Flash Fiction: Looking At Ourselves

“Looking At Ourselves” is a flash fiction inspired by the prompt “New life” from Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds.

“That’s the fundamental issue,” said Doctor Smith. “Life is a continuum. Any divisions you make are simply arbitrary.”

“Be that as it may,” said Doctor Lin, “The momentum can be shifted. The life you live before having children is not the same as the life after children, for example.”

“The child’s life certainly changes.”

Lin snorted. “Well said! But from that point forward, whether the child has agency or no, it is all one life.”

“Swapping out universes might make it new,” said Smith. “An utter change in context, however similar the new universe might be.”

“Life as the interaction between the one living and the environment in which it lives,” mused Lin. “That is an interesting proposition. Quantum theory states that at any decision point the universe bifurcates, and the one with the alternate decision recedes into the multiversal distance.”

“I find that thought alienating,” said Smith. “That means the first time we make a decision we irrevocable lose the people who existed with us at the moment of our birth. All we are left with is close approximations.”

“That also raises a question,” said Lin. “Assume—and this I grant is an odd one—assume that somehow the choices at whatever level—quantum, nano, gross, and so forth—were structured in such a way that a population of people would stay in the same quantum reality for an extended period of time. Through sheer happenstance, of course, since how could we possibly do such a thing on purpose? Would we notice when the split finally occurred?”

“Interesting. We can’t perceive the universe at a level where such changes take place. Does that mean that we chart a path through the multiverse, or is it the multiverse which moves on a path through us.”

“The medium really is the message?” said Lin. “McLuhan must be jumping for joy in his grave.”

Smith frowned and stared at the bottle between them. “Through the bifurcations of the universe, no matter the location and cause of the incident of bifurcation, we exist. We have memory and agency.”

“Determinism says…” began Lin.

“Determinism is a fool’s game!” snapped Smith. “If we choose to believe in determinism it is no different than being predestined to believe in free will.”

Lin gave Smith a wounded look. “I was only going to say that determinism dictates that each state of the universe is predicated upon the preceding state.”

“And indeterminism says that, though A and B are fixed, there are myriad paths between the two.”

“Bringing James into the conversation?” said Lin. “I think we need more bourbon than this!”

Smith chuckled. “Apologies. The idea of a locked universe presupposes that we operate on a level where we can perceive the mechanism of the locking.”

“True,” said Lin. “But we do seem to have edged closer to that state every year.”

“And what a time of miracles and monsters that would have been,” said Smith, “When we could see the fundamental mechanisms of change. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, weaponized.”

The two were silent for a time, as the universe around them bifurcated furiously.

Eventually Lin ventured. “Narrative depends on causality, of a sort. In a very literal way, everything has precedent. If the universe is recreated in every instant then we are also recreated in every instant, along with the memories of everything which brought us to this moment.”

“Narrative is a tricky one to reconcile with the many universes. Consider the fact that no two people remember an event in precisely the same way.”

“Facets and viewpoints,” said Lin. “No two of us have charted the same path between A and B, so the angle at which we view the thing itself varies. A sort of cosmological parallax. The things closer to us move more quickly through our awareness.”

“So each of us has our own universe. Intriguing. The universe as self-awareness. With that as criteria the universe must be an endangered species on this planet.”

Professor Lin chuckled around a sip of bourbon. “Along with everything else. Still, no need to be cynical. Students are students in every universe. But it does raise the question of the existence of the universe without an observer.”

“Alan Watts said we are apertures through which the universe is exploring itself.” said Smith. “That puts us at the mercy of the whole. It moves the level at which agency inspires causality to the other end of the scale. Too big to comprehend, instead of too small.”

“I find that thought both disturbing and comforting,” said Lin. “It brings a sense of completeness, but at the cost of a sense of futility.”

“But,” said Smith, “It also frees us to chart our own course at the level at which we live, without worry of disrupting the pattern of the whole. Freedom, within the limits of our awareness.”

“Infinite and bounded, though we were beginning to test those boundaries. And the testing is the work of many lifetimes. It requires a narrative outside the temporal limits of human experience.”

“Well, this human experience, anyway.” said Smith. “But a good story, properly told, can change the course of the world.”

“Within the limits of causality, of course.”

“True. Even a meteor is not without precedent. It’s inevitable, really.”

