A Double Edged Story

The power of story to uplift often necessitates we first confront the darkest parts of the world, whether the real world we live in or a world that only exists in fiction. Depicting the darkness of the world is very difficult. It’s difficult for a number of reasons. You have to learn about the darkness, which is decidedly unpleasant, you have to depict the darkness without running off your audience and you have to expose the darkness without reveling in it. Beyond that there’s one final problem.

There may be nothing to learn from passing through the darkness.

Last year I was told that if I really wanted to understand scifi fandom in general and the Science Fiction Writer’s of America specifically then I needed to read a book called The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon by Moira Greyland. I had never been that interested in the SFWA and fandom has always struck me as a tad… obsessive. But I do enjoy scifi and I was given to understand Greyland had unique insights into what made some of the biggest scifi writers of the last generation tick. So I decided to check out the book by reading Amazon’s free sample.

Let me start at the end: I can’t recommend this book to anyone outside a very select group of people. Greyland has survived some of the darkest things I have ever heard. Her survival in and of itself would be a superhuman feat, the fact that she lives a wholesome life, creates beautiful music and has forgiven those who tormented her is truly, genuinely inspiring, a testament to the grace of God to redeem even the worst of circumstances. Many who have endured similar things say reading her book has helped them.

I believe this to be true, because I am in no place to contradict it. In fact, that testimony meshes well with what I’ve observed of human nature myself.

That said, I don’t know as The Last Closet has anything to offer anyone else who reads it. Those are my thoughts on the book broadly speaking and, before I delve into my reasoning deeper, let me give you a chance to jump off this ride here, dear reader. Greyland’s story is disturbing even removed by several layers of discussion. If you don’t wish to delve into very disturbing topics, now is the time to get off this ride.

Moira Greyland was the daughter of Martin Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Breen was an early participant in scifi fandom, contributing to many fan magazines and appearing at many scifi conventions in the early years of these events, long before TV shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica put the genre out for the general public. Bradley was an award winning fantasy writer – fantasy and science fiction have long been related genres and there was less of a barrier between them in the past – who published dozens of novels including The Mists of Avalon, which is her most famous work.

Breen was also a convicted child molester. His wife was aware of and covered up for his crimes, facts she testified to during Breen’s trial. If Greyland’s testimony is to be believed – and I see no reason it shouldn’t be – Bradley was also a child molester. Neither parent spared their own children their predations. The Last Closet is a complete accounting of their crimes, as far as Greyland can recall them and supported, as much as possible, from the public record.

To the extent I can praise the book, I find Greyland’s work in sourcing letters, articles and court transcripts to supplement her own narrative quite impressive. It speaks to her strong desire to be as fair as possible. I am also staggered by what reads as real, genuine pity and compassion that the author has for her subjects. Martin Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley both suffered terrible childhoods and, as is so often the case, were themselves victims of the horrors they visited on others. These events doubtless warped their outlooks and poisoned their attitudes.

The prose of the book is very readable. In fact it feels very much like blog writing, a very folksy, easy to read kind of writing that blunts some of the force of the things it describes. Greyland does run a blog and her experience with this kind of accessible prose shows. She intermixes the factual narrative with pieces of poetry she has written over the years to help her process her trauma. These pieces are, frankly, terrifying. As someone who has never come close to the level of trauma Greyland has experienced, reading those verses felt a bit like walking over cracked ice, wondering if I was about to slip through into the trauma beneath.

As I said before, Greyland survived her childhood. Amazingly she even managed to live out her own dreams – she got married, had children and is a professional harpist with several albums of music available. She has forgiven her parents. Yet I cannot recommend anyone, outside her fellow abuse survivors, deliberately read her book.

Listen. The world is often a horrible, depraved place. Although it is rarer than it should be, people do survive the depravity of the world and bear witness to the goodness of God and the potential we all have to survive the worst circumstances. I have never doubted any of these things.

