Fluid Imagination

written and curated by Kyle Callahan

Of G.I. Joes and D&D

At the school where I work, students are required to end each quarter with a speech that reflects on their learning that quarter. But during a recent School Congress, the students proposed and passed a new law stating that one staff member had to give a speech reflecting on the quarter as well. And I drew the short straw. So, here is the speech I made a few nights ago in front of my students, their parent(s)/guardian(s), and some of the other staff members. I hope you enjoy it.

When I was a kid, I played a lot of G.I. Joes. For those of you who might not know, G.I. Joes were 3-inch tall action figures made from die-cast metal. Each figure had a name, a personality (detailed on the back of each box), and some kind of weapon or accessory. The conceit was that the G.I. Joes were a special service in the American military, kind of like Navy SEALs or Army Rangers, but these guys were the elite of the elite. Their task was to defend the world against COBRA, a terrorist organization whose goal was to wrap around the entire world like a giant cobra.

Unlike most action figures at the time, which could (at most) move their arms at the shoulders and their legs at the waist, G.I. Joe action figures had joints in their necks, shoulders, elbows, wrists, waist, knees, and ankles, which meant you could pose them in almost any position you wanted. Not only were these elite soldiers, but they were also elite action figures!

Now, the way I used to “play” G.I. Joes was with a couple of my friends, Eric Goodwin (who I lost touch with back in middle school) and Adam Champion (who is still my best friend today). We’d usually spend at least an hour “setting up” the game, which meant figuring out exactly what the scenario was that day (maybe there was a kidnapping, maybe there was going to be an assasination attempt on a G.I. leader, maybe there was a raid on COBRA’s headquarters, whatever). We’d then take each of the action figures (which probably numbered close to 50) and themir assorted vehicles (which probably numbered more than a dozen) and place them around my bedroom or backyard, all in prepartion for the scenario.

This was the best part of the process, because we’d spend so much time trying to figure out where each character was, what they were doing, why there were doing it, and what they’d do once the action began.

Then, once everything was set up, we’d put the scenario into action. And about five or six minutes later, we were done. One hour of “set up.” Five minutes of “action.”

And that was how we played G.I. Joes.

Fast forward about a dozen or so years, and see me sitting in my boxer shorts at my computer in my tiny little home office, a window fan blowing on me, music playing from my little speakers, sweat pouring down my face and back. My wife is asleep upstairs. It’s about three in the morning in the middle of August, and there’s no relief, not from the heat, nor from the deadline for my creative thesis for graduate school.

And what am I typing away at so furiously? An anti-novel, a 360-page “set up” for a novel, but not a novel itself. I’m developing characters, giving them motivations, placing them in intriguing, highly-detailed settings, and surrounding them with a larger story having to do with the secession of Vermont from the United States.

But what am I not doing? I’m not writing the actual story of the secession. I’m hinting at it, imagining repercussions from its various stages, and predicting outcomes, but I’m not giving the reader any of that stuff. Instead, I’m spending hundreds of hours — HUNDREDS of hours — “setting up” a story, without giving any time to making the story “play out” for the reader. This is what I mean by an anti-novel: it’s all book, no story.

Fast forward again, to April of this year, when several students needed a staff member to play Dungeons & Dragons with them, and try to feel my excitement at the prospect of finally taking the time to play this really dorky game that I’d heard so much about but never had the wherewithal to actually play.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, Dungeons & Dragons is this kind of weird game where each player creates his or her own character by choosing a race (such as elves, gnomes, humans, halflings, etc.), and then giving it a class (such as wizard, fighter, bard, cleric, etc.). That character then becomes an “adventurer,” and gathered together with the other players, you all set out on some kind of quest.

The quest is run by the Dungeon Master, also known as the DM. The DM acts as the narrator for the quest. The DM also plays the roles of all the non-player characters in the story: from the innkeeper in the out-of-the way traveler’s lodge who can point the adventurers in the right direction or the evil wizard who is trying to open the magical gate that will set some hellish monster free.

So, this quarter, I got to play this game, Dungeons & Dragons, with Brandon, Damian, Dan, and Codi. We found a bunch of quests online that we could play, we printed them up, and then we got down to it. I was the Dungeon Master for our first quest, and I loved it. I was able to flex my fiction writing muscles a little bit as the students moved through the quest, making up descriptions and sound effects for all the various stages of the adventure. Unfortunately, all the characters got killed before they could finish the quest.

