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Empty School Creepiness

Saturn Ring Blues
An empty school at night is creepy.  Here's what I think contributes to the effect:

- Hundreds of doors.  It's not just the classrooms; lockers line the hallways too.  Our minds see doors and wonder what's on the other side.  It's a classic horror story image, the closed door.  Almost no one sees a closed door and imagines a surprise birthday party on the other side.  Our minds are weasels, and whatever is on the other side may be a threat.  A closed door is an invitation for the imagination to kick into overdrive.

- Weird lighting.  At night, only the emergency lights are on, so hallways become long, dark stretches with suggestively named "exit" signs glowing at either end.  The red eye open in the distance becomes a security system light up close.  The overwhelming shadows and the occasional reflections seem to move on their own as I walk through the building.

- Unidentifiable sounds.  A big school is like a living organism.  Blowers kick on and off, changing the air pressure.  Ceilings creak and crack.  The distance muffles metallic clangs and clicks.  Sometimes noises manifest in a sequence: a quick tapping like fingers against a window, but it only lasts for a few seconds; or a high whistle on the edge of perception, but if you turn your head it's gone; or dull bursts like a cough or thud.  Things really do go bump in the night in a school after hours.

-  Beyond appeals to the senses, though, are the psychic appeals.  An empty school is like putting your ear to a seashell, except you are in the seashell.  A background rush or quiet roar impinges my hearing.  In that sound I hear the ghosts of shuffling feet and the years' long whispers.  If spirits did haunt places, schools would be one of their favorite hang outs.  Although the majority of kids' experiences in schools are positive and safe, over time a lot of badness accumulates.  Anger, sadness, grief, envy, lust, despair, confusion, dislocation, you name it.

I don't believe in literal ghosts, and an empty building is just bricks, but imaginatively an empty school has a lot going for it.  And my imagination is where I hang out.

The Future Ain't What We Thought It'd Be

Saturn Ring Blues
My wife is doing parent/teacher conferences tonight, and my grading load is small, so instead of catching up, I'm watching Ridley Scott's director's cut of Blade Runner.

This 1982 film is set in 2019 Los Angeles.  What caught my eye was the mention of "off-world" colonies.  Did I believe we'd have off-world colonies by 2019 in 1982, when I was twenty-eight?  That was a long way into my future.  Maybe I did.  Certainly I grew up reading science fiction about off-world possibilities.  The idea that humanity would make homes on other worlds was a given to me when I was little.  The American westward expansion, our manifest destiny, would surely turn upwards and take us to the stars.

Many of the futures I read and wanted to believe in came from John Campbell's Analog, where clever people faced problems their knowledge, their technology, and their human (mostly American) pluckiness could overcome.  Campbell presented a beautiful, challenging, optimistic future.  The universe didn't welcome Earthlings with open arms, but it grudgingly moved aside.  Humanity shaped the environment to accommodate itself.

Here's the deal, though.  We won't have an off-world reality in 2019.  That's only eight years away.  America won't have a manned expedition to Mars by then.  I haven't heard that any of the other likely contenders will either: China, Japan, who?

The problem with Mars is that it can't serve as a valid base for an off-world colony.  Humans have to go to ridiculous lengths to maintain their presence there.  Almost no atmosphere.  Deadly surface radiation.  Nonarable land.  We'd only go to Mars to prove we could get there and to find what there is to find, but I don't see us realistically establishing a permanent establishment.  No colony.  No second generation Martians.

No, our only real hope for off-world colonies have to be orbiting other stars.

I won't live to see it.  What I'm afraid of is that none of us will ever see it, nor will our grandchildren or their grandchildren.  The stars may be forever beyond our reach except in fiction.

We didn't get flying cars either.

Some day I'd like to sit down with Brenda Cooper and talk about the future.  What do really thoughtful people who think about humanity's direction see for us?

I tell my kids that literature asks three questions: who are we?  where are we going? and how should we behave?  Those are the big questions, aren't they?

Blade Runner is a beautiful movie.  I love the sound track.  I cringe at the rain and grunginess of its L.A.  I'm half in love with Rachael.  The movie makes me want to fold origami.  "Did you ever take that test yourself?" Rachael asks Deckard 

The movie mostly asks the question, "Who are we?"  What is humanity?  That's what Rachael wants Deckard to consider.  What is a manufactured being?  How are they different?  But mostly the movie makes me think about where are we going?

I don't believe we'll visit the stars in my lifetime or anyone else's, darn it.  Replicant Roy Batty said, " I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate."

Those of us who are living now will never see them either.  Good thing we can close our eyes and pretend.


Evil Lairs

Saturn Ring Blues

Time Magazine ran an article entitled "Top Ten Evil Lairs" today.  They included Hitler's bunker, the Jonestown site, the Holmes Murder Castle and others.  Pretty creepy stuff when most of them actually look nondescript.  Evil can flourish anywhere.