I wish that I could say Greyland’s story shocked me. Whether it is because I am cynical, jaded or just too aware of what my own sinful nature could do if unchecked, I have to say it did not. I always knew these things were happening somewhere. What it did do was sadden me and enrage me. Having read The Last Closet I now know a whole series of things about scifi conventions and the people who run them that only serves to stoke empty anger and grief. There is some consolation in knowing the victim has overcome these things.

However, I was not a victim of Greyland’s suffering. I have no one to forgive and only one lesson to take away from the story: Some things are beyond my control.

So I cannot recommend this book to most people. I wouldn’t even suggest reading the free sample – the story has that captivating quality of many horror stories that makes it difficult to look away once you’ve begun. It will leave you with very little deeper understanding of human nature, unless you are one of those who believes we are fundamentally good, and will leave a great deal of emotional baggage you’ve picked up quite vicariously. I’m almost certain that’s an unhealthy trade.

All that said, I also cannot suggest you avoid this book. In her introduction, Greyland states that she thinks one of the biggest benefits of her book is that it overcomes denial. It helped her make peace with what happened to her in part through her admitting it had happened. In the detailed recounting she stripped off some of the varnish she’d put over the ugliest memories. Abuse survivors also found it helped them admit the truth of their experiences.

One reason Breen and Bradley got away with their predatory behavior for so long was that so many people were in denial about it. I do not believe in widespread conspiracies to silence victims. I do believe that widespread abuse can be met with equally widespread denial that makes dealing with the abuse impossible. It is possible that The Last Closet can become a sword that helps people clear away denial that stands in their way. It may be that some will need to read it to convince themselves.

And some people will have to read it just so they know that the resource exists and how it can best be used.

So in the end, I find myself in a very strange situation. I can’t really recommend Greyland’s book but I also can’t say you won’t find a use for it if you do read it. So, for perhaps the second or third time in my years of blogging, I must simply place these facts about the book before you, dear reader, and leave them for you to make up your own mind.

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Writing Shame

Story has the power to inspire, to enlighten and to persist in our minds far longer than simple learning. For these reasons many ancient cultures considered storytelling to verge on magic. Storytelling has kept all of that power through the ages and, even now, it endures as one of the most fundamental pillars that make humanity truly human. At it’s most simple, story is what points us to our highest potential and our deepest depravity.

As an author I am generally drawn to the inspiring side of storytelling. However as I have struggled to craft the most inspiring stories I can I have come to appreciate the importance of contrast in that undertaking. While a gross oversimplification, the idea that heroes are defined by their villains is a straightforward example of the utility of contrast in sketching a story or characters. However contrast is not limited to functioning in scenarios about good and evil.

You can contrast people’s goals, people’s actions and people’s reactions. The last is generally not something I think about – one of the hazards of “writer’s brain” is to think about your stories through a single lens. My preferred lenses are actions and goals. The ways different characters react in different ways to the same stimulus is not something I often think about and when I do it is as a matter of world building or as a subset of the character’s goals, rather than as a genuine intent to examine a character’s inner life. This happens in my writing, of course, but it’s rarely intentional.

The best stories need to be incredibly intentional.

I only started to think about reactions intentionally during the writing of my last project, The Gospel According to Earth. During this story I needed to show Lang, a returning protagonist, as he reacted to the death of another character. That brought me to the topic of today’s post – shame. (Yes, we are just now reaching the thesis statement.) You see, I wanted to end Lang’s story on a high note but I worried that I couldn’t get him there without a contrasting low note.

The general approach to creating a low note is failure. Your protagonist fails at something and then has to suffer the consequences and build themselves back up. That’s fine. However, a common error in approaching the building up phase of the story is to show actions that build the character’s situation up but not the introspection that repairs the character’s mind. I am guilty of this failure myself on many occasions, not the least of which was my treatment of Lang in Schrodinger’s Book. I decided to try and rectify it in Gospel by showing how Lang struggled with his new responsibilities after being promoted, as he would naturally feel his failures of responsibility directly led to the loss of his allies in the previous installment.

