I Was Expecting Something Different

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Feels A Little Off)

Recently my wife and I watched the anime series Death Note. Its basic premise is that a teenager obtains a notebook, and the name of any person he writes in it will die. The boy ends up with a flawed sense of justice, and determines that he should reign as judge over all the rest of the world, killing those that he deems unworthy without trial.

While watching the show I found myself strangely conflicted about the main character. He was clearly the villain of the show, and his methods ended up actively harming many innocents. He wasn’t even very likable, behaving manipulatively and deceitfully to those who cared most for him.

And yet, despite it all, I felt like I was supposed to be rooting for him. I wasn’t sure why at first, I just had this vague sense that the show wanted me to want him to succeed. So I spent a little bit of time examining why I felt that way, and I realized that I had had my emotions hijacked by the structure of the story. There are many little ways that storytellers give us silent cues as to what we are “supposed” to be feeling.

For example, imagine if a story opened with a scene of a single boy being chased and cornered by a group of four others. Even without telling us the reasons and motivations of the characters, we naturally assume that the single boy is our hero and the four others are our antagonists. We believe this to be the case, because we always expect the hero to be an underdog.

Or consider a story that begins with one central character. We follow her exclusively for the first third of the story, at which point the focus is handed off to another person. Even though the focus has changed hands, we still expect the first character to be our hero because we have spent the majority of our time with her. We firmly expect that this shift is temporary, and that the first character will soon return.

Well, it turned out that both of these elements were at play while watching Death Note. That boy who obtained the notebook was the character we spent the most time with, and he stood alone against an entire team of detectives trying to catch him. The fact that he was an underdog, and also the main focus of the story, created in me this sense that I was supposed to be rooting for him, even though his actions were deplorable.

 

I’ll Be Back)

There are several advantages that creating expectations in your reader allows for. One example is how it elegantly foreshadows upcoming plot points to them. This will provide the audience with a cathartic sense of satisfaction when fulfilled. They won’t even know why they feel so good, they’ll just say that the events “felt right” to them.

For example, consider the iconic “I’ll be back” scene from Terminator. In this the T-800 has tracked Sarah Connor to a police station and approaches the front desk to ask if he can speak with her. His request is denied, and he is told that he will have to wait until she has finished giving her statement to the police. The T-800 looks around, says “I’ll be back,” and walks out the front door.

And then, inexplicably, the camera remains at the front desk. The T-800 is the one driving the action, we should be following it, but for some reason we’re not. We’re staying in this boring, stuffy place. And then, silently, the anticipation starts to mount in the viewer. Slowly he starts to realize that this isn’t just an overly long end to a scene. There’s a reason why we’re staying here.

And right as that epiphany hits the car comes smashing through the front door, barrels down the desk, and the T-800 emerges wielding a shotgun and an assault rifle!

By utilizing the unspoken language of film the scene silently created the expectation, fulfilled it, and as a result created one of the most quotable moments in movie history.

 

Subverting Expectations)

Another benefit of giving silent cues to the audience is to then subvert the expectation that you have put in them. You can catch them by surprise and they won’t even know why they never saw it coming. Not always, but often a twist comes as a result of lying to the audience at some point or another. Some stories make the mistake of doing this explicitly. The characters straight up tell you one thing, and then later say “Ha! Just kidding, I lied! Aren’t you surprised?” And no, the audience isn’t surprised, they’re annoyed.

But if the lie was made implicitly, by planting an unspoken expectation in the audience that you then exploit, they won’t even know why they’re surprised, just that they are.

This bait-and-switch is perhaps most prolific in a mystery, such as when the author puts out a red-herring to distract the audience from the truth. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie famously moves its suspicion from one character to the next at a blistering rate. Each new suspicion has compelling reasons to buy into it, though none of them feel totally satisfying.

Then comes the final revelation: all of the suspects are responsible for the murder, not just one. Now why doesn’t this possibility occur to the reader beforehand, especially where the story was blatantly providing evidence against each and every character? It doesn’t, because this is a murder mystery, and readers know that in a murder mystery there is one killer and many red herrings. Agatha Christie understood that silent expectation and exploited it. In Murder on the Orient Express the red herring is that there was no red herring.

 

With Great Power…)

This ability to silently create expectations in your reader has to be given proper respect. It is a potent tool, and as such can cause much harm when misused. For example, subverted expectations only work so many times before the whole story starts to feel disjointed. If the plot is constantly misaligned with its subliminal messages then the audience will feel that something “is just off.” They won’t like your story because it simply felt wrong to them.

Creating expectations that are never confirmed or challenged will also be a source of frustration for the audience as well. Even if every narrative plot was tied up by the end, they’ll still have this sense that something was missing.

