A Vision of a World Better Than Humanity’s, Composing, 18/05/2015

There’s a short story contest running at the writing website Inkitt.com, where you can submit for free a single fantasy or science-fantasy story. Now that my college program is finished, my days are still hectic with my internship and applications for jobs, but I at least have more time on the weekends to write. 

I realized this weekend, as I thought about some ways that I could contribute to this writing contest, that it could be an appropriate place for the return of Alice. The short story contest wouldn’t be the best context to display the character in all that she signifies. That would simply be impossible in the condensed form of a 2-3000 word story, and I haven’t even fully thought through all the philosophical implications of Alice as a character.*

* Ethically, politically, morally, sexually, epistemically, ontologically, narratively. I think I’ve made something really interesting with this character. I hope Vaka Rangi sees this post and has something to say in the comments. He’s always very insightful with these concepts. 

The cover image I'll use for my story submission, from Flickr Creative Commons.
I’m not really sure how successful this story will even be in the contest. Its style isn’t what I’d call experimental, but it is different. My girlfriend recently finished Irvine Welsh’s novel Crime. I haven’t yet read Welsh myself, though I’ll steal this and her copy of Trainspotting soon too. 

As she explained his writing style to me, I realized that it resembles the modernist techniques of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf: long, introspective, first-person, stream-of-consciousness monologues delivered with a particular ear for the character’s cultural vernacular. Welsh innovates by drawing his plots and storylines from genre fiction, as with Crime.

While I don’t have a cultural vernacular for my narrator, interstellar space pilot Jorge Patel, the story describes his “Epic World” through digressions in his memories that spark from snippets of dialogue between he and Alice as they travel to the world-ship where most androids live in their fictional universe. The story opens with a remark Alice makes about slavery. 

As they speak, Jorge recalls lessons about Earth’s history on his own homeworld, Delta Pavonis, which vilified the planet as a society addicted to slave economies. But another remark later reminds him of his disillusionment with the economy and society of his own world, which quite resembles ours. 

I also include a dig at Ed Miliband
and the UK’s Labour Party, who
differ from the Conservatives only in
being the pro-austerity political party
that feels a little sad about endorsing
economic policies that drag almost
the entire country’s population into
inescapable poverty. And if Liz
Kendall wins, I doubt they'll even
feel sad about it anymore.
Falling wages and a bloated oligarchy are justified to the public as the cost of staying competitive in an economy that needs planet-wide austerity for the indefinite future to overcome a crisis. He spends his teenage years watching his friends drop out of school one by one, as their families can no longer afford the fees. Unlike the rest of us, he’s able to train to become an interstellar pilot, and fly to other worlds. 

I try to paint a whole world through the digressive memories of one person seeking a better life. The other stories at the Inkitt contest are pretty good, and also quite interesting. But they favour descriptions of events, followed by dialogue. For someone more accustomed to this, I admit that my style can be challenging.

The story’s politics carry an explicit left-wing message and an implicit feminist ideal. I think it’ll definitely have an appreciative audience, but most of the stories that I see at the top of its leaderboards right now are very typical fantasy plots like roguish action heroes kidnapping sarcastic princesses, or stereotypical grimdark fantasies about the horrors of war.

So I’m not sure how well my story, “Dancing in the Harshest Starlight,” will do in this context. In essence, the story is about someone who turns away from the cesspool of misery and violence that his human society has become, then discovers the paradise that superior creatures, the androids, have built. But he remains human, and the community of peace, prosperity, neighbourliness, and happiness that he sees remains forever separate from him precisely because he’s only human.


  1. Well, if you speak the incantation...

    Seriously though, your premise sounds really cool. A couple things strike me about it: First of all, Jorge's story brings to my mind the sort of sense of displacement felt by expatriots. They've renounced the country (or world) of their birth in lieu of what they hope will be a better life somewhere else, but at the same time they'll always be a kind of outsider in their adopted home because of that very status-They came from somewhere else. I think in the state of latent discontent and malaise that perpetuates so much of modernity we always in a sense think life is better somewhere that isn't where we are right now; in the idealized versions of other cities, other states or other countries we imagine for ourselves in the midst of our workaday unhappiness. Grass is greener, and so forth.

    There's more to it than that, of course, but a lot of how fulfilling we find our everyday existences comes not from the place itself, but how we feel about it and how we make our lives while we're there.

    This is actually something I've been thinking a lot about recently in my personal life. It probably won't come as much of a surprise to you to learn I'm something of a traveller myself, with an irreducible compulsion to wanderlust that's always been, and will always be, a fundamental part of who I am. Right now I'm not exactly happy in my current living conditions and am beginning to contemplate possibly relocating, but while there are specific places I find myself drawn to for a variety of reasons, I know none of them will ever be able to be "my new home" as it were.

    The way I see it, I don't have (and can't have) one home, though I might be able to make homes with many different places and people around the world. Most of this is just due to me being me, but some of it I think is actually due to modernity. Growing up as beneficiaries of it has, as a consequence, severed the innate connection to the land of our birth we might otherwise have had. We can rediscover that (or rather, the underlying phenomenon), but it takes discipline, awareness and practice. So while some people will talk about being bound to a specific place because they feel an innate and unbreakable connection to it, this is something I don't have and is very probably unattainable for me.

    1. Last month (I think it was) I watched an incredibly gripping series called Kingdom of the North, which was a natural history of Canada. Your country is a place I feel a powerful connection to (and I hasten to add I'm speaking pretty exclusively in terms of the land itself, though I've been following your recent political developments with great interest) despite not having spent a ton of time physically there, so this was of particular interest to me.