For our next quest, Dan took over as DM, and I created a character to join the others, a little gnomic bard named Wrenn Timbers. Over the next six weeks or so, our little band of adventurers completed two different quests, and with each success, our powers and abilities got stronger and stronger.

But now we’re at the end of the quarter, and our twice-weekly D&D game is going away (at least for a little while), and that makes me feel a little down. But our experiences this quarter have inspired me to try to build my own quest from scratch, and hopefully sometime this summer, our little band of adventurers will gather together once more to venture out into the wild to try to conquer the forces of evil.

What I love about Dungeons & Dragons is that, just like my G.I. Joes and just like the anti-novel I loved writing for graduate school, the process is all about setting up the scenario. It’s up to the DM to develop the world, create a series of potential plots, and put the various encounters in place, but then the DM takes step back and the characters take over.

The reason I’m talking about this though is because what I learned this quarter — or rather, what I was reminded of — is how important it is for me — how vital it is for me — to use my imagination in an active and creative way each day.

I mean, yes, I am an advisor here at LiHigh School, and I absolutely love my job, but in my heart, the thing I like to do most, the thing that makes me me, is to create wild and imaginative scenarios and then see how they play out. That might mean writing a fiction story, or designing a quest for D&D, or creating some kind of wild, school-based scenario where students can participate in a democratic system that gives them complete control of their own education — but whatever it is, it’s what I love to do, it’s what makes me me. And I want to thank Brandon, Codi, Damian, and Dan for helping me to remember that.

Thank you.

Don’t Be Scared of Bernie

In an email exchange with a few of my friends today about Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign to become our next president, one of my friends asked, “Am I crazy in being worried that his presence opens the door for one of these crazy ass Republicans to become president?…Sanders is extreme enough to rally the conservative base and actually push one of these losers to the forefront.”

Another of my friends chimed in, “I’m with you…I could see some fringe Republican wacko beating Sanders. It would be the battle of the extremists and Sanders could lose…I guess the only question is if Sanders can become a mainstream candidate, but that seems unlikely.”

I suspect there are many Democrat-leaning individuals in the electorate who feel the same way as my friends, so as a hard-core liberal living in the great state of Vermont, I’ll do my best to explain why those of you who agree with Bernie on most (if not all) of the issues don’t need to be afraid that his victory in the Democratic primaries might only result in a Republican wacko winning the White House in the general election.

First, as Juan Cole wrote recently for Informed Comment, “Sanders’s positions are quite mainstream from the point of view of the stances of the American public in general.” Cole backs that up with some recent Gallup polling data that shows 63% of Americans say that the distribution of money and wealth in the U.S. is unfair and 52% favor heavy taxes on the rich as a fix for that. Since this will be Bernie’s primary issue in the election, it’s safe to say his stance is mainstream.

Cole continues to go down the list, showing how Bernie’s positions on campaign-finance reform, the student-debt crisis, and climate change line up with the vast majority of Americans.

But we all know that it’s not what a candidate stands for that gets him or her elected. What gets candidates elected is money. And if Bernie is going to take on the millionaires and billionaires with such fervor, then all of that money is going to flow to whomever it is that opposes him.

Thankfully, Bernie has some experience with this. In 2006, Congressman Sanders decided he wanted to become Senator Sanders, and he ran for the open seat. His Republican opponent was a man named Richard Tarrant. Along with being a former fourth-round draft pick of my beloved Boston Celtics (he was cut before the first game of the 1965 season), Tarrant cofounded IDX Systems, a healthcare technology company in South Burlington, Vermont, that he would later sell to GE for $1.2 billion. Though he announced his candidacy a few months before the sale, Tarrant was already one of the wealthiest individuals in the state, contributing $7 million to his own campaign.

The 2006 election would become the most expensive in Vermont history, with the candidates spending over $13 million to become the next Senator to represent our tiny state. In a report that NBC News put together after the election that calculated the cost per vote each candidate received across the country, Tarrant spent, nationally, the most money per vote of any candidate, a whopping $85 per vote; Bernie, on the other hand, spent $34 per vote. And the result? Bernie defeated him by 33 percentage points.

Now, $13 million is nothing compared to the $889 million the Koch Brothers have already budgeted for the 2016 election, so let’s not kid ourselves in thinking that Bernie has any real experience with combatting such a well-funded machine. But it’s important to note the success against Tarrant, and his original success at winning the position of Burlington’s mayor, because what those victories show is Bernie’s fortitude, his unflinching commitment to fighting hard for what he thinks is right.