This brought about a lull in the conversation. The bourbon was gone. Lin pulled from a small satchel a bottle of vodka. Smith eyed it warily.

“Artificially changing the efficacy of the observer will change nothing in the universe.”

“Maybe,” said Lin, “But there are some things which we might not want to observe too closely. How much time do we have?”

“Minutes at most,” said Smith.

“So much for a new life,” said Lin.

“You never know,” said Smith, “But you should probably pour that vodka quickly.”

Lin did so, and the two shared a toast.

“To new life,” said Lin. “May it fare better and longer than the stuff down here.”

“To good health,” said Smith. “May it last as long as your life.”

In the distance sirens sounded, and the light took on a reddish hue as the old friends drained their mugs.

Smith grimaced. “Is this the best you could do?”

“Regrettably, it was,” said Lin over a sudden roaring of wind. “I doubt we’re the only ones doing this.”

All around them, the universe blinked.

 

Links and Notes for the Week of March 18, 2018

* Icelandic publisher prints books only during the full moon, and burns all copies that don’t sell immediately.

* Down and Out with Warren Zevon in Los Angeles.

* How To Change Your Facebook Settings To Opt Out of Platform API Sharing. Useful information from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. For those of us still compelled, willingly or otherwise, to use the odious, toxic, and vile Facebook service.

* Socialism as a set of principles. Jacobin Magazine offers ABCs of Socialism (PDF)

* A study of the fearful white men who own most of the guns in the USA.

* Bruce Sterling’s keynote at South by Southwest 2018. Disrupting dystopia indeed.

Links and Notes for the Week of March 11, 2018

A short list this week. I’ve been out enjoying the beautiful weather with my beautiful partner.

* Exactly what it says in the title: (Almost) every Science Fiction and Fantasy and Comic Book Adaptation in the Works.

* I’ve been following the Grand Rapids Whitewater project for several years, and it looks like I might live to see rapids reappear in the middle of Grand Rapids. And I might even be young enough to enjoy them.

* More whacky news from a leader who seems sprung from the same DNA as emasculated president Donald Trump.

* A brief, beautifully done, and heartbreaking documentary on Vietnamese immigrants to Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Links and Notes for the Week of March 4, 2018

* I have just become aware of Big Echo, an online journal of “critical sf”. I am still scratching the surface but there is some seriously interesting thought going on here.

* Ta-Nehisi Coates interviews Lupita Nyong’o and Chadwick Boseman about Black Panther and the cultural importance and impact of the movie.

* Donald Trump–who is undoubtedly the most destructive American president since Jefferson Davis–displays the typical Republican trait of caving to monied interests and completely missing the point of school shootings. Violent video games don’t cause school shootings. A sick and sadistic and cowardly culture of gun worship and the fetishizing of violence, perpetuated by the terrorist NRA, is the cause of school shootings. There is no interpretation of NRA rhetoric which does not directly translate to the advocacy of the murder of children. Emasculated president Donald Trump (and by extension, all Republicans) stands in unconditional support of this NRA message.

* Since the federal government is a wholly owned subsidiary of the big banks, cities are beginning to explore opening their own banks to fund local and regional investment, without local interests being at the mercy of the whims of parasitic speculators and parasitic shareholders.

* As of the posting of this list, I have 1,317 books entered into LibraryThing. I still have a dozen or so cookbooks to catalog, but for all intents and purposes I am completely caught up.

Links and Notes for the Week of February 25, 2018

* An interesting, fun, and very strange article and comment thread, courtesy of Charles Stross. From the intro: “I am working (for reasons of my own) towards a comprehensive list of plausible techno-thriller plots from 2010 where the MacGuffin is named Satoshi Nakamoto.”

* Homecoming: How Afrofuturism Bridges the Past and the Present is an excellent article.

* Once upon a time I was a fan of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth books. Then he starting carrying water for Ayn Rand, and the decent-but-not-great quality of his interesting-but-not-innovative stories declined sharply. Now he has distinguished himself as a jackass by publicly insulting the cover artist of his latest book. The internet, of course, is having none of this and is doing an excellent job of roasting Mr. Goodkind. It appears his behavior has cost him spots at a couple of conventions, and will likely make future business with the publishing industry more difficult for him. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

* Since students are protesting their presidentially (45) approved murder at the hands of NRA-backed second-amendment fetishists and other terrorists, members of the mainstream conservative fascist and fascist-adjacent community are sending them death threats and accusing them of being crisis actors, etc. This has not stopped the students from protesting, and indeed seems to be reinforcing their will and message. To that point it is important that students (and enforcers of student-affecting rules) know which rights are in play. The ACLU has helpfully published a page which clarifies students’ rights.

