A Random Collection

This quote attributed to Herakleitos has long been my guiding principle in all things “creative” => “The most beautiful order of the world is still a random gathering of things insignificant in themselves.” I never start to write a story until I have at least three of these “things”, three completely separate and independent ideas or facts or notions (whatever you want to call them). The job of the story is to bring them together, and by “the job” I mean “the work”, because it is work to gather random things together. Most recently this year I had the ideas of “big data” along with “detective” and “a super group”. These turned into the Abnormalities stories, of which I’m fond while knowing they could be (could have been, might still be) much better. I’ve been feeling like I let them down, in some ways, just as at my job I know I could always classify my effort as “needs improvement”. I’m never satisfied, and usually with good reason! What I’ve done is often simply not good enough. I still want very much to write a fifth Abnormalities story, although at this point I want to rename the whole thing “The Outlier”, because that really conveys the central notion I had in the first place. The problem is that so far I haven’t had three random ideas. Also, I’m tired of writing and it’s been months since I wrote any fiction at all. It’s not writer’s block since I’m not even trying. To me November is still NaNoDontDoThat. I write when I have something to write. I don’t believe in discipline or perseverance or “honing my craft” (a phrase suspiciously reminiscent of “choking the chicken” or “pounding the pontiff”). Maybe that’s why what I do is simply not good enough!! I won’t deny that possibility! On the other hand, things come when they come. Living by the ocean now I’m reassured by the simple fact that the waves never stop coming. They don’t care if it’s day or night, warm or cold, a good day or a bad day – it’s all the same to the waves.

“Big Data” – it’s a phenomenon which also happens to be the field of work I’m currently engaged in. So there’s something there, even if it’s only heap sizes and garbage collection. There’s something about all that data, and who trusts who with it, and who shouldn’t trust who. (If you ask me I’ll tell you that no one should be trusted with it. All of the data generated really ought to be funneled directly to a secret organization, massively secure and encrypted to hell and gone, and no one should be able to get at it without a damned good reason and a very strict protocol!) In my stories, that organization is the AllDat Corporation. They own all the data in the world and they don’t just give it up to anyone, not to any government or any company or any individual. There’s more to be written about the principles guiding the AllDat Corporation and its elderly founders, the grandparents of my detective.

“The Detective” – he’s part Freakonomics, part Doctor Who, part Metrosexual and part Sherlock Holmes. He’s very very good with his intuitions and his mental map/reduce algorithms, ridiculously able to find nonsensical correlations among the most random and incoherent sets of data. He’s not using eigenvectors. He’s not doing any matrix arithmetic or differential calculus. It’s all absurdity all the time with this guy. Superstitious and reclusive, he firmly believes that the outfit he wears on a given day is his best tool in solving any logical problem.

“The Super Group”. When I was a boy I loved the Doc Savage stories. Doc Savage by himself was basically Superman with a super tan – strong, brilliant, indestructible, perfect and literally golden in every way, and yet he wasn’t enough. He had to have a team. The team was even more outlandish. They were creatures with superior intelligence and physical prowess and each one was the leading expert in one scientific field or another. It made no sense and that was the best part. In the super group of “The Outlier” stories, there are the chauffeur, the secretary, and the grandparents. It’s about the most opposite group to Doc Savage’s that I could think of, and I love them all. There’s more to be written about all of them too.

When I started writing these stories, I envisioned there would be dozens, but I haven’t lived up to them yet. There are stories still waiting, and yet I’m not writing them. I’m not ready. They take a certain spirit, a certain light-heartedness, and I’m just not feeling it these days. I’ve had too much else going on, too much work, too much stress, too many changes, too little time, too little space. I’ve been doing other stuff as well – more exercise, more music, less reading, less art work. I often wonder how I ever get any stories written at all.