You also have to realize just how angry people are right now. They’re angry in Kansas. They’re angry in Texas. And they’re angry in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And who are they angry at? They’re angry at the establishment. They’re angry at Congress. They’re angry at Obama (and for those who aren’t angry at him, they’re at least disappointed in him). They’re angry at Wall Street. They’re angry at CNN, FOX, and NBC. They’re angry at Time Warner and Comcast. Angry at AT&T and Verizon. Angry at Chase Bank and Wells Fargo. At Monsanto and Starbucks. At Hollywood and New York. At the Texas State School Board and ExxonMobile. People are friggin’ angry.

You know who else is angry? Sen. Bernie Sanders. And he’s not afraid to express it. Just listen to him tell some anti-Israeli hecklers at a town hall meeting in Vermont last summer to shut up. The guy simply doesn’t care about the spit and polish and general showmanship that everyone expects in their politicians. And that anger and that authenticity are going to resonate with a wide swath of the electorate, Democrat and Republican.

So, to sum up: he’s got mainstream stances, knows how to beat better funded candidates, and has the character and attitude to attract votes from both sides of the aisle. Which means that unless your name is Hillary or you’re one of the 32,000 Republican Wackos running for president next year, there’s simply no reason for you to be scared of Bernie.

Meet Wrenn Timbers

This quarter at the school where I teach, I’m participating in a Dungeons & Dragons “class,” where the students and I are creating adventurers and embarking on quests using the Dungeons & Dragons rule-set (5th edition).

If you don’t know Dungeons & Dragons, it is a role-playing game where the players use their imagination to succeed in encounters with various creatures, some friendly and some not. It involves a lot of dice-rolling to determine the success of certain actions, but it also involves a lot of conversation about what to do next, since the game doesn’t necessarily tell you what you should do at any given moment. The educational goals of the class are for the students to develop their communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills, as well as practice their writing and storytelling skills.

It’s that latter goal I’d like to discuss now. One of the ways the students are supposed to be working on their writing skills is by putting together an introduction to the adventurers they’ve created. Thus far, I’ve been less than successful in getting them to actually do that, and so I thought I’d write one for the character I  created to provide them with a model of what I’m looking for.

And so, without further adieu, I’d like to introduce you to Wrenn Timbers.

Standing three feet, ten inches tall, weighing in at thirty-six pounds, and having dark, wispy hair and neatly kept beard, Wrenn Timbers is a rock gnome who grew up in a small community on the coast of the Shining Sea. As a young gnome, Wrenn had a natural talent for acrobatics and performance, charming friends and family during community festivals and fairs.

When Wrenn was in his adolescent years, an elvish entertainer, the famous Peren the Bard, visited Wrenn’s village during a tour of the seacoast. Peren put on a wonderful performance, playing songs on his lute, telling tales of greater Faerûn, and demonstrating his mastery of the Weave through magical tunes and inspiring songs. Young Wrenn was captivated, and that evening, after a serious discussion with Wrenn’s father, the elf agreed to take on Wrenn as an apprentice, and the next day, the young gnome left his family and community behind to discover the magic hidden in the music of the bards.

Years have passed, and Wrenn has risen from an apprentice to a first-level bard. He is a gifted storyteller, instrumentalist, and singer, and his songs inspire his allies to dig deep within themselves to discover their strength when they need it most.

Peren has taught him the beginning elements of arcane magic, which allows Wrenn to pluck directly at the strands of the Weave to create magical effects. For example, Wrenn has memorized the simple spell, True Strike, to gain insight into his target’s defenses and then use that insight to gain advantage on his next attack. He has also memorized Vicious Mockery, which plays on his gift of words to unleash a string of insults laced with subtle enchantments and deal acute psychic damage to his opponents.

But more than a simple conjurer, Wrenn has also learned a few slightly more complex spells, giving him the ability to Cure Wounds for his allies, Detect Magic whenever it’s present, and sing a discordant barrage of Dissonant Whispers that wrack his opponents with terrible pain and send them running. Wrenn can also evoke a Thunderwave that sweeps out from him in a 15-foot cube, emitting a thunderous boom and slamming everything in its range.

Of course, as a rock gnome, he has the special cunning that is unique to his race, which helps him defend against any magical spells that attempt to attack his intelligence, wisdom, or charisma. He also has the special knowledge that every rock gnome learns as a child, giving him twice as much proficiency as anyone else when it comes to the history of magical items, alchemical objects, and technical devices. And as a rock gnome, he is a master tinker, capable of using his artisan’s tools to construct tiny clockwork devices that can serve as distractions in battle, expendable explorers of mysterious places, or miniature flamethrowers capable of lighting a candle, torch, or campfire.

