The Advantage of Invisibility

I am an invisible man.  Though you might see me when we transact business or exchange pleasantries, in the deepest core of my existence I am invisible.  This struck me as I walked miles around town today in one hundred degree weather to go from one bank to another.  The public transportation in this town is execrable, and I can’t afford a car.  Why not?  Because I am invisible.  Professionally invisible, that is.  Though I have published fifteen books, readers have not discovered them.  Recently on the Passive Guy website there was a long thread of testimonies of success by independent authors, story after story of paying bills and quitting day jobs and even making it possible for spouses to quit day jobs.  And I am very happy for all of these people, but at the same time I experience a deep envy.  Somehow they have avoided the curse of invisibility.

As I walked and ruminated, it came to me that only two solutions to this problem are possible.  Either I need to find a way to become visible, or I need to embrace the invisibility by finding something positive about it.

I know I am not alone, by the way.  There are many people out there who feel it is their calling to be a writer but have not found readership or achieved commercial success.  It is to you that I dedicate this essay.  You are not alone.  Success does not usually come easily or quickly.  Perhaps some of the greatest writers, artists, and musicians in the history of the human race never achieved conventional success at all, but despair lies down that path, so we will not go there.

How does an invisible person become visible?  It’s not a matter of mere paint or magic markers.  It reminds me of one of my favorite films, “Flashback”, with Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland, in which the aging hippie has to simulate his own death in order to help his memoir, the only achievement of his poor wasted life, become a best seller.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

There’s all sorts of help and advice on the web about it.  After a brief comment I wrote on the Passive Guy site, a few writers even wrote me back personally and suggested various promotional things I might try to increase my exposure.  I considered all of the ideas and even attempted some of them.  Yet I remain invisible.  The last straw was when I finally broke down and decided to invest in some advertising.  I applied to Book Bub, one of the largest and most successful online book advertisers, with several of my books, and was turned down.  I researched some of the other advertising sites, and discovered that they only accept books with a multitude of high ratings on sites such as Amazon.  In other words, they will only help you become visible if you are already visible.  Finally I found an advertiser whose fee was modest that accepted new books that did not yet have abundant ratings, applied, was accepted, and scheduled for a discount promotion on their subscriber’s book list.  You know how many books I sold as a result?  None.  Not one.  You see what I mean about being invisible?

There is an alternate theory, of course: that my books suck and are unworthy of readership.  But I know that is not true.  I have been at this more than four decades.  I have traveled the world and put my life on the line for the sake of my writing.  I have written the books that I, as a reader, continually search for and hope to discover.

No, the problem is invisibility, not lack of worth.

But I have strayed far from my theme.  The fact is, invisibility happens, no matter how talented you are.  And all you can do is keep working and keep hoping.  The one thing you cannot do is quit.  Unless you want to remain invisible forever.

Because I have worked so hard and tried so long to become visible, and because I know through experience that I cannot force it, cannot make it happen, I realized today on my walk that to continue to justify my invisible existence, to continue fighting the good fight, I had to come up with an advantage to being invisible.  And I did.  But before I share it let me say that for me personally, at least, I have endured invisibility long enough.  I would much rather other people could see me.

Having emphasized that point, the advantage of invisibility can be summed up in one word:  freedom.

When you are invisible, you can do anything you want.  Nobody can see you.  You are free to run naked through the streets, expose your deepest and darkest secrets, dance and sing and turn cartwheels for the sheer joy of the experience.  This is imperative to a writer finding his or her own voice.  Write what you love, the saying goes, and it is true.  As I thought on this, it rang true both in my own experience and in my literary past.  The example that occurred to me was that of Henry Miller, abandoned in abject poverty to roam the seedy streets of Paris.  Out of the experience burst the literary light of his first book, “Tropic of Cancer” – which was privately financed and published at the time, made him little or no money until much later, and did not get him off the streets.  Yet now it appears on prestigious lists of the greatest novels of all time.  I know the book is controversial; it always has been.  But despite the poverty of the author, despite the fact that for all practical purposes he disappeared off the face of the Earth to all who knew him, his literary efforts became a song and a celebration to him.  He says at the beginning of the book, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes.  I am the happiest man alive.”  He says, “I will sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing.”  Henry Miller was invisible in Paris, but through the words he wrote out in longhand one after the other, he sang for us.  Most readers would not hear his voice for many years.  His books were banned for decades in the United States.  It wasn’t until he was an old man that he managed to accumulate enough royalties to pay off his many debts to his friends and buy a house to live out the last years of his life.

