a couple of suggestions as to why this is not an exactly parallel situation. First, the statues are typically on government property. They are owned by the public. This is not the case with books, which are typically published by private businesses. Arguably, a statue about which a significant segment of the public has negative feelings ought not to be allowed to remain on public land. Second, a statue is visible from the street. You will see it every day when you go by, whether you want to or not. This is a different situation from a book. Nobody insists that you read a particular book if you don’t want to.

If I were a sculptor, I might feel differently about the statues. Maybe some of them are fine works of sculpture, and ought to remain on display in a private museum somewhere. But I’m a writer. I purely hate it when people think they have not only a right but a responsibility to get in and fuck with a writer’s words.

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In today’s news, Elon Musk (a flagrant asshole) is defending Dilbert creator Scott Adams (also a flagrant asshole). Adams made some overtly racist remarks, as a result of which his once-popular comic strip is being dropped by a lot of newspapers. Apparently Musk thinks Adams is being discriminated against in the media for being white. This is ludicrous, but it’s not surprising if you consider the source.

Here’s the problem I’m having, though. I’m helping out with the launch of the North American Unitarian Association. The NAUA is slated to provide an alternative for liberals within the Unitarian-Universalist denomination. There’s clearly a need for this, because the main organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has been taken over by zealots. The UUA is actively attacking anybody within the UU denomination who disagrees with them or raises questions about their tactics. The UUA has become secretive and anti-democratic.

And why are they doing this? Because they’re trying (ineptly and heavy-handedly) to combat racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination. An admirable goal! The problem is not with their goal, it’s with their methods. Their idea is to “center” the voices of people of color and the voices of other marginalized groups, while correspondingly “de-centering” the voices of white heterosexual men. The logic of this is very dubious, but they’re passionate about it — to the point where they feel logic doesn’t matter. Logic, they’re convinced, is something white men use to discriminate against marginalized groups, so it must be bad. They really do believe this tripe.

When I look at the faces in the NAUA meetings on Zoom, what I see is a bunch of old white guys. Okay, there are two or three women (one of whom happens to be a trans woman), but everybody is very white. So when I look down the road a month or two, to a time when the NAUA has a website and an official presence, what I predict is that the UUA crowd will automatically leap to the conclusion that the NAUA is allied with Scott Adams and Elon Musk. It will seem to them, in defiance of all logic, that we’re in the same torch-carrying crowd with overt racists.

This seems to be the way UUA people think. Either you agree with them 100%, or you’re the enemy. The difficulty is, there are real enemies, people like Adams and Musk, to say nothing of certain Republicans in Washington and around the country — but by and large, UUA loyalists are not going to be able to tell the difference. In their playbook, anybody who doesn’t sign on to the UUA agenda is a white supremacist.

As much as I hate to say it, this kind of bullshit gives Musk and Adams a smidgen of credibility. Not that that matters. They’re still assholes. I’m just saying….

Racism is still very much part of the mainstream culture in the United States, in some flagrant ways and some subtle ways. Only idiots would pretend otherwise. But the methods the UUA crowd have chosen to combat racism and other forms of discrimination are cruel, sneaky, and unfair — and also doomed to be ineffective.

My mother used to like to quote a caption from a New Yorker cartoon that was published eighty or ninety years ago, probably when she was a teenager. A man, a woman, and a young girl are seated at the dinner table, The girl says, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.” That pretty much sums up my view of the UUA. But what are you gonna do?

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That Handbook Thing

I’ve written a couple of books on music technology. Got paid, even; these were not self-published projects. In recent years, though, the market for that type of book seems to have imploded. New software is released, but the publishers are not bringing out new editions of their how-to books.

The reason is not hard to see. It’s YouTube. Musicians don’t want to read a book. That’s too much trouble. They want to watch a video. It costs nothing, you can see what’s going on, and in ten minutes you’ve learned something.

Twelve years or so ago, I wrote a book called The Inform 7 Handbook. This was not only self-published, it was a free download. (It still is.) It describes, step by step, how to write text adventure games in the Inform 7 programming language.

