The Truth and Beauty – Manic Philosophy

A while ago I read Andrew Klavan’s memoir, The Great Good Thing. It was a fascinating recounting of the life of a man who struggled with his family, his place in the world and his fundamental beliefs, a man who did not fully find his place in the world until the eve of his fiftieth birthday. As a result I was very interested to read Klavan’s insights into the intersection between faith and art, which he has committed to paper in his latest book, The Truth and Beauty. In the introduction to this book, Klavan states that his wife (who reads his books first) found the book interesting but wasn’t sure if it was good. He reports that his answer was, “Of course it’s a good book. I just have to cut out all the bad parts.” 

In this endeavor, he succeeded. There isn’t a bad section to this book. Unfortunately, it feels like the book itself would be stronger if he had polished up some of those bad parts to the standard of the rest and left them in, because I feel like it could really use some connective tissue in there. 

This book is divided into three general sections. First, the introduction and statement of purpose. Second, an examination of the life and times of England’s great poets. Third, a meditation on the Gospels, with occasional reference to said poets to illustrate a point. 

The core idea of this book is something I think is on point. By which I mean I agree with it 100%. Klavan is trying to grapple with the dichotomy of authenticity and performance. Human beings are not entirely authentic creatures nor are we entirely performative. We are both people pleasers and self-indulgent narcissists, we are both mold breakers and creatures of habit, we are creatures of thought and creatures of impulse. Our societies are structured to maximize natural roles and yet the iconoclast is a natural and vital role. 

There’s several solid lines of reasoning to argue Jesus Christ harmonizes these two seemingly conflicting states into a single superposition. Klavan explores a couple of them in his book and I don’t have any problem with his reasoning. 

Klavan also argues that the life and times of the English Romantic poets forced them to try and resolve this conflict as well. They had to sort out their own radical beliefs, the demands of human nature and the bedrock nature of reality. Klavan walks us through the time period and important events in the lives of the poets to make his case. I’m not an expert on these poets or the era. I can only take what Klavan presents at face value and, if it is all true, he does make an argument that the poets did find their ideas in conflict with their pursuit of art. It’s certainly compelling stuff to read. 

Finally, Klavan expounds on the beauty of the Gospels, the way they show us many people, but Christ in particular, balancing the roles of performer and authentic person. We see that only Christ balances these two things perfectly, and this is what made people react to him so strongly. 

What I find missing from all of this is a direct correlation between the Romantics and the Gospels. I understand that Wordsworth et al failed to balance the conflicts between authenticity and performance. The problem is that’s not a unique failing on their part, it is the human condition in general. Klavan speculates that their excellent art has stood the test of time because it points towards universal truths and does so beautifully, even if those artists didn’t live up to those truths and were not, themselves, beautiful. Fair enough, many such artists exist. 

I just don’t see how the two sets of observations connect. Perhaps it is best to just read The Truth and Beauty as another memoir, a recounting of the facts, ideas and poetry that passed through Klavan’s mind as he was struggling his way to deeper understanding of the Gospels. It certainly works well that way. Perhaps others will have the flash of genius moment Klavan did as they read this. I didn’t have such a moment, nor was the direction Klavan’s thoughts moved during that revelation clear to me. That was what I hoped to get from the book, but didn’t. Perhaps the fact that I’ve been enamored with a similar idea for over a decade – I did a presentation on the Parables of Jesus, Chinese wisdom literature and the unity of character and applied morals in college – has clouded my ability to take in new thoughts on the matter. That can happen to creative minds. Once we have an approach to a topic in mind taking on a new one can be difficult. 

All in all, I enjoyed reading The Truth and Beauty a great deal. It was interesting, humorous, informative and grappled with big ideas. But I didn’t get the insight into how two very deep subjects connect that I had hoped and if that’s what you’re really hoping for I’m not sure you will, either. If you’re okay with that, or if you’re just looking for a high level overview of the English Romantics, you may enjoy this book. And, of course, you may be able to pick up on parts of this book that I could not. But I’m not entirely sure I can recommend this book to people trying to pick up a deeper understanding of truth and beauty vis a vie the Gospels, because I didn’t find it here. It’s hard for me to parse the worth of the book in that respect, however, because I have also been caught up in the questions Klavan wrestles with for most of my life. Your mileage may vary. I would recommend reading the sample or checking your library before buying. 

I’ve been kind of hard on Klavan’s writing here. But I do think this is a good book and I hope to see more nonfiction from Klavan in the future.  


