I had a writing project I was going to post here for Black History Month, but it’s not quite done yet and it’s more appropriate to post next week. See you there.
In calm and cool and silence, once again
I find my old accustomed place among
My brethren, where, perchance, no human tongue
Shall utter words; where never hymn is sung,
Nor deep-toned organ blown, nor censer swung,
Nor dim light falling through the pictured pane!
There, syllabled by silence, let me hear
The still small voice which reached the prophet’s ear;
Read in my heart a still diviner law
Than Israel’s leader on his tables saw!
There let me strive with each besetting sin,
Recall my wandering fancies, and restrain
The sore disquiet of a restless brain;
And as the path of duty is made plain,
May grace be given that I may walk therein,
Not like the hireling, for his selfish gain,
With backward glances and reluctant tread,
Making a merit of his coward dread,
But, cheerful, in the light around me thrown,
Walking as one to pleasant service led;
Doing God’s will as if it were my own,
yet trusting not in mine, but in His strength alone!
– “First-day Thoughts,” John Greenleaf Whittier
I’m going to talk today a bit about my religion. Our regularly scheduled SF stuff and political sermons will resume next week.
I am a Quaker, specifically a universalist Liberal Quaker. On Sunday mornings I sit in worshipful silence with my Friends, center down, and wait and listen for the Presence. My wife calls it Shekhina, that of God which is immanent. Christian Friends call it the Holy Spirit. Other Friends usually call it the Light, or the still, small voice, or Spirit. We’re not particular about theology.
Sitting in worship is never easy. Any of you who have tried to meditate know the monkey-mind. Add to that an intentional lack of instructions or guidance, and a knowledge that the Presence is here, among Friends, and you can’t feel it, and it can all drive a Friend mad. I have gone months of “dry” sits, where I never even feel the Presence, much less hear the still, small voice or am commanded to stand and give vocal ministry. Whittier speaks to my condition, when I’m at my best.
But even a dry sit leaves me revived a little, calmer and cooler, more connected to myself, my fellow humans, and my God. And a good sit, where I feel the Presence and commune with it and with my Friends out of the silence, that is a quiet miracle that fills my heart with joy and gratitude enough to last months.
Last May, the Clerk of our Meeting asked me to be the one to close the Meeting. At the end of the appointed hour, a certain Friend shakes the hand of the Friend next to them, and guides the Meeting out of worship and into the announcements and fellowship that you’d recognize from my mother’s Episcopal church or, for that matter, my wife’s Jewish service. The Friend who closes is also responsible for “holding the Meeting in the Light” and praying for the Friends present. It is an honor, insomuch as my peculiar people can give honors while abhorring them.
That week, a Friend’s son died of an overdose. Another Friend took me by the arm on my way into the Meeting-house and told me, in hushed tones, so I would be ready.
The Presence was palpable that day, an invisible but immanent tiger and an open wound that we all shared. I sweated and breathed hard, trying to channel the sheer spiritual energy in the room ripped open by his early death. Friend after Friend rose and gave inspired ministry, spoken through of grief and pain and above all, love and tender affection for this Friend in need and all Friends in their need. And the Spirit was with them, and with me, and with us. I stumbled through the formulae of joys and sorrows, of First-day school’s report, of announcements, of rise of Meeting. And I stumbled home, exhausted and humbled.
That was the last time I felt the Presence in Meeting.
I was representative of Central Coast Friends to Pacific Yearly Meeting. PYM is the umbrella organization for all the Liberal Quaker meetings in Hawai’i, California, the Southwest, Mexico, and Guatemala. It’s also an annual gathering in the woods of Marin County that’s best described as Quakerstock. We gather in Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business, in classes to learn effective protest techniques and nonviolent communication, in groups to discuss how to help immigrants, transfolk, Young Friends and elders. And, as representative, I had to be there to fly the colors for Central Coast Friends and to see to it that our needs and our concerns are addressed by the Yearly Meeting.
That was last July. And on the second day, the sun rose in the west.
Well, not literally. But I went to the morning meeting for worship, and something happened to me. Worship was no longer dry, it hurt. The Clerk of PYM spoke of “lifting the veil,” I felt a thick rug choked with mud-dust lowering before me. It felt like the Presence was actively pushing me away, and when I emerged to start the day’s business, I was shaking like a tent-rope in the wind. I felt torn away from the Spirit, and from my Friends around me, and from myself. I could barely understand English, and wandered stupefied among the buildings at Walker Creek Ranch.
It intensified when I met with my worship group, and I could not understand English. I couldn’t remember the beginning of a Friend’s sentence by the time they got to the end. Even my French (which I usually speak with God) was confused. A blackbird lighted on a branch above my had, and I heard God laughing in his caw, but everything was so far away and behind lead-lined glass.
