Time-Words in Fiction

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How do you handle expresssions of time when writing about a preindustrial culture that does not use our time divisons?

Not that Preindusrial People Are Unaware of Time …

I’m not meaning to imply that people in preindustrial cultures take no notice of time. This is a notion, sometimes asserted, that goes with the romantic “noble savage” idea that because hunter-gatherers live closer to the earth, they necessarily live a “simpler” life, comparatively free from worries, cares, and conflict. See The Gods Must Be Crazy, the Wild Yam Question, and many others.

In fact, the earth is trying to kill you, so people who live close to the earth have plenty of survival-related worries (besides the usual human sin problem that did not first arise with industrialization). Farmers have to pay detailed attention to months and seasons, as do hunters, who also have to be concerned with times of day. So, no, there are no “time-free” people. In fact, there have been many ancient cultures that were very, very concerned with calendars. See Stonehenge, above, which was apparently a computer for predicting eclipses, and the Maya, who could be fairly said to be obsessed with dates.

But, Seriously, How Do You Deal with Time?

But, of course, it makes no sense to have a hunter-gatherer culture going around talking about the months by the names we give them. Let alone the days of the week, although if you follow Genesis, people have always known that days come in sevens and one day is for rest. Talk of seconds and minutes is even more of an atmosphere killer when it comes to verisimilitude.

Sci-fi writers can make up their own time divisions or draw on terms from sci-fi convention: clicks, parsecs, light-years, cycles, and no, I don’t know what most of these words mean really. They are fun, though. Perhaps in the comments you can enlighten me.

Anyway, here is how I deal with time. I didn’t spend a lot of … you-know-what … thinking about this when I first started drafting. I became more aware of it as my characters moved more into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You will still occasionally see the word, for example, “hours” crop up in my books. But when it would not take too much rewriting to get rid of modern time-words, here is what I use:

  • I don’t talk about specific months by name. Rather, I talk about seasons. (Early spring, midwinter, etc.) (However, if you are interested, my character Ikash’s birthday is in April and Hyuna’s birthday is right around Christmas.)
  • I do sometimes mention months in a generic sense, because everyone is aware of lunar months. I don’t say “moons,” because that sounds … well, I just feel like saying “moons” is a minefield.
  • It has never been necessary for me to mention weeks, either.
  • For “minute,” I try to use “moment,” which is less specific and technical sounding.
  • I use “a few beats” instead of “a few seconds.”
  • Nanoseconds, for some reason, have never come up.

GKC Quote on Cave People

To-day all our novels and newspapers will be found swarming with allusions to a popular character called a Cave-Man. So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about …

In fact, people have been interested in everything about the cave-man except what he did in the cave. Now there does happen to be some real evidence of what he did in the cave. What was found in the cave was not the horrible, gory club notched with the number of women it had knocked on the head. [It was] drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. They showed the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempts difficult things; as where the draughtsman had represented the action of the stag when he swings his head clean round and noses towards his tail. In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure. [I]t would seem that he was not only an artist but a naturalist.

When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes, ‘Red sparks danced in Dagmar Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (orig. ed. published 1925), pp. 27 – 30

I Just Stayed Up Late Reading this Horror Story … Oh, Wait, It’s Real

Many people have trouble loving their bodies. Not everyone struggles with this, but many do. “The outside does not match the inside.” We are given a body, and our body continues to be a stubborn fact that cannot be overlooked, and as we grow our body continues presenting us with a steady stream of stubborn facts about what sort of person we were designed to be.

So naturally, I figured Love Thy Body was going to be a healing, affirming sort of book that helps readers along the road to accepting and even celebrating the set of stubborn facts that is our particular body.

And I guess it could still do that, but you’d have to dig deep. Because mostly what this book is, is a terrifying ride through a dystopian nightmare not terribly different from Brave New World, except this one is true and is happening to us. I started to binge on this book (late at night, appropriately), but finally I couldn’t take it any more and had to start skimming. I really can’t think of a scarier book to present you with, as we approach Hallowe’en.

