I had an interesting realization this morning.
As my readers probably know, I work very fast. Inspiration hits, I start writing, and I don’t stop until the story is done. I might type for eight or ten hours straight, because if I stop for anything longer than a trip to the can, I’ll lose the holy fire of inspiration, and the story will die on the vine.
It’s really not a great way to run a railroad, I’ll be the first to admit. It limits me to short stories, rather than longer work, and undoubtedly it’s responsible for my giddy-yet-somewhat-unhinged style. It’s not bad, it’s kind of unique, but it’s also limiting.
I had always assumed this was the result of my fairly short attention span, but I just realized this morning that it’s really my anxieties.
No, seriously: I take a half hour off to get lunch, and I begin to dread going back to it. I think, “This is terrible, no one’s going to read it anyway, why am I doing this?” I begin to dread how much of the work still lies ahead of me. I put it off. I question myself. I berate my talent. (I know I have talent objectively, but the longer I postpone things, the more I begin to doubt it emotionally). I take the night off, and it’s almost a guarantee that the story will be abandoned.
That’s why, I think, I only do short stories: That’s as much as I can manage before my inherent “Randy can’t do anything” feelings grow too big to be ignored. If I do it the moment the inspiration hits, I can maybe manage to bang a story out before my subconscious notices and paralyzes me. If I delay, then I’m dead before I can do anything at all.
That’s my suspicion this week, anyway.
The cliche is “What is a man but the sum of his memories?” Cliches are used to the point that they’ve become trite, but that doesn’t mean they are inherently untrue. I think this one is true, or mostly so. There probably is more to me than my memories, but I can’t tell you what that is.
I’m religious. I believe in a soul, but I don’t think anyone has ever defined that very well, and I certainly don’t think I’m capable of it. In my limited imagination, however, the soul seems pretty much like a self-aware repository of memories. This brings up the question, “What is the soul but the sum of our memories?” That’s way too frustrating to deal with for me, and assuming anyone ever reads this, half of them probably won’t believe in an eternal soul anyway, so I’m not going to bore anyone with my fanfic theories of the afterlife.
Instead, I’m gonna talk about my friend John. He died in January of this year. He was a year or two younger than me. I wouldn’t say that his death messed me up, but it has affected me uniquely. John was my best friend for my last couple years in high school, and probably my first year or two in college as well, though he didn’t go to college, or at least not with me. We saw each other increasingly rarely, drifted apart. Eventually we hit that point in our relationships when we only talked about stuff we’d done in the past, nothing new, because there was nothing new. There’s something sad about that.
I bumped in to John entirely by coincidence in an airport one night. Bought him dinner while waiting for his plane. We told lots of stories from 1983-1987, some stories from 1988-1993, and really nothing after that. There was nothing after that. Pretty much half a lifetime apart, and only a few years together.
I’ve had people die before. Hell, I’m practically swimming in death. In the last six years I’ve lost my dad and his entire family. In the last year, I lost my aunt and uncle. I’ve lost friends, co-workers, bandmates, enemies, rivals both IRL and online. I used to point and laugh at those kids who took the “Death and Dying” classes in college because they’d been sheltered by their wimpy baby boomer parents. Me? The earliest funeral I can remember was my great aunt Ailene when I was about 3.
My point being that I’m depressingly jaded about death, and, though I didn’t think about it until just now, I’m something of an asshole to those people who aren’t jaded by it. Whups. Sorry ’bout that.
Just the same, John is the first best friend I’ve lost. He’s the first person’s death has made me think, “Well, what the hell was this all for?” This is the guy who used to work at JoAnn’s Chili Bordello, and who lusted after the waitress, Tobie, same as the rest of us. This is the guy who ended up as my subordinate in ROTC when he should have gotten my job simply because our teacher found him annoying. He’s the guy who chased after this girl for a year, went out to dinner with her, realized there was nothing there, then called me up and told me how strange that was. We used to sit around for hours on end listening to Huey Lewis, which was considered acceptable in those days. We’d talk about Star Trek – which was only just beginning to suck – endlessly. We both wanted to be filmmakers. I helped him move several times. I remember things that he himself had forgotten, like a hallucination he told me about once. I know he’d forgotten it because when I brought it up, he clearly had no idea what I was talking about. All trivial, but I remember them in vivid 70mm Eastman Kodak color with Dolby Surroundsound. (It was the ’80s, remember)
Why does this matter?