* Voyages in Sentence Space is a wonderfully strange tool which “bridges” the space between two arbitrary sentences with additional sentences along a “gradient” of meaning. From the example:

  1. I went looking for adventure.
  2. I went out on a mission.
  3. I shouted awkwardly.
  4. I stared incredulously.
  5. I feel desperate.
  6. I never returned.
  7. I never returned.

Sentences 1 and 7 are user input. Sentences 2 through 6 are generated to “fill the space” between 1 and 7. Here is an example I generated:

  1. His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god.
  2. His features seized his mistressmaker, and then.
  3. True Bailey leaped through little branches at them.
  4. Send Clayton taking off his shot.
  5. No more pictures stood in things.
  6. It has returned close to none.
  7. And none returned alive, save I.

Interesting and fun in an absurdist, surrealist way. The full article details the thought and technology behind the experiment.

* At the time of the publishing of this post, I have 1,091 books cataloged at LibraryThing.

Links and Notes for the Week of February 18, 2018

* Here’s an interesting idea: Sustainable kelp farming. The kelp is both crop and micro-environment where the farmers can raise oysters and other immobile shellfish. The kelp and other plants provides cover for fish and the combination of multiple plant and animal species helps to restore the larger environment.

* After 45 was elected I significantly ramped up my charitable giving to organizations which work against the kind of oligarchy and fascism which is the party line of the GOP today. These organizations are the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Innocence Project, Doctors Without Borders, Reporters Without Borders, and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

* The Global Risks and Risks-Trends Interconnections Map for 2018 has just been posted. The biggest risks are those associated with large-scale involuntary migration–both the causes of (societal instability, climate change, economic collapse, etc) and the results (interstate conflict, food crises, housing, etc.)

* This is a very strange but interesting take on the current state of the world, involving time travel, the many-worlds theory, and something very much like the digital equivalent of Cthulhu.

* Fear of a Black Universe – Black Panther, modern American culture, and Afrofuturism.

* Some words: vocation, avocation, invocation, convocation, evocation, devocation

* And speaking of the SPLC, they have just added “Male Supremacy” to their list of extremist ideologies. This is a good move, and long overdue. In the linked article they point out the strong crossover between Male Supremacy and White Supremacy. This is the mindset which brought us the presidency of Donald Trump, NRA-backed school shootings, mainstream Christian groups like the KKK, and scores of other sub-ideologies which represent the frantic flailings of dying moments of history. I look forward to the day when every white supremacist and every proponent of toxic masculinity is in the ground. And overwhelmingly those will be the same people.

ConFusion 2018: Poetry in Novels

(These are my lightly edited notes for a panel I participated in at the ConFusion Fantasy and Science Fiction Convention in January of 2018)

THE PANEL: Poetry in Novels (21 January 2018, 10:00)

PANELISTS: Amal El-Mohtar, Clif Flynt, Jeff Pryor, John Winkelman, Mari Ness

DESCRIPTION: “Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass include lengthy poems, placing them in a long tradition of long-form fiction that incorporates poetry into the work. How does writing poems for prose fiction differ from writing poems that stand alone? What distinct techniques does it require? Where do poems within stories exist in the landscape of genre poetry today?”

PRE-PANEL NOTES

PANEL NOTES

  • Poetry can be time-shifted in relation to the story in which it appears
    • In situ, as a bard or skald composes a poem based on events as they are happening
    • Used to imply history/world-building for the setting. An epic poem is written between the time of the events which it recounts and the time in which it is read.
    • The poem itself can be placed in a specific place in history based on written style or language or word usage.
  • Poetry can be used for world-building, either experienced by the characters or as related by the narrator.

MY THOUGHTS

Boy, did I over-think this one–in part because I love poetry, and in part because Amal El-Mohtar was also on the panel and I wanted to bring my “A” game.

Links and Notes for the Week of February 11, 2018

* My partner and I have been spending our Sunday afternoons studying, writing and watching The Mind of a Chef, which is all kinds of distracting and wonderful and a purveyor of the worst kind of wanderlust. Anthony Bourdain is the executive producer and narrator of each episode. Like all of his shows, he makes even the most exotic and high-concept meals accessible (in concept, if not financially) to even the most casual non-foodie viewers.