I know that for some of you Henry Miller might not be the best example, as his writings still ignite controversy after so long.  But his works, especially “Tropic of Cancer”, were formative for me as a writer.  I too left my homeland in search of experience with which to fill my writings, and I stayed gone even longer than he did, about thirty-five years.  Now I have returned, and I am invisible, and it irks me.  Yet I will continue to perform, albeit on an empty stage.  The great thing about this new era of writing for all us invisible people, though, is that all that I write stays there on the virtual shelves.  Despite my invisibility I continue to increase the number of volumes that lie hidden on my shelves, so that someday when I begin to appear before you all, first with a slight glimmer, perhaps, and then a shimmer, a flash, and I burst into view, my vast array of publications, like an army of progeny, will be ready there with me to go forth and conquer.

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On Rereading “Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice” by James Branch Cabell

It’s not my fault that I reread “Jurgen” at this time; it is the fault of one of my characters.  I was typing away on the new novel I am working on, and one of my characters made a reference to “Jurgen”, completely unexpectedly, and that led me to check the exact wording.  It’s easy to find an electronic copy of “Jurgen” online, as it was first published as “Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice” in 1919 and so is in the public domain.  I looked up what I needed to, and read a little more, and a little more, and was enchanted as I was back when I was a teen and first came across this amazing fantasy novel.

I first heard about the book when I went with my family on vacation one year.  We were on our way to California from Seattle, and I think we had stopped somewhere in Oregon.  I had unaccountably left without something to read, or I had finished the book I had brought during the day’s drive, and so my father took me out for a night walk to see if I could find a book.  On a wire rack in some sort of supermarket or drug store I came across a book called “One Hundred Great American Novels”.  It consisted of synopses of books which the author esteemed as the cream of American literature.  Two of the books I discovered for the first time therein were “On the Road” and “Jurgen”.

Some time afterwards I came across a copy of “Jurgen”, and it quickly became my second-favorite fantasy book, the first being “The Lord of the Rings”.  I read it over and over again.  The language is intoxicating, and the story is enchanting.  Once, during my dark year at university, I took a class in writing, and I discovered that the teacher was a very old, very slow professor who bored the hell out of me.  I had a short attention span in those days, partly brought about by drug use, and rather than take the trouble to attend the class, I decided to prove to the teacher I deserved an “A” by writing a short story.  The story was not anything like “Jurgen” in subject matter, but Cabell’s lyrical, poetic style was a heavy influence on it.  I skipped the whole term of classes and showed up on the last day, turned in the story, and told the teacher that it proved I deserved an “A”.  Looking back, it was a rather arrogant, pompous gesture on my part.  If I had been patient, I might have learned something from the teacher, who knows?  But he did give me an “A” – well, an “A-” actually, perhaps shaving off that bit because of my truancy.

Anyway, “Jurgen” is about a middle-aged pawnbroker who, meeting a monk who has stubbed his toe and is cursing the devil for placing the rock in the road, urges him not to speak so unkindly about the devil, not because he is a Satan-worshiper but because he is enthralled with his own cleverness.  He thereafter meets a dark gentleman who thanks him for his kind words and offers to do Jurgen a good deed.  Jurgen tells him his wife does not understand him, and when he gets home, his wife has mysteriously vanished.  He is content at first until the neighbors and his wife’s relatives, after seeing his wife out haunting the countryside, urge Jurgen to do something about it.  Jurgen reluctantly enters a mysterious cave in search of his missing spouse, and embarks upon a fantastic adventure that lasts a year.  During this time he tricks a goddess into giving him back his youthful body and engages in amorous relationships with many of the great beauties of history and fantasy. Relying on his wits, as a self-proclaimed “monstrous clever fellow”, he journeys from one fantasy kingdom to the next, including hell and heaven, having affairs with Helen of Troy, Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake, a hamadryad, a vampire, Satan’s wife, and many other women.  Everywhere he goes he seeks justice and some sort of contentment, but cannot find it anywhere.  In the end, he confronts Koshchei the Deathless, who made things as they are, and Koshchei offers Jurgen any sort of life he wants with any of the women he has met, and urges Jurgen to choose.

