I’m gonna talk about The Edge Chronicles because you can’t stop me

A. is fond of saying that I have never lost interest in anything; I just accumulate interests on top of my old ones. She’s largely correct, as usual. Eight years elapsed between my initial realization that Pirates of the Caribbean was badass and my actually learning to use a sword. I played pretend as a child and I play pretend as an adult.

However, some of my fascinations do occasionally go dormant, only to explode forth again with all their old force. Such was the case when, at the end of August, I visited the beachside town of Lincoln City, OR, with friends. Exploring the village, we happened upon a bookshop filled with World War II aviation parts and books that taught the secrets of craps, along with literal magic.

I am convinced this bookstore was larger on the inside and would be a blank wall if I went back today. But I’m on a tangent. The point is, I picked up a copy of a book called Vox, and, reading it through, was reminded of a greatness I hadn’t thought about in a while. Though it sounds like an anarchist manifesto, Vox is actually an installment in a British children’s series called The Edge Chronicles, a weird, wonderful, vividly illustrated family saga that has had more of an influence on my fiction-writing life than anything between The Amber Spyglass and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

A quick introduction before I start fanboying, which, just to be clear, is all I’m going to do in this post. The Edge Chronicles is a series written by Paul Stewart and illustrated by Chris Riddell, currently consisting of 12 main books and a couple spin-offs, all set in the eponymous Edge fantasy world and all revolving around a member or associate of the Verginix-Barkwater dynasty. The Edge is what it sounds like: a stone overhang the size of Russia upon which a whole civilization thrives.

Most of it is taken up by the Deepwoods, a forest so uncharted and densely primeval that the characters treat it like an ocean. Clinging to the edges of the Edge are the Twilight Woods, a hazy faerieland that makes you simultaneously immortal and insane; the Thorn Forests, which have a bunch of thorns; Riverrise, the closest thing to a sacred religious site the world possesses; and Undertown, a wretched hive of crime and disgusting beer whose citizens gaze up at lofty Sanctaphrax, a city of feuding college professors built atop a gigantic floating rock chained to the very tip of the Edge.

Populating these memorable places are innumerable races of goblins, trolls, trogs, telepathic waifs, birdlike shrykes, and the humanesque fourthlings. Not to mention enough hideous and terrifying creatures to fill a new edition of the Monster Manual. Presiding over all is the Gloamglozer, a demonic entity with a surprising origin who casts a long shadow even over books it doesn’t appear in.

You’ve probably gathered from reading this far that the Edge is not a happy place. In fact, if you meet a fan of the Chronicles, they’ll likely tell you two things: first, that Chris Riddell’s illustrations are amazing, and second, that for books which present themselves as middle grade to young adult, things get dark. Slavery and racism are prominent themes. Villains are analogous in both ideology and action to everyone from Joseph McCarthy to Jeffrey Dahmer. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself as the hero, you’re as likely to be eaten by a tree as you are to have your marriage fail over several agonizing decades.

The darkness is not, however, of the grim variety. The people of the Edge are constantly striving to make something better out of their fallen world. There are the sky pirates, who sail over the Deepwoods conducting illegal trade under the noses of the plutocratic Leaguesmen. Librarian Knights protect scrolls of ancient knowledge deep in the sewers of Undertown, while the Freegladers unite to create a new society based on harmony, honest work, and the wisdom of sages who sleep in giant cocoons that give them prophetic dreams.

The reason you may not have heard of these books is that they are far more popular in the United Kingdom, and never made their way across the Atlantic–likely owing to the lack of movie adaptations or any real media presence beyond idiosyncratically-covered book installments. That doesn’t make me too sad, though. While pretty much everyone loves Harry Potter, meeting another Edge fan is like finding another member of a secret society. Both of us always get excited. And though there may never be Edge movies, at least there will also never be Edge memes.

Without further ado, unless you consider this entire post to be ado, I want to dive into a few of the deeper reasons that The Edge Chronicles continues to inspire my own worldbuilding.

1. There is a massive amount of sheer imagination on display…

Fantasy literature, along with all genre fiction, often gets accused of being derivative. In some cases, this has merit–witness the genre of time-travelling Viking Navy SEAL romance I was just informed exists, and the absolute flood of Tolkien imitators that bubbled up after The Lord of the Rings became an unexpected smash hit, most of which are justifiably forgotten today.

But then there are the other cases. People talk about the need for “innovation” in literature, a term I really don’t like, since it makes the sacred act of storytelling sound like whatever wrist-mounted-heart-monitor-cum-government-listening-device the jagoffs in Silicon Valley have decided we need this week. I prefer “imagination,” or what the fantasy-ranter Limyaael calls “go out and make stuff.”

To me, telling a truly creative story has almost exactly the same steps as a child would follow to come up with something they thought was cool. No considerations of genre or market success or snarky trope-hunting–use influences, of course, but just to feed your own ideas. It’s how I tried to make the settings for The Valley of Steel, The Glass Thief, and Rafter’s Rats, and is very clearly how Stewart and Riddell worked as well.

Frequently, Riddell, the illustrator, would have the ideas first: he’d sketch something awesome, and then Stewart would work it into the story. Pirate ships that fly around using temperature-sensitive rocks, gigantic hovering worms, floating lake towns and beehive cities, storms that blow in from the endless void of “open sky” and generate the material the economy is based on…it’s about as far from a Tolkien clone as fantasy gets. And while there are many ways to get away from Tolkien–China Mieville, Susanna Clarke, Ursula K. LeGuin, and George Lucas are all equally distant fantasists along wildly divergent paths–there’s no denying the unique power of the Edge.

2. …But the stories and world are also grounded and familiar.

With a world this overstuffed with imaginative detail, new dangers arise. Stories told in the Edge might easily overshoot the mark of fairy-tale resonance and wind up in Wonderland territory, where everything is goofily absurd and none of it really matters. The first volume, Beyond the Deepwoods, shows signs of falling into this trap. But soon the creators’ careful hands imbue everything with weight.

First and foremost, there’s the internal consistency. The Edge doesn’t have a “magic system” so much as it has alternative science, but it always works the way it’s meant to and never twists to accommodate the story. Flight-rocks always rise when cooled and fall when heated–The Winter Knights uses this as the basis for the entire plot, as an eternal winter threatens to rip Sanctaphrax free from the Edge. Stormphrax is lighter than air in light and astoundingly heavy in total darkness. Oakelves never move their nests, Woodtrolls never stray from the path, and a sky pirate’s talent is always inversely proportional to the coolness of his name.

Second, there’s the way that consistency evolves over time while maintaining its core. Take stormphrax: initially it’s used for two purposes, purifying water and weighing down the Sanctaphrax rock. In this first age, airship captains go “stormchasing,” to pluck it directly from the hearts of storms before it sinks into the ground and is lost. Nine books later, when Xanth Filatine (more on him later) invents a method of using it to power airships, far more is required, but the storms that produce it have stopped coming. But technology has marched on, and miners now dig through the ground under the Twilight Woods, retrieving stormphrax once thought lost with the help of powerful lanterns. In fact, the hero of The Immortals starts out doing this job.

But most of all, the grounding of the Edge comes from its characters. These books are no didactic fables telling morality stories at children. They’re about real people that dream and suffer and fall short and keep striving. Quint and Maris have a storybook romance, but when they’re forced to abandon their son in the Deepwoods, their marriage can’t survive the strain. Their son Twig falls in love as well, but when Maugin is stranded at Riverrise, Twig spends decades trying desperately to return–eventually having a child with another woman, one he apparently also loves. Cowlquape Pentaphraxis spends much of his life imprisoned for doing the right thing. Xanth Filatine’s attempts to reform lead him to face bigotry from the otherwise progressive Freegladers. And so on.

The Edge Chronicles books are not as interested in dealing directly with everyday unhappiness the way Lemony Snicket’s books for the same age group are. But they still are books for children where bad things happen to good people, then good things happen to bad people, then good things finally happen to the good people, but not always the good things they wanted. At the core of this world of flying knights and shapeshifting demons and endless meteorological feuds is a vein of pure humanity.

3. The characters are not just realistic, they’re interesting.

Xanth Filatine is a character in the trilogy of novels starring Rook Barkwater, a dark age of the Edge that begins with the Gloamglozer-induced stone sickness and ends with the establishment of the Free Glades. Raised as a true believer in the autocratic Guardians of Night, Xanth is sent to the Librarian Knights as a spy, but begins to see things from their point of view. His turn to the side of good takes time, though, with many false starts and secret angsts.

It’s a character arc that could be called the Prince Zuko Special, complete with Rook and Magda as Aang and Katara, Orbix Xaxis as Fire Lord Ozai, and Cowlquape as Iroh–though the first book to feature Xanth, The Last of the Sky Pirates, came out in 2002, and Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired in 2005…not making any claims, just saying that inspiration comes from all kinds of places.

The point is that all the things that made Zuko so compelling are realized in Xanth as well–most prominently, the chance for any villain to become good again. Redemption has a far deeper attraction to most people than revenge. In Freeglader, when he struggles to purge the evil from his soul, Xanth easily steals the middle part of the novel from Rook.

On the other side of the villain coin, let’s look at Vox Verlix. A young bully turned genius civil engineer, he builds the Second Age of Flight out of whole cloth, so absorbed in his ambitious projects that he ignores their consequences. As a result, slavery and bloodshed come to rule Undertown, and Vox himself winds up a powerless prisoner, gradually becoming poisoned with the evil he previously only committed by accident.

There are so many questions to ask about Vox: Does his brilliance give him a free pass to ignore the implications of his work, turning the Tower of Night into a nuclear weapons allegory? Does he squander his own shot at redemption because he doesn’t believe he’s done anything wrong? Does his accidentally helping the Edge in the long term justify unleashing the Dark Maelstrom? Does he betray the Librarian Knights because being constantly betrayed himself has taught him he has no choice but to strike first?

If there’s a central theme to the villains in The Edge Chronicles, it’s this: those who are single-mindedly devoted to their grand projects inevitably fall to darkness. Those who take life as it comes, who study the world and try to excel at their small tasks, always become the heroes. On the Edge, great good is only accomplished by acts of love, on the large and the small scale.