I don’t know. You know people in life, and they become part of your story. They’re your sidekick, and they probably see you as theirs. You drift apart, their story ends, and maybe you never even hear about it. Maybe you do, but you’re so removed in time and space that it means nothing. Somehow it’s different for me, though, because I feel like I was there at the beginning of the story.
I wasn’t, of course. John was 14 or 15 when we met. He had a big long life before that, and I did too. Maybe it’s just that I feel like it was kinda the beginning of my story. I sometimes don’t feel like I was really interesting prior to sixteen, but that’s a story for another day.
For whatever reason, though, I remember a million billion trillion things from “The start of the story” that seem to have no payoff now that the end credits have rolled. The day I was joking with him about this thing, or he insulted me about that, or we’d compare notes on girls we were too scared to ask out, of stories he’d told me he was going to write, but never did, not because his life was too short, but because he never really liked the act of writing. All those moments are….
Not lost. They’re locked in my head.
Another cliche is “Nobody is ever truly gone as long as we remember them.” Now that one truly is utter bullshit. It’s grossly unfair, too: everyone remembers Jeffrey Dahlmer, but very few people remember my friend John. People will remember the very bad man long after they’ve forgotten the perfectly average one. What the hell kind of piss-ass immortality is that? It’s bullshit, and I’ve never placed any stock in it. Not that I’d have to. I’m religious, as I said, so I believe in an afterlife, even if I don’t know anything about it. I don’t need to rely on Hallmark greeting card philosophy.
But I’m having trouble reconciling John’s loss because all those moments, all those stories, all those events, were building blocks leading up to, well, I assumed they were leading up to something other than a massive heart attack at 48 brought on by chain-smoking four or five packs a day for thirty three years. And now they are building blocks that lead up to nothing.
This isn’t about ‘a life cut short.’ Certainly he should have lived longer, and if John were alive to realize how badly he’d been ripped off in that department, he’d be madder than a wet hen. Just the same, people die all the time and I am depressingly desensitized to that. Likewise, people die without reaching their goals so often that we don’t even comment on it. We only mention it when they did end up the way they wanted, since it’s so rare.
So I guess this isn’t so much about his story getting cut short – tragic though that is – as it is trying to figure out how to reconcile it into my story.
I’m a writer and an editor. If my life were a book, or more likely a long series of really boring books that no one reads, John would turn up, play a major part, and then just sort of disappear. He plays no real role in the larger story. While he was alive it was always possible that he’d turn up again in the third act and do something remarkable, however unlikely. I wasn’t holding out hope for that. Truth is, I didn’t think about it at all. Now that he’s gone, though, I look back at this theoretical manuscript, and I see that introducing such a major character with no narrative payoff is simply bad writing. John would be the first thing chopped in the editing process.
This bothers me. He’s dead, I don’t want him edited away, too. And yet there’s this huge file in my brain of John Stuff. Funny stuff he said, dumb stuff he said, incredibly stupid things we both did, girls we fought over, movies I’m pretty sure only we saw. He and I went to see “Psycho Girls,” just a terrible, terrible movie. We were the only ones in the theater. I laughed so hard at one point that I fell out of my seat, the only time in my life I’ve ever done that.
Well, now John’s gone. This reduces the number of people who even *remember* “Psycho Girls” by probably 10%, and it reduces the number of people who remember me literally falling down laughing by half. What do I do with memories like that? Furthermore, his loss has kind of eroded the persistence of that moment for me, you know? Only the two of us were there, he’s gone, the moment seems less real somehow. That “So long as someone remembers them” bullshit cuts both ways. Whenever someone dies, there’s fewer people to remember you, too.
I remember once in the parking lot I told him that I’d decided I was one of the 15,000 greatest people ever to live. He laughed and said, “You’re not.” John’s life was…not great. He definitely got closer to the 15,000 than I did, but certainly a triumphant third act would have covered over a lot of stuff. As for me, I’m left with all these dangling plot threads. A million Checkov’s Rifles set on a hundred thousand mantles (John always tended to be doing several things at once), and most of them are still sitting there, never to go off. I don’t know what to do with all the dangling plot threads he left in my formative life. I don’t know how to incorporate what remains of his story into my story. I need closure on that anecdote, dammit!
