The American South (Part I)

22927636_sThe United States has a reputation abroad for being a nation of ignorant, backwards loonies who advocate policies the rest of the advanced nations abandoned decades ago. We are, say foreigners, Christian fundamentalists who trust corporations much more than we should, are quick to resort to military force in answer to international conflicts where diplomacy, persuasion, and economic force would be more appropriate, and crass commercial absolutists who kow-tow at the altar of rich people.

There’s some truth to all of this, I must confess. But that truth is localized. It isn’t really true of Americans in general, but it is true — all of it — about one region of the country, roughly contiguous with the eleven states that seceded from the United States in 1861 and were forcibly reincorporated in it in 1865.

Few Americans understand just how different the South is culturally and politically from the rest of America. (Or used to be, and still is to some degree. There are signs that this is changing as the South becomes more urban and more racially diverse.) It doesn’t come down to any one simple characteristic, positive or negative. It’s not that the South is racist (although in large measure it is). It’s not that the South is religious (although it is). It’s not that the South is Republican (in fact, for most of its history, it wasn’t). It does go back to the institution of slavery as the cause of much of this, but it precedes that, and the lasting effects of slavery cover a lot more ground than race relations.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Those words were written by a Virginian and a slave-owning planter, but he was a very complicated man with a compartmentalized and conflicted mind. Jefferson believed many things intellectually that he did not live. In that passage, he captured the central ideology that defines most of America. But it does not define the American South. In the South (although again, this is changing), all men are not created equal. Rich men are better than poor men, white men are better than non-white men, and all men are better than women. Also, Christians are better than non-Christians and Protestants are better than Catholics. Since all are not created equal, certainly government doesn’t exist to protect their equal rights.

The next passage in the Declaration, however, meets full agreement in the South:

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Oh, yes. Certainly the South agrees that when a government fails to deliver the goods, it’s the right of the people — or anyway, of the better people — to alter or abolish it, and that’s what they’ve been trying to do ever since they lost control over it in the mid 19th century. The aim of the neo-Confederate subculture, which exercises increasing control over the Republican Party today, is to destroy the United States.

A look at the history of the American South reveals how this peculiar culture-within-a-culture developed and evolved over the several centuries of its existence.

Colonial Founding

The United States, or what would become that, was founded as a group of English colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America, but that didn’t happen as a result of any coherent and consistent British policy and as a consequence the colonies were not all of a piece. Roughly speaking, the English colonies inside what is now the United States may be divided into three groups.

New England was settled mainly by Puritans in the early to middle 17th century. These people, in American historical mythos, left England in search of “religious freedom.” Actually, they left because England had too much religious freedom for their taste and they wanted to establish a theocracy, which proved impossible in the mother country. While their co-believers back home were chopping off a king’s head and briefly overthrowing the monarchy, the Puritans in America established colonies as religious experiments. Over time and generations, New England lost this Puritan character but retained a distrust of monarchical authority that would prove significant in the late 18th century.

The Mid-Atlantic region was originally settled not by the English but by the Dutch. It was a lucrative commercial settlement that was absorbed by the British in the mid-17th century and retained that commercial character into modern times. It’s no accident that Wall Street is in New York City.

The Southern colonies (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) were, unlike the other two sections, founded by the British crown as royal colonies. Four of them (all except Virginia) were founded under the name “province” rather than “colony.” Royal charters gave privileged status to particular English nobles, so that this region of the country felt more impact from the British ruling class than the other two.

The South was established deliberately to compete with other European powers for land and wealth. Its climate and soil proved suitable for growing cash crops (tobacco, sugar, and, later on, cotton) and the entire rationale for establishing the colonies was to grow valuable commodities and enrich the English nobility and the British government. In short, it was an exploitative enterprise from the beginning, unlike New England or the Mid-Atlantic.

Growing cash crops requires a lot of labor, which in the old agrarian paradigm meant forced labor. The growers tried enslaving Native Americans for the purpose, but that proved difficult as escape was too easy. White indentured servants (temporary slaves) proved a workable approach for a while, but eventually the expedient of enslaving Africans was adopted. This was ideal from the planters’ perspective, if less so for the unfortunate Africans. These were proto-civilized people who knew how to grow crops, and they were far from their homelands or any sympathetic society, and visibly different from the local population, which made escape difficult.

Even before African slavery began, the South acquired one of its distinctive characteristics as a result of its founding enterprise. It was authoritarian, as a culture founded on forced labor must be. The idea of freedom as most Americans think of it, and indeed as the plain meaning of the word suggests, is foreign to the original culture of the South, for which freedom meant failure of the entire reason the colonies existed.

Religion was one method used to enforce order. Of course, the South was not (and is not) uniquely religious or especially more so than the rest of America. But the type of religious belief prevailing in the South was different from what was found elsewhere, and still is. As a tool for the enforcement of order and social stratification, Southern Christianity was and is more authoritarian and less inclined to challenge the wealthy elite than forms of the religion found in other parts of the country. One finds in some cases, such as the Baptists, distinctive denominations, one for the South and the other for outside it. The Evangelical denominations are almost all Southern in origin.

The culture of the South, then, was from the beginning authoritarian, and as African slavery became entrenched, that authoritarianism took racial form. It was never entirely racial, however. Class and gender distinctions have also been and remain very important in Southern culture. Reform that addresses racism itself, while important, does not go to the heart of the matter, which is the authoritarian character of the culture.

The South in the Early United States

During the War of Independence, British strategy recognized the distinctive (and more loyal) character of the South and employed it in an attempt to retain power in the colonies. The strategy ultimately failed, but in fact the South was more fiercely divided between loyalists and rebels than other parts of the country.

After the war, the failure of the original U.S. government led to the drafting of the Constitution. We can see the economic and political disputes between the South and the rest of the country in passages of that document, from the infamous “three-fifths of a person” clause to the prohibition on ending the slave trade before 1808 to the structure of Congress itself, for which the conflict between the relatively populous Southern states and relatively underpopulated New England led to the two-chamber compromise that exists today.