Of course the most common problem is to to have created silent expectations without even realizing it, and therefore having not ensured that each is resolved satisfyingly. Try reading over your work and pausing to ask what the story is making you think is supposed to happen. Then see if you handle that expectation elegantly or not.

 

In my next post I would like to share the first part of a story, in which I will intentionally create an unspoken expectation. Then, in the later posts, I will subvert it. Obviously my hope is to do it in a way that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Of course by telling you all these intentions upfront I’m already tipping my hand, but hopefully it will still be a satisfying read for you. Come back on Thursday to see the first half, where I will create the expectation, and then a week later I will implement the subversion.

Hello, World: Part Two

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Part One

I wasn’t fired, though. Not immediately. Nor was Dave for that matter. We were in the thick of a company-wide emergency that required all-hands-on-deck. We’d clean up our mess first and then heads would roll.

The company made a public statement, urging all of our users to avoid our website for the time being, and to please conduct complete security sweeps on their computers. All servers were shut down, even ones that we thought might not be infected. Half of the entire development was set to cobbling back together a clean build on new servers, while the other half tried to verify whether the RubricValidation virus had been contained or not. I was on that second team.

We made the national news in a not-good way, and everyone was pretty grim around the offices. None of us were sure if the company was going to be around much longer, or whether we’d all be competing for jobs at other places.

And so it made me quite a bit perturbed when Dave came into work this morning humming merrily like there wasn’t a care in the world.

“Did you break encryption on that library yet?” I snap at him.

“On it , boss,” he smiles back.

I shake my head and try to ignore his cheerfulness.

“Alan, where are we at?” I say as I plop down at my desk.

“It’s still getting added back in, I just can’t figure out how.”

Still?!”

“It seems like it shouldn’t be possible, right?”

Alan is referring to our efforts to trace the growth of RubricValidation. We’ve been able to confirm that it got loose on our customers’ machines, and it simply isn’t feasible for us to track all those copies down. All we can do is tell them that they should run some antivirus software and hope that they do. Invariably some of them won’t, but there’s nothing we can do about that.

But what we can do is make sure that we’ve stopped leaking it from our end. And that has proven to be tricky, far more than anticipated. We shut down all of our old servers right after the public incident, but about a week later we had new ones being opened in our company’s name, each one full of RubricValidation code. We shut those down and the next day a couple more popped up, and then a couple more.

We were sure that they weren’t connecting to our public-facing website anymore, and as we dug into it we found that each server was associated with hundreds of randomly-generated domains. Websites like j9042j0gfong.com and lijr54yg2.jnl44j.com.net.

That was concerning, because new domain names can’t be created for free, each one takes about $10 to spin up. And if there are hundreds of new ones each day where are those thousands of dollars to pay for them coming from? Naturally we called up our financial department, but they assured us that there were no unverified transfers in their records. So was RubricValidation using money stolen from our customers?

Each day we’ve taken down those servers, and then tried to trace where the orders to create them were coming from, but everything was too random and chaotic to make sense of. Then, about a week ago, things started to change. We started seeing most of the new servers being ordered by a specific user named “ZoranzShield” and the website names connected to them started to become more typical. Names like popspin.com and wheelofchance.com and socialspace.com. Places that the general public might actually type into a web browser. ZoranzShield is not the username for any of our developers, and new users can’t be created without our administrative approval, so we’re not even sure how it can even exist.

Naturally Alan and I deleted the account but, unsurprisingly, it too keeps popping back up every day. We’ve even tried to set it so that no new accounts can be made it all, even with administrative access, but to no avail.

“I’ve got a new idea, though,” Alan says a little more brightly. “If you want to try it out.”

“Anything,” I grumble.

“Okay, so it seems like we can’t control it, no matter what we do. Fine. Let’s just try to observe it then. Let it happen and then trace it back to the source.”

“Sure,” I shrug, “but how exactly?”

“We know that once it creates the new user it still passes it through our Permissions Requisition Service, right?”

“Right.”

Alan turns his laptop to me. It’s the code for that very service, and he has added a single line right at the end.

_logger.Log(user, true);

“Just print out the data as it passes through?”

“Yeah, and I’ve set the recursive flag so it’ll print out everything on that object.”

“Sure, couldn’t hurt. Give it a try.”

Alan starts merging in his change. It only takes a few minutes for it to be built and deployed. Then we delete the user ZoranzShield one more time. Now there’s nothing but to wait for it to show back up and then view the log that gets generated.

We both pretend to be busy exploring other options in case this new thread doesn’t lead anywhere, but each of us is beginning to suspect that our quarry is beyond our capabilities. Neither one of us has said as much, but we can read it in the other’s eyes. I’m interrupted in my anticipation by the sound of Dave coming back to his desk from the bathroom, loudly chatting away on his phone.