I do not think I should give away the ending, but instead urge you to read the book.  It’s a wonderful, absorbing read, one of those rare books whose story and language are equally captivating.  Be careful, though, of the edition you select, if you want to read it in print.  I ordered a British Dover edition with elaborate illustrations that seems to be unabridged, but as the work is in the public domain, there are inferior copies with poor layout, obviously slipshod productions hastily assembled.  You can tell the difference quickly on Amazon if you try the “look inside” app.  It’s probably safer to buy a used older edition, and in retrospect that’s what I think I would do if I were to do it over.

“Jurgen” was immensely popular when it first appeared, but it was as infamous as it was famous.  Many wanted to ban it for its content, which at the time was considered ribald.  It is considered a landmark of fantasy, and has influenced such writers as Terry Prachett and Robert Heinlein, the latter especially in his famous novels “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “Job: A Comedy of Justice”.

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“Plants” – Free Short Story Offer

PlantsStoryCoverBigFor five days, from Friday July 4th to Tuesday July 8th, my short story “Plants” will be available for free download at Amazon.com here. Stop in and pick up a copy. Here’s what it’s about:

A planet overrun by a single enormous connected plant is being evacuated, and refugee colonists must undergo purging to rid themselves of the plant’s procreative spores. But one group of colonists refuses to leave, and a negotiator is sent down to find out why.

 

 

OptingOut_Web_FinalBigIt’s part of my short story collection “Opting Out and Other Departures” which is newly available on Amazon here.  Here’s a description of the collection:

A homeless man fleeing confiscation of the van he lives in stumbles upon a seemingly paradisiacal haven. A housewife enters a mysterious portal to another world. A coma victim, wide awake in a world of the mind, finds that the struggle between light and shadow in his dream is a life and death battle for the real world he left behind. A man who feels redundant and forsaken is offered a one-way ticket for a fresh start on an alien planet.

Those who embark upon a hero’s journey are often not heroes when they begin. The choices they make and the deeds they do make them heroes as they encounter obstacles and dangers. These stories concern misfits, outliers, wanderers, loners – those who have stepped beyond the norm or who have never fitted into it. Each is confronted with the call of the open road. For some it is physical and for others metaphorical, but all must choose to either cower in mediocrity or set forth on the path of adventure and destiny.

While you’re there, stop in at my Amazon author’s page and peruse my other works.

 

 

 

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“Lady Linguist” – Free Short Story Offer

LadyLinguistStoryCoverBigFor five days, from Sunday June 29th to Thursday July 3rd, my short story “Lady Linguist” will be available for free download on Amazon.com here. Stop in and pick up a copy. Here’s what it’s about:

After a near break-in at her apartment, a young Greek woman reassesses her life. Attempting to break out of the tradition within which she is bound, she starts a blog under the alter-ego of Lady Linguist. As she ventures forth into the new and strange cyber-world, she finds herself confronted with the real-life decision of either huddling within the safe strictures of her culture, or stepping out into the unknown.

OptingOut_Web_FinalBigIt’s part of my short story collection “Opting Out and Other Departures” which is newly available on Amazon here.  Here’s a description of the collection:

A homeless man fleeing confiscation of the van he lives in stumbles upon a seemingly paradisiacal haven. A housewife enters a mysterious portal to another world. A coma victim, wide awake in a world of the mind, finds that the struggle between light and shadow in his dream is a life and death battle for the real world he left behind. A man who feels redundant and forsaken is offered a one-way ticket for a fresh start on an alien planet.