In writing these things out I was forced to examine how I process shame. It wasn’t a comfortable experience. And I do have a lot of shame to process, after all, I’m a writer with a good education in that field, ten years of work and very little in the way of audience or fiscal success to show for it. That’s just the state of my shameful professional career, before assessing all my personal shame on top of it!

Nor do I always process things in healthy fashion, in fact based on my own introspection I’ve realized I tend to offload my own sense of shame onto other things that are easier to ignore. This gave rise to Lang’s sudden onset thalassophobia. It also resulted in the roundabout boxing that Lang has with Priss on several occasions – it turns out shame is a thing that is hard to recognize in yourself and is probably best dealt with at a certain remove. Dealing realistically with these things is rarely direct.

Confronting shame in fiction is usually handled by trying to lift a person up out of it. I didn’t want to do that because I have found all the attempts to haul me out of my own shame – whether I recognized them or not – offensive. That’s in no small part because, on some level, I recognize my shame as rooted in something real. I’d rather deal with that real problem than have my injured feelings addressed. Hence my decision to have Priss push Lang towards active decisions, taking steps towards concrete, attainable goals rather than focusing on his very real but unchangeable failures.

My hope was to write a story where we could see Lang cementing his character growth and leaning in to growth and meaningful achievement while still acknowledging that he was hurt by the things that happened to him. I’m not sure I entirely succeeded on that front but it was an instructive exercise. My hope is to develop these storytelling techniques in further writings and develop clearer uses of shame as both a motivation and a contrasting low point against potential high points.

Writing shame proved to be a worthwhile endeavor, even if it doesn’t land as hoped and even if I didn’t enjoy the process of putting all this together. Writing isn’t the hardest job on Earth but its uncomfortable hurdles are unique. Turning away from them is a great way to ensure that your writing stagnates and fails to reach its full potential. Don’t be afraid of your shame, or any other unpleasant emotion you may need to explore.

The Gospel According to Earth – Afterwords

Well, it’s done.

Early in writing The Gospel According to Earth I had to confront the fact that there wasn’t really an ending to the story about Earth putting an end to evil government. The unfortunate reality is, mankind isn’t inherently good. I know that’s not an evaluation that’s particularly popular today but it’s a foundational part of my way of thinking and I don’t really believe we’ve ever completely pulled away from being a savage society where the powerful abuse the weak however they wish. We got further from that than ever before in the United States, I think. Even in this day and age it’s still a global problem, though, and as I worked to game it out in my head I realized that the future Earth at the heart of the Triad World novels would reform itself to an extent only to boomerang right back to depravity once again. Trying to sketch out a path for the Triad Worlds to build a new, utopian Earth was, therefore, foolish.

So I decided not to. That really wasn’t what I wanted to do when I started The Gospel According to Earth anyway. My purpose was to show the mindset that led UNIGOV to try rewriting the entirety of human history and why, totalitarian impulses or no, it is fundamentally wrong. Hopefully in the pages of the story you have just read I have succeeded. Since the Triad World novels are intended to be grounded in reality, rather than an exercise in the kind of unbridled idealism that some of the major scifi franchises they draw inspiration from, I chose not to close the loop on all the characters the story introduces.

In particular, I never gave the ‘great men of history’ the story introduces specific arcs or defined ending points. While I got to know and like Admiral Carrington and Captain Gyle I never intended to leave them on a specific note. They were just ships passing us in the night. I was far more interested in the lowly characters in the Fleet when writing and I particularly wanted to bring a solid ending point to Corpral Langley by the end of this story.

This was a bit of a challenge, since I felt I left him in a good place at the end of Schrodinger’s Book. In fact, that was a major part of why I chose not to reuse him or Aubrey as viewpoint characters in Martian Scriptures, along with my desire to see another part of the fleet. By the same token, this is also why I didn’t reintroduce Volk Fyodorovich in The Gospel According to Earth. Lang had to be the story’s touchstone character and I think he managed it well. I hope you’ve found following him as interesting as I have.