And why do I keep bringing up villains? Both because the series has an amazing rogues’ gallery and because…well, I love Harry Potter, but despite directly stating that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” the story goes out of its way to disprove that. Compare a character like Vox, Quove Lentis, Amberfuce, even the Gloamglozer, to Voldemort or Umbridge. The latter look like mindless hate sinks and killing machines. Anyone the heroes don’t like turns out to be on the side of the Wizard Nazis, even the random executioner from Prizoner of Azkaban, who for that book at least was really just doing his job.

Morality doesn’t always come in complex forms in young adult literature. The Edge Chronicles just isn’t interested in drawing hard glowing lines.

4. The vastly epic scope is everything I love about books.

Earlier, I called The Edge Chronicles a family saga, and that’s truly what it is to me. Earliest in the chronology, in The Curse of the Gloamglozer, a teenage Quint is still dealing with the grief of losing his entire family save his father in a tragic fire, and is thrust into the alien world of Sanctaphrax with only the aloof Maris as an ally.

The books sweep through their adventures and romance, through Quint’s father’s death in an Ahab-like quest for revenge, through the birth and abandonment of their son Twig, through Twig’s own coming-of-age and his vastly altering the Edge to create the world in which his grandson Rook must survive.

In The Immortals, 500 years later, we are recognizably in the same world, but everything has gone through everything it possibly can. It’s got by far the widest scope of any young-adult or middle-grade series I know of, and if there’s another, I would love for somebody to tell me. This is what I mean when I say these books have inspired me: not just in my worldbuilding, but also in my ambition. They’re how I learned to take my characters to the end of the world and the end of their wits.

5. They are not perfect.

By no means am I saying The Edge Chronicles is a flawless work. I can point out many flaws. The main characters of each story tend to be the least interesting, with Quint, Twig, Rook, and Nate being far more compelling once they become supporting characters than as somewhat bland protagonists.

Furthermore, representation is a problem: the women of the Edge don’t get nearly as much of a chance to tell their own stories than the men, and Stewart and Riddell have an unfortunate tendency to reinforce the trope that beauty equals goodness. I really wish, for example, that Vox would quit going out of its way to remind me how fat the title character is.

But that’s all parcelled up with everything else. Among young-adult serial fiction, The Edge Chronicles may not be as universally beloved as Harry Potter or as mythically resonant as The Chronicles of Prydain or The Dark is Rising. Its language and humor don’t sparkle like A Series of Unfortunate Events, and its social commentary isn’t as direct as that of The Hunger Games. It may not be as relatable to the target audience as Pendragon or Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

For me, though, the flaws of The Edge Chronicles are first and foremost an expression of its grand scale and massive imaginative force–and are second a product of it aiming for a different target than any of the ones I mentioned above. No matter where I am, in the world or in my life, reading Stormchaser or Clash of the Sky Galleons reminds me of what it was like to be young and dreaming without limits. They mix in darkness, on human and social scales, in order to both help us understand it and to reassure us it can be overcome.

A sky pirate, say these books, is not just something you shouldn’t let the world tell you not to be. Fighting to salvage the good in the world is the sky pirate way. Don’t give in to the temptation to ride out on crusades–instead, shelter and protect knowledge, love the people beside you, respect everyone. There are far worse legends to teach with, far worse worlds to tell them in.

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Anti-Nationalism Explored

This one’s getting political. If you don’t feel like putting that in your life today, tune back in next week, when I’ll be talking about more universal things.

I wrote this post to hopefully start a debate over a belief that’s increasingly formed a core part of my personal politics. Put simply, I don’t believe that nations have a purpose for existing. Put complicatedly, it gets…complicated. Which is why the debate.

I’d like to say this is a uniquely relevant time for me to bring this up, with North Korea posturing again, Russia annexing everybody, and nearly every country in the news competing to be the biggest shithead in the name of its own “national interest.” But the fact is, it’s not unique. Earlier in the century, the great nations had a war that killed millions because it was easier than not having a war. The attempts of awful people to build empires that inevitably collapse fills the lion’s share of our history books.

The concept of nationalism is pervasive. In the United States, look no further than the “America First” crowd on one side of our political debate, and the people on the other who are concerned that my nation’s recent executive troubles “damage our standing in the world.” The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU not only shot that territory in its own foot, but was based largely on a fear of immigrants, showing how easily nationalism climbs into bed with racism. Over in Asia, the Russians are gleefully burning their stash of global goodwill for short-term geopolitical advantages, and China continues to prop up the objectively evil North Korea because it fears a US-influenced nation directly on one of its borders.

In other words, China is influencing a country because it doesn’t want to be influenced by the influence of another country that’s been influenced by yet another country that China doesn’t like. This is without even going into the way that China and Taiwan bribe smaller nations with development projects so they can try to vote each other out of existence in the UN.

On the surface, this is all maddeningly dumb. Nobody trying to live their life cares who is influencing who, until some jackass forcibly occupies their town to prevent someone else from influencing them. Yet it’s not just the system we have and preserve through inertia: it’s the only possible consequence of a world full of nations that exist only to perpetuate themselves. And it benefits nobody but those in charge, and sometimes not even them.

Having reached this conclusion, though, I began to wonder if I was oversimplifying things. I can’t be the first person to think of this, after all. So, to ensure this is really an opinion worth holding, I want to interrogate it–starting with the definition of the term.

What is Anti-Nationalism?
As explained above, it is the idea that allegiance to a state serves no purpose, and is frequently detrimental. In other words, there is no reason to be loyal to the concept of America when that concept fails to provide any benefits.

I can remember 2001, the year it was so obvious that the 9/11 terrorists “hated our freedoms.” And 2003, when soldiers went to “fight for our freedoms” in a place that had clearly never threatened them.

The colonialism and imperialism of the west exist because of an arms race. Nobody in the 19th century seized territory in Africa or Central Asia because it would help the average person on the street. Nations grabbed land that did not belong to them, because if they didn’t, someone else would get it. Someone who would become more powerful. It all flows back to the wealthy classes in charge, filling their coffers, bolstering their legacies.

This has all been called a “Great Game.” Let me tell you about games. Games are when I sit down to play Castles of Mad King Ludwig knowing that I am not converting any of my real actual money into deutschmarks to spend on the Tasso Room. Games are when I boot up Final Fantasy VII and let Cloud Strife sustain a couple dozen shotgun blasts to the face because I’m reasonably certain he’s not alive and can’t feel pain.

Games are things we play when we want the thrill of making difficult decisions without the consequences. When I look at geopolitics, I see people who have forgotten they aren’t playing games. Influence, to me, means points for the sake of points. I can’t stand behind that.

You’re against the idea of world powers determining the destinies of less powerful states. OK, lots of people feel that way. But don’t nations provide many benefits for the people living within their borders, even without stealing resources?
Sometimes. But now we have to start asking economic questions. Specifically, is a large nation-state the ideal method of distributing resources to ensure the least inequality?

I’ve yet to see any evidence that it is. Small nations are ill-respected in the West, but that’s mostly because all the popular examples from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America were dealt an awful hand by the nation-building I described above. Far smaller communities in Europe that were spared the effects of influence–Denmark, Estonia, Luxembourg–do fine. History provides multiple examples of the same.

It’s abundantly clear that you don’t need to be large to be stable. In fact, the larger an empire, the harder its fall always seems to be. Moreover, within that empire, trying to dominate an increased amount of territory and population leads to more people falling through the cracks. As bureaucracy expands, government becomes less efficient. Meanwhile, people turn their attention away from the local affairs that actually affect them, instead getting involved in national politics that barely influence them at all but which the media covers like sporting events.

The end result is that people who resent the fact that resources have not been allocated to them elect someone to national power who claims to be able to save them all but lacks the ability to do so. When this happens, the opposition laments that nobody respects their nation anymore, a code word for more of that fucking influence. And while these sides wrangle over control of an increasingly irrelevant federal body, real problems go unsolved.

Not that the United States of America knows anything about that.

But people care deeply for the promises of their nations, not for their transient governments. People don’t love their countries because a bunch of oligarchs tell them to. A nation stands for higher ideals.
A valid point, but I want to turn it on its head, again using my own country as an example. America’s actions throughout its history do not align with the ideals it expresses. For 250 years, we have supported dictators, committed genocide on our own continent, distorted history, enriched the wealthy, and our attempts to eradicate slavery have been listless at best. Our 20th-century actions might seem heroic, but it sure is convenient how much influence they gave us by the end.

Not to mention we were willing to annihilate life on Earth because we didn’t like some other people. Let that sink in.

I’d like to propose that if a person loves America because America stands for freedom and justice, that person doesn’t need America at all. Their love of freedom and justice comes from within them. This is why a nation stands for so many different things to different people–half of us think the country’s highest calling is to accept and nurture refugees, while the other half want their homelands bombed into glass, and all those people are saluting the same flag.

It’s because people project their core beliefs onto flags. Nobody wants to die for a country–they die for something they love in their experience of being in that country, an experience that is almost always in direct conflict with that country’s geopolitical decisions. It’s why somebody who just wants everyone to be free can wind up getting shot in the desert because an old fat asshole wanted more oil. A nation is a tool for manipulation. Dulce et decorum est indeed.

This is the same way organized religions become corrupted. People believe something, and other people use that belief as a tool to gain power over them. This strikes me as the ultimate evil.

If a nation loses its standing in the world, doesn’t it also lose an opportunity to create positive change? For example, America gives out a lot of foreign aid.
Frequently in exchange for concessions, though. Nothing a nation this large does is altruistic. Besides, foreign aid in a global arms race serves the same purpose as charitable giving in a capitalist economy: a band-aid on a wound that’s already begun to fester.

Fine, but anybody can tear down the status quo. What do you offer as an alternative to the current system of nation-states? How could it possibly be less chaotic?
I realize, and admit, that my ideal world is a very long way off. It can’t be reached by burning everything down and picking the bits we like out of the ashes. The world needs to evolve.

I’m in favor of an increase in globalism, with caveats. I like globalization because it encourages actors to put the needs of the entire human race ahead of their own personal interest. Increased interconnectedness breaks down the perception of life on Earth as a zero-sum game.

In the abstract. What I don’t like about globalization is most of the ways in which it’s currently practiced–ways that fob off cheap labor on people not advanced enough to compete, thus increasing the power of the wealthy classes of the nations on top and screwing over the majorities everywhere. In my ideal form of globalization, every nation holds itself responsible for every other nation’s welfare.