Fiction, Science and the Divided Future

Like many genres, science fiction is such a broad category as to be functionally useless. There’s at least three different subsets of what people generally consider “sci-fi” and many book dealers and libraries foolishly lump “fantasy” (another laughably meaningless label) into the category as well, creating a single genre with more identity issues than an entire middle school full of preteens. Since I’m running this blog and I get to define the terms, not to mention the fact that I am in constant need of content, I’ve taken it upon myself to set out and explain my own genres, including several that would normally be considered “sci-fi” in typical parlance. So far, the only one of these that I’ve touched on so far is space opera, although you can tune in next week for my thoughts on hard sci-fi. But that’s not exactly what I’m here to talk about today.

Today I’m here to talk about the new setting I’m introducing with next Monday’s short story Emergency Surface! Exciting, yes? Do I detect a lack of enthusiasm? -_-

Well, I guess that’s not surprising given that you know nothing about what’s coming up. As you may have already guess from the direction of this post, Emergency Surface is something of a sci-fi story set in something of a sci-fi world. The closest genre it falls into is hard sci-fi, but that’s a label that doesn’t really apply. To explain my reticence to use the term we have to step back a bit and examine the ideas behind science fiction as a whole.

As the name implies, science fiction is fiction where science (in the abstract), the directions science takes and humanity’s relation to science are all examined through the characters and plot. My problem with this approach is that pretty much every science fiction story assumes that science and technology will shape culture as they are introduced. Eventually some kind of technological turning point will be hit and humanity will be pulled together and all our differences will disappear, leaving us to deal with the new challenges of the space age as a mostly united group (sometimes this is called the “technological singularity” although that term doesn’t always refer to that sequence of events. Like most philosophical concepts, it means different things to different people.) Usually this breakthrough is something like technologically assisted group consciousness, nanotechnology creating infinite free wealth or some sort of free energy that is essentially the same as uberefficient nanomanufacturing. Once all our needs are met and we all think the same we’ll be able to join together and usher in a golden age!

(EXCEPTION TO THE ABOVE – Christopher L. Bennett’s Only Superhuman does a pretty good job of being sci-fi and yet showing how a culture will develop it’s own unique technological quirks, at least to an extent.)

Anyway, if you’ve spent any time reading this blog you know that I don’t buy that. (If you’re new, welcome! My name’s Nate and I’m a cynical grump.) Personally, I feel that the opposite is true – culture shapes the kinds of technology developed and the ways it is integrated into society. In short, just like a society gets the kinds of leaders it deserves, it will also get the kinds of technology it deserves (or fail to develop new technology at all , if it’s focused on something totally impractical.) In short, like all fiction, science fiction is about the human condition. In the case of science fiction, it is about the structure of our society and the products that our ways of thinking bring.

Technology cannot define humanity because the things that divide us are the very ideas that give rise to technological innovation. The value of a sci-fi story is in showing where ideas can go and asking the question, is this a road to take?

So. Emergency Surface is the first story in a very large sci-fi setting I call the Divided Future. You’re not going to find a world government, a human empire or aliens here. Those all detract from the emphasis on ideas and their influence on society. Likewise, no Strong AI to run our societies for us and no time travel for the convenient undoing of mistakes, part of examining ideas and their consequences is choosing something and living with the consequences. (NOTE: I do have stories that play around with these ideas but in the Nate Chen Genrely Speaking classification system these ideas belong in the fantasy group rather than the sci-fi group of stories.)

The Divided Future is the second largest setting for stories that I have, spanning over three hundred years. It begins in the late 21st Century with the beginning of the New Ice Age and progresses through the settling of the solar system and into the exploration of deep space. It’s a big world and I hope to have lots of time to explore it in the future, but for the first story we’ll actually be staying within Earth’s atmosphere. In fact, we’ll be farther inside it than most people will ever get in their lives.

Sound interesting? Then I hope you’ll tune in on Monday for Emergency Surface, a tale of deep sea survival! See you then.

Heat Wave: Afterwords

Early comic books have been described as assimilationist fantasies. That’s really not a bad summation of the era that brought us the catch phrase “truth, justice and the American Way.”