I just watched an episode of the Foo Fighters’ documentary on HBO (Sonic Highways, this week in Nashville) where a songwriter named Tony Joe White (of Poke Salad Annie fame) reached me when he said, looking back, to remind yourself that “you wrote it. You did it.” So that’s what I’m reminding myself of now. I saw that Orange Car with Stripes and Missy Tonight are (still!) currently #2 and #3 on Kindle’s Free Bestseller list under Atheism and that brings a smile. They may not be good enough, but I still love those stories and I’m certainly glad that I wrote them (especially Missy Tonight, which I think will make a darling Netflix original comedy movie sometime in the 22nd century)

Born to be Something or Other

I saw a sneak preview today of a Hulu Plus original series called “Behind the Mask“, about the secret lives of several sports mascots. I quite enjoyed it. The show premieres next week and Roku owners will be able to watch it free (if not already Hulu Plus subscribers). It’s well in line with the age old theme of people “following their dreams” and finding their place in the world. It’s a lot of pressure, when you think about it, having to have some dream to follow, having to have some place in the world to find. We’re supposed to be here for a reason, born to be something or other, and on top of that we have to figure it out for ourselves.

Religious people have even more pressure, as they are supposed to discover God’s plan for them, as if God had gone about setting up some kind of elaborate treasure hunt for every single soul. I heard an ad on the radio for some Christian Singles website the other day, which invited me to discover God’s match for me. Those mysterious ways He works in are continually being updated to work with the latest technology!

Finding one’s place, following one’s dream, being who you were meant to be … Even public television is getting into the act. The new slogan at PBS is “Be More”. It’s not enough to be who you already are. Nothing is ever enough in this world we live in today! This all came to mind last week when I was asked if I were interested and available to do a presentation at a local incarnation of the Sunday Assembly – the so-called Atheist Church which started in the UK and is now doing a stateside tour of sorts. I told them yes and yes, and now I’m waiting to see if I make the final cut. I’m sure there are many more interesting atheists than myself in the area!

What I love about the idea is that I would have the opportunity to channel one of my very own – and one of my very favorite – fictional characters: Alan Musted from Missy Tonight. Alan desperately wants to become an official atheist pundit on the Missy Tonight Show, a nightly talk show a la Larry King which specializes in mocking a variety of religious guests. “Who knew there was money to be made in atheism!” Alan says. His only qualification for the job is that he has always been an atheist. Otherwise, he is merely a portable-toilet dispatcher for American Toilets (“when you think toilets, think American!”). He has zero experience with television or public speaking or anything, really, involving the world-at-large. His quest is hopeless, but hey, you’re supposed to follow your dreams, be all that you can be, discover your place in the world and all that, so why not?

I’m biased, of course, but I have to say that Missy Tonight is a pretty good read. It’s funny and it even has a thing or two to say about a thing or two. Recommended! (it’s also free and fairly short).

If I do get the gig, I’ll follow the line of the Happy Atheist, as opposed to the Angry Atheist. The Happy Atheist is not a threat to anyone. He (or she) doesn’t “lord it over” anyone (so to speak!), doesn’t go on and on about Science, doesn’t go in for mockery or ridicule of others, and doesn’t preach, but is open and affirming, accepting and displays good manners and respect. He (or she) also knows a money-making opportunity when he (or she) sees one, and that’s what Atheism is on the cusp of becoming. Much like the brand new industries around gay weddings and honeymoons, there is cash to be had in that there non-belief. As more and more people “come out” as Atheists (it sounds silly, I know) there will be more and more of an audience, a market, a potential consumer grouping. Imagine the possibilities! I would try to imagine some in my presentation, as I did in Missy Tonight (and its companion volume Orange Car with Stripes). In other words, comedy.

I don’t get the whole “born to be” this or that. It sounds kind of crazy to me. This world, as far as I can tell, is not some kind of board game, and we people are not particular pieces. It’s not a puzzle and it’s not a story. It’s not a game and it’s not a joke. It only makes sense to treat each other with the same respect and common courtesy we’d like to receive on our end. It doesn’t take a religion to understand that much.

 

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Complexity and the Limits of Imagination

I’ve harped on these themes before, but what the heck. It’s only opinionating but I like it.