That’s a first stage. Gradually, as competition for influence ends–helped greatly by a leveling-off of population simplifying resource management–borders become ever more porous. At this stage, small areas work to become sustainable using local materials as much as possible. Governments encourage collaboration on things that benefit mankind: science, medicine, art, the exploration of space, caring for the planet. Larger international aid efforts work to supply deprived areas using the infrastructure of corporations who have been brought to heel by intense international regulations. Limited free markets remain present, but safety nets are paramount.

The final phase is my ideal system: the default political organization is the autonomous region, constantly conversant with its neighbors about resources and with its global community about things that only the entire human race together can accomplish. People are interested in issues that directly affect them. People defend the things they love. Their ideals can finally align with their actions, instead of being co-opted by a state that only exists to enrich the powerful.

Isn’t this just libertarianism?
Some kinds of anti-nationalism might be, but not mine. It’s full of things libertarians hate, including taxes, regulations, social welfare, and environmental protections. The part of the government I want to eliminate is the part that seizes resources and uses that hoarding to enhance its own power.

Your vision of the future reeks of excessive optimism. What if one of your autonomous regions decides it wants to outlaw homosexuality, for example? How could you stop it?
Here we come to the first of the questions that keeps me awake when I try to piece together my personal politics. I don’t know. Without a central body enforcing law for the entire world, it’s almost impossible to put in place a system that enforces human rights.

The best argument I can make in response to this question is twofold. First, humans definitely had rights before there were nations to enforce them. In fact, national power seems to be a strong incentive to revoke human rights. Several small communities around the world have been documented by anthropologists to take transgenderism in stride, a feat of which the nominally more advanced Texas has proven incapable. Only in a large, organized state does it become an advantage to have a large group of “others” to demonize, from the Irish and Italians in the 19th century to the LGBT community today.

Once again we here see that religion is similar–the brutalities of a unified church always seem to begin at the top.

The second point of my response is that there is no system that can perfectly prevent all the darkest excesses of human nature. Large-scale democracy can become mob rule. Large-scale capitalism, oligarchy. Large-scale socialism, totalitarianism. Et cetera. But the organization of these systems along vast national lines emphasizes the bad while robbing the good of its power. A classless society naturally forms among a group of ten or twelve people, but when you try to turn all of Russia into one overnight, you get gulags.

At some point, if you want to create a society, you have to put your faith in humanity. Real humanity, not the institutions and mobs it sometimes forms. A world without countries makes it as easy as possible for kindness to shine through, but it is not utopia. Utopia is a verb, not a noun.

It’s far easier to destroy something than to build it, though. Suppose a community defies the global norm and starts conquering its neighbors, knowing they’ll be unprepared and weak. What’s to stop it from ruling the world?
Here we come to another compelling argument against anti-nationalism. It’s popularly expressed as the state’s purpose being to hold a monopoly on the use of force. Put another way, a large, organized police force binds its own power to a code of laws, thus making it unsustainable for anybody to exist outside those laws. In our hypothetical global community, that would refer to some kind of UN peacekeeping army, able to deploy around the world at a moment’s notice.

If you’re still reading at this point, you know that is antithetical to everything I’m talking about. Commanding that army would grant too much power for any one person to wield. I’m trying to purge the world of any amount of power that is so great it has to expand continually to survive.

Yet, while crime could be handled within small communities, there is still the need for a cap on aggression. In this situation, I think the best choice would be to take a page from the current march toward globalization, where an aggressive state is punished by isolation. Try to take over neighboring cities? Hope you didn’t need any trade, and that you’re cool with all your best thinkers leaving because nobody wants to talk to you. It’s an imperfect solution, but fits far better than the use of force.

Conclusion
My anti-nationalism is a starting point, not a complete philosophy. In the past, several times, I’ve thought I had the whole world figured out, but now I know you only discover small parts of the truth at a time. Believing you’re finished is dangerous. Just look at history.

Father Knox’s Mystery Commandments

I’m back, readers! Summer is turning into autumn in Walla Walla, and I couldn’t be more excited to enjoy being outdoors again. There’s going to be cider. There will be pumpkins. There is a high probability that blankets will be snuggled under, and the danger of looking at leaves has increased noticeably.

In addition to other life changes, that I’ll be getting to in future posts, I’m feeling excited about writing like I haven’t been in a long time. I am a writer–that’s a huge part of me–but my dedication ebbs and flows, to the point where some days I’m struggling to hit word count. But with The Clockwork Raven nearing its climax and short story ideas coming thick and fast–not to mention OryCon and NaNoWriMo right around the corner–it’s getting just friggin’ fun again.

With that in mind, I wanted to another fun writing post for you all. My inspiration came in the form of Father Ronald Knox’s dubiously famous Ten Commandments for mystery writers. Knox was a member of a writing club that counted Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers among its members, and was also a Catholic priest, which as that link points out might explain his penchant for putting universal laws in groups of ten.

The link points out that most of the commandments haven’t aged well. Now, while I don’t write mystery stories, most of my stories have some element of mystery in them: Rafter’s Rats, for example, involves Rafter following a trail of clues to discover why he was framed. I believe all protagonists are detectives, in some sense. Therefore, these laws have broad relevance, so I thought I’d tackle each one and determine how well it still takes effect in the modern age.

Let’s dive in. Read on!

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

Right out of the gate, we’ve got a very mixed bag. On the one hand, it makes sense–if the whole point of your mystery is to figure out who the criminal is.

But that’s not entirely the point of a mystery anymore. In an excellent lecture, Pillars of the Earth author Ken Follett explains how the “mystery” and “thriller” were once separate genres, with the thriller having a fairly specific definition: a protagonist learns a crucial piece of information and must take it to the proper authorities, while villains attempt to stop them. Books like The 39 Steps and The Riddle of the Sands follow this formula.

As Follett says, while British authors created both of these genres, it was an American innovation to combine them–creating the mystery-thriller, where the detective is in danger while they work to solve a crime. The driving force of these stories is suspense: will the detective solve the puzzle before his enemies take him out?

Suspense, as Hitchcock described it, and as I later described it on Reddit in an argument about the movie Sicario being garbage, relies on knowing a character is facing a threat and is running out of time to avert it. If that’s where your tension is coming from, it can actually be a boon to know who the killer is from the beginning. This is the basis of the “reverse whodunit,” also known as the “howcatchem,” an inversion that appears everywhere from Columbo to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. When we know who the villain is, we’ll squirm and clench our fists and read faster every time he’s in the room with the hero.

Not that trying to figure out clues to catch an unknown killer isn’t tremendous fun too. But #1 should not at all be an unbreakable rule. It forks the mystery into two very different kinds of stories: without the thriller aspect, a whodunit is likely to wind up classified as a “cozy mystery.”

Side note: this is why Disney needs to quit doing the secret villain thing it did in Frozen and Zootopia. It’s more fun to have an antagonist front and center from the start. Big Hero 6 and Moana did this better, I think, because there’s still an obvious villain, we just don’t know who’s behind their masks. But I’m way off-topic now.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Have you been to a bookstore in any year that begins with 201? Congratulations, you know now that frigging everything is paranormal now. Every genre has its own paranormal version, as though the designation can be mixed in like a second flavor in a milkshake. Paranormal romance. Supernatural horror. And of course, paranormal mystery.

Harry Dresden. Sookie Stackhouse. Anita Blake. These are just a few major sales juggernauts that totally fail to follow Father Knox’s second rule. However, this rule still has a place, for similar reasons to #1: you can keep it or break it, but it determines what type of story you’re telling.

In my last post, about opening lines, I discussed a sentiment that has become known as the contract with the reader. This is the idea that the opening of a story should speak truly about what kind of story is going to be told. If you’re writing a romantic comedy, don’t open on a gruesome triple homicide. Likewise, if you’re writing a dark fantasy, don’t open on a beautiful princess wishing a knight could sweep her away for a life of adventure–unless you make it clear that her wish will have grave consequences.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that the solution to your mystery can absolutely be preternatural. But you’ve gotta start with the preternatural stuff. Don’t have your detective analyzing blood spatter and running DNA tests and at last realizing the culprits were werewolves. Have her get to the crime scene, realize the murder occurred at the full moon, and summon a fairy first thing to ask it what went down.

Even if your schtick is a regular guy or girl solving magical crimes without magic, they’ve got to be aware of the magical possibility. And if the story is about the detective slowly discovering magic is real, let us discover it along with them, and make us open to believing right from the start.

3. Not more than one secret passage or room is allowable.

This one remains pretty solid. If your plot relies on the discovery of two completely separate secret passages, that means it relies on the exact same twist happening twice. And let me tell you, the whole does not equal the sum of the parts on that one.

The one case in which I think this might be acceptable is if the detective is certain there will only be one secret passage and the mystery hinges on there being exactly two. That’s a double subversion of expectations, but still hard to pull off, and will really only work once.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

To me, this one ties in very closely with #2: don’t hinge your solution on clues your reader won’t inherently understand. Like rule #2, you can break it so long as you’re upfront about it. Sci-fi murder mysteries like The Naked Sun are excellent, but if the murder was committed by means of a gravitonic hyper-compressor, I need to know how those work early and in a context unrelated to crime.

Once again, this is relevant outside of mysteries. The solution to a murder is just as much a surprise as a scene where your hero figures out a safe way to reach the bottom of the cliff and escape the villains. But if he does it with anything involving the word “quantum,” you’d better foreshadow that.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

This one seems hilariously racist, and it is, but not in the way it seems to be at first. The first decades of the 20th century were something of a golden age of Orientalism, and the “Yellow Peril” was a stock villain–think of the screaming, rag-clad “terrorist” or “insurgent” for a modern analog. Sax Rohmer led the way with his Fu Manchu stories, and others besides: if Rohmer’s on the cover, and any character from east of Norfolk shows up, you can bet money they’ve got designs on the Prime Minister’s life.

Father Knox recognized the problem of casting an entire race of humans as swarthy evildoers while getting basically nothing right about their history or culture. But his solution to the problem just made it worse: nobody from China, ever. Don’t create a Chinese character with actual feelings and motivations. Too hard.

