The Human Condition:

Obvious and Mysterious – April 2, 2017

World between two palms

In life, out here in the real world, I like things to be obvious. Paths are clear, yes means yes, love is forever, a promise is always kept, and hatred is to the death. In that way, I guess, I am like a child and easily fooled. But the world is complicated enough, nature preserves her mysteries, opinions differ, scientific and social theories expand outward like ice crystals, and the truth is difficult to seek and harder to find. Some days, it’s a puzzle just to know what’s going on around you.

But in literature, in the stories we tell for fun, I abhor the obvious. Plain people with pure hearts, villains with no shred of decency, roads that lead straight from one boring place to another, stories where cause leads predictably to effect—these are for children, not for me. The world of literature should be as unlike reality as we can make it.

Most of us live in a world bounded by rules and promises. The basic rules are handed down by our parents, if we are lucky, and become embedded in our psyches like guard rails on a twisting mountain road.1 These ground rules involve the basics of behavior like internal honesty, ambition and effort, personal credulity and cynicism, and other character traits. Some rules are part of our learned social structure: how we greet guests of differing social stations, which fork to use and when it’s appropriate to use our fingers, how to write a thank-you note, and other things we do because to forget them would make us social pariahs. And still other rules are handed down by governments: how to drive and where to park, what we have to pay in taxes, and when and where we can cross the street.

Promises we make every day, to show up for work at a certain time, to be home for dinner, to support the children and provide for their future, to pay off the mortgage, to take a sick day only when we are really sick. This is what a human being does. This is responsibility. These are the things we owe to our families, friends, employers, and bankers. The walls made up of rules and promises are invisible but strong, like armored glass—at least if we are a person of good heart and conscience2—and these walls do not break easily, if at all.

In literature, we expect these rules and promises to be more flexible. Not absent, of course—or otherwise the characters would have no conscience, no society, no state, and no civilization.3 But as readers we expect the walls to be less confining, more like rubber than glass. Of course, many stories are based on the main character suffering a great and immediate reversal or loss in his or her life—of a loved one, a job, a long-sought prize that is finally within reach, or some other disruption. The story is then about how the character reacts to the new situation, where the person’s ordinary state of being is stripped away. And then the old rules, the guides of conscience and social order, either don’t apply or have much reduced force in the character’s life and thinking.4

In my own writing, I strive to mix the two, the obvious and the mysterious. I am not a writer of horror or the supernatural per se; so I’m not talking about the supernatural, ghost stories, or gods and demons—although stories about artificial intelligence and alien life forms would come close. But I believe that the world as we perceive it has hidden depths and dimensions that we do not know or even suspect. I like to present a character in a plain and predictable exterior world that—when he or she gets too close, feels enough frustration, thinks too deeply, or presses too hard on the glass—reveals a new perspective and a new set of opportunities.

A writer can add the element of mystery in one of two ways. One is to take the character and the story into a strange and mysterious—or simply different—setting. Most science fiction stories are like this. The character goes into space for the first time, or lands on a strange planet, or encounters a new culture with mysterious practices. In the two-volume novel Coming of Age, my strange planet and new culture are simply the future, which my two main characters visit by receiving life-extension therapies that take them far beyond the traditional lifespan of “three score and ten.”

In the novel I’m working on now, The House at the Crossroads, which is the prequel to my time-travel novel The Children of Possibility, the story develops a kind of double whammy. First, two of the main characters are from six thousand years in the future, introducing the reader to a domain and culture that are almost like the Europe of our near future, but with some significant differences because civilizations have fallen and risen since then but never strayed far from the European character.5 Then, these two characters sign up with a time-travel service and are trained to go back and maintain a time portal in a medieval Europe that is strange and different to them—and perhaps not so familiar to the modern reader, either. And in the original book, Children, the mystery was to see the reader’s present day in the early 21st century through the eyes of a time traveler from nine thousand years in the future.

A second and simpler way to create mystery for the reader is to leave something out of the story. This is the writer being not so much neglectful—“Oops, I just forgot to mention”—as intentionally deceitful. For example, the reader may not know, but will soon get enough clues to guess, that the main character is actually guilty of the crime he or she is denying. Or that the character is actually blind, or mentally disabled, or psychotic—or a machine. These are always fun—even when the reader knows up front that the character has these attributes, as in my novels about artificial intelligence ME: A Novel of Self-Discovery and ME, Too: Loose in the Network. And again, the reader sees the familiar world of the present through the eyes of a self-aware software program which must navigate both our digital infrastructure and our complex human relations.

That second method—by leaving something out—also works in a novel where multiple characters have their own viewpoints and the story, in the hands of the omniscient author, plays off one against the other. I do this even in my non-science-fiction novels, like The Judge’s Daughter and The Professor’s Mistress. The reader, like the author, knows the motivations and intentions of the characters “on both sides of the door.” The mystery enters when the reader has to figure out how one character will discover the other’s real intentions, or secret, or the trap that has been laid.

But that, too, is a source of mystery in any story. Unlike life, which is regular, endless, and virtually unplotted, we read stories because we sense there is an underlying structure, a plot, a coming climax, resolution, and denouement—but we can’t figure out what it will be. The writer, like the omnipotent god of a world two handbreadths wide, keeps the future a secret and delights in teasing and fooling the reader.

1. When I first came out to California from Pennsylvania in 1970, I was amazed at all the sharp curves with steep drop-offs that had no guard rails to keep drivers from plunging over the cliff. In Pennsylvania, even a modest embankment is buffered with steel. But driving along Route 1 in Marin County, with a vertical slope above you and the Pacific Ocean two hundred feet below, only a little berm of sand prevents an erring driver from slipping over the side. It took me a while to realize that, while Pennsylvania roads get snow-packed and icy, with lots of skids, particularly on curves, the roads in Coastal California are free of ice all year round, not even wet for most of that time, and so safe as a pair of railroad tracks—if the driver exerts a minimal amount of caution. Of course, in lashing rain or dense fog, it would be nice to have those guard rails, but Californians are a tough breed.

2. If you are not a person of good heart or conscience, then you live in a kind of fantasy world compared to those around you. You tend to think nothing touches you, no one will notice your actions, other people have no real feelings or intentions, and the law—loosely enforced and fallible as it is—will never catch up to you. That makes the rest of us fools, in the short term; and you the fool, in the long.

3. Which is the case in most zombie and post-apocalypse stories.

4. I once was told by a production executive in Hollywood that the formula for a modern movie script is: first act, the main character is living a normal life, until something changes; second act, the character tries to get back to equilibrium, but the whole world rises up and fights against him or her, preventing resolution; third act, the character finds a new strategy, a new weapon, or a new ally and wins the struggle; and, finally, the denouement, where the hero or heroine and the villain go mano a mano in a fight to the death. This structure makes a good 120-minute movie, but it’s a little simplistic for a full-length novel.

5. I believe that each geographic region and its embedded population have certain characteristics which change slowly, if at all, over time. This explains why International Marxism produced a mindset and approach to governing in Soviet Russia that was similar to Tsarist autocracy and markedly different from the loosely centralized Imperial bureaucracy of Communist China. And if the United States ever goes full Marxist, the result here will be similarly unrecognizable to either the Russians or the Chinese.