With a number of new viewpoint characters and an entirely new thematic through-line to keep track of, The Gospel According to Earth was a challenge to outline and write. The necessity of finding a good place to leave the story was also difficult. I don’t think I’d be a great intrigue writer so I chose not to go too deep into the wrangling needed to drag a peace treaty out of UNIGOV. Instead I ultimately chose to stop on the cusp of that new challenge and leave the rest of the details to your imaginations.

In the end I wanted the Triad World novels to concern themselves with questions of how we will govern ourselves, what we will trust in and how we can know if that trust is misplaced. I’m sure I’ve only marginally achieved those goals. Still, I had an enjoyable time writing these stories and I hope you’ve equally enjoyed reading them.

Now my typical structure at this juncture would be taking a week off. But, as you may have noticed, I just took my usual Christmas break and tacked an extra week on there before posting this! Therefore my next series of essays on writing will begin next week. I have a lot to say on any number of subjects, so strap in! This will be different.

Happy New Year!

Hello everyone! We’ve reached the end of The Gospel According to Earth and the end of the year, so in accordance with tradition around here I’ll be taking a week off. In this case, there’s two weeks off stacked up so I’ll return in two weeks, on January 14th. Hope you had a merry Christmas and enjoy ringing in the New Year!

-Nate

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Nine

Previous Chapter

Lang dangled his feet off the edge of the pier, trying his best to ignore the strong smell that seawater seemed to develop around any kind of manmade structure. Perhaps it was something from the power plant, or an effect of the plants growing there. Priss and Aubrey were there as well, although neither of them were that interested in touching the water.

“What do you think they’re going to say?” Priss asked.

“I don’t know.” Aubrey leaned against one of the titanic support pillars, a concrete pile as wide as two people that raised a good three feet above the walkway it supported. “Honestly, I’d hope UNIGOV would be willing to talk to you after everything that’s happened over the past six weeks but I also never expected I’d be happy being friends with martians either. So I don’t think I have the best insight to go off of.”

“Reminder who just got pulled into issues of interplanetary diplomacy,” Lang said, pointing at himself. “I’m getting worried I’ll be anointed the leading authority on Earthling psychology by the time the fleet’s done here. Your insight is just as valid as mine. Better, because you’ve actually lived through the changes we’re hoping everyone else will have.”

“When your tour’s up maybe you should retire and join the diplomatic corps,” Priss said, elbowing him.

“When I cycle out I’m buying my own ship,” Lang muttered.

Priss looked surprised. “Really? I always figured you were a lifer, in it ’til they force you to retire. When do you plan to pack in your exo?”

“I haven’t decided,” Lang said. “It’s something I only started thinking about since the first time we grounded.”

“What kind of ship were you thinking about?”

“Are there a lot of different kinds?” Aubery asked.

“As many as there are kinds of cars or boats,” Lang said. “The big ones are all owned by passenger of freight liners but I’m thinking about finding a small private charter ship. I may need to sign on with a charter company for a few years to get through the licensing and safety procedures but I’ve got more than enough flight hours to get accepted anywhere.”

“Private passenger charters always like ex-military fliers,” Priss mused. “Although your record of crashing ships might be a real turn-off when you have to sign up for pilot’s insurance.”

“Is there really enough demand for travel between planets for there to be private charter flights on a regular basis?” Aubery asked.

“You might be surprised.” Lang scratched his chin. “Although I’m not sure I want to have to deal with a bunch of rich passengers for a week at a stretch on the Roddenberry to Galileo run. Pay’s better than small time freight, though.”

“Two weeks a trip.” Aubery shuddered. “I’ve been away from home for maybe twice that and sometimes I think I’m going crazy. How can you put up with it?”

