I will have to take a blog hiatus at some point this summer, because our family will be moving house.
Of course, I have moved before …
I do not relish it.
The nomadic lifestyle is one of those things that sounds really romantic when you first hear about it (Gypsies! Mongols! Pirates!), but that in real life kind of stinks.
I put my characters through a nomadic lifestyle, and they don’t particularly relish it either. Here’s what the main character of my first book, Enmer, has to say:
“It is always a confused time, departing for a trip, and also a time when people are rubbed raw by the many things they must of think of, and the many things they are leaving. So they are quicker to excitement, sorrow, or anger.”
Enmer, The Long Guest
The other problem with being on the move is that while it lasts, it makes you very vulnerable in terms of … everything. Food, water, medicine, normal routines. Security. This is especially true for families.
Just being forced to move can itself be a form of oppression. There are many historical examples of cases where groups were forced to move and it did not end well. Maybe I’ll post about those some time.
But for now, don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining. My family and I are not being forced, and we have had plenty of warning about this move and will also, I trust, have plenty of help. I just wanted to give you a heads up about it, give a little plug for my book (one of the points of the this site, after all), and post some of my funny old pictures.
Do you have any tips, cautionary tales, or fun moving stories?
The Bechdel test, a rough-and-ready way to critique a book or film from a feminist perspective, states that a story ought to have 1) at least two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.
One of my favorite series, The Lord of the Rings, flunks this test. (Though, I should point out that ‘Til We Have Faces does not!) And it doesn’t just flunk it a little bit. Bilbo is a bachelor. So is Frodo. So is Gandalf (more of a monk or an angel, really.) Mothers tend to be dead: Frodo’s. Eomer and Eowyn’s. Boromir and Faramir’s.
But, although they are not seen talking to each other (except the garrulous Ioreth to her kinswoman), the Lord of the Rings cycle has a number of intriguing female characters of all different classes and personalities (and even species), and each plays an important, though hidden, role. I thought it would be fun to rank them below in order of relatability. I have only included female characters that we actually get to see in action. (Smeagol’s grandmother, for instance, is not included, and neither are the Entwives.)
(Most relatable) Rosie Cotton. Rosie, daughter of Farmer Cotton, is Sam Gamgee’s love interest not only in the movie but also in the book. She is a simple, sweet young peasant girl. When Sam returns from Mordor, she first chides him for having taken so long, and then says, “If you’ve been looking after Mr. Frodo all this while, what d’you want to leave him for, as soon as things look dangerous?” Pretty frustrating for Sam, but he likes her anyway. She just has no idea what he’s been through … and, really, how could she? Sam later marries Rosie and they go on to become a founding family in the next generation of the Shire. Rosie represents the Shire itself in all the wholesomeness and normality of its farm family life. She represents everything that Frodo and Sam went to Mordor in order to save. She is an ordinary good-hearted woman who makes a wonderful wife for Sam, the ordinary hero. That is why she wins the prize for Most Relatable.
Goldberry,wife of Tom Bombadil, the “river daughter.” Goldberry is a sort of nymph, “slender as the willow-wand, clearer than the water.” She is a little less relatable than Rosie because of her great beauty, apparent immortality, and because she is a representation not of the farm but of the forest. However, her role is very similar to Rosie’s. Tom Bombadil’s house in the forest is a supernatural refuge for travelers who would otherwise be overcome by the wild otherness of the Old Forest. Goldberry plays a critical role in making this home. She maintains it, she serves food, she beautifies the home with her singing, her weaving, her wisdom, and her very presence there. Tom wanders all throughout the Old Forest, but in the end he always comes back to his home (and invites the hobbits there) because, as he says, “Goldberry is waiting.”