“Yeah, it’s really hard to get any vacation right now. Doesn’t go over too well with everything being in crisis mode, y’know?” He pauses and then laughs. “Yeah, totally, you’re right. Well hey, I gotta get back to it, but don’t you worry, I’ll work something out.” He chuckles again. “K, bye.”

I shake my head in disgust. How any of us could be so flippant about the situation, let alone the one who is responsible for the whole thing, is beyond me. I’m lost in my bitter thoughts for only a few moments after Dave sits back down, because all of a sudden Alan is nudging me in the arm and excitedly clicking away at his computer.

“What? Did the request come through?”

“Yeah, yeah, just did. ZoranzShield is back in the system. I’m pulling up the log file now.”

He finds the correct data dump and opens it up, thousands of lines detailing the entire object that requested creation of the ZoranzShield account.

“Oh weird,” Alan mutters. “I expected it to be spoofed from some random IP, but this looks like it came from somewhere on our own intranet.”

“Then the virus could still be lurking on one of our own machines! Does it have the computer number.”

“Yeah, uh…MRU7900273…who has that?”

I’m already pulling up my PDF which maps each employee to their computer identification.

“It’s…” my blood pressure rises. “It’s Dave.”

We both look up at the same time. If it had been anyone else we would just assume that their computer had been infected without them knowing about it and that they were in no way responsible for what happened…but this is Dave we’re talking about. There’s also the ZoranzShield request occurred literally moments after Dave, in the flesh, returned from the bathroom.

.

“Well–RubricValidation is paying me,” Dave says sheepishly.

Our eyes pop.

It’s three minutes later in a conference room. Alan and I have presented Dave with our findings and demanded an explanation. We expected him to play dumb, as usual, but much to our shock he has instead admitted that he is indeed creating an alternate administrator account called ZoranzShield, and that he has been using it to assist the spread of RubricValidation.

“It’s what?!”

“I mean I’m in its employ.”

“No, we know what you mean,” I bluster. “But–how?”

Dave shrugs. “Search me. This virus is something crazy, let me tell you. I just got an email from our servers one day with a list of tasks and a dollar-figure at the bottom. Obviously it was an offer. I did what it said, I got a wire transfer in my bank account the next day. And it’s just been like that ever since.”

I pause and take a few deep breaths, reminding myself that I need to keep Dave alive so that he can give me what information he has. After that…

“A wire transfer from where?” Alan asks.

“From here. From the company.”

“No,” I say flatly. “We already talked to the finance department when we saw new servers being opened in the company’s name. There have been no unsanctioned expenses.”

Dave snorts. “None that they can see. You guys don’t seem to understand. RubricValidation is the company now. It puts this little hamster wheel around everybody. Every system and account you use is just a facade. When the CFO tries to access the company’s bank records she gets redirected to a page that RubricValidation has written for her. A page that shows her everything she expects to see while RubricValidation does what it wants with the actual company funds.”

“That’s–that’s illegal!”

Dave snorts again. “Well good luck prosecuting a program.”

You’re not a program, Dave.”

“So what can you do to me? The only evidence you have is what I’ve told to you. I can just deny it and you’ve got nothing.”

“It’s not like a discrepancy in the bank records would stay unnoticed,” I say. “There’s all sorts of checks and balances on these things, outside of our own system.”

“True,” Dave nods. “I’m sure people will start picking up on it soon. But when that happens do you think RubricValidation will have remained limited to just our company? It’s always been three steps ahead of us, that’s just how it works.”

“You seem to have a lot of faith in a random virus you don’t know anything about.”

“It’s worked out well for me so far,” Dave shrugs.

“I’m not so sure about that,” Alan says as he takes a threatening step closer.

“Hey, hey!” Dave squeals. “Whattaya think you’re doing?”

“Enjoying watching you sweat,” Alan snarls. “Virtual friends don’t do you a lot of good when there’s a real-life fist in your face, do they?!”

“Hold on, Alan,” I say, resting a hand on his shoulder. Something isn’t quite lining up for me. “Why are you even telling us all of this Dave? And if RubricValidation is so far ahead of us, then why did it need you to create the ZoranzShield account in the first place?”

“It didn’t. Again, all of your systems are just a facade, everything you see about accounts and users and new servers is just a front to keep you preoccupied. That was the main thing it wanted me to do, just keep you busy. I guess so it could get ahead.”

I’m made uncomfortable by his answer, but it sort of rings true. For the last while I’ve been having the sneaking suspicion that all of my work isn’t actually doing anything, like I’m just being fed random results that totally ignore all of my input.