Lang shrugged. “It’s just part of the job, I suppose. Gotta say, this trip to Earth has been a lot nastier than the war was, given how out of touch we’ve been, but you expect to be off planet a lot in the spacer corps. At least on a passenger or freight run you get a week off between runs. Of course, by the time we get back they may have another new generation of superluminal drives to cut down on travel time.”

“If you want my advice, get a spot on a passenger liner,” Priss said. “You spend too much time alone with no one to reign you in and you’re going to go off the deep end and fly yourself straight into a black hole or something.”

Lang shrugged. “If you’re that worried about it you might as well come along and do it yourself.”

“Don’t have the skills for it. Comms are a dime a dozen out there in the stars, unlike you flyboys. My medical training isn’t up to snuff as an onboard doctor, either. I might be able to rate as a nurse but I don’t want to spend my flights wiping noses on a passenger flight.” Priss folded her hands behind her head and lay down flat on the docks. “It’s the corps or nothing for me. If I do cash out and go civilian I’ll probably settle down and get married, make a few tiny terraformers and spend my days proof reading legal filings for contractors like I was doing before the war.”

“Sounds nice,” Aubrey mused.

“You’ve never had to edit for paralegals,” Priss said dryly. “If I had a credit for every time I was told to mind my own business I’d be able to buy a ship for both me and Lang.”

“Nice because you’ll be done.” Aubrey tucked her knees up under her chin and looked out at the ocean. “You make it sound like you’re practically done with Earth. I don’t even know when I’ll have a chance to go home.”

“There’s no such thing as done, Aubrey.” Lang pulled his feet out of the water and scooted back so they rested on the pier, enjoying the feeling of them quickly drying in the warm afternoon air. “It looks like there is but that’s a trick. I thought I was done after I came home from Galileo. I was going to hang out in the fleet, do really easy patrols around the system and along the Copernican-Newtonian corridor and never have to worry about getting shot at again. Two years later, I’m here. Two years from now, who knows where I’ll be?”

“Flying charter ships, it sounds like,” Priss said.

“Maybe. Maybe I’ll change my mind, re-up and do another tour in the Corps. I did originally planned to be a lifer.”

“What made you start thinking about changing your mind?” Aubrey asked.

“The actual war part wasn’t great,” Lang admitted. “Coming to Earth seemed like a chance to make history in a more positive way but it hasn’t really worked out that way. I kind of just want to step back and see if I can make something of myself before messing with history again.”

Aubrey gave a hollow laugh. “Good luck. Sometimes history decides to mess with you.”

“Point taken.” Lang stared out at the oceans of the Homeworld and tried to reconcile his own feelings for the place. For all that it was the cradle of humanity, it hadn’t treated him that well in his time there. Then again, it’s not like the Triad Worlds were any better. He certainly felt more invested in it than he ever had on Copernicus, though. He’d never payed nearly as much attention to things back home as he had on Earth – or Minerva, for that matter. “I think you Earthlings will be able to sort it out eventually.”

“I wish I had your confidence.”

“I’m more worried about the Malacandrans,” Priss put it, taking great care as she pronounced the unfamiliar name. “Those kids have had a really rough go of it and I’m not sure what we’re doing is the best way to help.”

“You could put in to join the delegation to Mars the Admiral is thinking about sending,” Lang said. “See things there up close.”

“They’re sending a Copernican delegation to Mars?”

“Oh.” He realized that was something he’d heard Carrington discussing with Naomi while they were waiting to set up Mond’s entrance into Shutdown. Not something for general dissemination. “Maybe?”

Priss gave him an arch look. “You know I’m in Comms, right? I’m duty bound to put that out on the rumor mill.”

“Can you wait a few hours to give me plausible deniability?”

“We do our best to protect our sources.”

“Didn’t sound like a yes, Priss.”

“It wasn’t one.” She sat partway up, resting on her elbows. “I’m not sure I want to go to Mars. I kind of like it here on Earth. There’s oceans and deserts and a whole lot of other stuff we don’t have on Copernicus. We say we’re terraforming the planet but we’re not really making a place that looks a whole lot like Earth based on what I’ve seen. There’s a lot of temperate land going up around the planet. Not a whole lot of deserts or jungles.”

