Climbing Mount Apathy


The Internet asks us to feel about everything, for global warming, police brutality, assholes who fly giant Confederate flags from their pickup trucks, AIDS in Africa, and poachers who’ll soon make elephants extinct. We are expected to be outraged when a parent disowns a gay teen, and to rally when a dentist kills a famous lion. With so many evils in the world, why should anyone give two shits about me, a struggling writer? Nobody likes sour grapes. Whiners, I am fully cognizant, are pitiful. But this post isn’t for you. Words are my catharsis, make up my defenses. Sentimentality may be for losers, but it keeps the demons at bay. Like playing the blues. Also, I write for those few creative types, who battle the same demons of apathy. And yet, the problem of apathy affects everyone and everything. 

Social media, the Internet, Facebook—name it what you will—never in human history have we been so inundated with information, and most of it ill news. We are saturated by misery, from every corner of the world, and the result is a growing numbness. How many horror stories can you read about, before none of it seems to matter? What makes this flood of information worse is how removed we are from the reality of it. We are sensorily deprived, when we learn of people being slaughtered daily, in countries like Syria, and all we can see are the numbers. It is expected that we mourn pixels on a screen and so are left emotionally detached. We feel nothing and do nothing, because distant people might as well be nothing. We cannot look into their faces, nor hear their voices, nor hold them close to us. On a purely intellectual level, we know they’re out there, but emotionally, they do not exist for us. The Internet is a great source for knowing things, but in a way that is divorced from pathos, and pathos is what we are sorely lacking in our time. This technology-behemoth, this information superhighway, has given us the godlike gift of near infinite knowledge, but it has come at a great cost. Our humanity.   

So what is the antidote? In a word, art, and not just pretty paintings hanging in museums. I mean music and literature, and all the things that stir the soul, and enlighten us to our existence. This is the very purpose of art. Poetry makes the rock “rocky.” A song can make you angry or sad, or bring about revolution. In Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, I experienced the suffering of the poor in a way that it felt personal. The mistake people make about art, is to say, “How can you care so much about [insert protagonist here]? He isn’t even real!” But we are not, as readers, truly mourning the excommunication of Hester Prynn, or the death of Quasimodo, whose skeleton was found in a loving embrace about the corpse of his Esmeralda. No, the lives of fictional characters matter to us because they represent the whole of humanity, allowing us to feel for the countless individuals who have lived, but whom we would never have otherwise known. Quasimodo may not have been real, but there have been people fated with both spine bifida and unrequited love. Art is what is missing from news sources like the Huffington Post, because they only give us facts. I am not suggesting that news outlets be changed to accommodate our emotions. It is not the job of journalism to sensationalize, but the artist’s, who mine raw data to be hammered into beauty and meaning. What could matter more? Cynics may dismiss me, scoffing, “Art? How does art solve anything?” I think the late great Robin Williams said it best in Dead Poets Society, “Poetry is what we live for.” Science took us to the moon, but we could never have gotten there, if we had not first dreamed of going. Jules Verne is as responsible for Apollo 11 as Isaac Newton.

Nowadays, it seems, people are utterly indifferent to poetry, or to literature or philosophy. Brilliant writers often work hard to hide their brilliance. If a story possesses some kernel of higher truth, to enlighten or inspire us, it must sit behind a facade of inanity. Publishers are concerned only with the bottom line, the almighty $, and the chance to turn a book into a movie. What sells, and what is trending, is all that is deemed “good.” The success of Fifty Shades of Grey showcases the dumbing down of literature. Even the Song of Ice and Fire series, though epic in its scope, has little to say in terms of the human condition. Maybe the video game/meme generation is to blame, where instant gratification and simple, straightforward interpretations are always preferable.

Again and again, I have tried to make a case for literature, to engage people in a dialogue regarding the greater purpose of life, but even through the computer screen, I can feel them rolling their eyes at me. Who has time for books, when there are games to be played and movies to watch? I know of so many people who adore the Game of Thrones TV show, but will never bring themselves to pick up the books. The same goes for comics. My nephews love the Marvel films, and will talk obsessively about superheroes, until I show them the Marvel Unlimited app, which allows you to read 15,000 comics for $80 bucks a year, at which point they’ll change the subject. At times, I feel that reading, real reading, is going the way of the play. According to Cracked.com, nearly twice as many Americans are reading novels today, compared to sixty years ago, but where the heck are all these people? I don’t know of a single reader personally. If they exist, they certainly don’t live around me. Here is a perfect example of the disconnect between what the Internet tells us to believe and how experience makes us feel. I hang out at Barnes & Nobles sometimes, just to convince myself that people still enjoy books.