When it comes to a more traditional style of fighting, Wrenn has a master’s finesse with his rapier, his dagger, and his throwing darts. He might be a little fighter, but when he cuts, he cuts deep and quick.

As an individual, the thing that most stands out about Wrenn is that he always gives credit when it is due. He is not shy about letting his compatriots know that he believes in them, and he is always supportive and complimentary of their efforts. He feels that the best thing he can possibly do in any situation is to use his magic and skills to aid and inspire his allies. Unfortunately, he is also charmed by bright and shiny stones, and he sometimes struggles to make the right decision when gems are involved.

Wrenn Timbers is still a young gnome and he’s just getting started on his way to mastering the way of the bard. His immediate goal is to become a jack-of-all-trades, which means he becomes slightly proficient in every skill in the game. He’s also learning a special Song of Rest, a soothing song that has the magical ability to revitalize any wounded allies during a short rest.

In the long-term, he’s beginning to think about participating in one of the Bard Colleges, which is a loose association of bards who gather periodically to share their learning and preserve their traditions. There is the College of Lore, whose alumni know something about most things and whose loyalty lies in the pursuit of beauty and truth, power and authority be damned. His other option is the College of Valor, whose alumni gather in mead halls to sing the songs of the mighty and inspire others, as well as themselves, to reach the same heights.

Regardless of his path, Wrenn stands, lute in hand and rapier by his side, ready for adventure.

A Heckuva Way To Spend Your Days

Sometime in October, I read an article entitled, “How Students Lead the Learning Experience at Democratic Schools,” which introduced me to the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. At first glance, the Sudbury Valley School sounded similar to the independent school where I work, meaning we each have no tests, no grades, and a deep belief in the idea that if a person isn’t intrinsically interested in something, then that person won’t be able to learn it in any meaningful way. But that’s where the similarities stopped.

Because while my school doesn’t have tests or grades, we do have assigned homework, compulsory classes, grade level expectations, required exhibitions, and narrative evaluations. Sudbury Valley, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of that. Instead, they have…well…democracy.

(A quick caveat: I have yet to visit the Sudbury Valley School. I have, however, read several books and essays about the school, and so while I don’t have any personal experience to draw from, I do have plenty of book lernin. Fair nuff? Good.)

It all starts with the School Meeting. Every student (and at Sudbury, students range from four years old to nineteen years old) has a vote in the School Meeting, as does every staff member (who are far outnumbered by the students). This means that, when it comes to the School Meeting, a four-year-old child has just as much power to decide as a staff member.

And everything is decided at the School Meeting. It creates all the rules for the school, manages the budget (including the hiring and firing of staff members), negotiates contracts with outside vendors, and more.

But here’s the kicker: except for those things explicitly discussed, voted on, and enshrined in the school handbook, there are no other rules at the Sudbury Valley School. And if you peruse the handbook, you won’t find anything about having to take math, science, English, social studies, or anything else. In fact, you won’t find anything about academics whatsoever.

Which means at the Sudbury Valley School, if you want to go to school and just play video games, you are completely free to do so; if you want to focus all of your time on playing music, you are free to do so; if you want to build an entire metropolis out of LEGOS, or go out and explore nature, or bake cookies, or read science fiction until your eyes bleed, or sit on a couch with your friends talking about whatever, or build a tree fort, or play basketball, or hike through town to the pizza shop, or go fishing…well, you are completely free to do so.

And of course, if you want to learn math, science, English, or social studies, you are also completely free to do so.

Because at Sudbury Valley, school is not something you do; it’s the place where you are. It’s the idea of the school as a village, where young people come to practice and participate in real life.

In the adult world, our time is our own. It might not feel that way, with bills, relationships, families, and work (not to mention jury duty), but (excluding the cogent arguments of Marxism and the three waves of Feminism) we choose to live the lives we lead, and hence, we choose to take on the obligations required to support that life. In the adult world, if our time is not our own, it is because we have given it away.

The same goes for life at Sudbury Valley. When the students come to school each morning, they know that their time is their own, and it’s up to them to choose what to do with it (excluding jury duty, which exists at Sudbury Valley in the form of their Judicial Committee, a student-run group tasked with enforcing all of the school’s rules).

Both Sudbury Valley and my school believe that learning is a function of interest: if a person isn’t interested in a given topic or skill, then they probably won’t learn that topic or skill, no matter how hard or how often you drill it into them. The difference between our schools (at the moment) is that Sudbury Valley then builds their entire model without compromising that belief to the needs and desires of the outside world (including the students’ parents), which is a pretty radical decision.