Those who embark upon a hero’s journey are often not heroes when they begin. The choices they make and the deeds they do make them heroes as they encounter obstacles and dangers. These stories concern misfits, outliers, wanderers, loners – those who have stepped beyond the norm or who have never fitted into it. Each is confronted with the call of the open road. For some it is physical and for others metaphorical, but all must choose to either cower in mediocrity or set forth on the path of adventure and destiny.

While you’re there, stop in at my Amazon author’s page and peruse my other works.

 

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“Weapons” – Free Short Story Offer

WeaponsStoryCoverBigFor five days, from Tuesday June 24th to Saturday June 28th, my short story “Weapons” will be available for free download on Amazon.com here. Stop in and pick up a copy.  Here’s what it’s about:

With the wars over, the physical remnants of veterans who used to be cyborgs melded with weapons systems roam the streets in IAUs, or Individual Ambulatory Units, homeless and unwanted. Two veterans who used to be man and woman begin a relationship to assuage their loneliness, until one’s life is threatened and the other must make a most unusual sacrifice in order to save it.

OptingOut_Web_FinalBigIt’s part of my short story collection “Opting Out and Other Departures” which is newly available on Amazon here.  Here’s a description of the collection:

A homeless man fleeing confiscation of the van he lives in stumbles upon a seemingly paradisiacal haven. A housewife enters a mysterious portal to another world. A coma victim, wide awake in a world of the mind, finds that the struggle between light and shadow in his dream is a life and death battle for the real world he left behind. A man who feels redundant and forsaken is offered a one-way ticket for a fresh start on an alien planet.

Those who embark upon a hero’s journey are often not heroes when they begin. The choices they make and the deeds they do make them heroes as they encounter obstacles and dangers. These stories concern misfits, outliers, wanderers, loners – those who have stepped beyond the norm or who have never fitted into it. Each is confronted with the call of the open road. For some it is physical and for others metaphorical, but all must choose to either cower in mediocrity or set forth on the path of adventure and destiny.

While you’re there, stop in at my Amazon author’s page and peruse my other works.

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“Opting In” – Free Short Story Offer

OptingInStoryCoverBigFor five days, from Thursday June 19th to Monday June 23rd, my short story “Opting In” will be available for free download on Amazon.com here.  Stop in and pick yourself up a copy.  Here’s what it’s about:

An old man, feeling useless, leaves his daughter’s home to go live in a homeless shelter. Following up on a tip from a fellow vagrant, he finds an alien being preparing to leave Earth who invites him on a journey from which he can never return.

 

 

OptingOut_Web_FinalBig

It’s part of my short story collection “Opting Out and Other Departures” which is newly available on Amazon here.  Here’s a description of the collection:

A homeless man fleeing confiscation of the van he lives in stumbles upon a seemingly paradisiacal haven. A housewife enters a mysterious portal to another world. A coma victim, wide awake in a world of the mind, finds that the struggle between light and shadow in his dream is a life and death battle for the real world he left behind. A man who feels redundant and forsaken is offered a one-way ticket for a fresh start on an alien planet.

Those who embark upon a hero’s journey are often not heroes when they begin. The choices they make and the deeds they do make them heroes as they encounter obstacles and dangers. These stories concern misfits, outliers, wanderers, loners – those who have stepped beyond the norm or who have never fitted into it. Each is confronted with the call of the open road. For some it is physical and for others metaphorical, but all must choose to either cower in mediocrity or set forth on the path of adventure and destiny.

While you’re there, stop in at my Amazon author’s page and peruse my other works.

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Book Review: The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer

When I first heard about the premise of this Nebula Award-winning novel, that a scientist had found proof of the existence of the human soul, I was immediately intrigued.  However, the book had gone out of print, and I could not even find a used copy anywhere. Recently I discovered a new reprint addition in my search for award-winning science fiction and fantasy novels that I hadn’t yet read, and I ordered it right away.