Two items intertwined in my mind to form the double helix of this thread. One is time travel, the other is an atheist’s conversion to Catholicism. What they both have in common are the twin titles of this post: Complexity, and the Limits of Imagination.

I’ve been guilty many times of indulging in the fantasy of time travel, and have written some stories in the genre, knowing full well how absurd an idea it is, but unable to resist and usually unwilling to look too closely into it. I came across the notion recently (I wish I could remember where, and link to it) about how “time” not only does not exist, but cannot possibly exist. What we have is not “time” as we know it, but an infinity of seemingly concurrent changes taking place around us constantly. All you really need to do is look outside. Let’s assume you can see a tree, and on that tree there are leaves (jjust budding out now, as it’s the beginning of springtime in your clime, let us say). Those leaves are each in their own state – at the moment – and are changing their state, growing, living, fading, dying as they do through the seasons. Now to “go back in time”, each of those leaves would have to revert to the state they were in at that supposed “time”. That’s just one tree. Seriously, that tree not only houses leaves, but bark and trunk and branches, and all of those are made up of atoms, molecules, protons, neutrons, all the way down the line. Each of the subatomic particles forming each of those atoms would need to revert the QUANTUM state they were in at that so-called “time”. Quantum being the operative word, because by definition that state CANNOT BE KNOWN at that level. Add the other trees, the weeds, plants and flowers in your neighborhood, and build up from there the entire world, solar system, galaxy, universe and so on. Of course we can’t even begin to do that. We can’t even begin to imagine the basic elements of that one tree! We might think we can imagine, but even the hardiest imaginer would have to confess, sooner or later, that infinity is hard to count up to. So, while the idea of time travel is fun, it’s also ridiculous. Every “moment” is already Humpty Dumpty, and can already not be put back together again, because it never is together in the first place.

Just because our imaginations are limited does not mean that the thing(s) we’re trying to imagine do not exist. This is perhaps the best argument in favor of the potential existence of God. “It could happen!” (shrug). Who knows? Who can say? A science fiction writer had a near-death experience followed by a conversion experience which led him to find God and start a heated debate on his blog wherein he and atheists engage in dispute. Now, lots of people have conversion experiences, sometimes accompanying crises and sometimes not, and there’s really no reason by one person’s experience should be taken as any sort of proof of anything by anybody else. One of his main arguments reminds me of Niezsche’s warning that “life is no argument, for the conditions of life could include error.” This man says: “You are also implying that the human race, all of whom believe in gods, ghosts, magic and miracles of one sort or another, except for that exquisitely tiny minority of persons who are consistent atheists, just so happened to have all made the same lapse of judgment in the matter of paramount and foundational importance in their lives, and continue to do so”. I wonder if he really wants to include ghosts and magic in the same category as God, but doesn’t a lot of it come down to the limits and restrictions of the human imagination? Base any argument on “what most people believe” and you’ll come perilously close to awarding the definition of “greatness” as being “Justin Bieber”. It’s not a “lapse of judgment” to believe in something. It may just be the way the human mind works. It’s useful. As far as I know, there has never been any independent evidence presented – that is, by a species other than humans. Does any other species of creature in the universe believe in God or is it a human invention? I would be very interested to know what parrots believe in – if faith is of any use to them – or any other creature of this planet, for that matter. I cling to the quaint notion that humans are animals of Earth, sharing most of the same DNA as many other animals, as well as the same habits (eating, sleeping, waking, breathing, dreaming, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, reproducing and raising our young … stuff like that). It could be that failing to believe in God is a limit of imagination on my part. Or, on the contrary, taking everything you cannot conceive of or understand and assigning it to some one big bucket called God could also be a fail. I’m just going to say, along with Dirty Harry, that “a man’s got to know his limitations”, and leave it at that.