The two-story divide

The author, Nancy Pearcey, who is described on the jacket (and, apparently, by The Economist) as “America’s pre-eminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual,” dives right in to the philosophical developments that have served to sever human beings from their bodies. This divide goes all the way back to ancient Greek (and also Hindu) contempt for the material world and veneration of the spiritual or intellectual world. The Greeks actually taught that the creation of the physical universe was a huge mistake and was carried out by a lesser, evil, deity.

This philosophy has been with us, waxing and waning, ever since and has led to all kinds of dichotomies that even today dominate most people’s thinking:

  • Values vs. Facts
  • Morality vs. Science
  • Postmodernism vs. Modernism
  • Sacred vs. Secular

Each of these dichotomies can be diagrammed using the same “two-story” image. The immaterial thing is on top. The physical, or “real,” thing is on the bottom. The first “story” of the house (Science, say) is furnished with public, verifiable facts that anyone can access. The second story is home to all the immaterial stuff. In some of these dichotomies, the lower story is considered superior (facts; science). Some people even consider the lower story to be the only one that really exists. Thus, we are encouraged to keep our upper story “private” and not impose it on others. In other dichotomies, the upper story is given more importance. For example, in the evangelical world, “sacred” jobs are considered more spiritual than “secular” ones and this is supposed to be a good thing. Postmodernism, with its suspicion of materialism and reason, was a reaction against Modernism, which considered physical objects and reason to be all that existed; and, not surprisingly, was felt by the Postmodernists to be dehumanizing. The Postmodernists were right to stop devaluing the immaterial, but unfortunately they went in the direction of rejecting the entire lower story, leaving the sharp dividing wall in place.

The problem for human beings with this sharp divide between spirit and matter is that is splits us right in two. We are embodied spirits. But the prevailing philosophy of the last several centuries has tried to tell us that our bodies are not, in fact, really us. They are just a tool we manipulate, a machine that we drive. Our spirits are the “real” us.

I’ve never liked the phrase “the ghost in the machine.” It is supposed to describe what a human being is, but instead of capturing what it feels like to be a human being with a body, it does the opposite. It gives a spooky, lonely feeling. I imagine the poor ghost wandering the circuits of the computer, unable to make it do anything.

And that is the effect of splitting people off from their bodies. You make the spirit a mere ghost and the body a mere machine, and suddenly they can barely even influence each other.

This is “Personhood Theory,” and it is the foundation for all the horrors in the rest of the book. Personhood theory, like a good dichotomy, shows the Person in the upper story and the Body in the lower story (diagram on page 19). The Person has legal and moral standing, but unfortunately, according to personhood theory, just because you have a body doesn’t necessarily mean you are a person.

You must earn the right to live and/or have children

The most obvious example of beings who are inarguably biologically human, but yet are not considered to be persons, in our modern society are unborn babies.

“By sheer logic, in accepting abortion, we implicitly adopt some form of body/person dualism, even if we do not use those terms. Out actions can imply ideas that we have not clearly thought through. Of course, when people are making a decision about whether to have an abortion, their choice is often based on personal reasons … In discussing personhood theory, however, we are not talking about people’s personal reasons but about the logic inherent in supporting abortion.” (page 52)

“The most obvious problem for [personhood] theory is that no one can agree on how to define personhood. If it is not equated with being biologically human, then what is it? And when does it begin? Every bioethicist has a different answer. Fletcher proposes fifteen qualities to determine when human life is worthy of respect and protection (such as intelligence, self-awareness, self-control, a sense of time, concern for others, communication, curiosity, and neocortical function).” (page 53)

It should be obvious that this is a very, very slippery slope. I am sure that, as you read Fletcher’s list, examples sprang to your mind of adults who seem to lack these qualities in greater or lesser measure. It would be funny if this wasn’t a life-and-death topic. Obviously, these qualities are not present (as far as we can tell … and, honestly, how the hell would we know?), in newborns. Thus, bioethicists (and was there ever a more ironic job description?) are already deciding that newborns do not make the cut. Waston & Crick feel that newborns should not be “declared human” for three days after birth because some genetic conditions do not show up until then. So-called bioethicist (and the irony deepens each time I type that word) Peter Singer says “a three-year-old is a grey case.” (page 54)

But the difficulties in earning their humanity presented to babies and toddlers are just the tip of the iceberg. Qualities like self-awareness and a sense of time can be lost to conditions like dementia, brain injury, severe mental illness, and the list goes on. If someone who has previously been acknowledged as a person loses these qualities, does it then become moral to kill them? Personhood theory presents no logical impediment to their being “declared” nonpersons by whatever authority once declared them persons in the first place.