The book is by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer.  He’s won a lot of awards, and also has one of the largest writing sites on the web, having got in on the ground floor almost twenty years ago and having been continually adding material ever since.

I want to emphasize from the start that “The Terminal Experiment” is an excellent novel.  It is fast paced, well plotted, and exciting.  And it left me profoundly disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong though.  I was not disappointed in the sense that I regretted having read it or felt that I had wasted my time.  No, not at all.  It’s a good book, an excellent book, for what it is, and that is a standard action-adventure murder mystery using a science fictional gadget as a plot device.  But I came into it expecting so much more.

The story concerns a doctor named Hobson who invents a device to monitor brain waves that is so subtle that it catches the signature of souls escaping bodies at the moment of death.  Naturally this has profound implications when it is made public.  Hobson is so intrigued by the concept of life after death that he gets a friend to scan his brain waves and creates three duplicates of himself:  one has no knowledge of death or aging, which supposedly simulates immortality, another has no knowledge of bodily processes and physical existence, which simulates life after death, and another is a control model with no modifications.  Okay, so far so good.  But then, rather than launch off into the deep and take a wild ride exploring all the metaphysical possibilities inherent in these fascinating premises, Sawyer opts for a very conventional murder mystery which uses the science fictional aspects of the plot but never goes very far with them.  The characters are all very rich, intelligent, upper class individuals; there is no hint of how such discoveries and experiments would affect the mass of humanity except in little news bits scattered throughout the book, seemingly thrown in, as it were, from the author’s notes as an afterthought.

As I say, I have no objection to the book.  It’s a good book, better than most.  My disappointment is that it could have been so much more.  It should have been much longer and encompassed so many more of the possibilities inherent in such an amazing discovery.  I found myself comparing this novel with Robert Heinlein’s classic “Stranger in a Strange Land”.  They both start with radical concepts or discoveries.  In “Stranger in a Strange Land”, a human is discovered on Mars, having been raised by Martians.  It turns out that as a result of his alien education he is possessed of certain extraordinary powers.  At first the government keeps him under wraps in a secure facility, but then a nurse helps him escape.  The beginning scenes are all fairly standard science fiction adventure plotting, as they escape and seek shelter with an eccentric writer.  But then, Heinlein goes wild with his subject matter and slings satirical lampoons right and left at politics, law, metaphysics, literature, theology, sexual mores, and so on.  It could have been a standard action-adventure, but Heinlein took full advantage of the material and went way beyond that.  This, I feel, is what Sawyer fails to do.

Of course I fully realize that Sawyer is not Heinlein.  Robert Heinlein is truly one of a kind.  I also realize that many people fault “Stranger in a Strange Land” for the very same reasons I am praising it.  So be it.  That’s the way it is.  “Stranger in a Strange Land” is one of my favorite novels ever and its discovery was a profound experience in my life at the time.  You can’t expect every novel to be like that.  A lot of books are just good books, entertaining and nothing more.  That’s what “The Terminal Experiment” is.  I recommend it as a very good, entertaining, fast-paced read.  I rue the fact that the material could theoretically have developed into much, much more than that.

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Microfinance and Indie Writers

I pay my bills by ghostwriting Internet articles. This morning while my youngest son prepared for school I was doing some preliminary research for my first article of the day. It concerned the microcredit revolution begun in Bangladesh by Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, and how microcredit is now being implemented in America to help low-income entrepreneurs start or continue their businesses.

I read a few articles, and then I took a break to walk my son partway to school.  I don’t really have to do it; the school is close and he is well able to go the distance alone, but we enjoy the walk together in the morning.  It was beautiful outside.  The air still held a hint of coolness but the sun was warming things up.  Birds were singing and the colors of the early summer grass, trees, and flowers were sharp and clear.  My son turned off towards his school and I turned off another direction to do a bit of shopping, and I was walking along and it suddenly hit me with the force of a revelation how similar microfinance for small businesses and self-publishing were.