Many of the early comic book artists and writers were Jews, struggling to make ends meet and find acceptance in a country and in an era that were not particularly hospitable to outsiders. So it’s not surprising that the idea of being different permeates the early and middle era of superheroes. Superman and Wonder Woman were the ultimate outsiders, coming from totally alien cultures. Later, Marvel’s X-Men would take the idea of outsiders and move it to a slightly more human level. Of course, this tradition before the Second World War and the civil rights movement came along and changed many people’s perspectives on ethnicity and culture.

Now, everything is better, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, one of the things that was emphasized, and became overemphasized, in these assimilationist morality tales was that we are all the same. That’s a great sentiment, and on one level it’s certainly true. What makes us human or not human is not a matter of skin tone, culture or social standing. The problem is, while we’re quite confident about what doesn’t define humanity, we’re a lot sketchier on what does. Most people don’t give the whole issue a lot of thought and a lot of very smart people argue about it but it sometimes seems like today’s culture has chosen sameness as our defining characteristic. We’re all human after all, right?

So there’s a lot of hand wringing over making people “equal” where equal equates to us all having the same experiences. We want everyone to go to the same kinds of schools with the same ethnic mixes, get the same higher education and have all the same opportunities. The problem is, that kind of lifestyle is not very… shall we say, ergonomic?

From the moment kids arrive at school they’re presented with a number of boxes. Square classroom, square desk, square meals. Pile it all up for twelve years and you can move up to square cubicles in square buildings belonging to square corporations. And this might even be a great thing if people were invertebrates that could readily conform themselves to whatever environment they were put in. They could have total security and contentment for their entire lives. The problem is, people are individuals with very significant differences of circumstance and personality. Perhaps most importantly, they want to be different. It’s even possible that they were meant to be different, so that they could grow by understanding each other.

Some people will fit nicely into the square lifestyle our culture offers them. Some will be a tad cramped, but they’ll learn to adapt. However, there’s evidence of an ever-growing body of people who just can’t or don’t want to adapt to what culture offers them. They can’t keep up with it, or aren’t motivated by it and want to find meaning outside the existing structure. Once upon a time, that was fine. Many different kinds of societies flourished in America, from the Quakers and Shakers to various communes and the Moravians, all different kinds of social structures used to exist in America with little comment. Sure, they were ethnically similar and based primarily on European culture, but they lived and thought in very different ways.

In contrast, modern education places an emphasis not on giving people ideas to think about, but rather teaching them how to think. People from outside the cultural status quo, who don’t accept the ways they’re told to think, receive a kind of polite condescension, assuming they’re not view as outright freaks. (As a homeschooler I know of which I speak – people always seem so surprised to find I’m not a total social misfit or some kind of raving lunatic who’s trying to restore feudalism. “Homeschooled? But you seem so normal!” At first it was funny. Then it got annoying. I’m starting to worry that it’s a sign of serious cultural closed-mindedness.)

If you can’t hack it in school, you must need medication or new parents. If you don’t care to work for the corporations or the unions, if you want to work for yourself, then obviously you’re an antisocial isolationist. Herbal medicine instead of pharmaceuticals? How unscientific! And on and on it goes.

There could be, are being and have been many books on the subjects of education, business and culture, how the pendulum has swung so far away from individual thought and so far towards mandating a single culture of uniformity. Heat Wave is not one of those books.

Rather, Heat Wave is a dissimilationist fantasy – it creates a world where people are different in a culture much like our own. When they try to use their differences, they run smack into a world that doesn’t want them there. Some will try to change it slowly. Some will try to ruin it. And some will try to change it unilaterally, regardless of the consequences.

But all of them struggle with the same idea. The world they live in wants them to be the same. It needs them to be different; as much as they themselves need to be different. Of course, being different isn’t always a good thing, sometimes those different people will cause harm to themselves and others.

So there are people who are different. The society we have created doesn’t suit them, and sooner or later their incompatibility with it is going to cause problems. What do we do about it?

Well that, my friend, is a whole different story altogether…

Cool Things: Calvin and Hobbes

The other day I mentioned the wondrous sport of Calvinball to a guy just a few years younger than I am and got a blank reaction. It was depressing and enlightening at the same time. My family and I are big fans of Calvin and Hobbes, the classic comic strip by Bill Watterson, but it’s coming up on twenty years since the strip went out of print.

That’s kind of sobering. I know I wanted to learn to read so I didn’t have to bug my older sister to read Calvin and Hobbes to me when the newspaper came each day. Calvin and Hobbes was a classic comic strip rivaled only by Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and, just like Peanuts, it offered a lot of cool things crammed into three or four black and white panels a day. So if you’ve never heard of Calvin and Hobbes, sit down and I’ll enlighten you! If you’re already a fan, join me in a bit of wistful reminiscing.