The qualification that is most frightening to me is “intelligence.” What the heck does that mean? Who determines it? When I read excerpts from eugenicist Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), I get the impression that her ideal society would give everyone an IQ test and sterilize, not just the lowest scorers, but everyone who scored average or below. Every time, I can’t help but wonder whether I would meet her criteria for sufficient intelligence to be allowed to reproduce. Probably not … after all, how intelligent could I be when there are several major points on which I disagree with Margaret Sanger?

You don’t get to say what kind of being you are

Once we have thoroughly severed personhood (upper story) from the body (lower story), it follows that our body is not at all a part of who we “really” are (the only “real” things being the upper story — our experience, thoughts, and feelings). This concept is applied consistently by the transgender narrative, which “completely dissociates gender from biological sex” (p. 197).

Because the trans narrative insists that the body does not matter — that it is not the “the real you” — some transgender people do not even bother to change their bodily appearance. A friend introduced me to a local musician who identifies as genderqueer. He appears completely masculine except that he wears eyeliner and sometimes a woman’s blouse or skirt. Yet he insists on being referred to as “she” and her.”

Ibid, p. 200

This man is not pushing the envelope. He is a person who sees clearly the logical implications of the trans world view and is following them (almost) all the way to their conclusion.

(And, by the way, that’s convenient for him, because one of the lousiest things about being a biological woman is female hormones, and I think it’s a little unfair that a person should be able to call himself a woman and not experience the joys of those, but I digress.)

“So,” you say, “What’s the problem? It’s all about personal choice. The individual should not be bound — repressed — oppressed — by his or her body and society’s response to that body.”

Pearcey understands the emotional appeal of this motivation:

The goal is complete freedom to declare oneself a man or a woman or both or neither.

The sovereign self will not tolerate having its options limited by anything it did not choose — even its own body.

Ibid, p. 210

Of course, having a body, having that body be an important part of your identity, and being among other people who have a certain response to the total package … all of these are important elements of what it means, and has always meant, to be human. But no matter. Individuals may fairly say that they don’t like what it is to be human, that it is a rotten experience, and that they think they have figured out how to fix it by completely denying the reality of their bodies. Onward! How can this be a problem for anyone who values individual autonomy?

The problem arises thusly. By seizing the ability to declare ourselves whatever we may want to be, we have created an awesome new power. And awesome new powers seldom remain diffuse, in the hands of every individual. When an awesome new power arises, so will a supervillain to try and monopolize it.

These legal changes [Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity laws] do not affect only homosexual or transgender people. In the eyes of the law, no one has a natural or biological sex now; all citizens are defined not by their bodies but by their inner states and feelings. Your basic identity … no longer follows metaphysically from your body but must be determined by an act of will.

But whose will? Ultimately, it will come down to who has the most power — which means the state. “It does not matter what you or I mean by the word ‘gender,’ explains Daniel Moody. “The only opinion that counts is that of the state … In law, our gender identity is defined without reference to our body.”

By rejecting the biological basis of gender identity, SOGI laws empower the state to define everyone’s identity.

Ibid, p. 214

If that’s not the scariest thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.

If the state can legally declare a man to be a woman because he says he is, it could, in theory, legally come to my house and declare me not a woman, even though I’ve borne three children.

“Oh, come on. No one is going to do that.”

It is already happening. Not to me personally, but to much more vulnerable people.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the case in Texas where a father and mother are locked in a custody battle over their school-aged son. The mother insists the son is transgender, though he seems perfectly happy to identify as a boy when he’s with his dad. The courts have, so far, sided with the mother. This is just so tragic I don’t know where to start … but the big question is, In what sense is the little boy in this story making any kind of choice at all?