“You want a jungle?” Lang asked. “You’ve never even been to a jungle so why do you want one on Copernicus?”

“I dunno. Maybe I just want to go see a jungle before I decide whether I want one or not.”

“How long do your tours last?” Aubrey asked. “You said you traveled a long time just to get back to Earth so will your time be up soon?”

“It’s about six months to get to Earth at the pace the Fleet came at,” Lang said, “although that’s with the old supply ships thrown into the mix. If we moved at the pace of the Principia, which is the fastest thing in the fleet, we could do it in two.”

“Everyone in the Fleet had to re-up before we left,” Priss added. “Standard tours are four years long so we’ve actually got a lot of time left to do before any of us can think about leaving the Corps.”

“Oh.” Aubrey relaxed a bit. “So you’re not taking off any time soon.”

“Why? Were you going to miss us?” Lang asked.

“A little. All my old friends still live in Texas and I’m not likely to see them again any time soon.” She shrugged eloquently. “You’re the next closest thing I’ve got, outside of Sean, and he’s gotten obsessed with interfacing your systems and ours via AI, so much so I barely see him outside of the computer labs these days.”

“I thought you both worked in AI programming.”

“We did. He’s still interested in it and I’m… I feel like other things are more important these days.”

Lang started pulling his boots back on. “That’s another thing that happens a lot, Aubrey. People all have different ideas about what’s important. Can’t say I blame him, I really want to find some of those air cars we saw on our first visit and take a few out for a spin. New tech is catnip to people like us.”

“Well then you really don’t want to get an independent freighter,” Priss said. “You don’t see anything newer than the First Galilean War in tramp freighters these days. Stay in the Corps, Lang. They’ll give you all the neat toys you want.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it. The lander I flew off the Armstrong hadn’t had a new component installed on it in the last six years.” Lang clambered to his feet and helped the two ladies up as well. “Besides, there are all kinds of new just like there’s all kinds of important.”

“What kind of new do you have in mind?” Priss asked.

“We can’t be sending an entire fleet every time someone wants to run some cargo or people out this way,” Lang said. “Gonna be a lot of call for independent ships to move things on the Earth-Copernicus run real soon. Mars needs a lot of stuff and it’s not going to be easy to manufacture using just the resources the Fleet has on hand, even assuming the Admiral doesn’t put us on full war footing in the next couple of weeks.”

“Shrewd thinking,” Priss said, tapping her chin. “And by the time you’re ready to muster out in three years the Copernican Senate will just be starting to think about normalizing travel. You may be able to get subsidized in picking up your own ship.”

“Not to mention the improvements we could see in superluminals over that time, especially with shortening the trip to Earth to set the goal posts.” Lang grinned. “The one way transit time may get down under a month by then.”

“And if anyone from Earth wants to go the other way they could do worse than to charter the Triad World’s foremost expert on the Earthling mindset to fly them,” Aubrey added, grinning back.

“Oh!” Lang grabbed his chest in mock agony. “E tu, Brute?”

Her face screwed up in confusion. “What?”

“Never mind. UNIGOV probably got Shakespeare, too.” Lang started off the docks, shaking his head ruefully. “We can worry more about that in the future. I’ve got to get back to Vesper and Priss has some rumors to monger. What about you, Aubrey?”

“Keeping an eye on Naomi and Director Mond for the moment. Hopefully we get some good news from the Admiral’s call but if all we hear is hurry up and wait I think I can deal with that, too.”

As the three of them split up and went their separate ways Lang wondered if it was worth getting his hopes up about a simple, straightforward diplomatic solution to the mess they’d made of things since they arrived at Earth. If he was honest about it, there probably wasn’t any point. However they’d muddled through everything up until that point and that suggested they could muddle through the rest. That, he decided, was good news enough for him.