Saturday, July 29, 2017

“Progress Debunked” is Six Weeks from Publication, and Other Updates

If you don’t know the story behind Progress Debunked, you can read this post. I’ve spent the last few weeks finalizing the interior of the book for both print and ebook versions. I am nearly done. In about two weeks I’ll be sending out review copies. If you’d like a free copy so you can be one of the first to review on Amazon, let me know. (You can use the contact form on the lower right if you don’t have my email address.)

Publishing has been taking up most of my spare time, but I have made some conceptual progress on a few of my other projects, primarily on The First King of Montana and my fantasy computer game, tentatively retitled Sagas of Orthadel.

Last week I took my family on a road trip through Montana. We all had a great time. It was the kids’ first real road trip out of state, and my wife’s first time that far north. And it gave me, as a novelist, the chance to get a feel for the place, the people, the landscape, and its ecology. The experience has given me some fantastic notes and images to work with. For example, I knew Montana was big, but just looking at maps and photos and satellite images doesn’t really give you a good feeling for how big. And we traversed it in our van. Riding across it on horseback would be an entirely different story. It also gave me a better feeling for the towns, cities, and ranches. Even the largest cities there feel pretty isolated. Their post-apocalyptic versions would be even more so. Let alone the ranches way out in those central-Montana valleys, where a single saloon will draw in regulars from 50 miles around. We saw cattle grazing in wetlands by little creeks you could jump across, surrounded by hills and mountains of parched desert and fragile, desertified pine forest as far as you could see.

And there’s a lot of local pride in Montana. People up there love where they are, and in parts they’ve done an incredible job of preserving the primal forests. Much of the state is natural or man-made (overgrazed) desert, but there’s also true wilderness there. Up north they connect with the endless untamed Canadian wilds. Wolves and grizzlies, and tall, thick forests to the horizon, black within. To meditate on them is to fill your spirit with a beautiful and holy kind of terror.

I realized for the first time on that roadtrip that to write a novel about Montana, let alone the first king of Montana, is to promise something awfully huge. I’m not sure how else to put it. It’s a big task. The place has a big spirit. I will have to put everything I have into my novel if I am going to even come close to doing it justice.

Sagas of Orthadel, the Tolkienesque fantasy computer game I’m working on, is also shaping up to be a big task, if doable. It will be a real-time strategy with some role-playing elements, based on my board game Bloodline of the Eldar. Each player guides a handful of characters possessing both hereditary powers and learned skills. Players can either cooperate against outside foes or vie for political dominance. Characters can marry, have children, teach each other skills, die, create artifacts, and exploit or heal the natural (simulated) ecosystems around them. Most of the basic rules have been playtested in board-game form, but it will likely take several years to finish the computer version.

The basic reason for this is fundamentally the same as with my novel: the subject matter is huge. In this case, though, it’s not a real place. Rather, I’m trying to capture an ideal, an ideal that goes beyond what any philosophical essay or novel, or even series of novels, could really capture.

Modern novels have lost the ability to investigate consequences. Of course, novels have never been interactive. But before the modern era this was not important. Life was interactive enough. Novels were used to express lived experience, and thus carried experiential knowledge. But you can’t trust novels to do this anymore—novel-writing has become a craft that is more dependent on style than on content to satisfy a reader. It’s all illusion, it’s all surface now.

Today, books don’t teach you anything. They have no message.

Modern authors are even proud to have no message.

And the most “literary” novels today are the worst. Magical realism? Post modernism? You can’t trust them not to frivolously negate their own reason for being, if that makes any sense to anyone without a graduate degree in the humanities.

The modern novel (and movie, too) has given us—has indoctrinated us with—a false version of reality. It is false because it can be false. It is anchored to nothing but popular opinion. And popular opinion has run away with itself.

What I am saying is probably still far from clear. So let’s take a specific example. Female heroes in modern storytelling. What’s the first image that pops into your mind? Is it:

(a) a warrior
(b) a mother

Yeah, okay, you say, it was (a), but so what? Can’t women be warriors too?

Sure they can. But is it healthy for a culture to focus on teaching women to be warriors when in reality they will more often be mothers? How many popular movies or novels can you think of where the hero was a mother and her heroism consisted of doing really well as a mother?

And if you think I’m just making a point about “gender issues” here, let’s talk about men. How often are male heroes heroic as warriors rather than fathers? Even here we see an unhealthy tendency toward pure fantasy in our modern entertainment. Fathers are much more common that warriors. In fact they should be just as common as mothers.

Which, again, isn’t to say that there are no differences between men and women and their respective duties in a culture. The very idea that there are or should be no differences between men and women is another example of the veil modern storytelling has pulled over our eyes. Our fictions have come to sacrifice reality for the sake of popular political messages. But to champion a popular political message is to champion no message at all, but merely to flatter the prejudices of one’s own age. It’s to say, “Yeah, those [republicans/democrats] are crazy and you really need to vote [conservative/liberal] because they’ll fix things.” But this sort of binary message is utterly worthless. It’s pure propaganda. A vote is just a millionth of a decision. What about how people live their lives? The only respectable task for a novel, the only worthy task, is to teach people how to live better.

The same goes for a computer game. The example about fathers and mothers and warriors above is in fact right on point when it comes to the game I’m writing. Characters can be father, mothers, warriors, rulers, teachers, craftsmen, and farmers. Balancing these roles is a major part of the game. And the right balance isn’t some arbitrary percentage decided by how liberal or conservative I, the author, am. It’s determined by the ecology of the rules of the game. You can see what happens if you make all your females into warriors and none of your males care about teaching the next generation. Sound complicated? It’s not. At least not as a game. It will take a lot of work to code, as any game does, but the gameplay itself won’t be much more complicated than in most popular computer games. I am designing it not simply to be beautiful and fun but also—if all goes well—to mirror something important about reality. It will go against the modern tendency: it will be designed to teach future generations.