I thought when I started the article, though, that it would be a list of fictional evil lairs, like Darth Vader's black ball (what, exactly did he do when he was in that black ball--I always assumed it was the ultimate "man cave" with a built in bar and great surround sound).  Did Lex Luthor have an evil lair?    Superman had the Fortress of Solitude.  Surely Lex had his equivalent.

Count Dracula had his castle in Translyvania.  I think that would be a candidate for the fictional character top ten evil lairs.

What are the candidates for our list of Top Ten Fictional Character Evil Lairs?


Instant Techno Lust

Saturn Ring Blues

I was in Best Buy today to pick up the final season of Friday Night Lightswhich I am much looking forward to (rewatching Alias isn't really doing it for me), when I saw this pair of headphones.  It combines two of my favorite looks: steampunk and aviation.

For your viewing pleasure, I present the Skullcandy & RocNation Aviator headphones:

I have no idea if they sound good at all, but they're pretty.


Science Fictional Dream

Saturn Ring Blues
In our family it isn't uncommon to ask each other if we had any dreams the night before. My seventeen-year old told me he had a dream last night where there was a new race on Earth, and the dream featured a new racial slur.

The quote was, "You slesovene descoveck."

Conversations in my house can be pretty entertaining.


How Do They Sleep at Night?

Saturn Ring Blues
Related to yesterday's post, Good vs. Evil and Concepts in Plotting (which turned out not to be about plotting very much but more about me fuddling about ideas that are constantly above my head), I've been mulling over how people who have to do horrible things to other people sleep at night.

Here's an example: General Curtis LeMay.  When LeMay took over the bombing campaign in Japan in early 1945, he switched tactics from high altitude bomb runs with conventional explosives to a mixture of fragmentation and incendiaries. With the new tactic, he hit Kobe, destroying about 1,000 buildings with 159 tons of firebombs and 13 tons of high explosives.  Tactics were tuned again, and the B-29s carried more bombs, flew lower, and followed pathfinder planes which dropped napalm to mark targets.  On March 9, 334 B-29s attacked Tokyo, killing 80,000, wounding 40,000, and burning 15,8 square miles of the city to the ground.  Over 260,000 buildings were destroyed.  From May until August, 64 cities were firebombed, so many that the military was running out of targets to hit.

So, we all know the arguments about the number of American and allied soldiers who would die if the Japanese mainland were invaded, and how many more civilian deaths would have resulted if there had been a ground invasion.  From a numbers standpoint, the attacks made sense, including the decision to drop the atomic bombs. 

What I have trouble with is thinking about General LeMay laying in bed after a long day of making plans, listening to reports, and issuing orders.  He knew what was going on in the Japanese cities they were bombing.  Most Japanese homes were made of wood and paper.  They were matchboxes.  On the March 9th attack of Tokyo, the low flying bombers reported that the smell of burning flesh filled the planes. 

Most of the destruction was not of military targets.  Did LeMay think about what a Japanese mother felt as the flames roared about her house, her baby clutched in her arms?  Did he think about the old people, the teenagers with lives stretching before them, the innocents who didn't support the war (and the patriotic who did), the teachers and doctors and priests and policemen and librarians and artists and poets and scientists and folks who were celebrating birthdays and newly weds?

Or did he shut it out some way?  Could he just focus on the numbers?  Many deaths now save many, many  more deaths later?

LeMay was one of those "strong people doing awful things out of sight" that I talked about yesterday.  He was 39 years old in 1945, which looks pretty young to me.  How did he sleep at night?

This is of interest to me as a writer.  What are the repercussions of having done horrible things?

A friend of mine killed a little girl when she was in high school.  My friend was driving her car by a public pool, and the child ran out from between two parked cars.  My friend never saw her and didn't have a chance to stop or swerve.  She wasn't speeding; she wasn't inattentive, she hadn't been drinking.  The police didn't giver her a ticket.  The death was totally not her fault.  I see her every once in a while.  She's 55 years old now, and she still grows quiet if that incident is brought up.  She told me once, "I felt her with the steering wheel."

I've become a different kind of reader and writer because of thinking like this.  I can't watch the later Rambo movies with their ridiculously high body counts without thinking about the families of the faceless bad guys who are being blown apart.  I flinch a little when the super good guy spy slits a guard's throat to get into the evil overlord's lair.  The guard had a life too.

The inimitable Carrie Vaughn wrote a short story about this that appeared in Realms of Fantasy, entitled "Strife Lingers in Memory."  It's about the repercussions of winning a great battle of good vs. evil.  Ursula Le Guin wrote "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," which is about people who can not live their pleasant lives knowing that they were based on the suffering of others.

