Friday, July 27, 2012

A Curious Inversion of History

I'm thinking mainly of African history.

Driving in Tanzania last month, I caught view of mountains that reminded me of the Alps in their sudden steepness, their general outline, and beauty. Of course at the base of the mountains was an entirely different world from the Alps, with palm trees and donkey carts, some paved roads, yes, but still mostly dirt roads, some modern buildings along the main thoroughfares, but thatched roof huts off in the not-very remote areas. Women carrying goods on their heads met my sight, some of them covered from head to toe in the partially Islamic area through which I rode as a passenger in a big Toyota Land Cruiser.

It occurred to me that the main difference in appearance between the mountains I saw and the Alps is that the Alps are covered with castles and the Tanzanian mountains were not…and then in a flash of imagination, I saw everything around me differently.

What if for the purposes of a story, Africa had been settled by medieval Europeans, while Europe had been settled by technologically more advanced Africans? Of course there is a reason Africans come from Africa and Europeans from Europe. But imagine an alternate Earth, in which perhaps through a magical portal like I wrote about in The Crystal Portal, medieval Europeans just happened to arrive in an Africa otherwise empty of humans in an alternate Earth and settled there…while Africans settled in alternate-Earth Europe.

Let’s further imagine that African-settled Europe developed and led the way in scientific advancement and colonial expansion, in parallel with what actually happened in Europe, while European-settled Africa did not advance in technology or in culture. Then the African mountains I saw would be indeed covered with castles. But there would still be donkey carts and dirt roads. There would still be thatched roof huts and women carrying burdens, but they would carry them with their hands or with shoulder yokes instead of on their heads. As medieval women habitually covered their heads (with something called a wimple), the dress code would not be too different from African Islamic…and as some African regions are filled with warlords incessantly fighting one another, so would the castles be filled with unbathed and illiterate knights and lords continually trying to conquer the next castle over...

I didn’t think of all that backstory in a flash—instead I instantly saw in my mind’s eye everyone in my view as European, but still living in “backward” conditions. And I imagined myself being a black man from a land far away with a local white driver, instead of the way it really was, the other way around.

As a story setting, I think such a tale would naturally involve some social commentary. Commentary to the effect that anything negative anyone could say about African culture was in general just as bad or worse in medieval Europe. Which would naturally reinforce the simple observation that humans are all of a common descent, which is something both modern geneticists and believers in the Bible agree on. Our advancements are tied to culture more than anything else and cultures can and do change.

I think for some such a tale might beg the question if there is something about living in Africa that would keep Europeans living there from advancing technologically. Certainly the fact that Europe is divided into many partially-isolated geographical areas (islands, peninsulas, divided by mountain ranges and rivers) tends to separate Europe in to areas suitable for building nation-states--but nation-states that are close enough to one another geographically to be in continual competition with one another. And independent nation-states in close competition certainly contributed to European colonial expansion…and the development of technology in order to outdo other powers.

But for the purposes of a story, I would suggest something simpler should be advanced as the main cause of European technological development: winter.

Winter spurs the development of food storage capacity at the very least. And during winter, the agricultural cycle cannot continue…which leaves time for the study of sciences and technology, for individuals inclined to use their time for that…whereas the African agricultural cycle is “blessed” with the production of food all year 'round, which means there is no winter, no break from farming for peasants, and no break from war for knights and lords. No time for study or science. So if the Middle Ages Europeans had come to Africa a thousand years ago or more, perhaps it's plausible to imagine they would’ve remained medieval up until the day I drove by those mountains…


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Evil Entropy, Son of Chaos

Chaos is the villain? Chaos tries to limit your choices down to just one?

Last post Greg Mitchell told us about his novel Rift Jump, in which he portrayed Chaos in precisely that way.  I haven't read Greg's book yet  (shame on me), so maybe that particular statement wouldn't have struck me as fundamentally wrong if I'd read it in context. But among all the things he said, that one particular thing did strike me as off.