Because of that population difference, the South dominated the United States government during the period after the Constitution’s founding. The political conflict ran along classic Marxist lines between the feudal/agrarian South and the industrial capitalist North, as it increasingly became. A capitalist economy produces more wealth than an agrarian one, and supports a larger population despite the superiority of Southern climate and soil (particularly when the Northern capitalist culture absorbed the splendid wheat lands of the Midwest as the nation expanded westward). The political balance in Congress began to tip against the South as the first half of the 19th century ran its course. Moral opposition to slavery as an institution arose. The South attempted to expand slavery, and authoritarian Southern culture with it, westward, and succeeded to a degree, but on balance the mainstream American culture was winning that race. The Mexican-American War, which incorporated California as a free state and opened the way to a continental empire, accelerated that process.

The development of most of the Western territories as non-Southern states would eventually mean that Southern dominance of Congress would break. While Congress lacked the authority to outlaw slavery as such, it could have used its power to tax and to regulate commerce to make the institution unprofitable. Eventually, the magic proportion of three-quarters of the states might come to oppose slavery as new free states were added, and that would allow a Constitutional amendment outlawing slavery.

The dominant political party in these years was the Democratic Party, which primarily served the slave-owning Southern constituency. The capitalist interests were represented by first the Federalist Party and then the Whig Party. In the 1850s, former Whigs came together joining their commercial and industrial interests with an opposition to slavery and founded the new Republican Party. For the first time, a major party in American politics made the abolition of slavery a central plank of its platform. (Given the current neo-Confederate dominance of the party, that history is ironic to say the least. But it’s true.)

The writing was on the wall. The planter interests in the South, facing eventual loss of the political game, decided to upend the board. That was the first time that, faced with loss of control over the federal government, the South decided to destroy it. It would not be the last time.

Next week: The American South (Part II) dealing with the Civil War and its aftermath.

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Broadening This Blog

This is a brief post to acknowledge a departure from the way I originally envisioned this blog. I was going to stay away from politics and economics and stick to spirituality, philosophy, and fantasy storytelling. Those who have encountered me in other contexts know that this resolve didn’t come from a lack of interest in politics or economics, or a lack of opinions and knowledge. I was just trying to focus on a particular area of thought and avoid drifting all over the landscape of my global interests, but you know what?

Screw that.

You can’t really separate politics from spirituality. You can and should keep organized religion out of government, but that’s not the same thing. Part of the transformation emerging from spirituality is an increase in caring, and if you care you’re political. Certainly I am. And I’m not saying this blog will turn into a political one from here on; I’ll continue writing on topics of spirituality, philosophy, and fantasy as I feel inclined. But right now I feel inclined to do something else. I’ve added a new category, Politics & Economics, to accompany the existing ones of Fantasy Storytelling, Philosophy, Spirituality, and Book Review.

I originally wrote a treatment of economic evolution intending it to be a post, but on reflection it’s rather long for a post (over 4000 words). Rather than break it up into several posts, I’ve decided to publish it as a page. You can find it here.

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Free Will

musingsI’m going to weigh in now on a subject with a lot of philosophical controversy: the question of whether free will is real or illusory.

We all have the sense that we have free will. That is, in our subjective experience, it seems very much as if we approach choices and make them consciously, and that for any situation where we make choice A, we could have made choice B instead. This common-sense perception leads to a philosophical debate involving free will and determinism with essentially three positions:

  • Compatibilism is the belief that determinism and free will are compatible (that is, both can be true). Compatibilists assert that in a free choice, it isn’t true that one could have chosen B instead of A, but say that the completely determined results of our own mental processes, which inevitably choose one or the other, constitute free will. In this view, free will means only that one’s choice is not completely determined by any outside influence. It is completely determined, but since one’s own mental processes are a factor in making that determination, that constitutes free will.
  • Incompatibilism is the belief that free will requires indeterminacy, and this takes two forms. One of these is hard determinism, the belief that free will requires indeterminacy, that the universe is deterministic, and that consequently free will does not exist. Our subjective perceptions of it are illusory.
  • The third position is metaphysical libertarianism, which is the other side of incompatibilism. Metaphysical libertarians argue that the universe is indeterminate, and free will exists as a manifestation of that indeterminacy.

My own position is the third one, with a couple of twists. I accept that free will and determinism are incompatible, although what might be called “unfree will” and determinism are not. If the mental processes leading to a choice are significant but determined, then we have will (or something that might be called that), but not free will. I observe, and will discuss below, that the universe is in fact indeterminate, and believe that free will arises as a function of that indeterminacy.

One of the critiques of metaphysical libertarianism is that what we are calling “free will” is actually randomness, and not what we usually mean by free will at all. When confronted with a choice, we don’t think of this as if we were rolling dice to choose among the options, but as if we were weighing the options and making a conscious choice on the basis of either reason or feelings (or both).

This is on the surface a valid criticism, but I believe it can be resolved by introducing the concept of perspective. Free will and randomness are both manifestations of indeterminacy, but one is experienced in the first person and the other observed in the third person. This difference in perspective is the only difference between the two; essentially, they’re the same phenomenon observed or experienced from two different points of view. I’ll come back to this in a bit, as it’s the main point of this argument, but before that I want to detour into philosophicl physics and discuss whether the universe is or is not determined.

I’m not going to go much into theological determinism, which depends on a belief in an omniscient God (a belief I do not hold), but will observe that the concept of perspective resolves this as well. We can simultaneously have free will from our own perspective, and be determined from that of God.