My school, on the other hand, tries to negotiate a middle ground that will express our core belief while also satisfying the requirements for Vermont’s independent schools, the desires of the local supervisory union, the requests of parents, and what the staff members perceive as the academic needs of the specific students currently enrolled in our school.

But over the past few months, it’s become clear to me and my colleagues that we have strayed too far away from our core belief and that we are in danger of becoming a slightly more relaxed version of a traditional public school.

Thankfully, I work with some incredible and brave educators who have a real desire to constantly evaluate and improve the internal workings of our school, and over the last several weeks, we’ve been engaged in a serious (and sometimes contentious) debate about how to proceed.

Even more thankfully, while I’ve been greatly inspired by what I found at Sudbury Valley (not to mention my experiences with the progressive programs at Green Mountain College and Goddard College), my colleagues have come to the table with vast knowledge and experiences of their own, discussing models and educators who have inspired and excited them.

All of this conversation has led us to start making some important changes at the school. For example, we’ll no longer have compulsory classes (excluding Vermont History, Math, and Health, because those are required by the State), and students will now be given even more  freedom to choose how they spend their time. We’ll still retain learning plan meetings with parents, grade level expectations, public exhibitions, and narrative evaluations (i.e., our various modes of assessment), but it will be up to the students to decide how they want to satisfy those requirements.

Second, we’ve empowered the students to take real control of the school through a School Congress and Judicial Committee. This change has already been instituted and the students are currently in the process of developing the first set of rules for their handbook (the first proposal laid on the table was “No dying”). Personally, this is where I think the majority of their education is going to happen, and I’m incredibly excited to participate in and be witness to it.

I suspect there are other changes on the horizon as well, but if we do our jobs correctly, most of those changes will not be coming from me or my colleagues, but from the students.

That’s what’s so inspiring about the idea of a democratic school. It empowers the students to take real control of their lives, and in the process, gives them real practice as they strive to become successful individuals. It will be scary at times, especially for us adults, but it will be incredibly powerful for these kids.

All of which is to say…man, do I love my job.

The Books I Read in 2013

Just as I did in 2012, I set myself a goal in 2013 of reading 30 books over the course of the year. And just like in 2012, I did not meet my goal. I did, however, come damn close: I read 29. I actually would have met my goal if, last week, instead of choosing to start a 500+ page book, I opted for something in the 200-300 page range. But alas, my readerly muse felt the call towards Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and so I fell one book short this year.

Oh well. There’s always next year.

Here’s the list of books I read in 2013, plus a little blurb of what I thought of each of them. Enjoy.