Meeting for Worship went from a solace and a sanctuary that brought me closer to my fellow human beings and to my own self and to my God to a horrible dark night of the soul that drove me out into the spiritual rain and bolted the door behind me. And it happened overnight, as if God flipped a switch.
I did not do very well at PYM, which lasted another three god-damned days.
When I came home, and Melissa saw my thousand-yard stare, she took care of me and sang the Mi Sheberach (the Jewish prayer of healing) for me. The spiritual horror of PYM faded into memory and journaling, and I went back to my local Meeting.
It was the same effect – the ripping, the sundering, the driving out into the rain, the thick wall that grew in the place where the walls and veils are to be torn down and lifted. It wasn’t as strong, but it was clear – I was no longer welcome in the meeting-house, read out of Meeting by God Himself.
I still don’t understand why, but I trust that God knows why.
I spent six months wandering in the wilderness. I thought I sent a letter to the Clerk about my sabbatical, but I can’t seem to find it now. I journaled, calling God all sorts of fascinating names, and I sat in silence alone, and I read the Sermon on the Mount and Psalm 46 and John 1:9. I stopped doing or reading anything of Friendly persuasion except a short pause after Melissa’s HaMotzi over the food. For a few months, I didn’t even feel Quaker – like that Quaker identity belonged to someone else. The only spiritual solace left to me was hearing my wife sing her prayers, donned in her tallit and kippah, the Inner Light shining from her face. That’s not metaphor, incidentally – it is a living experience as plain as the sun in the sky and one of the reasons I married the woman.
I became meaner and angrier in those months, and it wasn’t just the election. I acted like a right bastard, and not like a Quaker, as John Reid could tell you. To those of you I hurt, I am sorry. You never deserved that.
In December, I had a lot of time to think for myself, because of how radically ripped away from myself and others I was. And I reread Whittier’s poem, and was amazed to find it didn’t hurt. I memorized the lines and reflected on sits I have known – my first vocal ministry, Hong Kong meeting the day before I left China, the meeting of the balloons when I knew God, the revolutionary meeting in Berkeley Meeting-house when light and thunder appeared and commanded “soyez tranquille, et connaisez que je suis Dieu,” my wedding to Melissa, the first time I held a Meeting in the Light, the opportunity with Melissa and Lloyd Lee Wilson, that wounded, pained First-day full of love.
I went back to Meeting the First-day after the day called Christmas. In calm and cool and silence, once again, I took my old accustomed place among my brethren. It was a dry sit, and Friends were glad to see me, but it did not hurt. Just by not hurting, it was a revelation and a solace. My wilderness was over, and I was welcome back in the Meeting-house.
It took until two weeks ago to nerve up enough to go back again. Another dry sit.
On Saturday (Sixth-day), I felt a tug of conscience to go to the Planned Parenthood demonstration and show my support. I ignored it, and grieved, and asked God’s forgiveness for ignoring a clear leading. Marmaduke Stephenson left his plow, just walked away in the middle of his field, following a leading to become one of the Boston Martyrs. I stayed home because of a hangover.
This last First-day, as I sat, I felt the Presence among Friends, surrounding us and penetrating us and binding us together. It was a brush by, as my senses turned back inward and my monkey-mind churned, but I had felt it. I felt the Presence that inspired Lao Tzu and Siddhartha Guatama and Ste. Jeanne d’Arc and Bayard Rustin and John Woolman and Jesus of Nazareth. I felt the Presence in Meeting, and took solace from it, and healed a little.
At fellowship, a weighty Friend asked what I had gone through, and I felt close to her, and told her the truth as far as I can manage. I smiled at other Friends and spoke with them as Friends, among Friends, not as an exile or a stranger. I walked out of the Meeting-house and I felt the bright sun on my skin and the vivid green that the rains gifted us. I borrowed books from our Meeting’s small library and asked Friends how they were doing, how was their sit today.
I read again Douglas Steere’s redactions of George Fox and John Woolman, and I fall in love again with the plainness and the mysticism and the quiet of my Quaker faith. I sit in silence and I hold my wife’s hand in grace over our meals. I feel Quaker again.
I’ve even begun journaling, as any good Friend aught.
I don’t know why God read me out of the meeting, and made coming home so arduous and painful. I don’t know why God has lifted my excommunication and allowed me back into the Presence. I am grateful beyond words, and have learned gratitude beyond words, but I don’t think this is enough. This wasn’t the reason I was read out for six months. Perhaps someday I’ll know why. Until then, I am grateful that I can seek the Presence, and mindful that this can be withdrawn in a night, and the next morning the sun will rise in the west.