Eowyn. Eowyn is the brave and beautiful niece of King Theoden of Rohan. (The Rohirrim are basically Vikings on horseback.) She feels trapped by the need to stay in the house and care for her elderly uncle. When the elderly uncle revives and goes off to fight against Mordor, Eowyn really really wants to go along. What she most fears, she says, is “a cage.” She disguises herself as a man, sneaks away with the army of Rohan, and ends up killing a demonlike creature on the battlefield, nearly losing her life in the process. Eowyn is generally the first female character people remember from The Lord of the Rings. Her restlessness is something that we’ve all felt, but her Nordic style of beauty, her superior horsewomanship and swordswomanship, and, especially, her extreme bravery are not qualities that most of us possess.
Arwen. Arwen, daughter of Elrond, is Aragorn’s childhood crush. Her role in the series is mostly symbolic. She represents the Elven colony that Elrond maintains in Rivendell, and hence, the whole glorious world of the Elves that is now fading away. She is an aristocrat, a queen, an ideal of beauty, grace and virtue that is completely unattainable (for everyone, of course, except Aragorn, who is himself an ideal of virtue).
Galadriel. Galadriel, I have been told, plays the role in The Lord of the Rings that Mary plays in the Catholic faith. Everything I just said about Arwen is also true of Galadriel, except that in Galadriel’s case, she is not an ideal that we are meant even to try to attain to. Instead, we are (not to mince words) simply meant to worship. Gimli the dwarf discovers this when he enters Lothlorien (heaven on earth) expecting to find a hostile witch. On meeting Galadriel, he has a true spiritual experience and is immediately converted. After this, he carries a lock of her hair with him and is ready to fight anyone who criticizes her. Galadriel, in other words, is a sort of female God figure, a spiritual mother who dispenses wisdom to the travelers and who gives Frodo a light that saves him in the lair of Shelob (who, being a spider, did not make this list). Galadriel would have been the Least Relatable person on this list, but we have one more …
Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Ha! You didn’t think anyone could be less relatable than Galadriel? You have forgotten Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the odious relative of Bilbo and Frodo. Lobelia had always hoped somehow to legally get her hands on the comfortable ancestral hall of Bag End. She nearly inherited it when Bilbo disappeared for a year in The Hobbit. She was very annoyed when Bilbo then willed Bag End to Frodo, and made quite a nuisance of herself to Frodo by saying nasty things as only a bitter, feisty, disappointed older relative can. Before Frodo goes off on his adventure, he sells Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses, and Lobelia cannot conceal her triumph. She does redeem herself, however, by getting herself thrown in the local jail for defying a constable after Saruman takes over the Shire. When she gets out, she is met with a standing ovation and bursts into tears: “She had never been popular before.” … OK, I admit it, much of Lobelia’s bad behavior is actually very relatable if we are honest with ourselves. But she beats Galadriel because, even more than Galadriel, Lobelia is not a character that anyone would aspire to be.
There is a type of sci-fi that is
triumphalist. In this kind of sci-fi,
people colonize space, improve their health so that they become immortal,
enhance their brain powers, or even change the basic nature of humanity … and
all goes well. This is welcomed as a
Then there is another type of
sci-fi, where the implications of changes like these are thoughtfully teased
out. This is what sci-fi is for, after
all: thought experiments. “What would be
all the implications for our everyday lives if X were not only possible but
routine?” This thoughtful strain of
sci-fi is neither hidebound nor reactionary, and yet … these thought
experiments so often end up becoming cautionary tales.
It is these cautionary tales that I think should be required reading or viewing for policy makers. All of this stuff has been explored, in fiction, and it never ends well. I can’t tell you how many times, when I hear some harebrained social experiment being suggested, I just want to scream, “Haven’t you people ever watched a single sci-fi movie?”
Here are a few
Think it would be great if all
parents could afford to edit inherited diseases out of their child’s genome?
Go watch Gattica.
Predicting people’s behavior and
assigning them roles in society based on their genetic predispositions? Perfectly efficient society with no freedom?
Interested in “designer babies?”
There is an episode of The Outer Limits in which the genetic editing
seems to work, but once the designer kids reach adulthood, there are unintended
side effects that cause them to become outcasts from the very society that
created them. They are understandably
bitter, and become a criminal class made all the more dangerous by their
genetically edited strength and smarts.