  • Debt: The First 5,000 Years
    My wife and I started this as an audiobook a couple of years ago during a drive from Chicago back to Vermont, but it’s a long-ass book, so even though the drive took 14 hours, we didn’t get to the end of it. I should have just bought the book as soon as we got back, but I convinced myself that I’d finish the audiobook sometime, plus I didn’t want to pay for the book twice. A couple of years went by, and I didn’t make any progress with it, but so much of the book stuck with me that finally, I said, “Fuck it,” bought the book, and started from the beginning.The gist of Debt is that it’s an anthropologist’s look at the history of money, and because it’s an anthropologist as opposed to an economist, this story of money actually uses such a crazy thing as evidence from actual history to support its theories. I highly recommend this book. It’s filled with fascinating concepts and anecdotes, and it explores everything from how arguments about debt arrange the hierarchies in society to the way it molds our very ideas of right and wrong. Definitely check it out.
  • Habibi
    A beautifully rendered graphic novel that covers the heartbreaking life and love of a girl and her adopted charge in a mythic (and heavily orientalist in the Edward Said sense) Arab country. The artist, Craig Thompson, uses the design of Arabic writing as a visual theme as he weaves his epic plot through the Qur’an and other Arabic texts. It’s also incredibly and visually sexual (the main character becomes a renowned prostitute), so I don’t recommend it for younger readers.
  • The Shores of Tripoli
    This Kindle Single is the product of first-hand reporting by Marc Herman, who covered the Libyan revolution for The Atlantic. It’s an in-depth look at three individuals who joined the revolution and what they went through. I read it because I paid little-to-no attention to the revolution as it was happening, and this seemed like the best way to learn about it.
  • Gilgamesh: A New English Version
    I’d read Gilgamesh before as part of my graduate work, comparing John Gardner’s translation to this one by Stephen Mitchell, so when one of my high school students said she wanted to read an ancient epic — any ancient epic — I suggested Mitchell’s version of Gilgamesh, which tells the story in a colorful (and compared to Gardner’s, complete) way. As before, I thoroughly enjoyed the tale.
  • Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence
    An intellectual history of computers, Darwin Among the Machines was an interesting book that doesn’t quite live up to its title. There wasn’t a whole lot in it that I hadn’t read before, but if you’re new to the concept of artificial intelligence, it’s a good place to go for the big picture view of that art form’s development.
  • Blankets
    Another graphic novel, also created by Craig Thompson, that, frankly, did not come close to matching the expectations set by Habibi. To be fair, Thompson put together Blankets long before Habibi, so it probably doesn’t make sense for me to expect it to be as good as the later work, but even so, Blankets was pretty emo, and that kind of stuff never resonates with me. I just don’t go in for stories about the inner turmoil of teenage drama.
  • Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
    This was another book that wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped it’d be, though I did learn a lot about individuals and movements that are basically kept out of our history books. This isn’t a book about how atheist’s shaped America; instead, it’s about how freethinkers ensured that the promise of America would be available to everyone, regardless of their religion or lack thereof.
  • Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II
    The Second Vatican Council is a watershed moment in modern Catholicism — it’s actually the very definition of modern Catholicism — and yet, despite having grown up in a Catholic world shaped by that definition, I realized I knew very little about the actual council itself. Keys to the Council provides a nice blend of journalistic reporting, original documentation, and theological exposition, giving readers an easy pathway into the documents and decisions created by Pope John XXII’s historic council.
  • The Earthsea Cycle
    Comprised of five books, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind, the Earthsea Cycle is Ursula K. LeGuin’s entry in the list of the best all-time fantasy cycles (which would have to include Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dune, and others). The cycle can actually be broken up into two different trilogies (kind of). The first three books follow Ged, a legendary wizard, as he becomes legendary, earns his legend, and leaves it behind. The second three books, written over a decade after the others, are quieter books where the day to day operations of Earthsea take on more focus (while, of course, not leaving behind the need for adventure and plot). Between this cycle and the next group of books on the list, my reading this summer remained light and fun.
  • The Patternmaster Series
    After knocking out LeGuin’s Earthsea, I went looking for another series I could tackle. I’d read Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed many moons ago, and I remembered that it was just one book in a bigger series, so I decided to give the whole series a shot. The four books are now published with numbers attached (i.e., Wild Seed: Patternmaster #1), where the numbers correspond to the chronology of the world, but I decided to read them in the order they were published, which I definitely recommend. The four books I read were (in the order I read them) Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed (again), and Clay’s Ark. Apparently, there’s a fifth book in the series too, but Butler renounced it later and refused to let it be republished. Since she didn’t dig on it, I decided not to go looking for it.The books themselves tell the story of the next stage of human evolution (which is just one way to put it). The first book (in the order I read them) takes place way in the future when telepaths have conquered the world, but when they are also all subservient to the Patternmaster, who is kind of the king of the telepaths. The second book takes us back to the near-future (from now) when the telepaths are all collected (and bred) by a strange and dangerous immortal; it’s basically the creation story of the first Patternmaster. The third book goes back to colonial times to weave a semi-origin story of the immortal; and the fourth book, Clay’s Ark, which takes place after the second book but before the first book, fills in the remaining gap in Butler’s vision of the future, explaining the origin of the strange race of humanoids who terrorize the telepathic race in the Patternmaster. All in all, it’s a weird but fun series.