Needless to say, rule #5 has aged the least well. If you read it as a directive to never include a foreign character whose only trait is being foreign, it holds up. If you read it literally any other way it should be tossed in the garbage along with all of Jules Verne’s opinions about Africa.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

In other words, one of my absolute favorite writing rules, which I tell to everybody: you may use coincidences to get your characters into trouble, never to get them out. If your hero is a criminal on the run, running into a detective in the bathroom of a restaurant will ratchet up the stakes. If the hero is the detective, running into the victim’s husband trying to flush bloody rags down the toilet when they hitherto hadn’t suspected him will feel cheap and lazy.

Note that negative coincidences still need to be foreshadowed–otherwise you wind up with Diabolus ex Machina. A billionaire in a helicopter showing up to save your heroine from the cliff is ridiculous. A hitherto-unmet billionaire with a grudge against her showing up to shoot at her after the real villain has fallen to their death is just as annoying. Coincidences are volatile substances and should be handled appropriately.

7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

Another rule in the family of 2 and 4 which can go right out the window if you pay a little attention to your contract. Get me questioning reality and mistrusting your narrator early on, just plant the slightest seed of uncertainty, and I’ll go right along with this.

Rule #7 was old even in Knox’s day. The first unreliable narrator detective novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was published in 1926 by his contemporary Agatha Christie. But, as we’ll see, it’s not the first of Knox’s commandments to be broken by a respected author–in fact, one of them was broken by a legend before the good preacher even created the list.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

In 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in ScarletThe novel introduced Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, a pair who shattered mystery conventions right from the beginning–their “Adventures” are actually proto-mystery-thrillers where the pair are regularly threatened by the actual criminal (check out “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” to see the duo nearly get eaten by a snake).

A Study in Scarlet is notable in the Holmes canon for two things: being the first, and cutting away from the main characters halfway through to talk about evil Mormons for the rest of the book. The Mormons, victims of a certain Occidental Orientalism themselves, are cast as a sinister cult responsible for driving the culprit in the novel’s main crime to murder. More to the point, we have no idea there are any Mormons in this book until after Holmes has dragged the guilty man before Watson and the police.

The thing is, though Conan Doyle invented the detective genre by breaking rule #8, I actually think it holds up better than most of them save 3, 6, and 10. If you’ve shaken up the story with a new development, why the hell wouldn’t you tell your reader?

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

As outdated as the Aristotelian Classical Unities. Listen, Father, choosing POVs is one of my favorite parts about writing. Don’t tell me that just because my story is about figuring out who a criminal is, I have to tell it through the mind of a slightly dumber version of myself. Just have the damn detective do the narrating.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Holds up. Twins are basically the same as secret passages in the hackneyed-twists department. And it’s not like “twins” is a genre that benefits from breaking this rule. Sure, they figure in a lot of Shakespeare comedies, but he always tells us there are twins right away.

And that’s it! Reader, if you take one thing away from Father Knox, take this: there are hundreds of “rules for storytelling” out there, and almost none of them consistently apply. They may say a story needs three dramatic episodes, a climax, and a denoument–but it doesn’t always. They’ll tell you a story must be told in words, or in dactylic hexameter, or in a series of woodcuts–don’t believe them. They may say the protagonist should be a white male so the story will sell–don’t listen.

Know the rules, then break them. Strive for the reaction Beethoven must have gotten, when the choir filed in for the final movement of his Ninth Symphony: “Is that a choir? Can he do that? Is he really going for it? My God, he’s going for it!”

Good luck.

My Two Main Projects

Hi, everyone! If you’re new to my blog, this is a brief announcement to let you know that while it’s still active, much of my writing effort these days is going toward two web serials that will be updated a lot more frequently. They are:

The Clockwork Raven: For ten years, Karla and Kio have known nothing but Nashido, the castle floating thousands of feet in the air that keeps them alive with a combination of unreliable machinery and unfathomable magic. All that keeps them going is a promise that one day they will help each other reach the surface. But when a winged monster attacks their home and Kio discovers the spells that keep Nashido aloft are fading, the two must face how little they know about their home…or each other.

The Clockwork Raven is a story of survival, clockpunk castles, flying continents, skeletal dragons, robots, aircraft engineering, and friendship against all odds that I’ve pitched as Studio Ghibli adapting The Martian. Read from the start here or check out the whole blog here.

Also features intermittent illustrations by Grace Pyles!

The Glass Thief: When Staever and his gang of lobster thieves hijack a land vessel hauling precious glass to the wealthy center of the Eye, they don’t expect to discover an ancient key that could hold the power to save their dying seaside city.

Staever knows the lobsters of the Eye must make a pilgrimage back to the homeland they lost centuries ago, but his only allies are his mother and an out-of-favor governor, and his chances of saving his people are slim at best. Yet if there’s one thing Staever and his gang can do, it’s think on their feet–and although he’s in the crosshairs of a conniving politician and his brutal enforcer, this thief’s day may be about to dawn…

Sweeping from a high desert, across a barren wasteland spanned by graceful bridges, and into the swamps and forests of a land known only to legend, The Glass Thief is a tale of treason, swashbuckling adventure, despicable villains, romance, humor, and the power of history. By the end, a continent—and a world—will be forever changed.

Read the first chapter here, or check out the whole story here.

A new full-length post coming soon! I’m thinking it’ll be about worldbuilding for fun and profit.

Sam’s Guide to Opening Sentences

Hi, everyone! Today’s topic is an important one for writers: it’s my take on how to handle that all-important first sentence.

The opening line of your story or novel carries a staggering amount of weight. If the importance in hooking your reader decays exponentially with each sentence, the first sentence is the asymptote: the point where hook significance leaps so high that the first officer on a sci-fi show would say readings were “off the scale.”

Or “over 9000!” if you prefer. The point is, it’s a big deal, and everyone has a different way of going about writing a first sentence. I’m not claiming this one is the only correct way–just that it’s mine, and since some people have told me I’m good at this, I hope it can help you with your own writing.

Here’s my method. A perfect opening sentence needs to do two things: introduce the mood of your story, and contain a mystery that invites readers into your story. A good opening sentence needs to do at least one of the two.

I’ll start with mystery, since that’s actually the simpler and less important of the two, though its immediate effect on the reader is more noticeable. To explain this, I like an example that I read somewhere else a while ago–I don’t remember where, but if anybody recognizes this, please let me know so I can credit them.

Anyway, take a look at the following first line:

Thirty minutes before the state championship, Johnny, our starting quarterback, walked into the locker room and announced he had quit the team.

The Johnny example has a major flaw, which I’ll discuss when I get to mood. This is by no means a perfect opener–it’s a teaching tool.

For now, take a moment to think about the amount of information crammed into this one sentence. There’s a quarterback, so we know it’s football, a sport played mostly in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. There’s a state championship, not a bowl game, so it’s probably high school football, an activity most consequential in rural areas of the American Midwest. Since Johnny is the starter, we know that he’s likely been thrust into a lot of adulation and responsibility at a time when he’s still maturing. And don’t overlook that sneaky pronoun “our,” revealing that this story has a first-person narrator.

Density by way of implication is one method you can use to entice your reader. Lots of people like to illustrate this with the famous six-word story–“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”–attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but I prefer Fredric Brown’s entry for the shortest horror story ever written: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room; there was a knock at the door.”

The main focus here, though, is the question: why has Johnny quit the team? We want to read on just to find that out. The fundamental trick of advertising is to convince somebody they have a need they didn’t have previously, and then fill that need. We as writers can hijack that trick for a less evil purpose. Don’t beg the reader to read on past your first sentence–convince them they would be ill-served not to.

Suppose Johnny’s tale is a short story in a cross-genre anthology, and you have no idea what category his motive will fall into. Has Johnny’s doctor diagnosed him with repetitive concussions, setting up a confrontation with his football-loving father? Is a psychopathic fan of the opposing team holding Johnny’s girlfriend hostage? Has Johnny made a pact with a Faerie Queen to trade away his football skills in exchange for a cure to his rare late-onset genetic disease? How will that affect the playoffs?

The most important part of this first component of a perfect opener is that your mystery be original. There are a lot of cliche opening lines that may have been mysterious once, but now just look stale–unless a new twist is placed on them.

For example, one of my pet peeves of amateur fantasy openings is to start in the middle of a chase scene. Inevitably, the character will be some manner of child, they will be exhausted but have to keep running, and whatever is chasing them will not be shown. A similarly common start is to have a more battle-hardened character fighting a bunch of faceless enemies.

This does not make me want to keep reading because I’ve been given no reason to invest myself. Specifically, there’s no mystery here. The author is expecting me to want to know why their protagonist is being chased, but hasn’t given me anything to grab onto. Fortunately, it’s an easy fix: give the runner a mysterious object they must protect with their life despite being obviously unqualified. Or start a few minutes earlier and make it clear their village was doing something offbeat that caused it to be attacked. Or have them investigating an interesting spot in the woods, but get chased, making them unable to finish…

…you get the idea. Simple additions can make this generic opening scene a hundred times more compelling. And the key element is an interesting, unresolved mystery. It doesn’t even have to be the central mystery of your story, either.

For a more complex example: opening with a character waking up is considered the mortal sin of introductions. It’s extremely hard to improve this, since it’s hard to imagine a note of less tension or interest to begin on. Everyone is at their least interesting right after waking up. Plus, even if they wake up in an unfamiliar situation, we know it will take them several boring pages to figure out what’s going on.

It’s best to go the Metamorphosis route: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” That’s a rule. If you must start the story with your character waking up, make sure he’s a cockroach, or something of similar mysterious weight, by the end of that sentence.

Let’s return briefly to Johnny to introduce the other half of my idea of a perfect opening line. His decision in the example to quit the team raises a lot of questions, but there’s one thing it fails to do: give us an idea of what kind of story we’re about to read. Is it going to be a comedy of errors or a family tragedy, a grounded coming-of-age tale or an urban fantasy saga? This is where relying solely on the mystery falls short–it fails to promise anything to the reader, other than that something good will happen if they read on.

This promise will not carry weight with everyone. Therefore, we need to ensure the perfect opener also conveys a sense of mood.