Determinism: An Operational Definition

When we say that the universe is determined or not determined, what do we mean? Traditionally determinism is defined in terms of cause and effect, so that we say set of conditions X causes outcome Y with no possibility of variation Y2. This is somewhat problematical in that the idea of causation itself is impossible to prove; all we can verify is consistent correlation. I may observe that every time I hold a rubber ball aloft and release it, it falls to the ground, and refer to the theory of gravity as expounded by Newton or by Einstein to explain how the nearby mass of the Earth “causes” the ball to fall. All I can really say, though, is that the ball falls to the ground every time it’s released while I’m standing on the Earth and does not fall if I release it aboard a spacecraft in orbit. From the standpoint of science, what matters is the mathematical equation describing this behavior of the ball. The idea of causation as such isn’t necessary or implied.

Setting causation aside, then, we can define determinism in terms of consistent and inflexible correlation: set of conditions X is followed by set of conditions Y, with no possibility of variation Y2. This means that, with perfect knowledge of conditions X, we can predict conditions Y without possibility of error. If we can (in principle) do this, then the transition from conditions X to conditions Y is determined. If all events in nature follow this pattern, then the universe as a whole is determined.

The qualifier “in principle” above acknowledges that our ability to measure conditions X is not perfect, and we may also be in error about the process by which conditions X become conditions Y. Either of these would result in a failure to accurately predict the event without violating determinism. In that case, conditions X do lead invariably to conditions Y, but we failed to predict the outcome accurately either because we were in error about the starting conditions, or because there was a flaw in our theory about how things work. We may call this technical unpredictability. The events are unpredictable not because they’re genuinely indeterminate, but because of failure on our part.

Determinism fails for any given event under one or both of two conditions. Either perfect knowledge of starting conditions is impossible to achieve under any circumstances, regardless of how good our measurement tools become (uncertainty of initial conditions) or the event’s unfolding is described by indeterminate equations (indeterminacy of process). Either of these means that the world is genuinely indeterminate, at least in part.

What appears to be the case is that indeterminacy of process is not true, but uncertainty of initial conditions is.

The Uncertainty Principle and Chaos

Most people have heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: the hypothesis (well confirmed by now) that the product of the uncertainty of any two so-called “Heisenberg pairs” of attributes — most famously the position and momentum of a moving object, although there are others — must always be at least equal to Planck’s constant. We can, in theory, achieve perfect knowledge of the position of a moving object, but only by increasing uncertainty about where it’s going (momentum) to infinity, and vice versa. If we know exactly where it is, it could be going anywhere; if we know exactly what direction it’s going and how fast, then it could be anywhere in the universe right now. Or, more normally, we can have some kind of idea of both, but not perfect knowledge of either one.

Planck’s constant is a very, very tiny number indeed, and is significant only at the level of subatomic particles. Still, the same rule applies to macroscopic motion as well. Our uncertainty about the current position of the moon times our uncertainty about its trajectory and velocity must also be at least equal to Planck’s constant. That’s a ridiculously trivial uncertainty (the uncertainty caused by technical errors in measurement is much greater), and doesn’t stop us from accurately predicting the moon’s orbit and phases for practical purposes. But philosophically, we have to acknowledge that the moon’s motion is indeterminate, even if the parameters of the indeterminacy are of no practical significance.

There’s more than this happening, though. Chaos mathematics describes processes in nature that are unpredictable on a macroscopic scale. These are deterministic equations, but are infinitely sensitive to the starting conditions, so that extremely tiny errors in measurement result in vast errors in prediction. Chaotic functions describe things in nature that certainly seem to be indeterminate: turbulence, for example. If one explores the literature, one finds the assertion that these are actually deterministic processes, based on the fact that the equations describing them are deterministic. That is, indeterminacy of process is false.

But if these processes are infinitely sensitive to initial conditions, which they are, and if we add the uncertainty principle into our understanding of them, which we should, then we can see that uncertainty of initial conditions is true, and therefore the processes are indeterminate, their deterministic mathematical description notwithstanding. They are infinitely sensitive to indeterminate initial conditions — and that means the processes meet the operational definition of indeterminacy presented above. Indeterminacy of process is false, but uncertainty of initial conditions is true.

We have, therefore, an indeterminate universe. In many of its processes, the indeterminacy is of practical importance, but even where it’s not (e.g. the orbits of the planets), it still exists in nonzero value, and is therefore philosophically real.

The processes of the human brain that lead to decision-making and action are almost certainly chaotic in nature. They bear greater resemblance to the weather than to the swing of a pendulum. While this hasn’t been formally verified as far as I know, it’s what we should expect, and therefore, pending confirmation by further study, we may tentatively affirm that human behavior is indeterminate.

This leads back to the idea of perspective, and the relationship between indeterminacy and free will.

First versus Third Person Perspective

I’ve explored this concept before in the context of discussing consciousness. This is a different vector of the same concept, which may imply something about the relationship between consciousness and free will.

Free will is a concept that has meaning only in the first person. I intuitively believe that I have free will, just as I intuitively believe that I am conscious. Because you are like me in certain other respects, I tend to also believe that you are conscious and that you have free will, although strictly speaking I can’t confirm either of these. But I can imagine being you, and when I do, I imagine being conscious and having free will, just as I experience the same myself. But when we don’t think of something in terms of having a first person perspective (e.g., the weather), we don’t think of it as having free will, even if it is indeterminate. We say instead that the process is random.

When a person confronts a set of possible actions and makes a choice among them, what happens is that his brain employs knowledge of these circumstances together with memory and motivations/feelings to conclude which action is probably going to have the best outcome (or which one feels the most satisfying to take). These memories and feelings, together with perception of the circumstances themselves, constitute the initial conditions of the process, and the laws, whatever they may be (this is an area where knowledge is very crude at present), governing cognition and motivation constitute the process of decision-making itself. If, as I think likely, this brain activity is a chaotic function of some kind, or several of them, then we may suppose the processes themselves to be determined — but the initial conditions are indeterminate; it’s uncertain how we’ll perceive the set of options we face or our feelings about them. As such, the outcome is also indeterminate. We can think of this as a random function, like rolling dice. But it doesn’t feel that way, and that’s the objection that’s typically made to this idea.