Surely there are numerous people who couldn't do the horrible things that others have asked them to do.  Were there German concentration camp guards who quit their jobs once they realized what was happening in the camps?  Were there Japanese soldiers who refused the command to take part in the Bataan Death March?  Were there American Calvary soldiers under Custer's and Sheridan's command who couldn't fire on the women and children at the Battle of Washita River?

I hope so.  I know I am a naive person, but I hope so.  I also know that when I write, these thoughts about the meaningfulness of death and the repercussions of horrible acts are never too far from the consciousness.

Fortunately, my empathy hasn't spread to orcs.  I don't think too much about the tiny orclings who find out their daddy's aren't returning from the attack on Minas Tirith.  


Good vs. Evil and Concepts in Plotting

Saturn Ring Blues
I was thinking this morning about a common paradigm in plotting, which is that in a battle between good and evil, the forces of good cannot use the tools of evil without becoming evil themselves.  You can see examples of this all over the place: the council of free Middle Earth will not use Sauron's ring against him (Gandalf, Galadriel and Aragorn all refuse it--Boromir is told specifically why he can't take the ring, and he is destroyed at least partially because he tried to); Richard Cypher from Legend of the Seeker cannot use the boxes of Orden against Darken Rahl; Luke can't use the force of the dark side without becoming a part of the dark side (like his dad).

A revealing example of the good/evil pattern at work is the interestingly complicated character of "the operative" from the movie, Serenity.  He believes he is working for a better world, but he uses the tools of evil to attain it.  He tells Mal at a key point in the story after Mal says, " So me and mine gotta lay down and die... so you can live in your better world?" that " I'm not going to live there. There's no place for me there... any more than there is for you. Malcolm... I'm a monster.What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done."

Mal and the operative are kind of like the gunfighters in The Magnificent Seven or any of a zillion other westerns: they use violence and evil deeds to create a decent world that they can't be a part of.  When the story is over, the farmers have won while Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner have to ride away (although the young gunfighter takes off his gun belt and stays to take a wife, presumably, to farm).

The list could go on and on.  Good limits itself while bad does not, but in the literary world, good mostly triumphs.  What I think is interesting about this is that if you thought about it for a while, you wouldn't bet for that outcome.  If evil can use any weapon or strategy it wants while good limits itself, evil should win more often that not.

Which somehow brings me to Jack Bauer.  Jack uses the tactics of evil (lies, kidnapping, torture, murder, ignoring the rule of law, etc.) to get what he wants.  He's sort of a personification of the ends justifying the means.  He's the perfect hero in a morally ambiguous world.  Or maybe he's the personification of what Joseph Conrad says in Heart of Darkness about how our "good," safe and civilized society is propped up by strong people doing awful things out of sight.

Clearly American society has not operated by the paradigm that good can not use evil means without becoming evil.  Giving small pox infested blankets to Indians, for example, seems to be a very Sauron-like tactic, as does black slavery, the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII, the fire bombing of Dresden, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, etc.

I guess what I conclude from this is that the real world doesn't line up well with the idealized world depicted in literature.  Maybe this is why I like George R.R. Martin's Fire and Ice series so much.  Besides being well written and exciting, good and evil is not the focus of the story.  Every character in the story is justified, even when the character does awful things (for example, Jaime Lannister drops a seven year old Bran Stark to what should have been his death).

What's probably happening in the real world is that good or evil aren't absolute.  Whatever side triumphs redefines its tactics so they look good, or rewrites its own history.  You know that if Japan had won WWII, the use of the atomic bomb would have been offered as proof of American evil, and if Germany had shared in the triumph, the holocaust would have been swept under rewritten history's concealing rug.


A Telling Moment

Saturn Ring Blues
Here's a sign that I've been playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare too often.  I was walking from one building to another at school today and saw a workman on the roof.  My reflex was to switch to my sniper rifle.

Just saying.

I have a ton of grading to do this weekend.  I suppose there won't be any gaming.  This could be a good start.


Interesting Astronomical Alignment

Saturn Ring Blues
When I turned onto the highway heading west at 5:15 this morning, the nearly full moon rested exactly on the horizon at the end of the gun-barrel straight road. It was yellow, bloat and eerie.


Robert Holdstock

Saturn Ring Blues
Robert Holdstock, the author of the amazing Mythago Wood, which I have been listing as one of my favorite and most personally influential books since I read it in 1987, died this morning of an E. Coli infection.

This sucks on so many levels.

Both coppervale and ellen_datlow have posted heartfelt thoughts about him. As much as I have wanted to since I read Mythago Wood, I never met him. We never corresponded. I only know him through his works.

Damn. There are many people who actually knew Robert who have more immediate reasons to mourn. Everyone who loved his writing, though, but didn't know him personally, will join the throng. I'll be in that group.