There are no such things as mothers and fathers

Until now, the family was seen as natural and pre-political, with natural rights. That means it existed prior to the state, and the state merely recognized its rights. But if the law no longer recognizes natural sex, then it no longer recognizes natural families or natural parents, only legal parents. That means parents have no natural rights, only legal rights. You, as a mother or father, have only the rights the state chooses to grant you.

Ibid, p. 213

This, of course, is a tyrant’s dream.

I am sure you have heard people make serious arguments along these lines: “Some people should not be allowed to have children” (by whom?); “There is no such thing as other people’s children”; “It takes a village to raise a child.” (I agree with that last one, but only when the village is an organic social unit, made up of lots of nuclear and extended families. When Hillary Clinton says “a village,” the village she has in mind is the national government.)

The people making these arguments wish to build a society-wide utopia. In other words, they are budding totalitarians.

The ideology of choice [being the only determining factor in forming a family] has ominous political implications. For if children must be chosen, if they do not belong to their biological parents as gifts from God, to whom do they belong? Answer: the state. If you read scholars like Ted Peters carefully, you consistently find statism lurking as an underlying assumption. In one passage, Peters writes, “Society places its children in the care of rearing parents as a trust.”

Stop right there: Society gives us children? Society gives us its children? This view reduces both parents and children to atomistic dependents on the state.

The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century all sought tight state control of education, down to the earliest years, to inculcate unquestioning acceptance of the regime’s ideology.

History shows clearly that when biological bonds are downplayed in favor of choice, individuals end up forfeiting choice to the state. Demanding freedom from natural relationships means losing freedom to the state.

Ibid, p. 231

I would have to call that an unexpected outcome, wouldn’t you?

Yes, some natural families do really stink to grow up in.

All bureaucratic group homes for children would stink to grow up in.

Now that Pearcey has pointed this out, though, I can see this theme of a totalitarian utopian state undermining natural family bonds in all kinds of dystopias. Brave New World is the most obvious, where people are encouraged to sleep around, babies are grown in a lab, and the terms mother and father are considered obscene. But there is also The Giver, the YA book by Lois Lowry, in which babies are assigned handpicked parents after they leave their “birth mother” (which is a low-status role in their society … sound familiar?), and babies who are not thriving are euthanized.

This theme even surfaces in 1984. In that book, Winston’s neighbor is a rather simple-minded man who is enthusiastically in support of the Party. When Winston ends up in the Ministry of Love, there to be re-educated (sound familiar?), he is shocked to see his neighbor also there. The man has been turned in by his children, who claimed that in his sleep he would mutter, “Down with Big Brother.”

So, yeah, I recognize this theme from dystopian literature. I just didn’t realize, until I read this book, that legally and philosophically we were quite so far down that road.

Scary Thing: Bears

A Terrifying Bear Attack

So, this month I finally watched The Revenant. (It’s been out since 2015.)

The way the movie usually gets summarized is, “Leonardo DiCaprio’s character gets mauled by a bear, and his companions leave him for dead.”

Well, they don’t exactly leave him for dead. There is a lot of back and forth. There is money involved, and racial tensions, plus the difficulty of carrying a grievously injured man through rough country on a litter. But yes, basically, he does end up getting left for dead at some point, after efforts have been made to save him (and other efforts to finish him off).

Anyway, after watching, the big question in my mind was the same as in everyone else’s after seeing the movie: How in the world did they film the scene where he gets mauled by a bear?

It looks really real. I have embedded a YouTube clip of it at the end of this section, which you can watch if you have the stomach for it. At one point, the bear steps on the supine man’s head, stretches its neck forward, and snuffles directly at the camera. The glass fogs up from its breath.

Please tell me they didn’t use a real bear.