I’m going to start this one with some examples of real opening lines that I love. Several of these are illustrated in this awesome imgur post you should check out.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” –George Orwell, 1984

The idea that clocks can strike thirteen is not all that mysterious to us now, but Orwell’s classic introduction doesn’t hinge on an inviting mystery. Rather, it’s telling us about the world we’ve entered: a dark and bizarre place where everything we’ve come to find comforting and familiar is subverted just enough to be terrifying.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” –Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.” –Ian Fleming, Goldfinger

Another two examples of openers that are famous because they introduce the world of the story. Note from these that having a “world” does not mean you have built a setting from scratch for a sci-fi or fantasy story, or that you’ve exhaustively researched a bygone setting to write historical fiction. Every story has a world. Austen’s is a claustrophobic nebula of balls and drawing rooms; Fleming’s is a warped take on our own where exotic locales are easily accessible yet filled with danger, and final departure lounges are interesting. You cannot tell a full story without defining the parameters of its world.

Once you’ve defined this, the trick is to illustrate it in the very first sentence. I like to think of opening sentences as an Invocation of the Muse–that first line of an ancient epic poem where the poet would ask for divine aid in telling the story. By doing this, Homer or whoever could immediately signal that he was about to tell a tale so monumentally epic that he literally couldn’t finish it without the intervention of a minor deity.

Then he tells you the ending, and it just makes you want to listen more. That’s how well this works.

No matter what your world, you need a signal just like the invocation to the muse–one that implies, but doesn’t necessarily tell, the whole story. If your novel is about fantastic adventure lurking just behind the confines of the everyday, why not do what J.K. Rowling did in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and start your story by declaring two characters perfectly normal, thus conveying that many things around them probably aren’t? If your story is about the turmoil within a narrator’s head, why not have him spend the very first page reacting with hostility to the reader’s perceived interest, like J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye?

This is the deft balancing act that a perfect opening line needs to pull off. If the mystery is a hook to be set, the mood is a line to be reeled in (note: the author knows nothing about fishing).

I try to use this method, but I don’t believe in my own ability to be a perfect example of this opinion. That said, I’d like to share the opening line of Rafter’s Rats, and I hope some of my loyal readers can critique how well I’ve managed to practice what I preach.

In the ninetieth summer of Pale, the year of the Green Fever, two women in veils came to put the mark on my door.

I’ve attempted to meld mood and mystery, so hopefully this line can stand as a mechanical example of the technique, if it’s definitely not a paragon.

Also, just for fun, here are my top five favorite opening lines ever, in no particular order:

1. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” –C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

2. “This is my favorite book in the world, though I have never read it.” –William Goldman, The Princess Bride

3. “All children, except one, grow up.” –J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy

4. “In my family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” –Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It

5. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” –J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

 

 

 

 

5 moments from history that need to made into movies

Just like reading great books whose movie rights just get sat on, history makes me very sad that I don’t get to decide what movies get made. Hollywood loves making movies inspired by history, but doesn’t always seem to grasp the size of the idea pool it gets to work with. Stuck on the same few eras–Romans, Tudors, anything with Nazis–filmmakers neglect a wealth of true stories. Not that those things aren’t great, but I read a lot of history, and I’ve run into several relatively unknown events that demand to be filmed.

Here, for my promised non-political post and in no particular order, are five of the best. Forget stranger than fiction: these stories are absolutely strange enough to make the best fiction.

5. Edwin and Raedwald

The history: The north of England, 604. King Aethelfrith of Bernicia makes clear his intentions to unite his kingdom with neighboring Deira by any means necessary. Edwin, prince of Deira, sees his father and his entire family murdered–all by the work of one man, with a maniacal fixation on his dream of ruling one Northumbria.

Edwin flees first to Gwynedd in modern Wales, where King Cadfan ap Iago marshaled an army to hold off Aethelfrith’s pursuit. This army includes a band of monks to protect Cadfan’s Britons with their prayers–whom Aethelfrith slaughters to a man before smashing Cadfan’s army and forcing Edwin to flee once more. He visits Mercia before finally being chased to the court of the man who will become his greatest ally: King Raedwald of East Anglia.

Raedwald doesn’t see the advantage right away in keeping Edwin around, so when Aethelfrith’s agents offer him a bribe to hand the prince over, he plans a betrayal. However, his wife, whose name has been sadly lost to history, excoriates him for his cowardice, and convinces him to change his mind. The two men become allies, and march off with Raedwald’s son Raegenhere to retake Deira. Aethelfrith, whose obsession with killing Edwin now verges on madness, rides to meet them.

Everything is settled at the bloody battle of the River Idle, where Aethelfrith commits his entire army straight for the flank commanded by Edwin. Too late, he realizes his mistake: instead of Edwin, he’s attacked Raegenhere, who gives his life in the fighting. Edwin and a furious Raedwald trap Aethelfrith against the river, and slay the evil king.

The movie: Seriously, just read that story again. It’s already a major studio script. Edwin’s desperate flight. His thirst for revenge. Aethelfrith’s increasingly despicable acts (Massacring monks at prayer? Come on, man, are you trying to be a Dark Lord?). Raedwald’s struggle over whether to embroil his people in a war he didn’t start. The two leads turning from suspicious allies to friends. And the utterly tense final battle.

Make it a gritty vengeance drama with high production values and a couple of great battle scenes (plus maybe one good two-on-two duel with the guys versus Aethelfrith’s ambassadors), get someone who directed an episode of Game of Thrones,  and I’d throw money at this.

The cast: To highlight the differences between the characters, I’d cast Kit Harrington as brooding, revenge-obsessed Edwin, with Norman Reedus as the older, more worldly, harder-partying pagan king Raedwald. Round out the cast with Emma Watson as Raedwald’s willful wife who maintains his kingdom’s honor when he cannot, and Taran Edgerton as Raegenhere, the heir to East Anglia tragically determined to impress his father. As for the brutal villain Aethelfrith–gotta be Immortan Joe himself, Hugh Keays-Byrne.

Source: http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/adversaries/bios/edwin.html

4. Menelik II

The history: Ethiopia, 1889. The powers of Europe–Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, and Italy–have invaded nearly all of Africa and divided it up between them. Only two nations, Liberia in the west and Ethiopia in the east, remain free. Menelik II, who traces his lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, has claimed the Ethiopian throne after a long power struggle. Knowing that only a strong and united empire can resist the colonial ambitions of Europe, Menelik establishes the capital of Addis Ababa and sets out to found modern Ethiopia.

The British have already interfered in the Ethiopian succession, and the French and Italians are on their way. While crushing the slave trade, Menelik finds time to play the colonizers off each other, skillfully letting each of them think they’re expanding their influence while they’re actually just building railroads, providing Addis Ababa with electricity, and selling modern weapons to the Ethiopian empire.

Italian envoys attempt to trick Menelik with a treaty in two languages: its Amharic version merely cedes Eritrea, but its Italian version claims all of Ethiopia as a protectorate. When he finds out, an enraged Menelik denounces the Italian treaty and prepares for war–ramping up his arms stockpiling and forging an unlikely friendship with Russia. At the Battle of Adwa, with the help of his third wife Teytu, Menelik decisively defeats the colonial army and forces Italy to recognize the absolute independence of Ethiopia.

The movie: Menelik II is a figure I greatly admire. He fought his enemies with guile, and was wise and open before his subjects, but when you pushed him he pushed you back. The story of an African empire that resisted colonization in the 19th century would be fascinating enough on its own, even without a protagonist who was a crack shot, befriended Russian poets, detested slavery, founded a national bank (it’s 2016, founding banks is sexy now), got caricatured for Vanity Fair, and may have (may have) used a non-functioning electric chair as his throne. But this one has all those things, wrapped around the battle against impossible odds. And the good guys win!

The cast: I can easily see Denzel Washington winning his third Oscar for the lead role of Menelik. He’s got the range to pull it off–he can be a wise elder, a trickster, and a force of nature all at once. Teytu, the woman Menelik thought he could never love after losing his first two wives, the woman who served as his minister and commanded 5,000 guns at Adwa, could only be Viola Davis.

Source: http://www.blackhistoryheroes.com/2012/03/emperor-menelik-ii-and-issues-of.html

3. Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The history: Let’s pivot from war and politics to a feat of engineering. In the 1820s, many Londoners are talking about building a tunnel under the Thames to reduce the intolerable congestion of the city’s commerce. Nobody seriously thinks it can be done, though. The work surface is too soft, and every attempt–including a valiant effort by Cornish wrestler-inventor Richard Trevithick–breaches and floods.

Every attempt, that is, until Marc Brunel, a French engineer fleeing the Reign of Terror, notices the way shipworms line the tunnels they dig as they go. He is inspired to design a Great Shield (The Great Shield, possible title idea), an enormous working frame riding on wooden planks that provides a temporary roof, walls, and floor for a tunnel in progress. There’s only one project ambitious enough to test such an idea: finally building the Thames Tunnel.

The Great Shield can stave off collapse–most of the time–but it can’t protect Brunel from the poor ventilation and wildly fluctuating temperatures that in 1826 leave him too sick to work. His son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, takes over instead, and finds himself embattled on all fronts: dangerous floods are getting more frequent, his enemies in Parliament are trying to shut the project down, and the Shield is approaching the unexpected dip in the riverbed that destroyed Trevithick’s project.

Isambard has ideas. He invites paying tourists to watch the diggers at work. He plunges under the Thames in a diving bell, alone, to hurl bags of clay to fill the depression. In 1827, he barely escapes a disastrous flood that kills six other workers. When financial problems halt the effort for seven years, Marc Brunel steps back into the picture, raising the funds that finally complete the tunnel in 1841.

The movie: An inspirational story of perseverance starring the engineer action hero we need, not the one we deserve. This seemingly boring story about building an underwater tunnel with turn-of-the-19th-century technology features more hairsbreadth escapes and rapidly changing plans than The Martian. Plus, the narrative of the son stepping in to finish what his father started is too perfect to ignore.

The cast: I just found out two things about Aaron Taylor-Johnson–one, he’s English, and two, his father was a civil engineer. That’s good enough for me to put him in the role of Isambard. As for Brunel Sr., let’s have Vincent Cassel as the inspired, ailing French ex-pat.

Source: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-epic-struggle-to-tunnel-under-the-thames-14638810/

2. Castner’s Cutthroats

The history: The other two war stories on this list are about commanders determining the fortunes of entire armies–but here in Alaska, 1942, we’ve got a tale of unconventional battles at the literal edge of the conflict. During the war in the Pacific, the Imperial Japanese Army invades the Aleutian Islands. Not only does the Alaskan archipelago offer them control of the North Pacific, it could be a staging ground for further incursions onto American soil, even the often-feared direct attack on the west coast.