The main characters of Watterson’s comic strip are the eponymous Calvin and Hobbes. No, it’s not a comic strip about philosophers and theologians, although Watterson did sometimes ponder the deeper questions in an effort to bring a little class to the mostly practical or even flat and uninteresting “funny” pages. But the wild, hyperactive six year old Calvin and the sardonic, laid back stuffed tiger Hobbes were named for philosophers and theologians, and from the beginning hinted at something different about this little comic.

Many things about Calvin and Hobbes made it cool. Calvin was a wild child and a firebrand, constantly raging at any and every problem in the world around him, no matter how small or trivial. He would assault them with vigor and imagination, displaying a vocabulary light-years beyond most children the age of six, making one wonder how he could consistently get such bad grades in school. In addition to his clever verbal rants, Calvin also approached problems with a great deal of creativity and well applied tools, such as his sled, red wagon and cardboard boxes.

Watterson fearlessly delved into Calvin’s imaginary worlds, showing us Calvin’s many alter egos and the real life circumstances that inspired his flights of fancy with equal whimsy and enthusiasm. He might appear as a dinosaur, a space faring explorer or a hard-boiled detective, inserting the people he knows into whatever role is appropriate at the time (although the school teacher, Ms. Wormwood, was almost always a monstrous space alien.)

Hobbes, part time stuffed animal full time tiger, was an interesting example of this. Calvin finds Hobbes in a “tiger trap” he dug outside his house. Neither of his parents see Hobbes before Calvin drags him in over one shoulder. To most of the cast, Hobbes looks like an ordinary stuffed animal, but to Calvin he’s a living, thinking anthropomorphic tiger who frequently displays more good sense than Calvin does. In one of the clever moves that gave Calvin and Hobbes it’s defining flavor, we’re never really told exactly what Hobbes is. While only Calvin sees him as anything other than a stuffed animal, we frequently see Calvin in situations he couldn’t realistically have gotten into without the help of someone else. And that stuffed tiger is the only other one around…

Calvin lives in a world with varying levels of definition. For example, his parents are never named, and most people he knows have either fist names or last names, never both. Character who threatened that ambiguity, like Calvin’s Uncle Max, were quickly removed. Calvin, it seems, has the potential to be any hyperactive child we meet. Perhaps a warning to those of us who have gotten older and forgotten the days when scientific progress did, indeed, go “boink”.

But to me, the seminal moments in Calvin and Hobbes were always when the Time Fractal Wickets were taken out and they’d play Calvinball. There rules were simple – make it up as you go along and never use the same rule twice. It was a mad, slap-dash sprint through a dozen different sports with the ultimate goal of having fun and pushing your creativity. Just watching them playing it made your creative juices flow better.

Through the course of it’s ten years of publishing (interspersed with sabbaticals by the author), Calvin and Hobbes  introduced us to all sorts of weird and wonderful things. The G.R.O.S.s. club, dedicated to the annoyance of Susie Derkins (the only major character with a first and last name!), dozens of different kinds of weird snowmen (some of which moved around on their own and propagated the species!), and the cardboard box Duplicators and Transmogrifiers. We went up and down hills, around rocks and trees and into bushes while being taken on kinetic meditations on politics, philosophy and human nature. And at the end, we watched our friends sail off into the snow, crisp and clean like a blank sheet of paper. I have no doubt their adventures there were and are just as great as the ones they shared with us.

Watterson was very critical of the relationship between comic artists, newspapers and syndicates, and he felt that as long as the medium remained constrained by their demands it wouldn’t grow and would most likely grow stagnant and die. Two years after the disappearance of Calvin and Hobbes, Pete Abrams started publishing Sluggy Freelance and Illiad joined in with User Friendly just a short time later. As two of the longest running webcomics in existence in many ways they mark the beginning of the end of syndicate/newspaper domination of comics. Fifteen years later, they continue to thrive. Many others have come and gone in that time and, while none have the whimsy or imagination of Calvin and Hobbes, maybe for Bill Watterson it’s enough to have a step in the right direction…

Writing History, Pt 2

Last week I went kinda gung ho and, by the end of the week, I was kinda worried about my posts being overlong. So when last week’s Friday post started to edge up over the fifteen hundred word mark, I decided to break it in two. If you didn’t read last week’s post, here it is.