But here’s the question: what would the dice feel like in “deciding” what way to fall?

It seems like a nonsensical question because we don’t conceive of dice as “feeling” like anything: they don’t have a first-person perspective. (Or if they do, it’s opaque to us.) But if they did, the indeterminacy in how they fall might seem radically different from the dice’s own point of view, than to us, observing the event in the third person.

And the same can be said of a person’s choices, with the difference that we assume the person does have a first-person perspective and we do conceive him as “feeling” like something. But consider this.

I observe someone approaching a crossroads. He takes the turn to the left rather than going straight ahead, going back, or turning to the right. I have no way to predict beforehand which turn he will take, so from my perspective, observing his behavior in the third person, it seems to be random. He, on the other hand, knows why he chose to go left, and so even if he didn’t know ahead of time which way he would go, his choice doesn’t seem random at all to his own first-person perspective.

To make this clearer, let’s assume he had a valid reason to make any of the four possible choices. Straight ahead, the path leads to his home. The right turn leads to his bank, the left to a bar, and the way back to his place of employment. He might approach the intersection, find he is short on cash, and turn right to make a withdrawal at the bank. He might decide to go have a few drinks. He might decide instead to have a quiet evening, and go home. Or he might discover that he left his keys at the office, and turn around and go back. These initial conditions are not predictable, and so his choice is also unpredictable with perfect certainty, even to him. His action is indeterminate. But it still doesn’t seem, from his own first-person perspective, to be random. But it does seem random to me, looking at the whole thing from the outside.

Indeterminacy can apply to any process regardless of point of view. Randomness, however, exists only in the third person, while choice exists only in the first. His choice is indeterminate, but doesn’t seem random because, from his own first-person perspective, it isn’t. But it’s still the same process that I, viewing it from without, can describe in the third person as random.

It’s random from one perspective. It’s free will from the other. And that, I believe, is the resolution of the problem.

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Virtual God

7524765_sAn idea came up in the course of writing Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering that I want to explore here in a non-fictional manner. The idea involves God as a virtual reality.

The idea of God, a cosmic entity with  mind who created everything and loves and guides us, is on one level a metaphor. It’s a crude model describing religious experience. The explanation is that there’s this being, God, who created you, and you contacted him with your mind. Other non-dismissive explanations for religious experience are possible. For example, if one arrives at panpsychism as the solution to the hard problem of consciousness, as I argue makes the best sense (here), spiritual experience involves becoming aware of the cosmos as a living consciousness, and of one’s own identity as one with it. This bears some resemblance to non-theistic ideas such as those of Hinayana Buddhism or Taoism. “God” is then a metaphor for the cosmos itself. As usually conceived, God does not exist.

But there’s another possibility — a purely speculative possibility.

What if God doesn’t exist yet?

Deities in Magical Practice

In real-world magic, a lot of practitioners deal with deities in the plural. The magic user “invokes” (calls in, literally) the deity, experiencing heightened levels of a type of magical power associated with it, and employs the power either to alter his own consciousness or to achieve some practical end achievable through the alteration of probability. Among the monotheistic, the tendency is to refer to these beings as angels (or sometimes as demons, compelled to service through God’s name and sigils of power) rather than as deities, but it amounts to the same thing in practice. Pagan magicians call on the deities of various pantheons openly, of course.

Various ideas circulate in magical circles regarding what deities are. Not all magic users believe that the deities they invoke are literal beings separate from themselves. Perhaps a more common belief is that the magic user creates the deity via empowered imagination. The deity is closely associated with some natural source of magical power (the sun, the Earth, nature, the sea, lightning, love, war, intelligence and knowledge, whatever) and by personifying that force, the magician is able to talk to it and ask its assistance. The deity emerges from the mind of the magician, draws power from the natural world through its association with some significant aspect of it, and gains a measure of independent existence as a result of that power-up.

What’s more, one magician doing this is less powerful than many. This is why it’s useful to invoke a deity that has actually been worshiped in the past: the imaginary form is empowered by others who have already created it, and that makes it potentially stronger than a deity created by the magician anew. (Which doesn’t mean there might not be other reasons to do that. But that’s outside the scope of this post.)

The idea of the Virtual God is extrapolated from this.

The Birth Of God

God, in the monotheistic sense, would be a deity created by magic — that is, by the empowered imagination of magic users — associated with the cosmos in its entirety, and on a vast scale. Multiple magicians, as noted above, create a more powerful deity than one working alone.

If we extrapolate that idea to whole planets full of magicians, all of them pouring their mana into the manifestation of God, we might at some point reach a critical threshold where God becomes so powerful that he transcends the normal limitations of magic. All magic operates by altering the probabilities of indeterminate events. Normally, this applies only to events that are indeterminate to the naked eye, so to speak, but in theory all macroscopic events are the products of subatomic events that are themselves indeterminate. The ability to alter the probabilities associated with quantum events is outside normal magical competence, but if it could be done, the result would deserve the title of miracle. Parting the Red Sea. Raising the dead. Walking on water.

Anything. Anything at all.

God As Virtual Reality

Now, let’s suppose that what I described above is possible. It clearly hasn’t happened yet. But let’s say that someday it might, if enough intelligent beings throughout the universe emerge into benign consciousness and will it to be.

That possibility means that at some possible future date, God may exist, even though It does not exist at present. And in that possible future, God is endowed with awesome magical power.

Now, one thing about magical power is that it time-travels. That’s how it’s possible to use magic to predict future events. There have also been experiments showing a PK effect (which is a misnomer, by the way; no actual kinesis takes place, only alteration of probability) occurring before the person causing it makes the effort.