I’m not saying anything new here, and I have no great insights or answers. I can’t even seem to express it very well. Basically, lots of stories started back in the mid-’80s, and they ended with as little resolution as most of us get in life, but I need to believe that all of John’s stuff back then meant something. I suppose maybe if his endless whining about girls and obsession with grade-z movies and student films and nametag jobs and crap like that meant something, then maybe my life means something, too. That’d be a help, as I really don’t think my life matters. (Being religious doesn’t mean you’re particularly optimistic. When I die, assuming heaven is even an option, I expect St. Peter to refer to me as “That waste of human skin from Florida.” Likewise I have to think Satan would find me singularly disappointing.) I’d like John’s giddy hobbies and good days and bad days and all those useless memories to mean something even if the story is – like most stories – begun and abandoned, because, I guess, it means that his existence would have had some meaning, or at least value, beyond a bunch of memories locked in my probably-dead-in-a-decade-or-so head. By extension, that would imply that I am not completely valueless, and perhaps I’m more than the sum of my memories, too.
Like I said, I don’t know what that would mean. Perhaps my memories are the sum of me, and not the other way around. Perhaps I have value, and the value of the memories is derived from that. Certainly I hope so, because the alternative is that all those first pages of the unfinished stories that made up John’s life, and my life, and all of our lives, are useless.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression the guy had aspergers or was stupid, he wasn’t. He was just a very linear thinker and very rigid. And very convinced that he was utterly brilliant. Anyone who wasn’t a rigid thinker wasn’t brilliant, they were confused.
Then there’s a 1990s friend of mine who couldn’t understand my books (fair enough. I’m not a very good writer), specifically because “It’s science fiction but you keep throwing God into it.” (For the record, God has never turned up in any of my books, though a fair number of my characters are believers in one thing or another) so? “So there will be no religion in the future.” Why? “Because rationalism will drive it out.” Sigh. This one I got into it with over cubism. Now, I don’t *like* cubism, but I understand it, and I’ve found that if you explain something to someone, unlock it, then they might enjoy it, or hate it less, or just view it as an interesting experiment that they don’t enjoy. Nope. “It’s stupid.” once again, art is pictures of mountains and sailboats, period, end of sentence. He also tends to just drop into religious conversations, troll people, and jump out, because he’s utterly convinced that anyone who doesn’t believe as he does is utterly stupid, whereas he is utterly brilliant. Oh, and all philosophy is dumb, he says.
Art might be a good shibboleth, as all of them seem perplexed or limited by it. All of them really like Star Trek, too, which might push them more towards the Aspergers cagetory, excepting that none of them have Aspergers.
“Just because something is meaningless to you doesn’t mean it is meaningless to everyone else.” This is my #1 rule for *NOT* being a jackass online or IRL.
This whole “I don’t like X, so X is useless, and nobody needs it” is a pretty serious freshman error when you’re figuring out who you are and what you want out of life. The next biggest error is “I don’t like X, so X is useless, and I can make fun of it, and/or the people who like it.” The first error is simply a little self-centered. The second is mean.
What X actually *is* doesn’t matter. It could be God, or Pokemon, or a crappy, dog-eared S.E. Hinton novel, or the 6th episode of My Mother The Car (That’s the one with Bill Daly guest starring). The point is not that it’s good or bad or indifferent, just that it is very important to someone, generally for some not-insignificant reason, and if you bag on it, you’re just a mean jackass and there’s no two ways about it.
Look, if some sad-eyed lady tells me that the face of the Virgin Mary appeared to her in a buttroast and told her she was going straight to heaven, and that she should really try the Mongolian Beef at that Chinese place at the intersection of 85 and 140 in Norcross because it is just AMAZING, I am *NOT* going to tell her she’s wrong.
I mean, I’ll think it’s pretty stupid (Apart from the Mongolian beef, because that place was great), but I’m certainly not going to tell her that, because, for whatever reason, she *needs* to believe the Virgin Mary is looking out for her.