  • The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision
    This was another book that left me slightly disappointed. The book is broken into four chapters that try to cover the latest research in vision. The first chapter, “Color Telepathy,” argues that our ability to see in color evolved because of our skin (“understanding the color powers of skin is crucial to understanding that color vision is meant to see skin…, and in particular is meant for sensing moods, emotions, and other physiological states”). The second chapter, “X-Ray Vision,” explains why most creatures have two (or more) eyes and examines the difference between having eyes on the side of your head versus on the front of your head. The third chapter, “Future Seeing,” uses optical illusions to explain that perception is based on prediction (i.e., what we see is not reality, but what we think reality is about to become). And the final chapter, “Spirit Reading,” argues that “the special trick behind [written language] is that human visual signs have evolved to look like nature. Why? Because nature is what we have evolved over millions of years to be good at seeing.” The book is written well (and can even be funny at times), but after an incredible first chapter and strong second chapter, each of which changed my understanding of one aspect of our vision, the book went off into areas that didn’t really capture my interest. The “Future Seeing” chapter, while somewhat intriguing in the abstract, felt a bit plodding, as if the author was trying to make a point against people who were already arguing against him rather than trying to explain the idea to a new audience; and the final chapter, which should have been right up my alley, just didn’t feel very convincing.
  • Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
    I read an excerpt of this somewhere on the web, and it totally hooked me, so I decided to read the whole book. Generally speaking, Command and Control, which was written by the same guy who wrote Fast Food Nation, provided a complete history of nuclear weapons in the U.S., and it is as scary as all fuck. After you read this book, you’ll realize how absolutely mind blowing it is that we haven’t had a major accident with a nuclear weapon — like, incredibly absolutely mind blowing. You’ll also learn how ridiculously close we’ve come to blowing up major cities in the continental U.S., how crazy-scary bureaucracy can be, and read about, in heavy detail, one major accident that could have been catastrophic but, for reasons that have nothing to do with how smart we are as a species, simply wasn’t. A heck of a book.
  • Watchmen
    After reading both The Vision Revolution and Command and Control, I wanted something a little bit “lighter,” something I could knock out in just a few days and that would have a story that totally hooked me. I decided to read Watchmen, the classic graphic novel, because a) I enjoyed the movie; b) I’d heard that the book was a ton better; and c) I was in the mood for another graphic novel and Watchmen is generally considered the best of the best in the field. It did not disappoint.
  • Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
    I wrote a blog post about this one, so I’ll just say that I originally picked up the book because of a conversation with one of my high-school students about the origin of the universe, and that Holt’s book takes a look at various answers conceived by some of the greater thinkers in the West.
  • You
    I wrote a blog post about this one too, so I’ll just say that it’s a book about a video-game designer who is attempting to design the ultimate game, and it was, generally speaking, a fun read.
  • Foundation
    After reading Earthsea and the Patternmaster series, I figured I’d attempt another great series, Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi series, Foundation. I started, as you do, with book #1, which is aptly titled, Foundation. The book chronicles the origin and development of a civilization whose mission is to save the future of humanity based on the prophecies of a “psychohistorian,” and while I enjoyed the book, I wasn’t spurred on to continue the whole series. I may come back it in the future, but for now, I felt content to let it lie.
  • Siddhartha
    I read this as part of a book club with my high-school and middle-school students, all of whom were also in the middle of a four-week seminar on the world’s religions. Hesse’s novel imagines the life of a Buddha-like character who goes through many changes on his way to enlightenment, and because it wrestles with many of the same questions that my students were wrestling with in their seminar, I thought it’d be a good fit.
  • The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions
    I used Huston Smith’s survey of the world’s religions as the basis for my lectures during the seminar I mentioned above. Smith comes at each of the religions as a Christian, but he provides a sympathetic reading of each religion, and that was my ultimate goal for the seminar: to arouse a sense of empathy in my students so that they could enter the world with a tolerant and peaceful understanding of the world’s various belief structures.
  • Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years
    This book easily wins the “best subtitle of the year” award. It covers a period in early Christian history (the fourth and fifth centuries) when disputes about the inner nature of Jesus (was he all man, all divine, or half and half) led to deaths, exile, and social upheavals throughout the Roman empire.
  • The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India
    A fantastic book that chronicles an historic meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of American Jews, written by a Jewish poet who was present at the meeting. Using Buddhism as a contrast, the book examines what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust and after the creation of Israel. It also reveals the commonalities (and differences) between Jewish mysticism and Buddhist thought. If you’re Jewish in America (or simply have an interest in comparative religion, as I do), then this book is a must read. Not only is it an honest take written by an individual who (prior to the meeting) considered himself a secular Jew, but it’s also a poet’s presentation of deep and mystical concepts as well as human connections. It’s just a wonderful book.