As for my own work, I have no chance. It may very well be that I am a crap writer, but my friends and family don’t even bother with the first page, so how can I prove myself to them? They have every other thing to do, every new app to try out, every silly YouTube video to watch, anything and everything but turning to that first fucking page. Some people think they can relate. After all, broken dreams are a part of life, the hazing that comes before adulthood. But I have been at this far too long. Since six years of age, there has not been a moment, a second, a morning or a night, when I have not thought about writing. Very few can say the same, and things only happen unless they happen to you. 


Late at night, I search Facebook and DeviantArt and my blog, for any signs of hope, and finding none my thoughts turn to suicide. It would be so much simpler, turning off the pain, the aching emptiness left by the indifference of the world. But I go on. Far below me, I see the valley of youth, where we are taught the great lie, coming into this world, that dreams are possible, that we can become anything we wish if we only believe. But on this Mountain of Apathy, which I have climbed these past three decades, I am surrounded by the orcs and goblins of indifference; and by Nazgûl, Witch Kings of False Endearment, who call themselves friends, family, everyone claiming to love me but does nothing to ease the burden. Lastly, there are the Uruk-Hai, who want me to fail. Like the Elves of Valinor, these are twisted and bitter people, transformed by a lifetime of disappointment, and it angers them that I should continue to pursue my dreams when they have long given up on theirs. 

In such a place, a true friend can mean salvation, and this person, my Sam Gamgee, is David Pasco. Without him, I would have surely been lost long ago, devoured by Shelob, the spider of despair. I am fortunate, also, to have my own Elf Queen, my Galadriel, in my wife Hynde, who lifts me up when I am down. Who is Sauron in this analogy? The agents? The publishers? Perhaps, for they seem to hold all the keys to my fate, the watchful Eye always judging, deciding who will pass, and who will fade into the lake of obscurity. But the Ring, that is my precious and my pain to bear, my books and the worlds within them, the children of my brain. 

I do not see the mouth of the volcano. I cannot see how far I have to go. But I climb. In a world of apathy, I climb.          


Measuring Time on Aenya



If you’re a fantasy author, you need to put a lot of thought into the world you are creating. Maps are a world-building must, but you may also include a timeline and a glossary. At the very least, writers should consider their history, because a setting without a past cannot exist. While it may not be crucial to the story, a log of things that have happened can be a great resource. If the story has a king, a good writer will ask himself, how did he get to wear the crown? Is he the first to rule the land, or a successor, coming after a long line of ancestors? I am convinced that an entire, unpublished novel is sitting somewhere in George R.R. Martin’s desk, detailing events before A Game of Thrones. 

Thanks, in part, to J.R.R. Tolkien, we also have writers inventing their own languages, which I actually feel can detract from the story. Even if your protagonist lives in a different dimensional plane, their language should still be familiar to them, and feel familiar to the reader. Throwing a lot of strange terminology at the page only serves to distract the reader. This is also why I hate books with glossaries. If you have one, there’d better be a damn good reason.

Religion and myth is another good feature to add to your world, as there are no examples on Earth of a culture without them. The beliefs of a people are intrinsic to who they are and how they choose to act. The Greeks often reflected on The Iliad and on The Odyssey when making crucial decisions.

But what about time? It is a fundamental part of our lives, and yet we often take it for granted. We know there are 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute, but time is a uniquely human concept, believed to have originated with the Babylonians some 3600 years ago. If dolphins have a notion of timekeeping, they undoubtedly use a different system than hours, minutes, and seconds. Fantasy fiction rarely delves into the measuring of time, unless playing some part in the story, like H.G. Wells The Time Machine.

On Aenya, time and astronomy are inseparable. This is similar to how ancient peoples conceived of the day/night cycle, with the sun dominating the day, and the moon being associated with night. The role of astronomical bodies on Aenya, however, extends to all aspects of time. Two moons dominate the sky (or one gas giant and one moon), which move about in regular, predictable patterns. The Greater Moon (the gas giant Aenya orbits) is referred to as Infinity (endless time) whereas the smaller moon is called Eon (a billion years).