Magical power moves and operates in its own frame of reference, which I call association space. It’s not bound and limited by space-time the way energy is. The arrow of time, therefore, isn’t absolute for it. And that means that, while God doesn’t exist at this time, Its existence in a possible future — so long as that future remains possible — means that Its magical power can, to an extent, influence events in the here and now. One thing It would certainly do is to make Its own birth more likely by influencing the indeterminate events in Its past. That would include the mental processes of those who might bring It into being, or whose thoughts and behavior might lead to conditions where that becomes possible.

And so the Virtual God becomes another model explaining certain kinds of religious experience. It’s certainly an experience of cosmic consciousness, an awareness of one’s own true identity.

But maybe — just maybe — it’s also tuning in to the mind of a real God, who doesn’t exist yet, but someday may.

Do I believe this? Not necessarily. But it’s a fun idea to play with. And I’m certainly willing to include it in my stories.

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Writing Deeply (Part IV)

A Sip of FearThis is the fourth and last installment in which I engage in navel-gazing. (Ahem.) In which I explore the fact that I can’t write fiction that’s just escape.

In this case, I actually tried to. I made a conscious decision to write something with more of the standard urban fantasy tropes. It’s written in first person (and not even alternating first-person like The Star Mages). It’s got werewolves. It’s got a vampire (sort of). It’s got secret magicians. It’s got a ticking doomsday clock and imminent death.

I discussed the world-building of The Illuminated in an earlier post here, so I won’t go into a lot of detail about that again. What I will say is that, despite my best efforts, spiritual themes and philosophical depth crept in, and now A Sip of Fear, volume one of the series, is looking a lot like my earlier efforts except in superficial detail.

The Illuminated

Gordon, the main character, is a bio-mage. He’s bonded to the Luminous spirit Ela-Tu, whose domain is Life. Shadow, the adept of Death, is in town and intends to kill Gordon. Bad news. It prompts some philosophical outpouring on the part of Gordon’s sister Clara:

“I imagine what I would feel like if I was in your position. And the thing is, I am in your position. Shadow won’t kill me because I’m not an Illuminated, but death comes for every person sooner or later. Sometimes we see it coming. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere. It could happen any time, any place, to anybody. You face a chance of death every time you open your eyes. Shadow just adds one more possible cause to a long list.”

“Pretty philosophical. I’m not sure —”

“But that’s just it, Gordon. You’re not sure. You never can be. Except about one thing. Sooner or later, by one cause or another, you are going to die, and so is everyone you care about. You talk about Shadow as if he was some evil person, but death isn’t evil. It’s part of life, part of nature. It’s the dark side of your own Luminous. Shadow is doing you a favor.”

I frowned. “I can’t see it that way.”

“No. But you need to. I’m not saying you shouldn’t fight him. Of course you should try not to die, until there’s no way to do that. But death should find you ready. You’ve been warned. Shadow is telling you something that was always true, long before you heard about him. He’s telling you that you’re going to die. Take that knowledge and own it.”

But this isn’t just bad-guy-comes-stalking. It turns out that Shadow has a benign Purpose and things are much more complicated than Gordon thought:

“Do you know what an akusala is?”

“Never heard of it.”

“Not surprising. The word is Sanskrit for ‘evil’ or ‘lacking virtue.’ An akusala is an Illuminated who turns evil. When one of us goes bad, he goes really bad. Not just greedy or selfish or cruel like an ordinary bad human being. An akusala ties into something on the spirit plane, a kind of twisted version of his Luminous. If you were an akusala, you’d be walking corruption, bending all life to its undoing. You’d unleash plagues, turn fertile lands into desert. I’m not just guessing here, Gordon. There have been akusala bio-mages and they’re nightmares.”

“Sounds bad. Why haven’t I heard of these things?”

“Well, that’s what’s interesting. A thousand years ago, akusala were all over the place. In fact, there might have been more akusala than kusala — that’s an Illuminated who does good. But today they’re almost gone. They still pop up every now and then, but kusala have become the norm for Illuminated. What do you suppose happened?”

“I have no idea. Are you saying Shadow is an akusala?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Why not? He’s a serial killer.”

“Yes, but he’s too controlled to be akusala. He doesn’t do rampaging massacres. He goes to a place, kills one Illuminated, and then leaves.” She took a sip of wine and paused a moment. “What I think is that Shadow kills akusala. I think he’s the reason why there are so few of them around now.”

I shook my head. “Why is he coming after me, then?”

That’s the question, all right. Gordon gets an answer from Shadow in person:

“It’s — an arrangement between your Luminous and mine. When Ela-Tu feels one of her adepts may be ready to face a test — me — she informs Apep and he informs me. I was in Paris when I received the call, ending an akusala mind-mage buried deep in the French fascist party, the Front National.” He spoke the name with a perfect Parisian accent. “So I came to America to seek you.”

“You took your time getting here.”

“There was no hurry. The American Illuminated needed some weeding, so I weeded them on the way. I do not enjoy this duty, Gordon. I would prefer not to kill bio-mages, except those that are akusala of course. I don’t wish to kill you, but I must, unless you can pass the test.”

“Test? What test?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s a mystery of Life. You may unravel it. I never will. You must unravel it. Or you will die.”

“How many bio-mages have passed this test of yours?”

“It’s Ela-Tu’s test, not mine. I’m only her instrument in this.”

“How fucking many, Shadow?”

A pause. Then: “None.”

And so Gordon must find a way to transform himself in order to survive. Life and death. Good and evil. Personal transformation. Can things get any more cosmic than that? Probably. I’m just getting started here.

No books of The Illuminated have been published yet. A Sip of Fear should be ready by the end of this summer, hopefully.

And since that’s the whole list, it’s enough about me. Next week — well, I’m not sure. Something else, though.

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Writing Deeply (Part III)

the-order-masterThis is the third post in the series in which I explore the philosophical side of my fiction. This post concentrates on the third series I’ve begun, Refuge.