If some middle-aged guy is strangely obsessed about Pokemon, and think Ash’s Pikachu is awesome, it doesn’t mean that he’s some sort of freak or moron, it just means that he needs some stupid adorable little kid thing in his life.
Why? Maybe his kid died, and his kid liked Pikachu, and he’s devastated by the loss, and having that crap around is the only thing holding him together. Maybe the Buttroast woman is dealing with a *LOT* of existential terror, and if you take her delusions of heavenly visions away from her, she’ll realize that life is meaningless, and fall into a suicidal depression. You don’t know. It’s not really any of your business. Just don’t do it.
I’m not blameless. I’ve done it. When I was younger and angrier I did it deliberately on occasion. I’ve done it accidentally on occasion now that I’m old and sad. It’s going to happen. When it does, however, and you realize it, don’t defend yourself. Don’t tell them to just get over it. Apologize quickly and sincerely, and ask them what you can do to make it right.
The world does not revolve around *your* world view. Or mine. When someone has a core belief that disagrees with yours, don’t just slam it or mock them, because the odds are they really need it to stay functional. Life is really really damn hard, and you have no idea what people are going through, and attacking their survival mechanisms doesn’t just make you self centered or mean, it makes you an utterly, utterly horrible person.
So just be kind, ok?
I think for me, the most sure-fire appealing SF is that which deals with questions of identity.
Blade Runner is the most obvious example of this: Androids (Basically) are programmed with false memories of their lives prior to their activation for psychological reasons, but they know they’re androids. A detecive is hired to track them down. Along the way he meets another android who doesn’t know she’s an android because of the fake memories, and handles it not at all well. In the end, after killing off the last of the bad androids, he discovers that he’s an android, too, and runs.
Dark City is another one: a guy wakes up with Amnesia, framed for a murder he may or may not have committed. He’s got an estranged wife that he loves, and is on the run, but he notices that the map of the city redraws itself every night, and he ke keeps seeing the same people in different jobs every night, and begins to suspect that he’s never even met his wife prior to visiting the movie, that those are false memories. As it turns out, a hive-minded alien species is trying to find “The Human Soul,” for lack of a better word, by redefining people’s lives and memories dozens of times, assuming that which doesn’t change is the thing they’re looking for.
The Prisoner TV series spends 17 episodes with a character named “#6” attempting to figure out who the shadowy ruler of The Village, “# 1,” is. Ultimately it turns that #1 is, and has always been, #6 himself. (And in fact, they told us that in the opening titles of every episode: #6 says “Who is number one?” and the #2 of the week says “You are number six.” Which actually is written, “You are, number six.” Hidden in plain sight.)
Much, if not most of Philip K. Dick’s novels and stories touch on this to some extent. The most notable case is in “A Scanner Darkly,” when undercover narc Bob Arctor is accidentally assigned the task of spying on himself by mistake. Rather than blow his cover (Even his bosses don’t know who he is), he goes along with it, and gradually suffers brain damage to the point where he’s Bob half the time, and a druggie the rest of the time. the ultimate attempt to re-fuse his identities devastates him, and turns him in to yet another person, who’s just another burned out wasteoid.
There’s a book – forget the title – where the main character is a spy who’s memory is wiped after every mission. He then has it put back in at the start of his next mission, and he’s always quite shocked to find out all the stuff he’s done.
I like hard SF, but I don’t see this as incompatible with that. I also like questions of the human soul, and this is all about that.
In the end, I suppose, a line from one of Laurie Anderson’s songs has always stuck with me:
We don’t know where we come from
and we don’t know what we are.
SF is uniquely suited to try to define the parameters of that question, even if it is fundamentally unanswerable. I admire anyone who takes a stab at it.
I’m an unabashed fan of the Stargate franchise. If you’ve never seen it, this discussion won’t make any sense to you, so turn back now. If you have, though, I’ll relate the highlights of a discussion my family had about the SGC over dinner tonight:
Me “How many people know about the Stargate program?”
Son “I dunno.”
Me “Well, let’s try to work backwards.”
Son “Ok. There’s 25 teams, so that’s 100 people there.”