I have plenty of room to screw up – my convincement is an ongoing process and probably always will be. Quakers in general are not big on the “rise born again and without sin!” sort of action. But I have felt the Spirit move within me, and it is good. And if Spirit leads me again, I will follow it, and take care not to outrun my Guide.
(For those of you interested in attending, Central Coast Friends Meeting meets at the San Luis Obispo Odd-Fellows’ Hall, at 520 Dana St., every Sunday morning at 10:00AM.)
Outliers of Speculative Fiction 2016
Edited by L. A. Little
Way back in 2015, L. A. Little’s Outliers of Science Fiction went up on Amazon.com, boasting among its pages Cat Rambo, P. E. Bolivar, and Little himself. The 17 stories it contained were speculative fiction of the first water – varied in scope, diverse in voice, and thought-provoking in flavor. The anthology is speculative fiction’s native format, and Outliers is why. “From forgotten gods to downtrodden superheroes, from visions of imperfect futures to new mythologies for the modern age, these are The Outliers of Speculative Fiction.”
He’s done it again.
Outliers… 2016 has eleven stories to the first volume’s 17, but packs just as much of a punch. The subject matter is rather darker and closer to modern-day Earth, but Little’s pride in the demographic diversity of the writers is justified: 50% are women, and they hail from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and experiences. I could almost swear there was a French-Canadian in there somewhere. And this diversity of voice creates a quintessential work of speculative fiction, the anthology: you’re never quite sure what the next story is going to be, what flavors and colors it will show you, but you know it’s going to take you away from everyday life and maybe, if you’re lucky, completely change what everyday life entails.
I liked these stories, in particular, well enough (with one notable exception) that I’m going to write out reviews for each one. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s after the cut. If not, just trust me on this: get a copy, whether it’s paperback or whispered to your Kindle. It is very much worth it.
1984 has topped the Amazon bestseller list. I repeat: a novel almost 70 years old, a science fiction novel at that, is the bestselling book of any genre on Amazon.com. It’s not hard to see why, it’s the same reason people are buying up John Steinbeck’s Winter of Our Discontent, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. It’s the same reason women and scientists are marching on Washington. It’s the same reason ordinary people are phoning their Congresscritters in record numbers and tweeting from Badlands National Park.
Because in this staggering, lurching new world, people want to understand, to make a cosmos out of the chaos. For that, they need data and they need narratives.
George Orwell was a committed socialist, who in woolier younger days wrote of English Socialism in sincere glowing terms. He’d served alongside Russian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, fought in battles no one knew and walked empty fields the day thousands of men supposedly died there. He watched truth die in the rolling Spanish arroyos, and by 1948, he’d seen the Germans, the Russians, and the English all take a hand in its killing, like the train car in Murder on the Orient Express*.
So he transposed the year numbers and told a story of the future, where truth was dead so long everyone had forgotten its name.
And now, seventy years later, we turn to his narrative to make sense of this world.
To my mind, any science fiction writer has three sacred duties. The first is to entertain, which science fiction shares with all storytelling. But the other two belong to science fiction alone. The second is to tell what may come to pass. And the third is to tell us ugly truths about the present.
By entertaining, I mean that storytellers must tell the best stories they can, to move their listeners and give them catharsis – whether that’s the dark catharsis of Winston Smith loving Big Brother or the triumphal catharsis of seeing Sherlock Holmes apprehend the crook and calmly explain how he knew. Telling stories is deep magic, it’s transforming yourself into other people and bringing your listeners into those masks with you. And we all of us who tell stories owe it to our listeners to make it a good story, so that when we are done, they smile, and say “thanks for telling that one.”
Science fiction is charged, as Orwell was, with telling stories of what may come to pass. Bradbury said that science fiction does not predict the future, it warns us against it. Orwell certainly did. Bradbury did. Huxley did. But there is another strain that shows us possibilities of what we may become, the likes of Star Trek and solarpunk and Jules Verne. And there are those ambiguous futures that are in some ways better and in some ways worse and in all ways weird, the likes of The Dispossessed and Futurama. And when the future does come to pass, as no one could have predicted, we can turn back to Snow Crash and Stranger in a Strange Land to make some sense out of the senseless, to form a cosmos out of chaos.
But most importantly, science fiction can tell truths about the present. Gene Roddenberry and his stable of writers understood this implicitly, that they could talk about white people and black people if they pretended it was green people and blue people.
The collection of masks that science fiction may wear is rivaled only by fantasy’s. And you can come out and say things like “right now, these people are being killed for the color of their skin, and we yet pretend this is an equal society” and “we are complicit in collectively forgetting unpleasant things” and “we are destroying the idea of objective truth, that 2+2=4, because it serves those in power.” And you can get away with saying this, because after all you are only talking about Cardassians and Bajorans, or about a speculative future England, or about a China that never was.