The framework of Refuge came to me out of the blue one day when I wrote a mini-story set on the Andol home world. It was doomsday. The Droon had launched their annihilation attack and the Andol had retaliated. The character who would become Amanda Johnson was shown talking to her rather frivolous and irresponsible younger brother, who became Lionel Horne, about the Refuge program that would let a few of them reincarnate in the bodies of an alien species after they all died. The scene shifted to medieval England, where Amanda-to-be had been reborn in human form, met a man her father was considering for her husband, and discovered to her shock and consternation that he was a Droon (who would become John Stevens). The final scene of the mini-story was proto-Amanda’s discovery of her erstwhile fiance’s corpse, revealing the presence of the Scourge of God.

This mini-story hasn’t been published and I have no plans to publish it, but that’s how I first outlined the idea of the two alien races reincarnated as humans, and of the Scourge of God, a religious organization dedicated to murdering one of them (believing them to be demons, which was wrong but not that far off). I decided instead to start the story in modern times, and to make the hereditary Order Master of the Scourge of God the main character of the series’ first volume, called The Order Master.

Refuge

Two volumes of the Refuge series, The Order Master and The Ingathering, are complete and published. A third volume, The Rapier,  is roughly half-finished in its first draft. The books include lots of combat, some romance, a bit of not-too-explicit sex, magical visions, sneaky plots, torture, and a smuggled nuclear explosive, but as with the other posts in this group that’s not the part I want to talk about.

The contrast and conflict between the Droon and the Andol involves the idea that a species with advanced technology may “mature” — achieve a sustainable society — in a couple of different way. As the Andol artist William Dillinger explains to Claire in The Ingathering:

“A mature intelligent species has a unified planetary government, doesn’t fight wars anymore, and has a sustainable relationship with nature. It’s in no danger of destroying itself either in war or by exhausting the planet’s resources. That puts it in a position to explore the nearby stars, especially since it usually discovers faster than light travel about the same time. . . But you lay those things out in front of most people, and they’ll think ‘utopia.’ That’s not always true. The Droon prove it. They had a unified government, didn’t fight wars anymore, and had a sustainable relationship with nature, and yet they also had a master class that turned all the rest of their people into slaves. That’s one way a species can mature. The master class imposed harsh rule, stamped out all the Droon warlike tendencies, and forced their society to go green.”

“So they’re the way they are because they had to be to survive?”

“Could be. We matured differently, though, so that’s certainly not a universal rule.”

“How did you get there?”

“We had a global economy, planetary government was set up to regulate it, and then a democratic movement took it over. We came to our senses collectively. It meant we were a lot less polarized than the Droon. We had no master class in the end, but we could have gone the same way as the Droon, if the democracy movement had failed. And then if our rich elite had seen the need for peace and environmentalism instead of just pushing everything over the cliff. That’s what happens with a lot of species, actually. They die.”

As a result of this different history, the two species are radically different in character, and present the two poles of our possible future as a species: light and dark, good and evil, free and egalitarian or hideously enslaved. This theme runs through all three books and should continue through the last two of the projected five (with tentative titles of The Hive Mother and The Andol Queen.

The Order Master also deals with questions of religious orthodoxy, religious freedom, and the danger of fanaticism, because of the central position of the Scourge of God in the story. Michael Cambridge’s flashbacks to his father and his forced assumption of the leadership of the Scourge show this in a chilling way.

“Michael Cambridge,” said Jeffrey Tanner, a solidly-built man of forty-five, and no friend to Mike or his father. “Michael Cambridge, you have been brought here to face judgment. The Council of Chapter Masters met shortly after your flight to America. You were charged then with heresy, apostasy, and attempting to leave the order.”

“I was never in the order, damn you!”

“Unlike the rest of us, Mike, you were born in the order,” said Reggie Dougherty, a man Mike thought more sympathetic. “And besides, if you aren’t in the Scourge, we cannot let you live, knowing what you know.”

“Judgment was passed in Council,” Tanner said. “The charges of heresy and apostasy were dropped for lack of evidence. Your behavior was examined, and the Council convicted you of attempting to leave the order, an action carrying a penalty of death.”

“Why am I still alive, then?”

“Because the Council couldn’t bring itself to order the death of Osgood’s heir without giving him a chance at redemption,” said Leslie Grumble, an old man and normally a level-headed one. “Your death sentence was suspended until you turned thirty years old and became eligible to assume your place as Order Master. The Council also ruled that at that time, you be given a choice.”

“You may take your inheritance, Michael Cambridge, only son of James Cambridge, heir in right lineage to Osgood of Cambridge who founded the Scourge of God,” said Steve Marshall, another friendly face, or so Mike would have thought. He did not look particularly friendly at the moment. “You may become the Order Master of the Scourge of God and lead us in our struggle to preserve Christendom against the assaults of Hell. If you do so, all the charges will be dismissed and it will be as if they were never leveled.”

“And if I say no?”

Steve sighed and nodded to the fifth man, who had a hood pulled down over his face. He threw it back now and Mike saw the grim face of John Carpenter, the order’s Chief Justicar. John pulled a bottle from his robe and set it down on a table.

“Poison,” Mike said.

“Yes,” said Reggie. “A painless, lethal dose of barbiturates and narcotics. We have no wish to see you suffer, Mike. But you must make a choice. Either the Scourge of God is your destiny, or that is.” He nodded at the bottle on the table.

The Ingathering goes more deeply into the contrast between Droon and Andol and the significance of that conflict for our future as a species. It also includes some thoughts about the quest for enlightenment and whether it’s compatible with the use of magical power (or indeed, any power) for practical purpose. Finally, The Ingathering introduces the character of Inez Marcos, the Lady of the Droon (or the Hive Mother, as the Andol call her), whose philosophy comes out when Stevens approaches her for permission to attack the Birds’ Nest:

“Above all else, we strive to prevent the birth of God.”

“The what?”