People are still referring to it on the interactive fiction forum. Part of the reason for its continued relevance is that the documentation built into the Inform IDE is, frankly, rather scattered and lacking in detail. That’s why I wrote the Handbook in the first place. I saw a need for it.

I did an update about six years ago, but now that Inform is officially at version 10, I’m thinking maybe it’s time for a fresh update. The basics of the programming language haven’t changed, but a lot of the periphery has flowered. Heck, I might even upload it to Amazon and charge people a few bucks.

But wouldn’t aspiring game authors rather watch videos? Apparently not. Tonight I wandered over to YouTube and found almost no Inform tutorial videos less than five years old. Okay, there are a couple of new ones by Dennis Jerz. Dennis released one actual text game back in 2001. (He used Inform 6, which is not the same thing at all.) But after watching the first five minutes of his 50-minute video, I can see why video tutorials on this topic don’t fill the need.

It’s not that Dennis is doing it wrong, it’s that there’s no way a video can do it right. The video shows the Inform IDE, which means the text is pretty small. And how can you explain a complex multi-faceted thing like writing game code in a video? Explaining what’s going on would require massive amounts of detail. The video would be endless, and it would be boring. Plus, it’s hard to find the details you need in a five-hour (or 25-hour) video course. Flipping through the pages of a book is much, much faster and easier.

And anyway, the people who write text games are comfortable reading text. It’s a personality type. So a book may be optimal as a tutorial format.

Yeah, maybe I ought to update the Handbook.

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The Vorple Blade

I have a long and somewhat contentious relationship with the Inform language for programming text adventure games. I’ve written a couple of games using it. I’ve written a book-length tutorial about how to use it. But I don’t actually like it much. For a variety of reasons, I much prefer the TADS 3 language (with the adv3Lite library).

However, presentation matters. The presentation layer is what your user/player/reader will encounter. And TADS doesn’t have a good suite of tools for making a nice modern presentation.

Text adventures (interactive fiction, if you prefer the five-dollar term) started out in the late 1970s. In those days, computer graphics didn’t exist. Computer displays used text, and text, and more text. Those days are long gone. Today, everybody uses Web browsers, which universally include not just text but colorful images, nicely designed layouts, pop-up messages, and not infrequently audio and video.

This fact raises several issues for the indie game author. First and foremost, what system will you use to develop your game?

Inform 10 was released a few months ago. If you’re clever, you can find and download a set of extensions called Vorple, with which you can add all sorts of functionality to your text game — pop-up tooltips, fancy text formatting, and even behind-the-scenes javascript code. This morning I gritted my teeth and started testing Vorple, and by golly it works. So Inform with Vorple is probably going to be what I’ll use for my next game.

I’ve been thinking I might like to collaborate with another game author. I did a collaboration some years ago (in TADS) with Eric Eve. It’s called “Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret.” It’s a fun little game. But there are not a lot of TADS authors. Inform is 50 or 100 times more popular. If I can find a suitable collaborator at all, it will probably be someone in the Inform camp.

Another authoring system, Twine, will also do spiffy-looking stories that anyone can read in a browser. But Twine is a very different system. There’s no parser in a Twine story, and no world model. In your encounter with a Twine story, you’ll be clicking on links. Clicking is the only significant action that’s possible. As a consequence, if a link doesn’t display on the page, the action doesn’t exist. There’s no mystery.

What I like about parser games (as created in both Inform and TADS) is that the player has to think about what actions to take. Meaningful actions are quite often hidden until the player discovers what to do. If I want to write a story, I’ll write conventional fiction, not link-based hypertext fiction.

As I contemplate writing a new game, maybe with a collaborator or maybe not, it occurred to me that it would be useful to list the types of puzzles that one might find. I went into some detail about puzzle design in my Inform 7 Handbook, but neglected certain wrinkles. So I’ll sign off today with a quick laundry list, which you might find useful if you’re thinking of writing a parser game. Here, off the top of my head, are 20 types of puzzles:

1. Combining two apparently useless objects to make a functional object. A key and a lock would be a simple example, but there could be many others — tying a hook to a string and then winding the string onto the spool of a fishing rod, for example. A vending machine that requires coins is in this category.