To explain, let me give you a little background.  Muhammad Yunus started off by giving miniscule loans out of his own pocket to village women to help them buy materials to make and sell their products.  He secured bank backing and later founded his own bank on the principle of financial inclusion of the poor.  Even tiny amounts of money helped the poor get something started.  In developing countries as little as one hundred dollars can get a business going and lift a household from abject poverty. Previously, since the big banks wouldn’t consider helping them, the only way the poor could get financing was to go to money lenders that would charge exorbitant rates of interest.  This, of course, kept the poor in destitution.

The situation is little different in the United States, which accounts for the success of Grameen America, the U.S. version of Yunus’s microcredit bank, in helping low-income entrepreneurs in the United States get started in business.  The institution accepts anyone with a business plan.  No collateral is needed, nor does a prospective borrower need to be a legal resident.  In other words, it gives hope to anyone, even those who previously had no hope.  It offers a chance to secure a loan even to someone with a low or nonexistent credit score.

What does microfinance have to do with indie publishing?  Simply this – just as Muhammad Yunus created an economic model that makes it possible for previously ostracized low income entrepreneurs to get a start in business, so have programs such as Kindle self-publishing, Smashwords, CreateSpace and so on created opportunities whereby previously ostracized artists can display their work to potential readers in a viable marketplace.  The big publishers are like the big bankers, shutting out all but a tiny percentage of writers, the supposed elite.  These self-publishing platforms, on the other hand, have opened the gates wide to all artists who are willing to craft their work and package it to the proper specifications.  And unlike the vanity presses, which are like the criminally rapacious moneylenders who suck the lifeblood of the poor, these legitimate self-publishing platforms enable artists to display their work for free, and only ask a small percentage of profits in return.

Self-publishing is as profound a revolution in the literary arts as microfinance was in economics.  No longer are artists at the mercy of and subject to the whims of the big publishing houses or the bloodsucking vanity presses.  There are alternatives through which artists can work.

How can anyone fault those who had the foresight to create such outlets for artists – artists who were previously smothered by the artificial constraints placed upon the market by big business?  To criticize self-publishing efforts is tantamount to criticizing a fruit vendor standing by the side of the road in a developing country for not selling her produce in a supermarket.  The supermarket won’t accept her goods anyway, and take that roadside privilege away and her family starves to death.

Sometimes the amounts are as small as those in developing countries as well, but that does not negate their value.  Amazon pays writers at the end of the month, regardless of the amount accumulated.  I have received deposits into my account of less than a dollar for a digital short story bought in Germany or Mexico or Japan.  That is significant for me.  That means that a reader somewhere far away cared enough to buy and read my words.  You have to start somewhere.

For his efforts, Muhammad Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.  And in 2010, the United States Congress awarded him a Congressional Gold Medal.  As far as I am concerned, people like Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, and Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, should receive comparable awards for their contributions to the literary arts in creating free publishing platforms and a means of potential profit for artists around the world.  So far, self-publishing has largely focused on popular genre literature, but I believe that as more and more writers see self-publishing as the open platform that it is for the free expression of literary effort, it will give rise to great masterpieces of literature the like of which the world has never seen.

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Book Review: Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

I have had this book in my radar for years, and when I saw it on the shelf in the West Valley Community Library in Yakima and perused it I decided to give it a try.  It’s a big, heavy book in hardcover whose text runs almost six hundred pages and is followed by over a hundred pages more of notes, bibliography, index, and so on.

I started reading, and after about one or two hundred pages or so I wondered what the hell I was doing reading it.  It’s so morbid, so damn depressing.  Hell has nothing on the Russian Gulag, and I’m convinced that Stalin must have been possessed by one of Satan’s top minions, if not by the old boy himself.  Seriously, I thought, why put myself through this?  Things are tough enough for me now as it is, without filling my mind with all these images of incarceration and torture and starvation.  However, rather than stop reading, I started thinking deeply.  Why would I read such a thing and why would the author write it?  Coincidentally, when I was in the middle of the book I finally had a chance to see the new Oscar-winning movie “Twelve Years a Slave”.  The same question could be put about that film and the book it is based on.