Colonel Lawrence V. Castner, who the source link literally describes as “a masterful swordsman with a jagged scar running down his chin,” had an idea to take the Aleutians back. Both the Japanese and the Americans struggled against the harsh weather of Alaska, but the native Aleut had thrived there for thousands of years. Castner created an irregular platoon of hunters, trappers, fishermen, prospectors, mushers, and mountain men, with one job: recon the Japanese positions without being detected.

Castner’s Cutthroats disdained all the army’s regulations and discipline. They didn’t wear uniforms. They brought their own weapons. And they argued vigorously against the brass’s determination to wage war in the Alaskan permafrost the same way they did everywhere else. When the infantry committed to the island of Attu arrived in short-sleeved fatigues with only three days of rations, the Cutthroats advised them on how to stay warm, and fed everybody off the land.

At one point, the unit scored a victory by draining a lagoon on Adak Island to use its bottom as a temporary airstrip. In May 1943, they battled for Attu amid ice and fog, and, largely thanks to the scouting, mountaineering, and survival skills of a bunch of punks who didn’t even wear insignia, managed to take the island back. In fact, during the entire war, Castner’s Cutthroats sustained only a single casualty.

The movie: My major M.O. so far has been simple: tell stories that don’t just need to be made into movies, they’re basically already movies that require little to no cinematic punching-up. That’s what we’ve got here. World War II? Check! Action and adventure in a stunning landscape? Double check! A band of unconventional heroes, many of them from a marginalized background, who survive a harrowing fight by just being that good? You better believe that’s a check!

The cast: I’d really like to have an Aleut character at the center of this story, so let’s go with The Magnificent Seven‘s Martin Sensmeier as George Gray, gold prospector, survival expert, and part-time sketch artist who rises from wilderness roots to capture the high ground on Attu. As for Castner himself, read that quote about him again. Did you see Harrison Ford? Yes, you did. Quit lying.

Source: http://www.historynet.com/alaskas-cutthroats.htm

1. Judith and Baldwin

The history: And at last, we head back to Saxon Age Britain, but it’s a very different place from where we left Edwin and Raedwald 200 years ago. The Heptarchy is over, leaving the House of Wessex ascendant, and the English are looking out toward closer ties with their neighbors in France. Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, gives his daughter Judith in marriage to King Aethelwulf of Wessex. He is in his fifties, she no more than fourteen.

The couple have no children before Aethelwulf dies, but no sooner is he cold than his son, Aethelbald, forcibly marries his stepmother. When he dies as well, Judith, who has grown up swiftly to survive for years in a strange court without allies, returns to shelter with her father in France–only to have Charles confiscate her property and lock her in a nunnery until he can marry her off a third time.

However, Judith became a queen in Wessex, and she’s tired of letting old men decide her fate. At the convent, she falls in love with Baldwin, a count and famous warrior in Flanders. Baldwin is no Casanova, either–he loves Judith back, and is ready to fight the whole world so they can be together. When the couple elopes, Charles the Bald excommunicates them both, and sends soldiers to kill them. They escape, perhaps with the assistance of a young Alfred the Great, and embark on a harrowing journey to seek intercession from Pope Nicholas himself.

The pope forces Charles to recognize the marriage only after Baldwin threatens to go to war against France if he does not. Judith and Baldwin live the rest of their days together. Their children become kings and queens, their line eventually culminating in a little-known Norman bastard called William the Conqueror.

The movie: There’s a lot of war in this list, so I wanted to end on a love story. And what a love story! Open on young Judith, a terrified, lonely child bride, who gradually learns to fight for herself. Go through the consequences of her attempt to take a stand, the furtive nighttime meetings at the convent wall with the dashing knight, and finally, a desperate race that tests their true love against the rage not only of the King, but of God. Tell me you wouldn’t rather watch this than another damn Elizabeth I movie.

The only issue, if I had any say in adapting this, was that in learning about this from the British History Podcast I created a headcanon that Alfred was in love with Judith himself and had to give up on his crush so she could be happy. There is no proof that happened and I need to quit pretending it did. (I will not)

The cast: We haven’t used Charles Dance yet, have we? Put him in as Charles the Bald, opposite Natalie Dormer as Judith in the role she was born for. For Baldwin, I need someone like Gerard Butler but less angry, which according the 300 continuum means Sullivan Stapleton. Finally, Asa Butterfield could steal a few scenes as young, not-that-great-yet Alfred.

Source: https://books.google.com/books?id=SP0sSi8iHK4C&pg=PA51&dq=judith+of+flanders&ei=2Us8SZjtHaeGzgTcoLmeBA#v=onepage&q=judith%20of%20flanders&f=false

So there you have it! If studios ever want to go back to making tentpole historical epics with fantastic art direction and the budgets of superhero movies, they could do a lot worse than these five true stories. Also, there’s a lot of history I don’t know–so if you read this far, I’d love to hear your own ideas for real-life dramas overlooked by Hollywood!

My official application to be questioned by Donald Trump’s Un-American Activities Committee

Happy December, readers! As you all may or may not know by now, my home nation is in a spot of trouble. In the immediate aftermath of the election of an evil cyberpunk businessman to the presidency, I responded with a message of unity and hope, which at the time was what I needed and what I thought others might need as well. I’m glad I wrote it, but now, three weeks later, I realize that it can’t tell the whole story. There are people in much more danger from the policies of Lord Business than I am, who won’t be ready for unity and hope for a long while. They have their own voices to make heard, and I’m trying to listen.

Yet, with Martin Niemoller constantly in the back of my mind these days, I need to make sure I am speaking out–however small my platform may be. I want to start by saying this is not, in the end, a post about Donald Trump. Frankly, he’s a backwards little man who isn’t worth my time, and I don’t believe even his cabinet appointments showcase any more “agenda” than a desire to reward his cronies. Why would anybody with a long-term plan seriously consider Ben Carson, the poster child for non-transferable intelligence, for multiple unrelated cabinet positions?

Nor is this a post about the large percentage of his voters who voted so out of a desperation I am unable to understand. They will be severely disappointed, likely soon, but that’s their battle to fight. This is a specific response to the fraction of people who voted for him out of a conscious certainty that pernicious influences–Mexicans, black people, Muslims, homosexuals, feminists, “indecency”–are destroying America in a thousand nebulous ways, and can’t be touched because of political correctness. It is also a response to the movement they emboldened, which goes by “alt-right” because “fascist” is out of style these days. But make no mistake, these people are fascists: subscribers to the most useless, dead-end, reactionary intellectual footnote the 20th century ever had the misfortune to shit out. Stephen Bannon, Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopolous, and all their Nazi friends are spineless, pathetic cowards who deserve our contempt, and–if they ever learn to show remorse–our pity.

Why write all this on the internet? Simple: the radicals get persecuted in an authoritarian regime. On the off-chance American Nazism really is enshrined into government policy, I want to align myself with the opposition early, decisively, and publicly, in order to ensure I’m not resisting from my armchair. It’s not the end of resistance, of course, but it is a beginning. To paraphrase Sir Patrick Stewart, if the only currency of public discourse is to be the rage of straight white men, the straight white men have a responsiblity to speak.

With that in mind, let’s rewind the clock: back to the Golden Age of Athens, where Plato authored the dialogue Gorgias, starring Socrates.

In this scene, Socrates debates strength, weakness, rhetoric, and tyranny with a man of the world named Callicles, a positive Disney villain who that Project Gutenberg link describes as “the spirit of evil against which Socrates is contending, the spirit of the world, the spirit of the many contending against the one wise man.” Callicles believes philosophy is useless, and extends that opinion to all of human law, stating that justice is expressed by the strong taking what they want from the weak.

Socrates disagrees. In a parable, he tells Callicles of two men, one with an intact jar and one with a leaky jar. Once the first man fills his jar, however great the difficulty, he will have it full, but the second man, even if he has streams of milk and honey and wine running right through his house, will be engaged in filling his jars “night and day…and if he pauses for a moment, he is in an agony of pain.” Callicles claims that the first man no longer has any pleasure left in his life, but Socrates argues that pleasure is different from good. Sooner or later, he declares, a person must cease attempting to win out over others and must instead conform his life to some sort of design that does not require constant violence–whether physical, rhetorical, or spiritual.

Socrates and Callicles were arguing about individuals, not nations or races, but the argument is easy to transfer. Look no further than pungent sack of crap Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to replace “Nazism” because he took a long hard look at Hitler’s ideology and decided the main problem was the title. His recent speech in D.C. described white Europeans as the “children of the sun,” the destined conquerors of the world who have been unfairly maligned and oppressed by…somebody. My best guess is that “somebody” refers to Democratic politicians and college professors proposing settled designs exactly like the ones Socrates requires for a person to live a good life. These are simple designs–educate yourself, seek order and harmony in your soul, practice a reflexive respect for others–but they’re evidently too difficult for puerile grubs like Spencer and his audience.

Just to hammer this point home, let’s look at a few other examples of quotes from modern American fascists:

“What if the people getting shot by the cops did things to deserve it? There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent.” —Steven Bannon

What if they didn’t? What if the world has passed you by and you’re desperate to reduce millions of people to a single statistic you can feel superior to?

“Is Trump likely to cancel the constitution, declare martial law, declare himself emperor to be succeeded by his children, nationalize the banks and media, hang some of the worst criminal bankers, send the Israelis back to Israel, call the National Guard to roll tanks into Harvard Yard, place all communists and other anti-American elements under house arrest, retire all government employees, replace the USG with the Trump Organization, and begin actually rebuilding America and western civilization?

Short of that, he is simply another phenomenon within the arcane workings of the system, as worthy of support as the ebb and flow of the tides.” —Michael Perilloux

I’d say “there are no words” but there are always words. This guy seems to be one of those people who insist the Roman Empire saved all the other peoples of Europe from themselves. Perilloux’s “rebuilding” of Western civilization takes the form of the fascist’s desperation for his country to be able to compete militarily–if we don’t get them, they’re gonna get us. This is what I mean when I say fascism is a historical footnote. Not only does the United States spend more on its military than the next seven countries, but the era of total war is over. And how have autocratic strongmen worked out throughout history?

The Roman Empire, which a lot of these human mouse droppings hold up as the epitome of strength, was an utter disaster for longer than it was stable. It’s always Augustus with these fascists, never Caligula.