I think that's because so much of what I see as doing good comes down to restricting your choices. For example, if you see a small turtle crossing a road, there are dozens of things you can do. "Nothing" would be the most boring, but think of how many free choices there are that hurt the turtle. You can stomp on it or set it on fire or throw it in a vat of acid or wait for an oncoming car and throw it under its wheels. But a good person rejects all the options that cause unneeded suffering (some people would strike the word "unneeded" from the phrase I just used). So the good person to remain good has, in fact, fewer choices than the set of all possible choices. She can merely do nothing for the turtle or something else at least as innocent, such as gently removing the tiny uncomprehending animal out of the path of danger.

Evil, of course, will try to destroy, as much as good will try to help. But Chaos? Chaos is allowed to do whatever it wants, all choices are open to it--it can be merciful one moment and randomly toss you over the Empire State Building the next. Chaos is full choice--it could even be thought of as being Choice personified--the ultimate expression of any refusal to restrict one's own will.

Further, let me propose that the path of goodness is even narrower than not allowing for doing harm. Good people don't just avoid wrongdoing, they actually seek out the positive good of those around them. In other words, they deliberately are trying to eliminate choices that are neutral or accomplish only a little to benefit others. Instead, don't truly good people seek to maximize the well-being of others actively, trying to make that single best choice in every circumstance?

I don't mean to say good people are automatons without choice nor that there is always just one right thing to  do in any given situation. No, almost always there are multiple good options--but even so, that set of good options is generally smaller than the options evil has at hand. And it is even smaller still than the set of all choices.

So I thought, "OK, I don't agree with Greg, no big deal." But my mind wouldn't let me put aside the subject. Then I remembered that chaotic motion of atoms leads to entropy. And entropy is a state in which all meaningful choices have gone away, because everything is essentially the same as everything else.

Entropy, by the way, is a condition in which everything in a given system, all particles and energy, is distributed with evenness. Imagine a universe like that, like a warm gas stretching throughout all space, no spots hot or cold, no stars, no planets or people, no energy that can be used at all. Entropy is a place where all ability to act, all choice, has been completely removed. Entropy isn’t truly evil, but it’s bad, a state where any human who desires to live would never want to be (but “evil entropy” makes a much better title than “bad entropy”…).

Without getting into a long discussion of entropy, think of this as a household. A person who always vacuums on a regular schedule and does the dishes after eating and hangs up clothes after washing them and keeps in good maintenance the refrigerator and does a myriad of other things, will seem at first glance to not have a lot of free choice, I mean, after all, wouldn't it be more fun to throw the dishes in the corner, sometimes?

If you reduce your activities at home to those that are “good” as in productive, helpful, and orderly, you will wash your shirts when soiled and hang them up in the closet, put your socks in the sock drawer, and keep your glassware safe in the cabinet. If you start acting chaotically, eventually some of your socks wind in the cabinet and some glassware winds up in the sock drawer, a little of each will be in the closet and shirts will be everywhere…and generally none too clean (I’ve actually known people who use this housekeeping method…ahem). Which makes it a bit harder to use any of them, especially when chaotic tramping around starts breaking glassware everywhere and everything in the end gets covered with shards of broken glass. Oh, it’s all dangerously exciting at first when glass gets broken, but as it continues breaking and breaking and getting tracked around the chaotically-distributed clothes, eventually you reach a point where none of the items you once had can be used anymore.

Prior to that state, many choices would have been available concerning your household goods, such as which socks to wear, which shirt, or even in what order to put them in their respective places. But once they are all evenly distributed, after Chaos has done his work, there are no more meaningful choices left.

Or think of it as spices…if you are careful to keep all your spices separate, you can enjoy each spice separately. Keeping the salt in the salt bin and the sugar in the sugar is good for both, because you can choose to mix them in proportions if you want to at a later point. But once you chaotically and randomly dump all your spices all over the place, everything will eventually taste the same, since even though in theory you still have free choice to taste whatever you want, all meaningful choice of taste will be gone, and it won’t be easy to get it back.