Okay, so what does all that have to do with writing fiction? Well, one thing that annoys me about modern world building is how it has a horrible tendency to only present the past from one or two points of view. Usually, there’s a prevailing point of view and an underground, occult (secretive) or subversive point of view. In Marxist terms, a thesis and an antithesis. Usually, the main character uses these two viewpoints to figure out what really happened and uses this new point of view (a synthesis!) to figure out the correct course of action.

Authors have been using this very straightforward literary device to help characters resolve conflict and bring an end to stories for years, and making millions of dollars in the mean time. (Eat your heart out, Marx.)

In addition to being a simple way to assemble your plot, this makes thing easier on your reader as well. After all, having to keep track of too many perspectives can clutter your plot and confuse your reader. It really isn’t the best way to engage and keep a large audience.

The thing is, this approach is also overly simplistic and unrealistic, and the best authors take great pains to avoid it.

Look at Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation. It shows us the young Hari Seldon searching for the history of the Galactic Empire. What he finds instead, more or less, is a history of robots. Some people say they were helpers, some traitors, some think they were never even real, or if they were they obviously weren’t important, because they didn’t survive to the modern day, did they? Piecing it all together is central to understanding the story. Not every story needs to delve so deeply into its history, but if you’re going to make your own you need to at least hint at that level of complexity if verisimilitude is something you value (it doesn’t have to be, of course).

History falls into many chunks: Documents like newspapers, government paperwork and diaries generally form the backbone of history. Rumors, myths and other forms of oral history can be very hard to verify but give a definite picture of what people were thinking and talking about. Cultural context gives us a lens with which to see both documents and rumors through. Outside viewpoints must be balanced against each other as well as the experiences of the people who were there.

As Helix winds through Project Sumter he primarily leaves his mark in documents- paperwork is bureaucracy’s stock in trade and agents of the Project can easily generate a book’s worth of it during a busy week. Circuit, on the other hand, is not in the greatest position to leave incriminating paperwork behind. He leaves a trail in rumors and speculation which is rarely centralized outside of tight-lipped people like Hangman. The marks they leave on their culture, and what people think of them is what makes the story tick.

And even with all that, it’s not the whole picture. I’ve been looking into their history for years, and I don’t think I’ll ever have all of it. That’s the nature of writing history, whether it’s fiction or real. So the next time you take a trip to the halls of antiquity, keep an eye out for all those little hints. Grab them from anywhere you can, and do your best to make sense of them, but don’t ever fall for the trap of thinking you have the whole picture. Because then the story would be over.

And where does that leave us?

Writing History

It’s one of the most absurd truisms of the modern age that the victor writes the history books. I’m not really sure how this idea got started. The original quote is typically attributed to Winston Churchill, although no one’s quite sure who said it first. My biggest problem with this idea is how vigorously actual history seems to contradict it.

Take the Peloponnesian wars. Thucydides wrote a history of them, one of the early scholarly histories. He was from Alimos, a small place just outside of Athens. But they lost the war, so Thucydides had no business writing history books about it, right?

Another example from antiquity is Josephus, the historian who wrote a history of the Jews while they were under the rule of Rome. The Jews would not have a nation to call their home for more than 1800 years, living an existence that was pretty much the total opposite of a victor, but Josephus still wrote the history of his own people.

Or, more recently, consider the American Civil War (or War Between The States, or what have you). In spite of the fact that no one has fired a bullet in that conflict in nearly a hundred and fifty years, no one can agree on the history of it. Was it a war of northern aggression? Was it a war to liberate slaves? Was it a war to protect the Union? Do they even mention protecting the Union in history books any more? How did the premier cause of the victors wind up getting so totally lost in the retelling? Weren’t these people writing the history books? And how did the South get away with creating the legend of the Lost Cause if they weren’t writing any of the history books?

There are other examples, to be sure. From monasteries on the British Isles writing records of being sacked by raiders to Masanori Ito’s book Fall of the Imperial Japanese Navy right up to the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, the defeated have been chronicling their own history and doing their best to both remember and learn from their defeats ever since the study of history first came about.

To me it frequently feels like this idea that the history books are written by the winners actually has its roots in a famous quote from someone on the other side of the English Channel from Churchill. Joseph Goebbels told us that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to regard it as truth. We’ve come to accept this as a truth, that if we can just get a platform to push out agenda loudly enough and often enough, we can make people think whatever we want about anything, even history.