“NO MORE WHITE GUILT! The Alt-right is growing because people are sick of being emotionally manipulated based on them being white.” –r/altright user TopDecking

“And the sickest thing is we are the STRONGEST. We literally built and designed everything you see.” –reply from Americanfight

Let me just get a few things straight here, Americanfight, TopDecking. You two are white, yes? A race category that does not even exist in any genetic sense, yet still gets to be the Chosen People? And you claim that white Europeans are the strongest, smartest, most creative group of people to ever exist? And yet you are both susceptible to emotional manipulation from…who, exactly? If you’re so mighty, why don’t you laugh off whoever is manipulating you and go drink? Or better yet, engage in self-examination to decide whether the charge against you has merits?

Oh, right. Because those would be mature, responsible reactions that would render your default response–gathering together to throw tantrums about how everybody except you is emotionally fragile–kind of nonsensical.

No, the people in that restaurant meeting, on those websites, in those militias, don’t want to live a just, ordered life like Socrates. They want to be Callicles. The color of their skin is their competitive unit, and they feel like their team hasn’t scored enough points recently. It’s easy to see how fascism and racism become entangled: they’re almost identical. The only difference is that the former privileges the state, while the latter privileges the race. In the ideal “nation-state” of the white nationalist, the “almost” is gone. The race is the state, and the state wants to start flexing its muscles.

There are many people who voted for Trump that I don’t want to call stupid or evil–because I haven’t experienced the hardships of the rural poor, because a college degree is not the only indicator of intelligence, and because it’s mostly unhelpful to label people as enemies. But I will say this with certainty: if you believe a nation that had a massive population of enslaved Africans from the moment of its birth can somehow become the flagship of global whiteness, you are stupid. If you believe global whiteness requires a renewed power to exert over its enemies, you are evil. The modern fascist chooses his alignment freely, and I may freely ridicule a person for their choices.

And let’s apply the Socrates argument to these white nationalists: what’s the endgame, exactly? A council of white people ruling the entire world, enslaving everyone browner? All non-whites exterminated? How will you keep slaking your desire for victory once all those others are destroyed, except by redefining your “children of the sun” to an ever-smaller circle of people, until you’re fighting like dogs over the destroyed scraps of a civilization that once aspired to decency? Did Spencer and Bannon and their fascist friends all watch Mad Max: Fury Road, see Immortan Joe come onto the screen, and think, “Finally, leadership I can get behind!”?

Jesus Christ. Witness me, you bloodbags. I think you’re a mob of blubbering cowards desperate for a strongman to come give purpose to your pathetic lives. I think you were the kind of children who picked four-on-one fights and wailed “no fair!” when that one bloodied your nose. I think you lack responsibility, honesty, and basic decency, and if you gain even the slightest influence over the White House, I dare you to drag me or anyone who thinks like me onto the witness stand. We’ve read books. You all don’t appear to have made it through Harry Potter.

If you want proof of what I’m saying, look no further than the new trend of Trump voters throwing public tantrums because they don’t get special treatment for having voted for him. These people joined a white nationalist movement because they wanted victories, but suddenly, the winning has abruptly stopped. It’s all downhill from here. This is the precise moment that anyone who voted for Lord Business because they expected a white uprising starts to learn how much you have to sacrifice to keep that jar filled.

*deep breath* OK. My next post will be about something utterly apolitical. But not before I tweet this at everybody whose name came up (except the Ancient Greeks). They might not see it, but at least it’s evidence they could use against me later.

There is a way to live now

“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” –Franklin Roosevelt, Speech before the Democratic Convention, 1936

In 1968, the world watched as the inspirational dreams of a generation seemed to be driven repeatedly to their knees. First Martin Luther King Jr. and then Robert Kennedy had their flames snuffed out in shockingly brief moments of violence. At the end of the year, out of the ashes of a dream, the American people decided they wanted Richard Nixon to lead them–law and order, so the thinking went, was what we needed in those dark days. A victory, in other words, of fear.

In 1968, the world mostly ignored a shipyard in Maine where a shipbuilder named Harvey Gamage was laying a new keel. He was working for a group of friends of the musician and activist Pete Seeger, who had come up with a plan to clean pollution out of the Hudson River by building a ship to campaign for its rights. That ship, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater where I worked so recently, was successful in drastically improving the condition of the Hudson estuary. A victory, in other words, of love.

I mention these events in conjunction not just because they took place in the same year, or even because the events of that year seem to be repeating themselves. I mention them to illustrate the mechanics of the only war that has ever been waged in human history: the war between fear and love. I do not think it is reductionist to view the human progress this way. Each of us bears both, and can feed both, but must choose which one we grant supremacy.

If you’re like me, you spent last night, and this morning, and probably some hours in between wondering if the American experiment has failed at last. The short answer is no. This nation survived multiple ground invasions, many economic depressions, a civil war, enough awful presidents to field a basketball team and enough mediocre ones to keep them going into baseball season. The real question is twofold: how will we survive? And who will suffer while we wait?

The answer to the first is simple. Cast off the idea of America for now and understand that this has always been a battle between love and fear. Understand that our generation has been called to carry the standard of love, and that the way in which we do it will determine the answer to the question of who suffers.

A nationwide demand for law and order. A man with a guitar sitting on a boat. How can they relate?

In the end, I truly believe that love always wins. But it doesn’t win battles. Love’s victories are not flashy: it is not a superhero punching a monster off a building, a wrestler landing a finishing move. The act of love is guerrilla warfare. When fear wins a spectacular triumph, as it did last night, love must begin working in quiet, relentless ways. It is easier to destroy things than to build them. That’s basic thermodynamics. This generation has witnessed destruction, and we’ve been called upon to build.

Our ability to love will determine, over the next four years, whether the groups most in danger from Trumpism are able to find a home in this country. The first thing I’ll do is what I always advise: do what you’re good at and do it well. Of course I’m not going to stop writing and trying to increase the net empathy of the world. But that’s no longer quite enough.

Around 3 AM this morning I thought about that young woman I described in a previous post, who I kept writing for in the hopes that she might find some strength from my stories. Well, that story is complicated now. Add another layer of adversity. Say that she is undocumented, wears a hijab, isn’t sure she likes boys. Books might save her when her classmates shout “faggot!” or “ISIS!” but they won’t do a thing if someone decides it’s OK to hurt her as she walks home at night, or deport her, because–you know, she’s not like us. She’s one of those people. We have to keep them in their place or they’ll be calling the shots next, and then where will we be?

No, books alone won’t save her. Fear is ever-vigilant, and love is prone to sloth. She needs a nation, a world, of clear-eyed people. Last night wrote into the stars our rendezvous with destiny. It is up to us to decide whether the Trump administration is the new normal or the last gasp of a pathetic, lost army of the footsoldiers of fear. I believe love has the numbers–Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, after all–but that only counts if our side shares a goal and a message and doesn’t give in to the lure of despair.

Now is not the time to look backward, to wonder what went wrong or whether Bernie Sanders could have won. The will of the people is too powerful a weapon to burn it off that way. Our job now is to be constantly on the lookout for concretely fascist policy decisions and ways we can counteract them, and constantly open to the people who need help. I don’t have much, but what I do have, I have to share with all potential victims of the policies of the next four years. I promise right now to volunteer in some way that counteracts each new awful decree. And to tell the people I love that I love them, early, and often, and not just in the way I would if we were on a crashing plane.

Because fear is what Donald Trump wants. As long as we stay afraid, he rules, even if our fears are legitimate. Our work is to love–to dance above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.

It’s not fair that we were tasked this way. Who in their right mind would choose to be one of the generations of whom much is asked? But perhaps being given so much is the true danger. Perhaps complacency is the greatest ally of fear, since it produces that nagging suspicion that all your gifts could be revoked at any time.

Now a great deal has been revoked from us. The fascists say that hard times create strong men, but they have no idea what strength really means, since they only know strength when it serves the side of fear. We will show them the strength of our love. It may not look like anything when we do; love will not win in a burst of light or to the sound of an angelic choir. But if we refuse to surrender, it may be enough.

“History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.”

–Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy

Vikings Raid New York! Or, Topics in Non-Euclidean Marlinspiking

Hello from Yonkers, everyone! I’m excited to be based for a few days in Walla Walla’s East Coast sister city in being more famous for having a goofy name than for being a city. I sailed here aboard the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, where against all odds, I am treated as a member of the crew. In the last month I have seen, done, and learned so many things that if I tried to just vomit them out this post would be a bigger mess than my SAT essay (side note for any high-school-aged readers: the SAT essay is graded using the reverse of Godwin’s Law. Hitler it up, even if the topic is cell biology). So I’m going to organize this update on my maritime activities via the time-tested method of the Good, the Bad, and the Environmental Humanities.

What? That’s a real movie. Clint Eastwood as Henry David Thoreau is a cultural icon. Who can forget that famous scene where he mows down the huckleberry collectors while Emerson quips one-liners? Classic stuff.

Anyhow, I’m about to get kicked out of a library, so let’s get started.

The Good: I should probably explain that title. It’s referring to Draken Harald Harfagre, a replica Viking ship that made a transatlantic journey from Norway through conditions so hazardous the crew were ordered to sleep in their survival suits. For reference, these are the poofy full-body flotation devices you wear to stay alive until somebody’s Coast Guard notices you. Draken (as we call it) has a checkered reputation on Clearwater, as having only one square sail, and a 9th-century steering mechanism largely dependent on a large Swede probably named Gunnar, is objectively funny. That said, I did volunteer to crew for them before landing the Clearwater gig, largely out of my love for replica voyages kicked off by Tim Severin’s Brendan Voyage. And it was thrilling to throw up our full sail and try to photobomb their press junket off the Manhattan coast, as we did a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if we actually made it into any of their publicity, but I got some fantastic pictures.

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This is my favorite, with the Freedom Tower in the background. I like it as a reminder that history never leaves us: that 800s ships look over the same Atlantic as 2000s skyscrapers.

As for the other part of the title, it came up as part of a discussion of how many coils of line should be hung from certain parts of the rigging, but honestly, I don’t quite know what it means. I think I’m just going to let it exist as an inside joke with just me. Everyone should have at least one of those.