      But what struck me the most about the series was the way it depicted the history of human interaction with the landscape. It follows on from the formative work of William Cronon by making it clear there was never a point in Canada's history where the land was "pristine" and "untouched", but rather that the different people who've lived there over time have had different ways of working with it. It contrasts the practices of the First Nations, who made changes in the land that were mutually beneficial to themselves and to the ecosystem, with that of the European colonizers, who, due to their unfamiliarity with and intimidation by the Canadian wilderness, used short-sighted and destructive techniques that were harmful to everything. And it even tacitly compares this with the early Siberian migrants who hunted the Wooly Mammoth to extinction, turning what was once a prairie into a tundra. This is stuff I've *never* seen a nature documentary have the courage to take on before.

      That was what really got me thinking that modernity, partially by virtue of being the product of imperialism and colonialism, keeps us detached from the lands that have been brought under its rule. Because as descendents of people like that, many Westerners remain strangers in our adopted homes, and it's up to us to change that. I myself am descended from immigrants so this only applies indirectly to my own genealogy, but I'm two or three generations removed from them and have certainly befitted from the society the moderns built here.

      Many of us may realise this subconsciously, but I don't think too many people actually have the spiritual and philosophical framework to act on it. This is where I think the whole crisis of modernity springs from, even things like cultural appropriation: We know there's a better way of life out there and that others have discovered their own flavours of it, but we're not entitled to them any more than we are to those of the First Nations. We've never had our own culturally specific manifestation of this, and we're starting to realise we're dying of starvation and desperately need it.

      I think what maybe makes a traveller different from an imperialist is the act of choosing empathy and maturity over adolescence and ego.

      Which I suppose brings me back to the other point that struck me about your pitch. You mention Alice's way of life is out of Jorge's reach because he's human. To that I would ask why, exactly? Is it a kind of peace and utopianism humans are incapable of finding simply because they're biologically or culturally human? Or is it something they're born into at a disadvantage and just need to be allowed to find their own truths about?

      Perhaps Jorge is an expat who will never quite feels at home on his adopted world. But perhaps he could learn from it to discover his own manifestation of the fulfilling existence Alice and her shipmates have been able to build.

    2. So I had another thought.

      The way you describe Alice, she sounds a lot like what I would call an ideal form: A character embodying certain ideals that we can aspire to, kind of like Kei and Yuri or the Enterprise crew. In my parlance I compare these types of characters to older archetypes of divinity-Partially to point out what I see as a kinship in stories all over the world, but also to emphasize the way I think we should respond to these kinds of characters.

      The point of a divine ideal was that you would meditate on it and take some of its essence into yourself. Just like a shaman visits the spirit world and then comes back to their community to share what they've learned. The goal of this type of spiritual thought was not to *transcend* reality, but to *sublimate* it. Bringing some part of the divine into our everyday routine to make our material lives better and, in doing so, reconnecting with a greater form of existence.

      These types of characters are role models. If Alice is this kind of character, I'd imagine she would provide an ideal to strive for, not stand in for something forever out of reach. The woman is a goddess and the goddess is a woman. If she did it, why can't we?

    3. It's true that Alice works as a divine ideal, and she's an ideal that is within human power because she's a product of human industry. But an important part of the character is that she is, in important ways, beyond humanity. Her capacities to know the world are of a completely different kind than human cognition, as the film project I'm on/off developing about her makes clear (which reminds me that I should write Lee now that I'm finally finished my college program and let him know that I'm still working through ideas for the script).

      When it comes to this small story, the distance is what I want to emphasize. Jorge comes from a world that's been thoroughly corrupted by the worst social and political effects of capitalism-become-practical-oligarchy, where everyone has the vote but hardly anyone has the material stability to take part in political life (sound familiar?). He left his world to look for something better. The story is that he finds that better society in the androids' world-ship, but that society literally has no place for him. Androids don't eat, so there's no food production facilities on the world-ship. One of the tough confrontations the character of Alice makes to the reader is that humanity actually may not be able to enlighten itself. We can strive for the ideal she represents to us, but her own life will always be, to some degree, indifferent to humanity's idealizations.

      When I was researching Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Nature, I found that a lot of American environmentalist philosophy was trying to grapple with this ideal of wilderness. The concept of the pristine wilderness was born from the collisions of three other concepts: 1) Locke's notion that unworked land is ownerless (and the only model for worked land is Western-style agriculture), 2) the Romantic idealization of Nature as divine, and 3) the drive to find intellectual excuses for the dehumanization and ethnic cleansing of indigenous Americans. Canada's European settlement never really had that. The early days of Canada's European settlement (1500-1700s) also had a great deal more cooperation, cultural integration, and ethnic mixing between settlers and indigenous. The dark side of Confederation in the late 19th century was the erasure of this mixed history from our cultural heritage. This was why John MacDonald suppressed the rebellions Louis Riel led in the Prairies so violently. After that, the really horrifying genocidal acts against Canada's indigenous happened in our residential school structure. But that was all in the 20th century.

      But if your next move in life takes you to my country, I think you'll find it a generally more relaxing place. And I do think it's quite likely that a social movement is building in Canada that will be the vanguard of rolling back the Reagan Revolution in favour of a social democratic, multicultural form of governance with a lot more room for anarchist organizing. One of the top New Democrats in our federal parliament, Nathan Cullen, rose to prominence through his speeches at Occupy demonstrations in British Columbia. And he's been an MP since 2004. And although I've never been to his district, a Poland-sized chunk of northern BC, I've seen enough photos to know that it's amazingly beautiful. But that's true of most of Canada (not-humble-brag).