How about perfectly executed
plastic surgery to make everyone conform to contemporary beauty standards?
There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone for that.
Creating a human/animal hybrid?
The movie Splice.
Storing all our important personal
information on the cloud so that it’s always at our fingertips?
Audio and visual recording equipment everywhere?
What if we take this wonderful
stream of information and give everyone a brain implant so they can access it
at any time?
Back to The Outer Limits. In one episode, “the stream” takes on a consciousness of its own and begins to control the people by feeding them lies. The only person who can even read the hard-copy manual in order to shut it down is a guy whose brain wouldn’t accept the implant because of a birth defect, so he has had to take a job as a janitor and has been forced to read physical books at a normal pace. Poor guy. (Of course, we don’t even need to look at The Outer Limits because we can already access “the stream” at any time, and it’s driving us crazy.)
How about “smart homes,” where our
electronic assistant can work our garage door, locks, thermostat and so much
I give you HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And also every
other book or movie where the electric grid goes down and suddenly no one can
Really smart AI?
How about a perfectly controlled
society in which children are raised communally?
Run and The Office of Mercy. Oh, and Soviet orphanages.
How about a perfectly controlled
society in which children are raised in families, but these families are
assigned by a central government so that each child lives in an ideal home?
Giver by Lois Lowry.
How about we find or create a
portal through hyperspace and just start throwing stuff randomly into it? Or how about we touch it? It’s OK, the person touching it has a cable attached to
him, should be fine, if anything goes wrong we can pull him right out …
(But actually, we shouldn’t need a
movie like Event Horizon to tell us that it’s not smart to send anything
through a portal that we don’t know where
OK, OK, you’re right … no one is
seriously suggesting that we try to travel through space/time wormholes. Not that I am aware of. Let’s try one that people actually are suggesting:
The opening paragraphs of the article go like this:
The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment first posited by Plutarch in Life of Theseus. It goes a little something like this: A ship goes out in a storm and is damaged. Upon returning to shore, the ship is repaired, with parts of it being replaced in the process. Again and again the ship goes out, and again it is repaired, until eventually every single component of the ship, every plank of wood, has been replaced. Is the repaired ship still the same ship that first went out into the storm? And if not, then at what point did it become a different ship? Now, say you collected every part of the ship that was discarded during repairs, and you used these parts to rebuild the ship. With the two ships side-by-side, which one would be the true Ship of Theseus? Or would it be both? Or neither?
Corey J. White, May 31, 2018, at Tor.com
The Essence of a Thing – Or Person
White then proceeds to apply this thought experiment to all sorts of situations that routinely arise in sci-fi, such as Darth Vader being “more machine than man,” teleportation, cloning, and a really scary one: a digital upload of a person’s consciousness. He uses the Ship of Theseus problem to raise questions about “the intrinsic thingness of a thing.”
Of course, questions about “the thingness of a thing” get thornier and higher stakes the more personlike the thing gets. I want to give my thoughts about a few of these questions as they apply to people. Then you can give your thoughts below.
Changes to the Body
I don’t know if this has been your experience, but when I was a kid, I tended to feel that all parts of a person’s physical appearance were very important to who they were – their “signature look,” if you will. So it was upsetting if someone who usually wore glasses took off their glasses, or if Mom got a dramatic new haircut, or if Dad shaved his mustache. Things seem so eternal when we are kids, even little details like hair length that are actually very temporal.
Then, as we get older, we learn otherwise. We find out from personal experience that we can cut off all of our hair, go through dramatic physical changes like puberty, maybe even lose a limb, and we are still exactly the same person. Our soul is something different from our body, though it expresses itself through our body. Even if about 40% of our body was gone, replaced with machine parts (as Darth Vader), we would have the same soul, and the soul would colonize the changing body and make it its own. (This can require a process, though, which might be part of the reason puberty is so difficult.)