2. Looking under and behind room objects. Also other types of searching.

3. Pushing, pulling, and rotating objects, which may or may not be obviously pushable, pullable, or turnable.

4. Giving something to an NPC (that’s “non-player character,” for you neophytes), which causes the NPC to change mood or do something. “Do something” could include leaving or giving the player an object. Changing mood could be required in order to get the NPC to do something (when ordered) or to reply to questions. Animals qualify as NPCs.

5. The evasive NPC (or even a wandering inanimate object, conceivably) that has to be corraled.

6. Gaining information from an NPC by asking questions or directing the conversation.

7. Assorted obstacles to travel (other than locked doors) — rooms that are dark, airless, hot, or cold, rooms that contain spiders or crocodiles, rooms where you drop things and can’t pick them up, passages blocked by rubble or holes in the flooring, bridges that are too fragile to be crossed while you’re carrying heavy things. Requiring a vehicle would be in this category, and of course operating the vehicle or rendering it operable would be a separate puzzle.

8. Transforming an object into something else — a seed into a plant, a floppy bunch of rubber into an inflated raft, etc.

9. Confusing or self-altering map design, including mazes. Non-obvious exits, including secret doors.

10. Using common objects in unusual or unexpected ways. Maybe that fishing pole with a hook that you just built is used not for fishing but for getting an important piece of cloth down from a high shelf.

11. Getting objects into a different and more useful state. Switching on a machine or winding up a toy doll, for instance.

12. Doing something in one room, perhaps something fairly simple, that causes a change in a different room.

13. Putting objects in odd or difficult-to-reach places. After inflating a balloon with helium, for instance, you can let go of it and it will rise to the ceiling, after which….

14. Player exhaustion, hunger, or illness. Probably not a good type of puzzle, but possible if it’s handled in a fresh and interesting way and doesn’t become repetitive.

15. Needing to wait for several turns until something happens. Again, not a great type of puzzle, unless there is evidently a reason for it within the story.

16. Things whose description deliberately (but not unfairly) obscures their functionality.

17. Fire, water, ropes, guns, and chemicals. Difficult to include, but could be useful in several of the above categories.

18. Riddles and ciphers. Combination locks are in this category. Cryptic clues. Machines whose operation requires manipulating controls in a way that’s not obvious. Information sources in which you have to know how to find the right page.

19. Manipulation difficulties: objects that are too heavy to lift, too hot, too slippery, or difficult to handle for some other reason.

20. Perception difficulties. The player needs to be wearing glasses, a background noise is so loud you can’t tell what an NPC is saying, or your fingers are too numb to operate the delicate machinery.

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Is UU Is or Is UU Ain’t?

No, this isn’t about that 1943 pop song. Nor is it about an early text adventure game called Unnkulian Underworld, which features a wise old man named Kuulest. It’s about religion. What it is and what it’s not. And in particular, what Unitarian Universalism is or isn’t.

I’ve been re-reading Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained. It’s a carefully written but very readable treatise on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. To try to explain the book in a sentence or two is … well, I’ll give it a try. In a nutshell, Boyer’s analysis of religion relies on the notion that throughout the world, in one human culture after another, religious observance and religious feeling are all about the relations between people and invisible agents — ghosts, demons, saints, and so on. These agents may differ from one another in many details depending on the culture, but they have a few salient features in common. They are aware of human activities, they have the power to affect humans, and you need to maintain right relations with them, because if you don’t, they may do bad things to you or allow bad things to happen to you that could have been prevented if you had recited the right prayer, sacrificed a pig, or whatever.

I’ve become a minor cog in the machinery of the North American Unitarian Association (NAUA), a new organization that aspires to undo the damage being inflicted on Unitarian-Universalism by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). I’m strongly in sympathy with the goals of the NAUA, that goes without saying, but as a free-range intellectual I find myself a bit out of sync with the repeated use by the NAUA leadership of the phrase “liberal religion.” The mission of the organization, as I understand it, is to safeguard liberal religion — that is, classic Unitarianism — from the illiberal zealotry of the UUA. The effort may or may not succeed, but by golly we’re giving it the old college try.