And this is exactly what Orwell set out to do. He was not writing about 1984. He was writing about 1948. And that is why his voice rings true in 2017…because he speaks to the pain and horror he saw around him, and those pains and horrors are with us still, like the stink of boiled cabbage in Winston Smith’s apartment block.
Yesterday, the President charged or detained a dozen American journalists. “Alternative facts” have become a buzzword alongside “fake news.” The government’s hostility to the media and to facts are well-documented.
The French became masters of satire and allusion because to speak plainly in the French courts of the ancien regime was to invite certain death. Just ask Moliere. The mandarins of Imperial China debated endlessly over Romance of the Three Kingdoms, because they could not criticize the Emperor or his minions, but they could speak of Liu Bei the White King and the dread warlord Cao Cao.
Now is the time to tell the truth, and for it to go masked. If you have a creative bone in your body, go write of the coming of the Great Orange One, or of the scientific Resistance and their invisible laboratories, or of the first Asian-American president. Tell your story, storyteller, and publish it. Make a cosmos of the chaos.
Give us your truths, your stories, your narratives, so we can make sense of the world.
This week, I’m finishing up revisions on one short story and have (finally) sent off No Time for Revolving Doors to my first readers. Writing-wise, I’m at a loose end, but I’m bursting with ideas. I have no idea what to work on next.
So I’m going to bump it to you guys.
Lachlan Atcliffe is fond of saying “the golden age of science fiction is fourteen.” Whatever you were reading, watching, doing at fourteen, that is the high point of the genre, and everything since has been a terrible slide into mediocrity. With that said, there is a certain breed of SF film that always makes me feel fourteen.
For me, it chronologically starts with The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, hits its stride at Blade Runner, and meanders past Dark City, Twelve Monkeys, The Matrix, Primer and The Man From Earth to reach new heights in the likes of Gravity, Her, and even Interstellar. These movies, as a “radial type,” are directly influenced by if not adapted from literary science fiction, are Spartan and theatrical in their writing, and distill speculative fiction into its most purified essence: telling a human story in a way that can only work with the science fiction in.
And, for me, the most perfect, the most archetypal, of these movies is Gattaca.
Gattaca is a 1997 Ethan Hawke vehicle, but don’t let that throw you. It’s the story of Vincent Freeman, a “faithbirth” or “in-Valid” conceived in the back of a Ford Riviera instead of in a controlled laboratory environment. In his world, it doesn’t matter where people are born, only how, and he was born wrong. His parents fear for his life when the nurse in the delivery room announces he has a 99% chance of a heart defect that will kill him before age thirty, in addition to myopia and the possibility of developing ADHD. His bosses tell him that, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of orbital mechanics and prime physical health, the only way he’ll see the inside of a rocket is by cleaning it. His younger brother, who was conceived in the lab (and with the specified hair and eye colors to prove it), tells him that he’ll never be as tall, as strong, as smart as he is.
Having set up the rules of Gattaca’s world, Andrew Niccol spends the rest of the film tearing it apart.
Vincent turns to the black market, and meets Jerome Eugene Morrow, a Valid “made man” who suffered a nasty twist of fate – after winning silver in the Olympic swim meet, he walked into traffic and lost the use of his legs. Vincent borrows Jerome’s DNA, his very life, becoming a “borrowed ladder” to infiltrate Gattaca and finally travel into space, as he’s always dreamed of. With a torturous morning routine involving scraping every last skin flake and hair follicle from his body and extensive amounts of Jerome’s bodily fluids, Vincent is one week short of achieving his dream, taking off for a year-long mission to Titan…
…when the mission director is found with his brains bashed in with a keyboard, and they found an eyelash from an in-Valid who becomes suspect number one.
The in-Valids are “a new underclass,” in Vincent’s words, and it’s hard not to notice two things about that underclass. One is how much it resembles the modern underclasses of America: we see in-Valids systematically discriminated against, casually stereotyped as degenerate criminals, roughed up by cops, segregated, barred from employment, and reminded of “their place” under their genetic (and moral) superiors. Ask all those black friends you have how much of this is science fiction.
The second thing you notice is how white this movie is.
For a film about a future underdog systematically rejected by society, it’s remarkable how monochrome the casting is. The corner geneticist is black, and the midwife/genetic tech at Vincent’s birth is an Asian woman. And …that’s about it. The trolley of Vincent’s fellow faithbirths is white, the in-Valids getting roughed up by police are white, the main cast are all about Uma Thurman’s coloration no matter where they are in society. The 1997 copyright only forgives the film so far – it still stands as a remarkable example of the near-universal stranglehold white men held on science fiction until very, very recently.