Passings: 

Instead of hours, people on Aenya measure their day in passings. A passing is roughly 80 minutes, the amount of time it takes for Eon to cross the face of Infinity. Since the larger moon is also moving, Eon can cross from left to right and back again from right to left. You can imagine this as a giant clock in the sky. But the value of a passing is not always accurate, as the orbital speed of these bodies changes depending on location, viewing angle, and time of year. Sometimes, people on Aenya will refer to a half passing or a quarter passing. 

The Day-Night/Eclipse Cycle: 

Because Aenya is tidally locked to Infinity, one hemisphere perpetually faces away from the sun. There is a misconception that the eastern half of the planet is shrouded in blackness, but the Greater Moon dominates one fourth of its sky, reflecting a considerable amount of light from Solos (the sun), which makes for an eternal, albeit “bright” night, like what we might see on Earth during a full moon. 

Though the planet does not rotate, as Earth does, its orbit about Infinity results in similar periods of darkness in and around the central (or twilight) regions. Nightfall occurs when the gas giant moves between Solos and Aenya, which is why night is sometimes referred to as the time of eclipse. At dawn, the sun rises from the western horizon, and at dusk, eclipses behind the moon in the East. 

From my book of notes

Depending on where you are, and the time of year, the length of day can stretch from nil (no sunlight) to perpetuity (eternal sunlight). The closer one moves into the West, toward the Dead Zones, the lower Infinity sits on the horizon (looking east), and the longer the day. In the desert oasis city of Shemselinihar, for instance, the sun can last for 30 passings. Moving eastward, toward the dark hemisphere, Infinity looms largest on the horizon (looking east), so that, if you’re living in Yefira, the sun eclipses after only 8 passings.     

Cycles: 

A cycle is ten days, and is similar to a lunar cycle on Earth. It is roughly the time it takes for Infinity to cross the sky from north to south. 

 

High Moon / Low Moon: 

These represent the two seasons, which split the year in half. On our world, seasons are determined by the Earth’s tilt and rotation, but on Aenya, high and low moon coincide with the apogee (furthest point) and perigee (closest point) of Infinity. During high moon (perigee), Infinity is closest and appears largest in the sky. Because more of the sunlight is being blocked, high moon brings lower temperatures, but this effect is much more pronounced in the North and East. Closer to the equator, where Ilmarinen is located, the change in climate is negligible.       

Martian Meh

So, I am in my office, pretending to do my job at Country Pizza & Italian Grill, and my computer screen is blinking at me with a list of casualties. No, I am not planning a terrorist attack. I am trying to decide who will survive the naval battle in my next book, and that’s when George R.R. Martin walks into my place. He looks just like he does in his pictures, with his dwarfish physique and square rimmed glasses and Santa Claus beard. He even has his trademark suspenders and fisherman’s hat. But he’s a lot taller than I’d expected. Naturally, I’m thrilled to see him, immediately going into the battle I have planned. “I bet it’s a lot easier for you, heh, heh,” I sheepishly remark, “killing off characters when you have so many!” He looks at me annoyed, like he gets this sort of thing all the time. “Please,” he says, “I just want my pizza.” Right. I’m not a writer, after all, just a pizza guy. Who the hell wants to listen to anything the pizza guy has to say? And then, before I can convince him that I’m more than a restaurant employee, my daughter wakes me up. Yep, I just pulled the “it was all just a dream” ending. Deal with it.

Now, what does a dream about George R.R. Martin (damn writers and their Rs!) have to do with The Martian by Andy Weir? Absolutely nothing. I just want to point out that I may not be the most unbiased reader. In fact, it’s starting to become a real problem; I can’t read fiction without comparing it to my own writing, which is why I can’t bring myself to finish A Song of Ice and Fire, though I managed to get through half of the third book. Even the show is a bother. People just can’t shut up about it. Everyone at work is like Game of Thrones this and Game of Thrones that. My wife’s nieces, who live in North Africa, are fucking talking about Game of Thrones at the dinner table. Martin is the anti-Lucas: everybody loves him. If I try to discuss my novel with my nephew, he can’t help but remark, “Hey, that’s just like Game of Thrones . . .!” George R.R. Martin is haunting me, even in my dreams! 