The first problem that occurs to me is this: Is Unitarian-Universalism a religion? By Pascal Boyer’s definition, clearly it’s not. To the extent that UU has a doctrine at all (and that’s a debate we can save for another time), the doctrine clearly has nothing to do with invisible agents. In a UU service you may hear phrases like “the Spirit of the Universe” (the capital letters being audible in the minister’s delivery). The Spirit of the Universe may even be addressed in prayer. But this alleged Spirit has no characteristics and can’t be relied on to do a darn thing. The idea that the Spirit of the Universe has any specific awareness of your behavior and your desires — that idea is just not found in UU.

A straightforward analysis can only suggest that UU is a social organization, a bit like the Shriners or the Odd Fellows. Yes, there’s hymn-singing and candle-lighting and basket-passing. The building is called a church, and the gatherings on Sunday mornings are called services. But that’s just party decorations. UU is not a religion. You can call it a religion if you like — most UUs undoubtedly do — but that’s like the old joke that’s attributed to Abe Lincoln: “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling the tail a leg doesn’t make it one.”

I’ll go further. The reason Unitarian-Universalism is such a tiny, marginal denomination is precisely because it lacks the kind of doctrines that trigger the unconscious processes in people’s brains that give rise to religious belief. In the absence of a belief in one or more well-defined invisible beings, UU has difficulty attracting adherents. There’s nothing to adhere to. As Gertrude Stein put it, there’s no there there.

The deeper question is whether the phrase “liberal religion” even has any meaning. By definition, a religion is a set of beliefs that are shared by a group of people — and if you don’t share those beliefs, you’re not part of that religion. The Seven Principles of Unitarian-Universalism are not beliefs. We’re talking about beliefs in invisible entities. With something like Catholicism or Mormonism the requirement that you share the group’s beliefs is quite obvious, but really it’s much the same in non-Western cultures. If everybody else in the village believes that the ancestors must be propitiated in order for the crops to grow, but you laugh at your neighbors’ insistence on this idea or simply refuse to participate in the rites that everyone else feels are important, you’re not going to be very popular. You will be looked down on. And why? Because you’re not participating in the religion.

The word “liberal” as it’s used in UU doesn’t mean “freely distributing gifts.” That’s one way the word is used, but it’s not what is meant in this context. To a Unitarian-Universalist (or to what I suppose we must now call a traditional Unitarian-Universalist), “liberal” means “you can believe or not believe whatever you want with respect to spiritual matters.” There are atheists in UU. I’m one of them. The phrase “the Spirit of the Universe” makes me cringe. But I’m as good a UU as you and you. The word “liberal” is clearly used in UU circles to describe the freedom of individual conscience and individual belief.

But that’s not how religion works. Religion, by its very nature, requires and enforces specific beliefs. A religion cannot be liberal. But that may not matter, because Unitarian-Universalism isn’t a religion.

Some of my NAUA friends may not find this line of thought congenial. All I can say is, read Pascal Boyer. Anyway, there’s no shame in being a liberal social organization. It might even be a source of pride. And you can light candles if you like. Nothing wrong with candles.

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Fitting the Planks

Just a quick note about world-building, and I’m pretty sure it applies equally well to science fiction and fantasy. (Not surprising, since science fiction is actually a subgenre within the fantasy genre.)

Whenever you introduce an element into your story that isn’t found in our own world, you need to consider carefully how it fits into the world you’re envisioning. Whether it’s nanobots or ghosts, what are the implications?

Let’s say you want to include a ghost in your story. Okay — does everybody become a ghost when they die? If so, won’t your world be littered with millions of ghosts drifting around? That’s a question without an easy solution. Do ghosts eat? If not, what source of energy do they use to travel around? Are ghosts subject to the laws of physics, such as gravity? I once critiqued a manuscript that included a ghost dog, and the author treated the dog’s interaction with physics very inconsistently. Sometimes it could walk through walls, but other times you had to open the door to let it out.

Turning to technology, let’s say your scientists have developed some new technique. It could be a brain-to-computer interface, a faster-than-light drive, a drug that produces telepathy, anything at all. No matter what it is, questions need to be asked. Is the technology widely available, or scarce? Is it expensive or cheap? Does everybody know about it, or is it a closely held secret? Can anybody get their hands on it, or is it restricted to the ruling class? What happens when criminals get hold of it? How will its existence or its use affect people — their minds, their lives, or the culture in which they live? What happens if it malfunctions?