However, in spite of telling his lies for 12 years, Goebbels is not now thought of as a great historian, a visionary thinker or a leader. He’s thought of as a liar.

Perhaps the real problem is the lack of scope in this way of thinking. There are no victors in history, there are only people who come for a short time and then quickly fade away. We don’t write history. Rather, history is written on us, its letters and words the lives of people and the traditions, values and literature they leave to their culture. History shows through how we live and what we do far more than what we say. After all, you can’t know the winner until everything’s over, and in history, the end has not yet been written…

Trial By Fire

Sooner or later, life gets hard. It’s the way of the world. You can’t get out of it, and how you respond is part of what makes you who and what you are. It’s in the hardest times that you have to show what you’re made of. Perhaps for that reason more than any other, fiction focuses on times of conflict and difficulty in the lives of its characters.

The people you see in a story, the heroes and villains, the protagonists and antagonists, show you who and what you could be. In some ways, they are set to destroy one another. It’s that possibility that brings tension to the story, makes it gripping and makes you pay attention.

But at the same time, its very rare for destruction to be what people want. Once again, verisimilitude rears its head. Most people don’t want to be destroyers, they want to be creators. Unfortunately, both are a part of our nature. In the struggle of conflicting goals and ideas, either can result. A person can do a great deal of both in a single story, to say nothing of a full lifetime.

The result is a dynamic as familiar as story and song themselves. Sometimes, when people pass through conflict they find on the other side that the people they’ve struggled with have made them stronger and better. The book of Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another.” While they may not thank their adversary for the lessons they’ve learned, they are still the better for them.

Crucibles purify gold and men alike.

I have always been fascinated by the dynamic between protagonist and antagonist, and I’m far from the only one. Lots of people have tackled the issue. There’s even have a particular term for the relationship between people who don’t hate each other, but can’t help fighting from time to time: “frenimies”. (Also, marriage, although that implies a closer relationship.)

Next week I hope to kick off a story that examines exactly how people change during conflict. The struggles we work through are not just circumstances or unfortunate happenstance, they are a chance to grow. We may not like it or want it, but if we want to really become the people we’re meant to be, we’ll have to seek that growth.

Because when iron strikes iron, the sparks will fly. And if we’re unlucky enough, the sparks will catch, and the sharpening of iron can become a trial by fire. Whether we come out tempered or broken will depend on what we’re made of.

Echoes of Granduer

I’ll admit that last week I may have made a poor analogy.

People aren’t metal, you can’t just beat the problems out of them. Life would be much easier if we could. All those incredibly detailed, well thought out schemes for perfecting society might actually have a chance of succeeding. We wonder, if it seems like fixing our problems should be so simple, why is actually doing it so difficult?

More than that, why do we even find ourselves wanting a fix in the first place?

Let me try a different example, one that I think is a little more suited than the metal smith analogy. Picture if you will, an ancient stone castle now abandoned to time. You’ve probably seen pictures of them in England or Europe. Fortunately, you don’t have to have visited them personally to appreciate this analogy, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to come up with it.

Now, there’s not doubting that these buildings are impressive in their own right. Their towers and walls fill us with a sense of the size and accomplishment that just building them must have been for men with only hand tools and human ingenuity.

However, for all the greatness that we see in these buildings, they are still obviously incomplete. The are lacking the rugs and tapestries that warmed the halls, the furniture that made them comfortable and, in many cases, they are even lacking important structural features like walls or a ceiling. They’re not complete, not what they once were.

We are a lot like those castles, I think.

We feel like we should be a great building, safe, comfortable and useful. We see what we once were, and we want to be that again. But the roof is missing, the walls are crumbling and the flagstones are damp and uncomfortable. Clearly, we think, some adjustments need to be made. So we bring in some new carpet and hang some new tapestries, maybe even try to rebuild the walls with whatever is on hand.

Yet, even with a decent understanding of what the castle might have looked like we’re likely to find that, after a few months exposed to the elements, our attempts at repair start to look shabby and moldy. Without the blueprints, without materials of the original quality, we’re not likely to get far.

The conflicts and struggles that come between people, the kinds of conflicts that a writer struggles to portray in a good story, come when people cannot agree what the castle once looked like, how to rebuild it and make it great. Given free will and the need for each person to make their own decisions, that kind of thing may be inevitable.