Could it be in the moral arena as well that "being good,” following the rules and keeping order fights a kind of moral entropy and preserves the value of choices? Morality often is seen a bit simplistically as a set of dos-and-do-nots and to a degree that's true. I’d like to suggest that while following dos-and-do-nots may restrict choice up front, it also keeps you from winding up in a place where your choices become completely meaningless--as in a bare prison cell--or a situation where no one trusts you or wants to have a relationship with you. So imposing a moral order not only fights the “chaos” of everyone doing whatever he or she wants, but also that sort of moral entropy that is created by violating principles of morality, which has the effect of taking away the value of any choices.

So if that’s true, I was wrong above. Entropy really IS evil, at least the moral variety, or better said, it’s the state that evil longs to bring us to—evil in the moral sphere offers us a multitude of choices, like Chaos, anything goes, but following all of them in the end leads to the same state, where meaningful choices get reduced to nothing. Whereas moral good restricts choice up front, but does so with the effect of preserving the ability to make choices that are meaningful.

Maybe that's where Greg was coming from when he said Chaos is trying to limit your choices to one...I guess I need to read Rift Jump to find out...


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rift Jump--A war against Chaos, a multiverse of personal choice, and God in a Stetson...

Greg Mitchell, who is, like me, an Avenir Eclectia author and who also like me, has Splashdown Books as his publisher, has just come out with a new book I'm happy to promote because of its boldly original take on a story multiverse. I'll let him tell you about it:

It begins with Choice.

You are the culmination of Choice. If you think back to your life, to the lives of your parents, your grandparents, and all the way back to the Garden of Eden, choices beyond your control have shaped your path. If any number of those things had been different—if your ancestors located on a different continent, how different might your world look to you today?

What if the cure for cancer was found in 1756? What if electricity wasn’t discovered until 3018? What if Earth was devastated by atomic wars? What if Earth didn’t exist at all?

Yet, where does that leave the spiritual realm? Are there multiple incarnations of God? Is the Devil a good guy in some realities? What happens when we die? Are there millions of you floating around in heaven? Or will you see your doubles in hell?

I partially answer this by creating the concept of the True Universe. There is only one me. All the other Greg Mitchells on all the other planes of reality are reflections of me. Or…am I the reflection? Maybe the “True Greg Mitchell” is killing vampires right now in this souped-up monster truck, with Elvis Presley riding shotgun. That wouldn’t be too bad.

But what about God? Another key component to Rift Jump’s multiverse concept is the “In Between.” I describe it like this in the book: Imagine a brick wall. Each brick represents a parallel reality, making up the multiverse. But that mortar that holds the bricks together is the In Between. And there, in the In Between, is where heaven and hell exist. Where God, the devil, and their angels reside. So there is only one God. One set of heaven and hell. Rather than being a separate place—though I do believe it’s a literal place—it’s a reality that’s on a different frequency. The multiverse still exists in the physical realm, while the In Between is a spirit realm. God exists outside of the multiverse and interacts with it at His choosing.

I believe God exists outside of Time. We only know our lives as past, present, and future, but God exists everywhere at all times. He is here with me now, and He is also speaking the world into existence, and He is also at the End of All Things. I believe John, in a sense, “slipped the mortal coil and into the In Between,” to get a glimpse of the future in the Revelation.

Or, if you’re like Michael Morrison in the pages of Rift Jump, you can crack one of these dimensional walls and slip beyond the planes of existence into the In Between yourself. But I wouldn’t advise it. There are terrible things lurking in the dark spaces between realities.

Namely, Chaos.

My fictional multiverse (or is fiction only a reflection of the True Universe?) is built as a sort of cage to Chaos. It is Order. The multiverse is the ultimate expression of Choice. Who do you marry? Where will you live? What will you do with your life? Will you believe in God? Or reject Him?

Again, a multiverse of infinite possibility. But the point is that there is possibility.

The Bible says that God gave us freewill, and, in my story, the multiverse is an extension of that. You may make terrible decisions in this reality, but in some other reality, you’ve perhaps chosen differently. But the Choice remains. There are alternatives.