Me “Right, plus medical staff. Honey? How many people on the medical staff would you think is appropriate given what we’ve seen?”
Wife “Maybe around 150, including doctors and nurses and corpsmen and so on. They’re kept pretty busy. Plus psych personnel.”
Me “Plus kitchen staff”
Wife “Forty or fifty”
Son: Plus Janitorial staff
Me: “Right. Because even they’d have to have a really high security clearance, and it’s a bit facility in use 24/7/365, so, what, probably another 40 or 50?”
Wife: “What about scientists?”
Me: “Most of the long-term research is done at Area 51.”
Wife: “How many there?”
Me: “Well get back to that. We mostly only ever see Dr. Lee and Sam, but they make it clear there’s others around. Let’s say 20 or 30?”
Son: “Plus at least one space shuttle crew. And the crew of the ISS. And whoever unloads the recovered cargo from a space shuttle.”
Me: “Good point.”
Son: “And let’s not forget the USS Nimitz and that entire carrier group. I mean, yeah, they’re all dead, and the Navy said it was meteors, but a lot of Navy people must have been in on the cover up.”
Me: “Again, good point. Now, area 51: Honey, how long does it take to build an aircraft carrier?”
Wife: “Pretty close to a decade, I think.”
Me: “With tens of thousands of construction workers?”
Wife: “Oh, yeah, totally.”
Son: “I agree the Prometheus and Daedalus class ships were probably about the size of aircraft carriers.”
Me: “They were working on the Prometheus for a while before we saw it, but they can’t have been working on the Daedalus all that long. How many F-304s are there?”
Son: “Daedalus, Odyssey, Apollo, Hammond, Sun Tsu, oh, and the Korolev, which got blown up almost immediately. How many crew for an aircraft carrier?”
Me: “About 5000.”
Son: “They never have anywhere near that number. It’s usually in the hundreds. What’s a skeleton crew for a carrier?”
Me: “If you just want to steer and go forward for a couple days? Maybe a half dozen. If you want to actually DO anything, a couple hundred at least.”
Son: “So they’re probably on skeleton crews.”
Me: “that makes sense.”
Wife: “So we’re guessing about 10,000 people in Cheyenne Mountain, and, what, 30,000 or so in Area 51?”
Son: “At least. Probably more since they’re cranking those ships out one a year.”
Me: “They might be constructing them in other countries.”
Son: “Unlikely. Russia had to beg for one. Probably China, too.”
Me: “Good point. This is increasingly implausible. I could buy it when it was just Cheyenne.”
Son: “Plus the governments of Russia, China, France, England, and Canada.”
Wife: “And all the signatories of the Antarctica treaty. AND what about the contractors and stuff who build all this crap?”
Me: “True. They did say some alien tech was slipping into commercial products by means of corporate espionage by the contractors.”
Son: “Heck, that one guy managed to clone an Asgard.”
Wife: “What about Atlantis? Or Icarus?”
Me: “Let’s ignore them for now. They’re comparatively small operations.”
Wife: “yeah, true. So what do you think?”
Me: “Well, when we started I was going to say maybe 30,000 people, but now that we’re all looking at it reasonably, I’m saying at least 100,000 people, and that’s probably a lowball number.”
So what do you all think?
I realized yesterday that I’m overwhelming. Not in the “Oh, he’s so wonderful,” sense, but more in the “Randy is exhausting, and I just can’t deal with him,” sense.
There’s any number of examples: I’ve been in and out of bands and writing songs and making music since 1988. Why? When I started out, obviously, I hoped I’d get a big break and be a rock star. Everyone does. By 1990 or 91 I’d realized that wasn’t going to happen, but I kept on doing it. Most of my friends had already given up on that sort of thing by then, but I kept going.
My goal? Never clear. Mostly, I think I just wanted to include a song or two on the mix tapes I sent my friends to let ’em know I was still doing this. I never did, of course, because making music and recording it are very different, and recording it in 1991 was way harder than now.