Fiction, Non-Fiction and Amazon Lists

nonfiction_atheismI’m not making this up. Well, actually I did make it up and I even put “Fiction” in the subtitles, but for some reason Amazon has decided that Orange Car with Stripes and Missy Tonight are “Nonfiction”, so they are currently the number one and number two titles in Amazon Kindle’s list of Nonfiction Atheism titles. I have to admit I enjoy seeing them side by side with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, especially as the books are a sort of satire about the so-called New Atheism. Missy Tonight even begins with the sentence “Who knew there was money to be made in atheism?”

Waking up Godless

Finally had to delete my Quora topic/feed on “atheism” since most of the questions were from “believers” who wanted to know how atheists can wake up in the morning, how can they look in the mirror, how can they go on living, and even how can they read novels! I realize I was being absurdly, even ridiculously ahead of my time with my “atheist comic sci-fi pulp fiction” series consisting, so far, of Orange Car with Stripes and Missy Tonight, in which I postulate a planned atheist urban development complex with its own TV station and university, and in which I have a little fun at the expense of so-called “new atheists” while not in the least putting down atheism itself. I may be a lifelong atheist but in my writing I’m essentially a humorist (a humanist humorist?).

It’s a laughing matter that so many people are so threatened by atheism, but on the other hand, it’s not a laughing matter at all. A new study shows that atheists are still subject to persecution in many forms in many parts of the world, including the good old U.S. of A, and in at least seven nations can be executed if their beliefs become known!

The report, “Freedom of Thought 2012”, said “there are laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry.”

Other laws “obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.”

While freedom of religion and speech is protected in the United States, the report said, a social and political climate prevails “in which atheists and the non-religious are made to feel like lesser Americans, or non-Americans.”

In at least seven U.S. states, constitutional provisions are in place that bar atheists from public office and one state, Arkansas, has a law that bars an atheist from testifying as a witness at a trial, the report said.

Our time will surely come, but it may indeed come last, after all the ethnic and nationalist issues have been resolved, after all the gender and sexuality issues, after all the religious divisions have been smoothed over somehow, after every other possible “outsider/differentist” issues have been reconciled by a species that will eventually sort all that crap out in a millenium or two, the believers will still insist on persecuting those who merely wish to privately make a distinction between fantasy and reality. Sigh.

Too Many Books

Sometimes I do wish I had written fewer books. The ones I have written are all over the map and it’s always been very likely that people who like one of them will not like any of the others. A related problem is the unlikelihood of any random reader happening to pick out the one they might possibly like the most. A lot of hit or miss goes on with my books, I’m afraid.

That’s why it’s especially gratifying when every now and then the random reader picks one they do like, and then I find out about it on Amazon or Smashwords when they very kindly leave a review, like this one:

 Lighthearted Satire October 27, 2012
The book has an interesting perspective towards those who think they are always the smartest ones in the room. The serious sci-fi reader might be disappointed, though. It’s more irony than science fiction. But light and enjoyable, none the less.
Orange Car With Stripes is one of those books I wrote which is so very unlikely to find its proper readers – the science fiction elements, as the reviewer notes, are very silly, and the central story is a satire about atheism – and atheists as a group of readers don’t usually come across this sort of thing. We’re far more used to being on the defensive and when people do make fun of us it’s usually with a great deal of hostility, whereas this is more of a friendly poke. There just isn’t a lot of atheist comic sci-fi pulp fiction, as far as I know, aside from Orange Car With Stripes and its sort-of-sequel Missy Tonight. These are books I very much enjoyed writing, but I’m certain they will never find more than a handful of receptive readers.

Cover Art: Missy Tonight

 

The new Missy Tonight cover is from a painting I did several years ago, and gimpified using brightness and contrast changes as well as posterization, and the ‘biometric joe’ font. I often think I did Missy a disservice with her title, seeing as it’s not obvious that this is a rather singular work of “atheist comic fiction”, a genre whose day remains a long way off. It opens with this line: “who knew there was money to be made in atheism?” and follows the misadventures of a hapless portable-toilet-dispatcher who longs to become the new go-to cynical pundit on the popular TV talk show, Missy Tonight. I love this little book as much as any of my guys, but will she ever find the love she deserves? But then again, as Gaff famously said in Blade Runner, who does?