It’s my belief that if a clone were made of you, it would turn out to be a different person who shared your genetic code. Not another self, but an identical twin. This is because every single time a baby grows, it shows up with a soul. This is part of the reason there are ethical problems with cloning. People might be tempted to treat their clones as no more than material made from their own body, when in fact they would be people with human dignity of their own.
A Digital Upload of Your Entire Consciousness
I don’t actually know whether this one is possible (and I sort of, fervently, hope not). However, the idea is one that is likely to be tried, because it is a common trope in sci-fi.
White mentions that this idea shows up in Altered Carbon, which I have never read or watched. But it is not new in sci-fi. I remember an H.P. Lovecraft short story in which some crab-like aliens remove a man’s brain and put it in a jar because that is is the only way they can take “him” with them to space. (He can still talk to them if they hook the jar up to a radio.) In C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi/horror book That Hideous Strength, an eminent scientist has his head removed and kept alive in a lab, in hopes of achieving eternal life. In both of these stories, “digitally uploading consciousness” is attempted with cruder technology, but the concept is basically the same.
The thing to note about these two examples is that they are horror stories. The attempt to separate the human mind from the body is a BAD idea, associated with death, insanity, and having your head cut off. The body “doesn’t matter” in the sense that it can be altered a great deal and you can still be you … but it does matter in the sense that part of being a human is being an embodied mind, not a mind removed from a body. The attempt to remove it seems to me like a violation of our basic nature. The sense of violation is quite strong in both of the stories I mention above.
Would it Work, Though?
It might work. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t, but there are any number of techniques that violate the human body and soul which ought not to be tried but nevertheless have been.
This idea has been explored (with a bit more ambivalence than I am here showing) in the book Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty, 2018). In this book, cloning technology has reached a level where anyone who chooses to do so can have their body cloned, their mind uploaded, and when the body clone is ready, the person’s mind complete with memories can be installed in the brand-new clone, which comes out like a healthy person in their early 20s. In other words, people who choose to do so can live practically forever. Of course, this practice opens the possibility of all kinds of abuses, all of which have been outlawed, all of which still take place, including the incredibly scary mind hacking.
Don’t worry, that’s not even a spoiler. That’s just the setup for the book.
If all of this were possible – obviously, I disapprove, but if it were possible – I would have to say that the person’s mind, even when it has been uploaded and is just being stored, is still that person. And when they “wake” in a freshly cloned body, they are the same person.
Having said that, I do think that a person would lose something of personhood if their mind were stored on a computer for a very long time, long enough that they started to forget what it’s like to have a body. I believe that the ways we think, feel, and operate in the world are tied to our bodies in important ways; that, in fact, it’s not possible to function as a human being without having some kind of body. So, if your mind were stored on a computer indefinitely, I’m not sure at what point you would stop being you, but I have a gut feeling that you would. Maybe you would be in a sort of hibernating state anyway.
Now, the really strange thing is this. Your mind can change a great, great deal, and you can still be you. This is something we have all experienced when going through puberty. And all throughout our lives, our worldview and values can change enormously and still we remain ourselves. The Apostle Paul was the same person after his Damascus Road experience … even though all of his mental furniture had been upended.
This is a great mystery.
On the other hand, there are mental changes ( Alzheimer’s is the prime example) that truly do seem to destroy the person so that they are no longer “there.” This is a terrible thing, and another great mystery.
I realize this is a huge can of worms to open at the end of an already wide-ranging article, but I couldn’t post about what makes us ourselves without at least mentioning mental changes.
To avoid the deep sense of existential angst that will no doubt come over you after reading this article, allow me to close with this poem which I memorized many years ago but have since lost the reference to:
“Thou shalt know Him when He comes/Not by any din of drums/Nor by vantage of His airs/Nor by anything He wears/Neither by His crown nor by His gown./But His presence known shall be/By the holy harmony/Which His coming makes in thee.”
I say this without any snark. This line – “I like to write about misfits” – has been used by some writers I really respect. They are not stupid. They are good writers. But I don’t think it’s a helpful way to describe your work, because it tells me so little.