The answer, of course, is obvious.  The victims do not want us to forget.  Otherwise, why would they write memoirs about their experiences?  It boils down to why we have reading and writing at all.  If it doesn’t assuage the grief and take away the pain, the communication of the experience at least takes away the isolation of it.  Shared pain somehow fundamentally alters the experience, makes of it something significant, something profound.  That’s not to say you want to go through what the prisoners of the Gulag went through just to experience profundity, but it means that if you must experience pain, the sharing of the experience turns it into something else, something that touches on the core of the human condition.

As for the book itself, as I said, it is a tough read.  It is told in three parts.  The first and third sections are historical, while the second is a long interlude going into the various facets that made up life in the camps.

The Gulag was the brainchild of Stalin, the monstrous paranoid dictator who conceived of the idea of jumpstarting the Soviet economy through slave labor.  To get it, he opened up prison camps all over the remote parts of the Soviet Union, from the gold mines in the far northeast to the coal mines in the far northern wastes of Siberia to the stands of timber in the northern forests.  To fill the camps he had the secret police start arresting people:  criminals, political opponents, foreigners, Jews, gypsies, peasants, former prisoners of war, and anyone who criticized him or his regime in the slightest way.  These poor people were spirited away from their homes, or sometimes off the streets, loaded on packed cattle cars and sent on weeks-long train trips into the wilderness during which many of them died.  When they arrived at their destinations, they had only two choices:  submit to grueling, back-breaking hard labor with little food and insufficient clothing or die.  Sometimes the guards tortured and murdered them anyway, for fun.  And sometimes the criminals in the camps did so too. Often denied letters, packages, or any other contact with the outside world, it was as if they ceased to exist.  Many died, many went mad, but many also endured and lived through it in spite of it all.

As I read the book, I wondered if I could have endured such conditions, not only now as I age and feel my strength beginning to fade, but even when I was in my twenties and thirties and in my prime.  The physical hardships would of course have been very difficult, but far worse would have been the psychological torment of realizing that this was to be the condition of my life for as many years as I lasted until death.  Nothing to live for, nothing to look forward to.  Many people received sentences of ten, fifteen, twenty-five years for trivial reasons or no reason at all.  And if somehow they managed to finish their sentences and were released, more often than not, the authorities turned around and arrested them again right away.  Husbands were torn away from their wives; mothers were torn away from their infant children, never to see them again, knowing that they would more than likely die of starvation or disease in a freezing cold, understaffed orphanage where no one gave a damn about them one way or the other.

Could I have lived through it?  Probably.  Many committed suicide, but I am not one prone to choose that route.  For most, suicide was unnecessary, as the balance of life and death was so fragile anyway.  But certainly not many of those arrested went into the experience with confidence.  From the moment of arrest, it was a horrifying struggle for survival.  But I have found in difficult moments of my own life – and yes, there have been some tough times, like when I was flat broke in Tehran and had to beg on the streets for enough money to buy food to survive – I have found, I say, that when one must survive, one does.  You just do it when the time comes; figure out what it takes; make the best of it even when there is really nothing good about it at all.

And I have to admit, in the midst of the horror stories in this book there are few bright spots.  Sometimes prisoners helped each other, but more often they were reduced to such an abject state that they just tried to keep themselves alive.

But as I read on and on, I found myself admiring them nonetheless.  They endured.  They survived.  And most of those that survived kept their humanity as they would hoard the tiny scraps of bread that kept them alive.  Yes, I honor them.  Reading this book and opening my mind to what they went through is a way of honoring them.  They were not super-men or super-women.  They were not heroes, at least not many of them.  But they were humans who went through something that no human should ever have to go through, and this book, written – masterfully I might add – based on the memoirs that they wrote, is a means of communicating and sharing their torment.  I found myself, as I read, wishing that I could mentally travel backward in time and halfway around the world and telepathically link with them, if only to let them know that they were not alone, that they would get through it, that there would be an end to it.