Failing to consider these questions carefully is the mark of a weak, sloppy writer. To build a world, you need to fit the planks together with care, preferably so that the joins are not obvious. Sure, use glue, but a little dab’ll do ya. Use more only if you dare.

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Black Hearts & Daggers

The modern mystery genre embraces several distinct subgenres — the police procedural, the cozy, the thriller, the crime caper, the classic whodunit, and maybe a couple others that I’m forgetting. All of them are somewhat formulaic, so if you’re going to write one, you need to know the conventions of your chosen subgenre.

I’m partial to whodunits. You don’t know who the murderer is. It could be anybody! The sleuth doggedly plods down blind alleys in search of the subtle clue that will unmask the killer.

The whodunit has its share of conventions. Often, the person you, the reader, think must surely be the killer turns up as the second corpse. Dodgy alibis are a staple. But two conventions are even more basic. First, in the grip of strong emotion almost anybody can resort to murder. It doesn’t require a special value system or a clinically defective moral compass. Second, someone who can kill or has already killed looks exactly like anybody else. There are no visible behavioral cues that will suggest to the sleuth or to the reader that this person is seriously unbalanced.

These ideas are probably not good human psychology, not in the real world. But if you try to discard them, it’s going to be difficult to write a whodunit.

A whodunit can work well if there are only two viable suspects, but it’s usually better to have three or four. (Having five suspects gets unwieldy.) The trick is to make the suspects believable as potential murderers. But really, how many people can be so horribly vexed by the person who is about to die that they might plausibly pick up a dagger or a pistol?

In most respects I’m a fairly normal human being, though I’m probably more rational and less swayed by emotion than some. I find it difficult to put myself in the shoes of a murderer. I’ve written a couple of whodunits, and I think I did the suspects pretty well. If you’d like to check out whether I’m kidding myself, you can jet over to Amazon and pick up While Caesar Sang of Hercules or Woven of Death and Starlight. But those stories both have exotic settings, which probably makes it more plausible that seemingly ordinary people are crazy enough to kill.

At the moment I’m contemplating a story set in upstate New York in the modern era. My story idea has some features that I really like, including the snarky voice of the first-person narrator. But I’m going to have to think about the deep emotions of the killer(s), because I want the story to be believable.

I’m fairly obsessive, in fact, about believability. Not all mystery writers are. This week I’ve been binge-reading (re-reading) Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. The main attraction of these classic whodunits is the contentious relationship between Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Sometimes the plot makes sense, but no guarantees. In And Be a Villain, we’re expected to swallow the idea that the cops never asked anybody why one of the soft-drink bottles had coffee in it rather than the expected beverage. And the third murder, while dramatic, was flatly unbelievable. The killer could not possibly have imagined that that would be a viable way to do away with the victim.

There may be a lesson in this. Stout was very successful, and the Wolfe books are classics. Mysteries are an entertainment product. If you can entertain (and as a narrator, Archie Goodwin is vastly entertaining), you can get away with murder.

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The Epic

Being, at the moment, too distracted by some health issues to tackle any creative work of my own, I thought to fill the idle hours (which is most of them) by reading Tad Williams’s massive series called Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. I marched most of the way through the first book, The Dragonbone Chair, a number of years ago, but gave it up without going on to the even longer Stone of Farewell and Toward Green Angel Tower. The third book is more than a thousand pages in a 6×9 trim size, and that’s intimidating enough to explain my reticence, absent any other factors. The three paperbacks have been sitting on my shelf, mocking me, for at least a decade now.

Williams is a fine prose stylist. His prose is better than mine, no shame in admitting that. The story, though — that’s a dragon of a different color. What concerns me about The Dragonbone Chair (I haven’t yet finished it, so I can’t comment on the shape of the epic as a whole) is that it’s so darn predictable.

There are forces of good and forces of evil, and ultimately everybody in the story is aligned with either one side or the other. The evil forces have, of course, some evil magic on their side. The good guys, no magic. Okay, yeah, the wise woman of the forest can turn into an owl, but so far (585 pages out of 760 in the first book) that’s about it.