“God is not yet real, Stevens. Not in the present moment, but It exists in potential. Every planet, every species that matures in the form that the Andol did, brings God a little closer to manifesting in the here and now, and as long as that remains possible, God will be a virtual presence, Its power reaching back in time from that possible future to midwife Its own birth. If that critical mass of mature minds is ever reached, if God becomes real in the present moment and not just in potential, then the return of Sacred Night will never happen, and the mistake of existence will never be rectified. Endless ages of splintered reality, unending eons of suffering, imperfection, unwholeness. That is what we seek to prevent. That is what service to Sacred Night means. That’s why the Droon matured in the form we did. Do you think this is a viable way of life? Nonsense. We stifled the potential of almost all of our people, and that was the point. The exaltation of what we arrogantly call the ‘True Droon’ was an unavoidable side-effect. The real point of it was to shove almost all Droon into the muck of despair, while poisoning the fortunate few with malice and cruelty and their own lust for power. In that way none of the Droon can reach their real potential, and we are on a collision course with our own doom.” She smiled again. “In this way we serve Sacred Night. We sacrifice ourselves, and you fools don’t even see that you are spread out on the altar and under the knife every bit as much as the hapless humans you torment for your twisted pleasure.” She laughed. “All to prevent the birth of God.”

Stevens swallowed, tight-lipped. Inez Marcos was right about one thing. He felt certain she was crazy as a bedbug.

The work in progress, The Rapier, further develops that last theme.

“You Andol believe in an intelligent, conscious universe, and that’s the focus of the Andol religion. Am I right?”

“To the extent we have a religion.”

Inez waved this away. “You do, it’s just more sophisticated than the crude human beliefs that go by that name. But here’s how I see things. The universe encompasses all of time as well as space, and it is one only at the beginning and the end. Between those two, it’s many. You see the unity of the cosmos as a creative force, and that means, in my understanding, that you are tuning in to the beginning of the universe, what the human scientists quaintly call the ‘big bang.’ But the universe is one at the other pole, too, the end of time, the final silence, stillness, and dark. And that other end of things is not a creative force at all.”

Amanda frowned. “Obviously what you’re saying is true, and it’s not a new idea for me. But it makes better sense as I see it to tune in to that creative side. The other end of things may be just as sacred, but it’s best respected from a distance.”

“And therein lies all the misery we endure. Clinging to life, we suffer unending pain. That was the Buddha’s insight, his First Noble Truth, but I saw it a long time before he did.”

Amanda smiled. “I suspect he achieved his illumination independently.”

Inez laughed. “Since he lived and died long before we alien creatures arrived on this planet, that’s fairly safe to say. Still, I believe he was right. Life is suffering, and desire for life binds us to it and perpetuates suffering. The end of all things, which I call Sacred Night, brings peace and a return to the unity from which we came, ending the great mistake that is this divided and fractious world we inhabit.”

These themes wind their way through the stories. As with the other series, there’s no shortage of action in Refuge, but there are also many passages like these. If you encountered something like this in a work of fiction, would you be intrigued, or would you want to skip it to get to the “good parts”? Answer that question, and you’ll know whether these stories would interest you.

Next week: The Illuminated.

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Writing Deeply (Part II)

Green Stone TowerContinuing with last week’s post, this one explores the fact that I can’t write purely escapist fiction a bit further, this time in the context of the second series I began (and unlike The Star Mages, haven’t finished yet), A Tale of Two Worlds.

In original planning, which will hopefully happen one of these days, Tale will have four volumes: The Green Stone TowerGoddess-BornThe People of the Sea, and Light and Shadow. Only the first two of these are written and published, so I can really only talk about them here.

As I noted last week, these stories aren’t for everyone — but then, no story is. If you like fiction that explores deep philosophical, spiritual, and political themes, then you may like mine. If not, you almost certainly won’t. Not that I don’t have (I hope) engaging characters and lots of action, but if you find you want to skip over the passages where people are talking about complicated subjects in order to get to that other stuff, maybe it’s not for you.

A Tale of Two Worlds

Here’s a run-down on the world and plot of The Green Stone Tower and Goddess-Born before going into the heady stuff.

These books are other-world fantasy rather than contemporary fantasy. They’re set, as the series title suggests, in two worlds, which are unimaginatively called the Old World and the New World by the denizens of the latter, and just “the world” and Faerie by those of the former. Humanity evolved on the Old World. During the long ages of prehistory, a few human beings (seven men and three women) had such powerful magic running through them that, in a death-rebirth apotheosis, they became deities. These Old Gods were worshiped in prehistoric times, but their worship and also the practice of magic are forbidden by law in the Old World societies where the story takes place, as The Green Stone Tower begins.

The youngest of the Old Gods is Malatant of Shadow, God of Evil. He achieved his divinity at the time when humanity was poised to discover agriculture and begin settling in cities. He’s a very important character in the series, and it was his plan that led to the separation of the two worlds. The gods wanted to help other human beings, and ultimately all of humanity, achieve divine status, but it was slow going. They spread their own genes among humans, but even when two deities mated the result was never a god or goddess (although usually a powerful sorcerer). Malatant came up with the idea of separating the mages from the rest of humanity so they could evolve more quickly, concentrated in their own society. To achieve this, he cunningly led the unmagical to hate, fear, and condemn the magical, and the latter were forced to flee for their lives. The gods led them away from the Old World to the New by means of the Green Stone Towers, which provided a link between the two and remained after the mages were gone. In the New World, the mages built a highly magical society, became immortal, and their descendants are today called the Faerie Folk by the humans of the Old World.

There are still mages in the Old World practicing in secret, and one of the main characters, Johnny Silverbell, is one of them. The story in the first book involves his transformation into a deity, along with that of Illowan, his Faerie lover. Along the way, there’s Johnny’s encounter with street thugs who try to castrate him, a trial for the crime of magic, seduction of Illowan by Malatant, some ambiguous prophecy, a bit of combat, some flashy sorcery, and a lot of mind-warping looks under the hood of reality.