To those who died of starvation, disease, or exhaustion and were buried in mass graves in the frozen wastes:  Requiescat in pace.

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The Next New Wave

I just deleted what I wrote a few hours ago.  I had gotten all fired up about an idea and was burning to write it down.  I started the first few paragraphs but then I had to scribble some notes with the intention of finishing it later, as I had to attend an event at my youngest son’s school.  By the time I got back to the keyboard, the thrill, as they say, was gone.  I eked out a couple of hundred words and realized I couldn’t do it anymore.  Sometimes you have to sit down in the white heat of inspiration or it is gone forever.

Let me see if I can recreate the gist of it.  There was an article I reacted to that spoke of the paucity of major female characters in fiction, especially road fiction.  My first impulse was to mention my own two recent novels, “The Misadventure of Mama Kitchen” and Sunflower“, both of which are road stories with female lead characters.  But then I started thinking of past examples of strong female leads in speculative fiction, and wondering why she had never heard of or didn’t mention them.  I actually wrote a list of such works in a short Facebook reaction to the article.  I remember in particular mentioning the warrior/poet of Asian background in Samuel Delaney’s “Babel 17″.  But that’s not the point.  We are not trying to engage in the nitpicking of past literature.  The writer of the article, besides obviously exaggerating to tout her own book, which is road fiction with a female lead character, was speaking of the present, and how now at this very time in the history of literature, there is a paucity of books with heroes who are women or people of color.  What happened in the past doesn’t matter.  What matters is what is happening now and in times to come.

She is speaking, of course, from the very limited perspective of traditional publishing, as the article first appeared in The Atlantic, a bastion of the traditional.  Even from that perspective I think she is erroneous.  I think she wrote with blinders on, as I can find examples of many dynamic modern woman authors and fine female characters.

But as I thought about it more and more I realized that in this new world of publishing there was no reason that she or anyone else of any gender or color should feel any constraint on what they write or who they write about.  Any writer can use the tools of self-publishing easily available and create their own book from start to finish.  If you do all the layout and design work yourself, which takes a learning curve but is possible, it doesn’t cost anything either, even to produce POD paper copies. This option, therefore, is open even to the financially challenged like myself. Anyone can write anything and publish it.  You don’t have to be dependent on the suits in their multi-million dollar office rentals in New York to tell you what you can and can’t say.  Say what you want.  Have your main character be anyone you want.

In the so-called New Wave of science fiction and fantasy that erupted back in the 1960s and 1970s, writers struggled to break free of conservative white middle class literary conventions.  And many succeeded in doing so.  Think how much more we are free to do it now.

I notice that many self-publishing writers go for the cheap shot, the easy money, the formula stories in hopes of making a few bucks.  Nothing wrong with making a few bucks, say I.  Even the writers who formed the core of the New Wave back then did hack work in their formative years to pay the bills.  But there comes a time when you have to stand up and be counted as a writer.  What do you really have to say?  What is the book burning inside you that you have always wanted to write?  What are the triumphs and tragedies at the core of your being?

Self-publishing is making great strides, but I think it is still cringing in timidity.  I think many of us do not realize the powerful force we have at our disposal.  We can write anything.  Let’s burn the bridges.  Let’s smash the idols.  While we’re at it, let’s burn the rulebooks too.  I want to see good stories, sure, but I also want to see great works of art.  I know they are out there, and I think that if a few of those doing hackwork right now wake up and realized what freedom they really have, what they can really do, that we will see another new wave not just in science fiction and fantasy but in all of literature.  I think it was C.S. Lewis who made the analogy of the ghetto kid who keeps playing with mud pies after getting invited to the beach because he cannot imagine such a place as a beach.  We are free, fellow writers, truly free.  We can write whatever we want.  Reach way down inside there and pull out the best you have from your heart and your guts and spill it all out for us.  In this era, it’s the readers who decide.  Not the suits.  And not, I hope, conventions and restrictions and rules implanted within us by English teachers and books on writing and past misguided editors.

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