But the Dark in the In Between would seek to remove those possibilities. To take away your choice. There would be no alternatives then. There is only one possibility—one outcome. So the Dark tears through the multiverse, sowing destruction and discord, looking to rend the very fabric of time and space.

Michael Morrison begins Rift Jump as a boy who has made many terrible decisions. And, when these actions lead him to a terrible death, he breaks the bonds of the multiverse and finds himself in the In Between. God is waiting there for him as a kindly man in a long coat and Stetson, and gives Michael the Choice. Who will he serve? What will he do with his second chance at life?

Gifted with incredible powers, Michael battles across the multiverse, trying to stop the Chaos from breaking through the realities. The war is not only external, but internal as the Darkness In Between the worlds speaks to him, playing on his own rage-filled impulses, tempting him to join the Chaos... 

If Greg's tale catches your attention as much as it does mine, here's the Rift Jump link to purchase it in several different formats off the Splashdown site. If you want to hear more about him and his story, please check out the following links to some blogs of friends who are talking to Greg about his tale:

Grace Bridges    
Fred Warren      
Caprice Hokstad
Paul Baines        
R. L. Copple      
Keven Newsome
Kat Heckenbach
Ryan Grabow     
Diane M. Graham
Robynn Tolbert  
Frank Creed       


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Star Trek Propaganda II: The Wrath of...

Imagine the idea raised in the last post—that Star Trek was inspired by Federation propaganda—as the basis for a story plot with a twist. What would Star Trek look like if it had been inspired by Klingon propaganda?

What if a series of Star Trek existed in which shooting first and asking question later was always shown to be the right choice? Where oppressing aliens was shown to be sensible? An episode could feature a bleeding-heart Klingon wanting to treat an alien races as equals, only to have them betray him and eat his liver or something—him dying without honor. A series in which the honor of personal combat is always shown as mattering more than anything else? Episodes could feature lives full regret from those who failed to die in battle or from having rejected the Klingon way.

Or what would Star Trek look like as Romulan propaganda? Stealth and treachery are commended and always work out for the greater good…Or Cardassian...the state always knows best? Or Ferengi, greed really is good—pick whatever enemy of the Federation you like for a dose of their propaganda wrath.

Imagine stories in which everything in Star Trek has all the same basic players, but everything is fundamentally different because all the characters and situations are designed to show one of the alien societies, one of the enemies of the Federation, is fundamentally right. That would change the flavor of everything.

My only regret is, I don’t think the Borg would ever need to create propaganda…


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Star Trek Propaganda

For Star Trek fans out there, have you ever noticed the continual drumbeat in all Star Trek TV series and films that the United Federation of Planets is a good institution? With certain relatively minor exceptions, have you noticed that these “good guys” always win? That they rarely suffer any combat losses of anybody important to the story? Their principles are shown again and again to work perfectly? And that almost everyone in their future society is perfectly happy to never be paid in money, to work just for personal enrichment?

Doesn’t that sound just a bit like stuff from a propaganda film? Like a Soviet Union-era film showing square-jawed Russians stalwartly doing right, marching forward to brilliant success with only minor losses, repudiating base capitalistic greed, and embracing an international brotherhood where all nations and races are accepted? Any downside to the system is brushed aside, the stories moving from one triumph of the “good” system to the next?

Well, what about a story that features a time travel device through which Gene Roddenberry sees what he thinks is actual footage from an idealistic future society? This inspires him to create Star Trek as we know it. The protagonists of the story discover this fact and also a means to the time travel device Roddenberry had access to. They find a way to use it to travel to the future, excited at the chance to see the “real” Federation, the one that inspired the hopeful visions of Star Trek.

But when they arrive they find out that what had inspired Roddenberry was not actual footage of the Federation at all. Instead, it was their propaganda films. The “real” Federation is oppressive and barren of hope. Portrayals of their victorious Federation crews bravely exploring the galaxy is the one thing the deeply depressed people of this future world have to look forward to.

Oh and the production quality of these films? Let’s say that when Roddenberry made the first Star Trek , he was inspired by what he thought were dull documentaries—so these originals would have production quality like that of the first of the Star Trek shows…only worse…