And that’s it. Those are the books I read in 2013. I hope you found something new you might enjoy. As for me, I still have about 100 pages left in The Satanic Verses, so I better get to work.

On Austin Grossman’s “You”

Austin Grossman’s bildungsroman, You, traces the development of a group of friends who promised each other in high school that they would create the ultimate video game. The story starts in 1997, when everyone in the group is in their late twenties. The group’s genius, Simon, has recently died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and the narrator, Russell, who long since abandoned his friends for a more respectable life as a law student, finally decides that, at heart, he really does just want to make video games, and so takes a job that will reunite him with his friends in their successful game studio, Black Arts.

I won’t get into a complete plot summary here, but the gist is that there’s a deadly “bug” running throughout all of Black Arts’ games, and while trying to track it down, Russell has to go back and play through every game created by his friends, a process that is accompanied by several trips down memory lane, where we learn both the story of these four friends and the story of video games in general.

In other words, it’s not just a bildungsroman for the narrator, but also for video games as an art form. Which is one of the reasons why I liked it.

To be sure, the book does have its flaws; most glaring is Grossman’s attempt to externalize the conflict beyond the confines of Black Arts’ survival to the safety and security of the world’s economy. Through a strange contrivance, it seems Black Arts once sold software to an investment company that used it to automate the buying and selling of stock, and the bug that threatens the studio’s video games now threatens to take down the entire market; there’s even intimations that the bug was the cause of Black Monday, the stock market crash of October 1987.

I don’t know if Grossman was attempting to raise the stakes of the novel through this plot contrivance or using it to show how Simon’s computer-programming brilliance went beyond “mere” video games, but it felt a bit unnecessary. Thankfully, it’s just a small side of the story and not the driver of the main plot.

I do know that I enjoyed the way Grossman used video-game design as a method for characterization. Black Arts develops a fantasy-based role-playing series in the vain of The Elder Scrolls, a first-person shooter series in the vain of 3D Wolfenstein and Doom, and a strategy series similar to Civilization (though set in space). Each of the three series is designed by each of the narrator’s three friends, with their unique personalities coming through not in the dialogues or decisions they make in their real life, but in the way they design their games.

Grossman’s missed opportunity is failing to show us how the game the narrator is hired to design actually ends up being played; in other words, failing to show us the narrator’s “ultimate game.” Now, I say this despite knowing that the book is, to a large extent, supposed to stand in for that game (the book even opens with the line, “So what’s your ultimate game?,” to which the narrator responds, “Right. How would you define that?”), and despite Russell explaining his ideal game to the reader (one where the player  is completely free to do whatever he or she wants and the computer engine would still find a way to generate a story). I say it because, when Russell finally does demo the game he designed, we get sidetracked into the bug-hunting aspect of the plot. There’s never a “clean” version of his game being played.

I guess what I’m saying is that I shared Russell’s vision for an ultimate game and I wanted to see exactly how he would have pulled it off. Instead, the ultimate game gets left behind, and instead we get a traditional video-game plot where a group of four characters have to travel (literally [in the virtual sense]) to the end of the universe (which is also the beginning of the universe) in order to retrieve a magic sword from a big, bad boss.

While it’s not a perfect book by any stretch of the imagination, I enjoyed reading it and can easily recommend it to anyone who enjoys playing, imagining, and reading about the history of video games.

 

On Jim Holt’s ‘Why Does the World Exist?’

There’s a lot to be disliked in Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, but I’m giving it four stars because it at least spread the conversation around from scientists to philosophers to novelists to theologians (though it would have been nice to hear from more thinkers from the East).

I enjoyed reading it, but I wouldn’t begrudge someone who was annoyed by Holt’s personal anecdotes and sloppy metaphysical interludes — which he probably included to make the book feel more like a real journey; his interviews, however, are mind-opening and fun to read. The subjects of the interviews, which range from Richard Swinburne to Roger Penrose to John Updike, all have interesting takes on the ultimate question, requiring the reader to think about it from a variety of well-argued perspectives.

Personally, the thinker I agree with most doesn’t appear until the epilogue, a nameless Buddhist monk who appears on a French television show that Holt catches while he’s in Paris.

As a Buddhist, he says, he believes that the universe had no beginning…Nothingness could never give way to being, he says, because it is defined in opposition to that which exists. A billion causes could not make a universe come into existence out of what does not exist. That is why, the monk says, the Buddhist doctrine of a beginning-less universe makes the most physical sense.
The Buddhist genially protests that he is not evading the question of origins. Rather, he is using it to explore the nature of reality. What is the universe after all?…It is not nothingness. Yet it is something very close: an emptiness…Things don’t have the solidity we attribute to them. The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid seeming. This engenders [desire, pride, jealousy]. Buddhism, by correcting our metaphysical error, thus has a therapeutic purpose. It offers…a path to enlightenment. And it also resolves the mystery of being. When Leibniz asked, [Why something rather than nothing?], his question presupposed that something really and truly exists. And that’s an illusion.

But regardless of what I think, if you would like to contemplate why there is something rather than nothing without having to slog through dense original texts from the likes of Leibniz, Heidegger, and Sartre (not to mention the theologies of Aquinas and the mathematics of Stephen Hawking), Holt’s book is a harmless enough survey of the various answers conceived by some of the greater thinkers in the West.