Common “Misfit” Tropes in Fiction:
the girl who is plain or fat
the boy who is small, weak, or nerdy
the orphan or stepchild
the sensitive, misunderstood artist
the misunderstood villain (or werewolf or vampire)
the unremarkable teenager who discovers s/he has secret powers
the person who stands out because of their race
the gifted cop/soldier/agent who is forced to go rogue
the courageous person who goes against received wisdom (whether that is political, scientific, religious, artistic, or whatever)
the drag queen
That’s just off the top of my head.
When you tell me that your writing is unusual because you write about about misfits, my mind immediately goes to these tropes. There’s nothing wrong with these tropes (I like them), but stories featuring a “misfit” are not unique.
Using the word could even mask the uniqueness of your writing. For example, my eyes glazed over when a fellow writer described his novels as having misfit main characters. I was not expecting what he said next … that one of his books has a dragon as a main character, and another has a teddy bear. (These are books for adults.) The word “misfit” actually alienated me, for reasons I will describe below. The phrase “teddy bear main character” got my attention.
We Are All Misfits
Listen up, fellow writers: Everyone feels like a misfit!
It is rare to meet someone who has always felt comfortable in their own skin. That goes double for writer types.
In fact, that’s the reason that misfit characters are so appealing. Because the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they belong, misfit characters make them feel understood. But this isn’t just about people’s inner feelings: misfits feature in many stories because belonging and exclusion are major, enduring problems in this fallen world.
So, telling me that you are a misfit – as if this is unique to you – can be unintentionally, subtly insulting. The implication seems to be that you are pretty that sure I, your interlocutor, have never struggled with this. It’s similar to when people say they have a special concern for “justice,” as if this is something that most people don’t care about.
To be fair, I don’t think anyone who says this means to be insulting. They may honestly feel as if they are uniquely excluded. That’s the nature of feeling like you don’t belong. But trust me, if I am a fellow writer, then no matter how I may appear on the outside, I do know what it’s like not to fit in.
Characters Who Are Comfortable in Their Own Skin
In thinking about this, it occurred to me to wonder whether there are any novels that feature a main character who is comfortable in his or her own skin. And if there are, does this destroy the dramatic tension?
The first one I thought of was Where the Red Fern Grows. Then I started to realize that there are, in fact, many more. While there are many, many books for for both adults and children that explore themes of exclusion and belonging, there are also many that don’t. Often, a simple adventure story doesn’t need this dynamic.
Talking of characters who are comfortable in their own skin, I was reminded one of my own main characters, Nimri. Outwardly, he is certainly in a “misfit” situation: he paraplegic, and is being cared for by a group of people with whom he can’t at first communicate. Nevertheless, though he might bemoan his situation, Nimri is still happy to be Nimri. He is comfortable in his own skin. He is just not the personality type to experience much angst.
Outward vs. Inward Misfittedness
This brings up the distinction between being in an outcast or disadvantaged position, and feeling like we don’t belong. Which of these makes a character a “misfit”?
Of course, most people and characters have feelings that match their position. But not always. This can be a function of personality. Bilbo Baggins, for example, is a character who is small, weak, and has trouble getting the dwarves to take him seriously. Yet he is spunky and comfortable in his own skin. On the other hand, we can think of characters (often teenagers in coming-of-age-stories) who “never felt like they belonged,” even though outwardly there might not be much visible reason for this. This second option mirrors the experience of many authors.
I am not taking sides here, by the way. I like both kinds of story. I am fine with adventure stories where the hero or heroine never seems to experience any doubt (as long as the rest of the story is good), and I can identify with characters who don’t feel as if they fit. In my opinion, the really brilliant novels combine the two, and the main character’s inner turmoil becomes important to the outward plot. A really great novel of this kind is ‘Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.
So what about you? Is being comfortable in your own skin something you once struggled with, or is it an ongoing issue? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much patience do you have with fictional characters who experience identity crises, exclusion, and angst? (10 = I won’t read a book unless the main character struggles with belonging; 1 = I have no time for that touchy-feely stuff in my adventure stories)