* I spend a lot of time reading news of the literary world. To keep things organized, I use Feedly, which I picked up after Google shut down its Reader service. This is a partial list of the lit news resources I read: Book Riot, NPR Books, Brain Pickings, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Locus Online, Publisher’s Lunch, The Millions, New York Review of Books, Tor.com, Words Without Borders, Aerogramme Writers’ Studio.

* Some words: suppose, oppose, impose, depose, compose, transpose

* Metafilter has posted a good catch-all thread discussing a recently published study from the Southern Poverty Law Center: The Alt-Right is Killing People. The post, and many of the comments, provide additional links to stories which add context and nuance to the points discussed. As always with Metafilter, the comments are worth reading.

* I’ve been following The Edge for oh, about fifteen years now. It looks like they may be closing up shop, as they just asked their last question: “What is the last question?” The link goes to the (hundreds of) answers.

* The squealing cowards who oppose gun control have the blood of 32 more people on their hands. The NRA is a terrorist organization and they pull the strings of their lickspittles in the GOP. The emasculated orange coward-in-chief has, of course, done what all Republicans do and is blaming the victims. For a continually up-to-date score of the Republican-sanctioned violence in this country, see the Gun Violence Archive.

* As of the date of publishing this post, I have 631 books catalogued in LibraryThing.

ConFusion 2018: A Novel Look at the Short Story

(These are my lightly edited notes for a panel I attended at the ConFusion Fantasy and Science Fiction Convention in January of 2018)

THE PANEL: A Novel Look at the Short Story (21 January 2018 14:00)

DESCRIPTION: “Short stories require a different approach to pacing, character, world-building, exposition, and plot than longer works. Let’s explore the tools we use to convey important information to the reader when we have a lot fewer words to do it with.”

PANELISTS: Scott H. Andrews, Amal El-Mohtar, Lucy Snyder, Jessi Cole Jackson

NOTES:

    • Interests from the Audience
      • Distilling vast research down to a coherent short story
      • Contrast between short story structure vs. novel structure
      • Writing short stories for specific markets vs. writing short stories, then searching for a venue
      • How do you keep a short story short?
    • Novel structure vs. short story structure
    • Alan Moore’s Jerusalem
    • 3-act structure, 5-act structure, etc
    • PLOT DOES NOT JUST HAPPEN
    • There is not 100% consensus over what a short story *should* be.
    • The defining quality of a short story is that it is short
    • Difficulty writing short stories of short story length can be mitigated by reading more short fiction, e.g. GET IN THE HABIT OF READING SHORT STORIES
    • Jo Walton – defining element of a genre is PACE – Western page, romance pace, fantasy pace, etc.
    • Lackington’s – really big on prose style, even over plot
    • A truism about academic research – you should get three books out of the same research: your thesis, a monograph, and a popular book.
    • Make words and phrases do double duty
    • Make sure everything in a short story is load-bearing
    • The Pink Institution by Selah Saterstrom – structure is linked (or not) short stories which make up a novel

 

 

My thoughts: I didn’t learn much that was new to me here. I did enjoy the conversation between the panelists, and I picked up a few new books for Mount Tsundoku.

ConFusion 2018: The Setting as Character

(These are my lightly edited notes for a panel I attended at the ConFusion Fantasy and Science Fiction Convention in January of 2018)

THE PANEL: The Setting as Character (21 January 2018, 12:00)

DESCRIPTION: “In Science Fiction and Fantasy , settings can literally come alive–be it via the talking flowers of Through The Looking Glass or the rage of Peter Quill’s creepy dad-planet in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. In Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch universe where ships have minds, main characters can be both people and places at the same time. Are living settings a science fiction/fantasy extension of the classic “Hero Vs. Nature” story? How do they exist in conversation with real-world beliefs about whether the world around us has a will of its own?”

PANELISTS: A. T. Greenblatt, Cassandra Morgan, David John Baker, Suzanne Church

NOTES:

My thoughts:

This was a good general overview of the topic. I was kind of hoping that there would be more focus on concepts like Genius Loci and the like, but on reflection the panel’s approach makes more sense, as setting qua setting is the environment in which the story exists, not a personality with agency per se.