The first step, of course, was to study the credits carefully. Let’s see … Native American and First Nations acting agency … thanks to the Pawnee and Arikara nations … cultural consultants …. this stuff is fascinating. (One thing I loved about the movie was that subtitles, not dubbing, were used whenever characters were speaking Arikara, Pawnee, or French.) Oh, here it is. Animal wranglers. Wolves supplied by. Horses supplied by. Eagle supplied by. Hmm. There were no actual bears mentioned, but there were “animal puppeteers” and tons of animators.

It looks like it wasn’t a real bear.

Next step: Google. I found this article, where I learned that no, it wasn’t a real bear. It was a man in a blue suit. Even so, it took them four days just to shoot the six-minute scene, and then the bear’s muscles, skin, and fur had to be animated in separate layers.

The other disturbing thing was this: the only reason they didn’t use a real bear, was that captive bears nowadays are all too fat to be realistic.

I think that was a good move on their part.

Watch it if you dare.

Yes, in some ways the violent and unscrupulous humans are scarier, but actually … no. They are not. The scariest thing is the bear.

Euphemisms for Bear

It may surprise you to learn that the English word bear is not actually the original Indo-European word. It is a euphemism. The word used by the Indo-European ancestors, on the Ukrainian plains, was something like hrtko. My Indo-European dictionary explains in a sidebar:

The Proto-Indo-European word for “bear,” rtko-, was inherited in Hittite hartaggash, Sanskrit rksah, Greek arktos, Latin ursus, and Old Irish art.

But in the northern branches [of the Indo-European language family], the word has undergone taboo replacement. The names of wild animals are often taboo to hunters … Among the new expressions for “bear” were “the good calf” in Irish, “honey pig” in Welsh, “honey eater” in Russian, and “the licker” in Lithuanian. English “bear” and its other German cognates are also the result of taboo replacement, as etymologically they mean “the brown one.” (see bher-)

The American Heritage dictionary of Indo-European Roots, p. 74

(In case any linguistics purists are reading this, I should note that important diacritic marks are missing from the Indo-European, Hittite, and Sanskrit words in this quote.)

We can imagine that there were a number of terrifying attacks behind this taboo replacement. Or perhaps there was just one, well- (or horribly-) timed one, early in the northern Indo-Europeans’ journey towards their eventual homelands.

So, here are some euphemisms for bear:

  • bear/bruin (“the brown one”)
  • Beowulf (“bee-wolf”)
  • Medved (“honey eater”) (honey = mead)

In my books, the family ends up calling bears “the bad one.”

I like bears. But only as an idea. As actual creatures, they have earned their place on this October’s list of … Scary Things.

PSA: In case you didn’t know, Andrew Klavan has a YA series out

PSA … Public Service Announcement

YA … Young Adult

Andrew Klavan is a hard-boiled crime novelist who became a Christian around the age of 50. He is a master storyteller who gets what literature is supposed to do for a person. Consequently, he is not afraid of the dark, so to speak. His characters, particularly in his adult novels, often have major flaws. Some Christian readers don’t like the fact that Klavan’s novels often include sex scenes and a lot of language.

Well, if you want to enjoy Andrew Klavan minus all the adult stuff, look no farther than this series.

Main character Charlie goes to bed in his room one night and inexplicably wakes up strapped to a metal chair in an enclosed room, surrounded by instruments of torture. He remembers who is he (a high schooler with a black belt in karate), but he has no idea how he got here.

That’s the opening to the first book in the series, aptly titled The Last Thing I Remember. Klavan has long been fascinated with characters who have trouble remembering things, distinguishing fantasy from reality, or trusting their own thinking. Charlie is no exception. It will take him a good bit of the first book to realize that he’s forgotten an entire year of his life … and it will take nearly the whole series before he can trust himself again.

I can imagine someone will object: “Wait, because these are YA novels, there is no sex … but the very first scene includes torture?” Yes, there is plenty of violence in the Homelander novels. They are thrillers, after all. But a couple of factors mitigate this. First, sex and violence are not the same in the contexts in which they occur, what their purpose is, or the effect they have on the human mind. So I don’t think it’s necessarily hypocritical if a supposedly “clean” book excludes sex but includes some violence.