Here’s a scene from Johnny’s preparation by Illowara of the Mysteries (one of the Old Gods) to make his transition to divinity:

Johnny sat on a chair like a throne in the middle of a big, dimly-lit room. Around him revolved spheres that provided the room’s only illumination. They spun slowly about with him at the center, as if he was the sun and they were planets. As he watched one of them, he saw that it contained an image of himself and Illowan making love in the clearing by the Green Stone Tower near Watercourse. He turned his attention to another sphere and watched himself studying magic with Master Seedcorn. Another showed Johnny playing Richard Silverbell’s ambertone and singing. Each of the spheres, of which there were an enormous number, displayed a scene from Johnny’s memory.

Illowara appeared at a great distance, perhaps the far end of the room, lit by the moonlight she always carried with her, and approached slowly. “These are more than your memories, Johnny. They are you – they are who you are, for your sense of self is all a thing of memory. It is an illusion. What you think you are is not what you really are. That is the Mystery that will be revealed to you now.”

The goddess approached one of the spheres closest to her and furthest from Johnny. It showed his sister Karen, age eight, popping a pillowcase over the head of Johnny, age six, and laughing as he stumbled about and began to cry. “You won’t miss this one much, I think,” Illowara said. She touched the sphere and its light went out. As it disappeared, Johnny frowned, thinking back on all the times Karen had picked on him when they were children, or rather trying to think back on them, for the memories had disappeared, all of them. He knew that Karen had been a monstrous tease when they were children, intellectually as if he had read of this fact and memorized it, but he could call no image to mind of any such event.

Johnny could not help it: he cried out in dismay. Illowara smiled, and if Johnny could still have remembered such things he might have noted the similarity to his big sister’s smile when she had pulled some especially clever and evil trick on him. She advanced to another distant sphere, this one showing Richard Silverbell frowning and expressing disapproval of everything in the house – its cleanliness, the behavior of the children, his wife’s choice of wine, everything. Illowara touched the sphere, it, too, went dark, and Johnny found that he could not remember the man who provided for his childhood and whom he had thought of as his father until recently. One sphere after another the Goddess touched.

One sphere after another ceased to be and took

Johnny’s memories with them. He lost all memory of his sisters, his mother, the life he had lived in Watercourse, his studies in school and of magic. His loves, Shavana and Annie and even Illowan, disappeared. His trial for witchcraft was forgotten. His passage of the Green Stone Tower lived no more in memory. His captivity by the Darklings and his rescue by the Rangers, and all his time in the world of Faerie and the Bright Place ceased to be. He no longer knew the name of the woman who moved among the spheres and worked such ruin on his mind. He had forgotten how to work magic, how to play the ambertone, how to ride a horse, how to read and write and do calculations, every skill he had ever acquired.

Finally she stood quite close to him and only three spheres remained. The one on the left showed Johnny engaged in conversation. The one on the right showed his face, up close, passing through one vivid emotion after another – love, fear, anger, puzzlement, joy, sadness, and so on. The one in the middle showed Johnny’s body, naked and apparently sleeping. “As they are for everyone, these three things are at the core of your self-perception,” the woman said. She indicated the sphere on Johnny’s left without touching it. “This is your ability to speak, your knowledge of language.” Her hand hovered over the sphere on Johnny’s right. “This is your emotional core, your feelings and the way you react to various situations.” Finally she nodded at the sphere in the center. “And this is your body itself, composed of your senses. If these last three memories are stripped away, what will be left? Whatever remains, that is the true self.”

Goddess-Born continues with the story of Johnny’s son Malcolm and Illowan’s daughter Sonia, and of the democratic revolution that sweeps over the Kingdom of Grandlock where Johnny was born and where both Malcolm and Sonia reside. A major part is played in that story by Lasatha, the Goddess of Wisdom, whose Book of Wisdom informs the nobly-born democracy advocate Anne Fircone as she attempts to overthrow the monarchy through her witty writing. The story in Goddess-Born includes a nefarious renegade priestess of Malatant, a love story between the two main characters, a last-minute rescue from the gallows, a battle against wolves, a war, a revolution, magical assassinations, and the banishing of a greater demon, but woven through all of that action are ideas like this:

A leader is chosen by the people who follow him, whether they know it or not. The leader must meet the approval of those who follow, or they will follow another instead.

For the leader to be among the wise, therefore, it is first necessary that a measure of wisdom be found in the people. The leader is elevated by the people’s choice, or upon elevation by another factor is at least maintained in power by the people’s tolerance. The people’s tolerance varies according to their wisdom, and their wisdom varies with the times.

At their most foolish, which is to say at their most frightened, the people follow a tyrant. In this, they surrender the power that should be theirs into the hands of another. If they are lucky, he proves to be a visionary who does great good. If they are unlucky (and this is much more common and likely), their lives become a nightmare for a time.

In their normal state, neither very foolish nor very wise, the people follow a venal leader, but keep him tightly bound with the restraints of law and of their own suspicion. Such a leader can do little good, but dares do little harm, and if he should dare, the law and the people restrain him.

If the people should become wise, they would follow a wise leader. But no generation has ever been wise.

And this:

“You are not going about this the right way, Madame Foresight,” she said. “Wisdom is not something that can be conveyed by words alone. Words can only be understood by those who are already wise, as you are, and a person may gain the wisdom to understand them only through painful experience.”

Anne sighed. “Painful experience is coming, I can see it. But I hoped to find another way, an easier way – or at least a way less costly in blood.”

“I know. Unfortunately, the price of wisdom is what it is. It cannot be negotiated, because the price and the learning are one. To lower the cost is to weaken the lesson.”

One of these days I’ll get around to writing the other two books of this series, which deal with the deceptive nature of good and evil, among other things. Along with lots of sea creatures, impossible odds of combat, and venomous jungle monsters. Should be fun — and as always, thoughtful.

Next week: Refuge.

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