And then the knights and men-at-arms. Williams has constructed a bog-standard Medieval society, complete with a king and an assortment of dukes, earls, and counts, not to mention a minstrel, a jester, ladies-in-waiting, and a thinly disguised version of Christianity. The vast conflict that is unfolding seems, so far, to be a build-up to a series of battles in which sword will clash against sword and hundreds of valiant good guys will be hacked to bits. Golly, doesn’t that sound like fun?

The hero of the tale, young Simon, is transparently The Chosen One. His parentage is mysterious. He’s raised as a lowly servant in the castle, and as far as he’s aware, he has been swept up in the stupendous conflict by accident. But of course the obscure hints about the identity of his father alert the savvy reader that there’s a lot more to it than that.

While prowling around the castle, he encounters a boy about his age (14 or 15) who before dashing away reveals that his name is Malachias. And then Simon quite accidentally stumbles upon the king’s brother locked up in a secret cell, helps the brother escape, and then the good wizard is killed by the evil wizard and Simon is on the run through the wilderness, hungry and footsore. A few weeks later, still on the run, he and his troll friend rescue two young people who have been treed by bloodthirsty evil hounds, and dang, it’s Malachias. Who is soon revealed as a girl disguised as a boy. She says her name is Marya, and it isn’t until a hundred pages later that it turns out Marya is actually Princess Miriamele.

You saw that coming, didn’t you?

To be fair to Williams, he was writing this story in the late 1980s, when the fading glow of Tolkien still illuminated the far hills. Fantasy today has grown up, at least a tiny bit.

But I think Williams’s greatest sin is that I don’t care about any of the characters. Not even Simon. All of them are one-dimensional at best. As I near the end of the first book, there is indeed a battle — knights on horseback hacking at one another, plus some treachery. Much of the battle is reported from the viewpoint of a minor character named Deornoth, whom I don’t recall seeing anywhere in the narrative up to this point. He’s a blank.

I suspect the characters are one-dimensional because they’re swept up and completely absorbed by the grim events of the story. If any of them was having fun or being whimsical, it would undercut the intensity of the story. But because they’re all either diabolically evil or tangled in a life-or-death struggle with evil, I just don’t want to hang around with them.

If I can get myself back on an even keel, I’d like to resume work on the expanded version of my own fantasy epic. (Those book covers up there at the top of the blog! They’re good! Buy them!) What is, at present, a four-volume story may someday be seven volumes. I have the first few chapters of the prequel drafted. Here’s the thing, though: I really do think my story is better than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. At least, from what I’ve seen of it so far.

Well, I didn’t start working on mine until 2004, and I started out with the conscious intention of not doing a bog-standard Medieval fantasy. There are railroad trains in my story and simple firearms as well as wizards and dragons. Also, I deliberately avoided writing a pitched battle between opposing forces hacking at one another with swords. I just don’t care for that kind of crap. I even included a couple of comic characters. The main events of my story are serious; there’s danger, treachery, and a bit of gruesome death here and there; but my emotional canvas is a whole lot broader than Williams’s.

Beyond that, I inverted a couple of the tropes that Williams used. Yes, my teenage hero is a Chosen One with a mysterious parentage. (Sorry about that.) At least it’s mysterious to her at the outset, but her uncle knows all about it, so it doesn’t stay mysterious for very long. And yes, she soon gets romantically involved with royalty — except, well, not exactly. Her young man is technically the emperor, and knows it, but he’s working in a freight caravan as an ox-tender, and he’s perfectly happy in that role. He has no political ambitions.

Williams’s princess gives Simon a blue scarf as he’s about to set off on the next perilous stage of his quest. Totally Medieval. My unassuming emperor gives his girl his dagger. It’s a simple enough inversion of the trope, as well as being a phallic symbol, but that’s the point. It is an inversion. And at the end of my final volume, or what is at the moment the final volume, she gives up her destiny, because it turns out she has a half-brother, so she’s not the Chosen One after all.

If I live long enough to write the two books that follow, more will be revealed. But while I may want to be influenced by Williams’s wonderful prose style, I’m not proposing to ape his plot. Epic fantasy ain’t what it used to be — and we can all be grateful for that.

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