Oh, and let’s take the mix tapes, shall we? I made ’em. I made a lot of them. I was very interested in very many very different kinds of music, so I made mix tapes that I sent my friends. Two or three a year. If you were unlucky enough to be my girlfriend or on the shortlist of best friends, you got more than that. We called it “The Randy Records and Tapes Club.” Eventually I switched to CD. I slowed down a bit, to one or two a year.
I got less and less response every time, and had to keep needling people to find out what they though of “Astronauts,” by “Desk,” featuring backing vocals by Aimee Mann, or a long-lost They Might Be Giants B-Side, or a Cold Water Army song or an unfinished Roy Orbison track or my Ska obsession or what have you. Oh, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins! I don’t think anyone on the planet likes him but me, and BOY was I vocal about it.
Finally, around 2007 I sent out a really good double-disk mix, and I didn’t hear back from anyone. Not a peep. When I pressed, I was angrily told that it was just too much, that we were all 30-ish now, and weren’t interested in hearing new crap, and please knock it off. Depressing.
So I knocked it off. I started actually recording my own music, and eventually started putting it on youtube and nobody cares. If I get 13 views, that’s exceptionally popular for me. Again, if I push people, they get mad. “Nobody wants to listen to your stupid songs about Ocelots, or your weird-ass instrumentals, Randy!” Depressing.
Oh, and I write. A lot. I always have. I was head writer for Republibot for five years, and no one cared. When I quit, it folded, and nobody cared. I have this site you’re reading, and I’d be surprised if 5 people read it a month. I also had a fanzine (“Rampant Boingophrenia”) and eventually another one for heretical religious matters called “Sacrilege, Ho!” (Obviously I put a few of these online eventually) and my endless movie reviews and chat rooms and stuff. Nobody cared about any of this. Actually, I was irritating and/or scaring them. Depressing.
Then I started writing books, and NOBODY wants to have anything to do with you if you’re self-publishing books. Seriously: your friends who’ve talked about that novel for 25 years, but never actually got around to it hate you. People who actually write ignore you because they’re busy writing. People who don’t care about such things find it pretentious. People who do care about such things generally have more interesting stuff to check out than my nonsense.
Yeah, you might get a couple people who will buy the first book out of politeness, and never read it, or skim it and give you a nice “It had a good beat, and you can dance to it” review on Amazon, but after that, you’re done. I’ve got, what, eight books, seven of which are pretty good, and one of which is terrible. (No, seriously: It’s my crappy poetry. Stay away from that one) I’ve got four more in various stages of completion that I hope to have out this year.
That’s a lot of stuff! Nobody cares. Depressing.
Added to which I am reputed to be (As one person put it) a “Vigorous conversationalist.” What that boiled down to is (As another person put it), “Requiring way too much energy to talk to.” I can see that. I probably am a lot of work. I never talk about normal stuff like sports. I’m always on about whether or not Saul of Tarsus was part of the Herodian Royal Family, or my latest project that no one cares about, or what I’d do if I was making Galactica for a third time.
So, bottom line: I’m overwhelming. I produce more stuff than people can keep up with. And people don’t want to keep up with it. They want to read Dan Brown novels and listen to whatever was popular whenever they were in High School, and not have me wildly speculating about theology, or the Apollo program, or why Venus is better than Mars for colonization.
AND I CAN NOT FAULT THEM FOR THAT.
Nor do I. Maybe 1 or 2 percent of people are really interested in the giddy thrill of thinking or experiencing or seeing or hearing new things after their 20s. We’re all pretty set in our ways by the time we hit 50. We’re actually neurologically wired to enjoy learning less by that point: We’re supposed to have learned everything we need to by then. I never felt like I’ve learned anything.
This is not arrogance or elitism on my part. I don’t think I’m any better than anyone else. I’m just a flibbertigibbet. I chase after any new shiny object or idea that catches my eye, and I talk about it. A *LOT* Way too much. It’s my failing, not theirs. I don’t have a lot of impulse control in that regard.
OH, and I forgot to mention my mood swings. My mania and depression, and frequent unpredictable behavior. That’s tiresome as well.
So the bottom line here is that I’m just exhausting.
I get that now. I really do. I’m not depressed about it or anything, I’ve just finally identified the problem, and I’m a little excited about that.
The question, then, is what I do about it.
I got no clue. Please sound off if you’ve got any ideas.