Secondly, the way the violence is handled is not exploitative. Charlie wakes up sore, in a torture room, and has obviously been through some stuff, but we don’t actually see him getting tortured. And the violence throughout the rest of the series is handled in a similarly dignified way. Klavan gives us plenty of blow-by-blow descriptions of fight scenes, chase scenes, and escape scenes, in some of which Charlie (or other characters) get hurt pretty bad. He does not give us any detailed blow-by-blows of helpless people being brutalized. And, though there are probably some deeper issues here that I haven’t thought out, this feels like an important distinction. It’s as if he allows the characters to have their choices and their dignity.

The titles of the books are:

  • The Last Thing I Remember
  • The Way Home
  • The Truth of the Matter
  • The Final Hour

Papa Eagle and Mama Eagle

This pair lives near our house. Like, in our yard somewhere I think (possibly in the surviving spruce tree?). This photo was taken from my dining room window.

I kid you not … we move to the West, and in the very first year, a pair of eagles moves in? How lucky are we?

They are not shy. Earlier in the summer, about once a day one of them would swoop across our yard, screaming. I even saw one sitting on a telephone pole (as above), screaming, notice me, and calmly go back to screaming. I get no respect.

Watch, Papa Eagle is about to give you eye contact …

What do you mean, smile? He is smiling.

I’m Late to This Party

Apparently, based on the YouTube comments, the following song has been out for six months. I just discovered it last week, playing the country station on my car radio while running errands, and it quickly became my theme song for the week.

It’s just so doggoned unifying.

Also, I like the phrase “one big …”, as in an earlier Andrew Klavan quote, “It was like the whole country was one big series of bad choices.”

And though this song is upbeat, there is a certain insight to calling life “one big country song,” because country as a genre can be pretty tragic. You know what they say: if you play a country song backwards, you get your wife back, you get your truck back, you get your dog back …

Anyway, enjoy!

Cover Draft for The Strange Land

One early fantasy series that I read was The Belgariad by David Eddings. Here are the covers as they looked on the series when I had it.

As you can see, the titles are all on theme by being about chess (“pawn,” “queen,” “gambit,” etc.). The covers are all similar, but each cover has a slightly different color scheme to vary your reading experience: mustard, green, rust, blue (harder to see in this image), grey. After all, you’re going to be looking at that cover for a while, as long as you are reading the book and carrying it around. It will form part of the visual landscape of your life. Also, and this isn’t obvious unless you’ve read the series, the color and general look of each cover matches the country to which the adventurers travel in that volume.

Last week, I unveiled my draft for the cover of my book The Long Guest. With the help of blog commenters, the font that we settled on for the title (at least for now) was Goblin Hand:

Now here is the draft for the second book in the series. I’ve kept the font and general title layout, but the color scheme is colder because, after all, we are going to Alaska.

Feedback please.

Writing about the Afterlife

Writing about the afterlife is tricky. It does not always go well.

Bookstooge recently reviewed a book that was set entirely in the afterlife, and it failed (at least, based on his review, it failed) because writing about the afterlife immediately brings out the limitations of the author’s understanding of: God, eternity, human nature, human embodiment, space, time, etc.

Some of these limitations on our understanding can be fixed with better theology. (For example, the TV show The Good Place could have benefitted from an understanding that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and who can know it?). Others of these limitations can’t be fixed because they are a consequence of our inability to imagine an existence that transcends space and time. New Age accounts of “out of the body” experiences immediately lose me when they describe things like “a cord coming out from between my shoulder blades that connected me to my body.” (Pro tip: if you are out of the body, you do not have shoulder blades.)

But despite these pitfalls, I find it irresistibly attractive to follow my characters just a step or two beyond death. Perhaps it’s because the moment of death is so poignant in a story, or because there is an opportunity to address unfinished business. “Wrong will be right/when Aslan comes in sight.” We are all longing for that wrong will be right moment.

The 11-minute song below is a ballad that successfully (I think) follows a character slightly past death. I find it very moving. I hope you do as well.

For the comments: when an author attempts to write about the afterlife, do you start rolling your eyes or do you go with it? What are some of your favorite post-death scenes in books or movies?