So, I limit myself to things I don’t write, like non-fiction and hard Sci-Fi. But, truth be told, I penned something very similar to The Martian in college, a short story about an astronaut stranded on the red planet. Mars really fascinates me, because it’s a fantasy world that’s real, as real a place as Starbucks or McDonalds, as real as you or me. Now imagine looking up at the night sky and seeing Earth, all your friends and family and everything you’ve ever known, as nothing more than a pale blue dot. The thought of being stuck there, alone, is utterly terrifying to me, which makes for one brilliant concept. But I’m not really bummed that Weir beat me to it, because this is a book I could never have written, because The Martian is HARD Sci-Fi, and it doesn’t get any harder. As far as my limited knowledge goes, and I do love Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye and Michio Kaku, everything in this book is entirely plausible. Andy Weir knows his shit. On the downside, the story often gets bogged down by the technicalities, to where you’re left wondering whether it’s fiction or a How to Survive Being Stranded on Mars Guidebook. If passages like these don’t put you to sleep, you might really enjoy The Martian:  

The regulator needs to send air to the AREC, then the return air needs to bubble through the heat reservoir. The regulator also needs a pressure tank to contain the CO2 it pulls from the air. 

—p. 272


Where I felt the author to be lacking was in his knowledge of literary writing. I can’t be too critical, this being his debut novel, but when the author isn’t explaining science, The Martian can come off as amateurish. I got the impression that his home library consists of many textbooks, though very few classics. And, while you may be thinking, duh! . . . this isn’t supposed to be Shakespeare, when you consider the stunning prose found in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Weir leaves you sorely wanting. On rare occasions, however, the author will channel his inner-Asimov to give you a passage like this,

Once I’d shut everything down, the interior of the Hab was eerily silent. I’d spent 449 sols listening to its heaters, vents, and fans. But now it was dead quiet. It was a creepy kind of quiet that’s hard to describe. I’ve been away from the noises of the Hab before, but always in a rover or an EVA suit, both of which have noisy machinery of their own. […] But now there was nothing. I never realized how utterly silent Mars is. It’s a desert world with practically no atmosphere to convey sound. I could hear my own heartbeat. 

—p. 284


Now that’s the kind of writing that keeps me awake and reading! A nice little passage, conveying both atmosphere (literally and figuratively) and emotion. And yet, Weir seems almost embarrassed by anything that isn’t too technical, following the above paragraph with, “Anyway, enough waxing philosophical.” It makes me wonder whether his publisher turned him away from that word they dread, philosophy.

As for the hero, Mark Watney is a brilliant and resourceful guy, and funny to boot. One of his most endearing qualities, in fact, is his perpetually upbeat attitude. Even in the most dire of situations, he’s cracking jokes. Here’s a quote and the novel’s opening line,

“I’m pretty much fucked.”

p. 1


I suppose this reflects on the kind of qualities NASA looks for in an astronaut, and if The Right Stuff is to be believed, Mark Watney could easily be placed on a pedestal alongside real life heroes Chuck Yeager and John Glenn. Unfortunately, this kind of bravado can suck a lot of the drama from a story. I am not saying he should be freaking out every other sentence, like the protagonists in The Maze Runner, but Watney is stranded ON MARS, for Christ’s sake. At the very least, I would have loved to have had a few more passages about what it’s like to BE there. Ben Bova, a father of hard science fiction, captured the feeling of being on Mars in Mars, without resorting to sappy sentimentality. 

Finally, I have to complain about the ending. Traditionally, every story should have a climax, followed by a resolution. Now, I’ll be the last to insist on rules in fiction, but in this case, the book desperately needed more of an ending. It reminded me of my mother, who watches soap operas just to learn what happened, as if that’s all that really matters in a story. Just the facts, Ma’m, thanks. Imagine Frodo dropping the ring into Mount Doom, then turning to Sam and saying, “Good job, now let’s go home,” followed by THE END. 

Despite its flaws, The Martian isn’t a bad book by any means. It’s funny, informative, and engaging enough to keep you turning pages. But given the subject matter, and knowing how much more it could have been, it is a bit of a letdown. Andy Weir is a lot like his protagonist, Mark Watney, a brilliant guy with a vast knowledge of science; my only advice to him would be to take a break from Newton and pick up a little Bradbury from time to time.

MY SCORE: The Martian ** 1/2