The Bad: It’s been a long road to dredging up my old knowledge from my Corwith Cramer trip around the Lesser Antilles back in 2013, and honestly, I overestimated the strength of that foundation from the beginning. Before boarding Clearwater, I may have known what a ballantine and a beam reach were, and why it’s important to swab the deck with saltwater. But knowing the steps for an arrest in countertime doesn’t mean you can pull one off in a pitched battle against a deranged clown with a weed whacker. It’s all in the muscle memory, the ability to act without thinking, and I have never been good at that.

Nor am I great at details. The fact is that the ideal sailor is an extremely meticulous, detail-oriented person, who can’t look at something without thinking of a way to make it better, prettier, more functional. And I’m…not. I can be a details person when it comes to my writing–no way around it if I want to be able to pick my crutch words out of a manuscript–but it’s not my strong suit in other areas. Just look at my attitude toward cleanliness. Past a certain reasonable point when all the big blemishes are gone, I’m constitutionally incapable of being dissatisfied with an object’s cleanliness. I am like the man from a groaningly dated stand-up act. I cannot see dirt.

(I also frequently leave the toilet seat up. This is another mistake that’s worse if you make it on a boat.)

In the long run, being forced to learn the processes of sail-raising and striking, to practice the skill of moving onto the next step as the previous one wraps up, is going to be good for me. Especially if I plan to skipper my own small boat someday. But I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t taken a toll. For a week or two, it seemed like I couldn’t go fifteen minutes without making some obvious mistake. When I got a handle on those, more things cropped up. Honestly, the only thing that kept me from despairing about ever being a real sailor was getting to know some of the “real sailors” and discovering they have the same problems. Sailing is like anything else in life: anybody who claims to have all the answers is lying. Even the mates forget things, and no captain can demand the current change course.

Good: Working with students has been the best part of the job, other than the astounding views, which I’ll get to in a bit. Clearwater spends the majority of its time on the water taking students out sailing to teach them lessons about the Hudson River–students from 4th grade to college, but mostly on the younger side. The lessons take the form of stations, usually five to a sail, preceded by all the kids helping us raise the 3,000-pound mainsail together. The passengers get to touch a fish and help steer the boat, but my favorite station to teach is often history, which happens belowdecks with the aid of a box of artifacts and a stained-glass history of the river valley. There are so many great stories, from George Washington’s enormous Tyrion Lannister chain to the English leveraging their dubious territorial claim to turn New Amsterdam into New York without firing a shot. Runner-up stations are water quality, which allows me to explain that the murky waters of the Hudson are actually a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and art, because in internet parlance I am Hudson River School trash.

Bad: Really really am not going to miss sharing a cabin with between seven and twelve other unwashed people, one of whom has to climb over my bunk to get into his. Or having people literally underfoot when I’m doing the dishes. Or being that people. Or having to keep my backpacks on my bunk when I’m not sleeping in it. By now you’ve probably gathered that I enjoy having my own space. While this is nothing I didn’t expect, it’s not exactly a perk of the job. Granted, though, it’s not hard to find moments to myself–whether on my days off, which each take place in a different river town, or on the transits, when nothing immediately needs to be done.

Good: This is an absolutely beautiful part of the country. Just like Cape Cod, I’m pretty good at winding up in these places. Just a shot I took recently off of Poughkeepsie:

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And one of Beacon, current home port of the Black Squirrel, a little south:

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It’s not hard to see why this estuary inspired so many people to take up arms in its defense. Even though this isn’t my native land, I’m proud to be one of them.

The Environmental Humanities: On that note, though, one last complicating thought. It’s critical to educate the younger generation early, so they learn why it’s not acceptable to use a river as a garbage can for sinister acronyms like PCBs. That said, I can’t help but feel like we’re taking something from the Hudson in our fight to defend it. Lots of the rhetoric aboard Clearwater treats the river like a babe in the woods, helpless without the altruism of humans. I myself talk like this to students all the time. But in the old days of the Lenape Algonquins, when the Hudson was called Muhheakantuck (loosely, “the river that flows two ways”), it might have been a god. The body and presence of a divine, not just its metaphorical home.

How do I respect something like this in the modern era? Does it make any sense to treat the Hudson as an object of as much respect and even fear as love? After all, it’s no grandfatherly Old Man River, delighted when its children come to visit–its currents and winds have as much power over human life as in the old days.

Like with sailing skills, or non-Euclidean deck arrangements, I have no easy answers here. Perhaps I’m working too hard to drag consciousness out of the landscape, and I should sit back and let it develop in its own time. In all things I ask for patience.

King Lear and the Two Strings: Lotta eye-gouging in this one

Spoilers for both works in the title. Assuming “all but two people die” even counts as a spoiler when it comes to Shakespearean tragedy.

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook noting that I had seen two disparate shows two weekend nights in a row: the new stop-motion movie Kubo and the Two Strings on Saturday, and a production of King Lear on Sunday. The latter was in doubt: I waited too long to get the tickets, and saw it on the last night, from an obstructed-view seat. It didn’t matter much, as longtime readers will know I’m enough of a Shakespeare groupie that I’d have seen it if I had to wear a gorilla suit the whole three hours.

Both amazed me. Kubo cemented Laika’s serious claim to being the American Studio Ghibli–not only do their original stories, characters, and visuals shine, but they are funded by the CEO of Nike, who has given creative control to his son, Travis Knight. This means they’ll never have to be saddled with a parent company who will force them to churn out endless sequels to properties that were once charming and original (not that this has happened to any other animation studios we know whose names rhyme with “Blixar”). One could call this blatant nepotism, but I really want few things more than for all the most talented artists in the world to inherit huge sums of money so they can do whatever they want. I’m glad it happened at least once.

(Seriously, though, if Pixar tries to make WALL-E 2, I will…not see it and move on with my life like an adult. But I won’t be happy.)

As for Lear, it was performed in an actual real convent, staged with a pre-Christian Celtic aesthetic–stone tables, furs and leather, knots, and selection from Adrian von Ziegler’s celtic YouTube videos, which have been pretty constant writing companions for me. Lear himself talked a little fast, but Edmund was a timelessly sardonic nihilist, and Goneril was surprisingly sympathetic. Really, I was lucky. Nobody ever seems to do Lear. Not that I wouldn’t rather have been in Walla Walla for Whitman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, but this was a close second.

As great as both were, they couldn’t be more different…or so I thought at first. Is this more than just a random confluence? Is it actually possible to link a modern fairy tale about a boy coming to terms with loss to a bloody tragedy where everyone murders everyone and achieves pretty much nothing?

Probably not, but let’s give it a try! I love being able to talk about this stuff without having to follow MLA format or really cite anything or avoid using contractions.

I noticed the one strong connection fairly quickly: eyes. Both the movie and the play feature the gouging out of a character’s eyes as prominent plot points. Kubo wears a patch to cover the eye stolen by his grandfather, the Moon King, who seeks to steal the other one. In King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester has his eyes torn out by the brutal Cornwall, when he’s discovered to be still loyal to Lear. So let’s use eye removal as our basis.

What does the loss of eyes symbolize in each of these works? In King Lear, Gloucester is vulnerable to deception while he still has his sight: he falls for Edmund’s tricks and banishes his non-evil son Edgar. Only once he loses his eyes does he see the truth, even though he’s now dependent on others to survive. His blindness is retribution, a symbolic punishment for accepting Edmund’s blinkers–but it also makes him more complete, Tiresias-style. The only problem with this is that Lear doesn’t present a world of karmic justice. Bad things happen to good people, and also to bad people, but not soon enough. And his new knowledge isn’t enough to keep him from dying of grief when Cordelia’s French army is destroyed.

Then what does it accomplish to take Gloucester’s eyes? “Nothing” is a reasonable answer. Shakespeare has a lot to say about “nothing” in Lear, and I’m pretty sure he’s not talking about vaginas this time. But it’s not totally accurate. Blindness serves one function: separating the Earl from his earthly concerns. He’s not trying that hard to rectify his mistake in disowning Edgar. He’s more interested in dying.

This meshes well with Kubo, where the Moon King’s dialogue reveals why he wants Kubo’s eyes so badly: he wants his grandson to take his rightful place in the sky beside him, as an immortal celestial being. In other words, he wants to free Kubo of his humanity, but Kubo will never consent to this. He’s a storyteller, who makes his living being human. This informs a central concern of the movie–why do we need stories so badly? Why do we keep telling them after they’ve all been told?

If Kubo became perfect, he would lose his identity. Because of his job as a street performer, he’s acutely aware that stories are how we interact with the world: we can’t find objective truth through our senses, so everything must be, in a way, composed.

And this works on a larger scale than the senses, as well. Kubo, like I said above, is about dealing with loss. At the beginning of the movie, he can’t move on from losing his father because the story isn’t finished. Completing the tale completes him as well, and it’s for that reason that he will never move beyond stories. Any one of us who has grieved will know that “closure” is as important in our lives as it is in our movies.

Aristotle wrote that the purpose of tragic theater is to grant the viewer catharsis, a cleansing of the emotions. King Lear, despite the way we keep revisiting it in the hope that Cordelia maybe won’t die this time, is a finished story for the same reason. It sucks, but it’s over, and now something new can take its place. Edgar probably will be a decent king.

Now we’ve got two stories where the loss of the eyes represents the failure of something to end the way it should. But here’s the kicker: while it doesn’t end well for Gloucester, it does for us. He doesn’t get to repent his mistakes, but isn’t there something redemptive in the way we keep telling these peoples’ stories? Gloucester, and Regan and Goneril and for that matter Hamlet and Macbeth and Richard II (yep, I like Richard II, because I am a filthy hipster) die without quite understanding why. But we know. And we save them by allowing them to save us.

The real kicker for me is that we could reverse these stories and the cumulative effect would still be the same. If Lear ended happily, as it did for several centuries, and Kubo ended up forcibly turned into a moon spirit without recognizing his Monkey and Beetle as his parents, we could still learn from the pairing about how stories can save us. But only–only–if the story was respected. In my eyes (heh) Edgar is the most important character in King Lear because he survives to bear witness. He alone makes it all not futile. A tragic Kubo would require a survivor: some other child stepping into the village square, proclaiming: if you must blink, do it now.

Gods, I love that phrase. Keep your eyes open, you who watch. Don’t pretend this story isn’t about you. It is. Everything is.

Well, there’s a few pages of rambling for you, but I had fun. Good luck to all the Whitties (and Kaeldra) starting school this week. I miss you all, and think of you often.