That doesn’t make it easy or pleasant. And the fire of conflict is, in some ways, much like the heat of the forge. As we struggle over the nature of our castles the petty furnishings we’ve put up burn away and leave only the enduring stone, and we find that, as often as not, we’re back where we started, wondering what it is that will truly endure.

When the heat is on, will what we’ve made really last?


Authors tend to eschew the terms “hero” and “villain” for a variety of reasons, some of them technical and some of them emotional. We tend to use the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist”. These terms give us a lot of flexibility. For example, a story can be told from the perspective of a person with no heroic, or even admirable characteristics, someone who we wouldn’t want to call a hero, and we don’t have to change our terminology.

On the other hand, these terms also embody a more realistic perspective. People are not all one thing or the other, and stories need to reflect that. This is what’s called verisimilitude by authors, and it’s so important that we try to include it in every aspect of the story, even in how we talk about that story.

At the same time, authors, just like everyone else, have a problem with antagonists. If you look at them closely, you tend to find that you have a lot in common with them. Sometimes, the antagonist is much more beloved than the protagonist of a story. And we don’t like to call them villains, because who wants to be a villain? Much better to go with terms lacking any kind of moral overtones. Then, there’s no need to loose any sleep over who you sympathize with more.

Now even protagonists who are meant to be heroic tend to have something wrong with them. Once again, that’s verisimilitude. People have issues. And since I am the protagonist I am most familiar with, as I’m sure you are the protagonist you are most familiar with, and I have issues, I expect the protagonists I read about to have issues as well. I suspect you are much the same.

In fact, if you look at it closely, you’ll find that protagonists and antagonists are very similar. They tend to be flawed people driven into conflict with one another by decisions they have made. And sometimes you’ll look at a story and find hero and villain very hard to parse.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled over that. We want people we can understand to be good people, so all kinds of things have been proposed. Morality has been dismissed, good and evil called constructs, and, of course, terms have been changed. The intelligentsia of the modern age have a thousand and one reasons for why you should stop worrying about good and evil and just get on with protagonizing* your own story.

But when we come face to face with life, when it beats us over the head until we’re ready to run screaming for the hills, or at least to mommy, when we’re tired of the grind and we just don’t want to get up any more and we know there has to be something more than this, we find the lie in that stance.

We realize that we don’t want to be protagonists. We want to be heroes.

Everyone wants to be a hero.

And everyone is corrupt. No matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to be the heroes we want to be. Are actions are tainted and leave us unsatisfied.

What does it take to get rid of the corruption? In olden times, flawed metal had to be melted down and the slag either burned away or siphoned off in order to be purified. Are we the same? Is it all the melting and pounding worth it?

There’s a heat wave coming. Are we ready?



*Protagonize (proh – tag – uh– nize)


1 – To present your story in the most philosophically and existentially correct way possible, thus causing unimaginable agony to those reading it. Not recommended for parties.

Mission Statement

Hi, I’m Nate Chen, and as you may have guessed from the title of this blog, I’m an author. This being the Internet age, I’ve naturally decided that blogging would make a good an excellent platform to hone my craft and put my work before you.

I know, a real surprise, right?

My emphasis is fiction, so don’t come here if you’re expecting hard headed opinionating on the latest news. That’s not really what I do. Instead, I plan to structure this blog around a Mon/Wed/Fri update schedule, with each day of the week devoted to something a little different.

Starting in October, Mondays will be devoted to a piece of serialized fiction which I’ll be talking about more in the next few weeks. In the mean time, I’ll be writing about the philosophical thoughts that led up to my writing that story. Yeah, real exciting, I know, but authors live to write their forwards. I hope you’ll indulge me.

I’ll admit to being something of a heavy thinker, but all thought and not play makes for a dull blog, so Wednesdays are focusing on cool things, which is why this post is going up on a Wednesday, even though I’m not planning to officially go live until next Monday, Sept. 3. Because what out there is cooler than this blog?

Don’t answer that.

Finally, Fridays are where I’m going to talk about my actual writing process and the general day-to-day trials of being a writer in a world that thinks of writing as, well, kind of slacking off. It’s a tough life, sitting here in front of my keyboard, and if you should ever feel like joining me you should read some of these posts first. I’ll do my level best to scare you off.

So there you have it. I fully intend to make additional posts as the mood strikes me, but I hope that, from here on out, you can expect to see those three subjects addressed on a regular basis here on this blog. I look forward to hearing from you, so let me know what you think!