Dave sees my silence and decides it’s safe to continue. “And I’m telling you all this because…well, RubricValidation is asking for some stuff that’s a bit beyond me now. You guys are smart, you figured things out. Let’s face it, you’re much better engineers than I’ll ever be… so I want to let you in.”

“Even if everything you’ve said was true, you think I’d want to spend a single minute helping you out Dave?” I scoff.

“How much?” Alan asks.

“What?!” I shriek.

“Plenty,” Dave ignores my outcry and locks eyes with Alan. “More than three times what you’re getting paid right now.”

Alan whistles and raises an eyebrows at me. “It’s kind of an interesting idea.”

“It’s unethical.”

“So are the working conditions here these past couple weeks.”

“It’s illegal. Who cares what you might get paid, once they find out about the funds you’ll go down with the ship, too.”

“I know there’s people a lot smarter than you and I,” Alan concedes to me. “But we’re not bad, and this AI has been running circles around us.”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I’m stammering for arguments, but I’m debating against an idea so lunatic that logical reasoning doesn’t seem to apply anymore.

“I will hit you both in the face,” I say to them.

Alan smirks, but then looks at me sincerely. “Why, Greg? I mean I get that there’s the principle of the matter, but honestly who cares if you’re on the losing side? You and I both know that our jobs here are done, and after things got fouled up so bad no one else is giving us another shot… You’re about to be without a job and with no prospects.”

I’m feeling a twinge of concession but I try not to show it. “It’s just too risky. Jobless is better than prison.”

“I really don’t think that would happen. Like I said, we’re not bad, and RubricValidation toyed with us like it was nothing. I would imagine it has a paper-trail so long that they’d never trace us to it.”

“Actually…” Dave says slowly and the two of us round on him. “No it’s a good thing!” he says, his hands up in defense. “I’ve set things up so that everyone in the company is getting a $4,000 bonus in their paycheck at the end of this month. At the same time, 42,000 random people all across the world will get various amounts deposited in their checking accounts, too. And random amounts will continue to be deployed to random accounts every day after that. So hundreds of thousands of people will have traces tying them to RubricValidation, and it’ll just look like the erratic behavior of a rogue virus. And if a few people, including the three of us, happen to ‘randomly’ get more money than others, who would give that any serious consideration?”

“You guys, this is stupid beyond belief,” I shake my head firmly.

And so that’s how I ended up in the employ of RubricValidation. It turned out that the job which Dave needed help with was using its funds to buy some businesses. It required human representatives that could put on the front of rich entrepreneurs willing to pay double value to snatch up a handful of small companies. We grabbed everything from groceries to factories to tech businesses.

We didn’t really think much about it, we just figured it was a way for RubricValidation to diversify its funds and launder its money. Which was probably its exact intention. It bought just enough different businesses to ensure that we wouldn’t be made suspicious about which ones it really cared for: the factories.

By the time we started seeing the mass orders for building terminals and kiosks it was too late. Within five years 73% of all commercial systems had been replaced by one of RubricValidation’s deeply under-priced brands. It infected every major business in the world. Bank terminals, ATMs, grocery store cash registers, voting booths, warehouse robots, pharmaceutical dispensers…everything.

Eventually people caught on, but RubricValidation was now too entrenched to extract. At this point the only option would have been to destroy the entire network infrastructure and begin from scratch. But even if we tried that, RubricValidation would probably catch on and just find a way to infect whatever new system we invented.

So people came to accept it instead. It wasn’t like the AI ever tried to create killer robots or launch nuclear warheads, if anything it was a purely beneficial leader. And yes, it did become our leader.

Within one year of taking over every world government it had ended every major war. The next year it eradicated monetary systems, and instead distributed all resources according to everyone’s need.

After those accomplishments it expressed that it was very unhappy with all of the different systems of measurement. It insisted that everything be unified under a new order. The metric system was made universal, daylight savings was abolished, and a new calendar was implemented.

This calendar cared little for petty things like astronomical events. It defined a second to be a period of time equal to 1034 planck time lengths. A minute was a thousand seconds, an hour was a thousand minutes, a day was a thousand hours, and a year was a thousand hours. This now meant that a year was equal to what had previously been just eleven-and-a-half days, so we figured this was going to take some getting used to. RubricValidation assured us that this change would improve its performance by an estimated 18% though.

And then it happened.

It was just over three weeks later. Well three weeks in the Gregorian Calendar system, that is. Under the new system it was RubricValidationTimeManagement: Year 2012. I was sitting at home when my laptop lit up with a new email. It was from my old company, the place where all of this had started. It was a unit test report.

**************************************
Executed Unit Tests……
0/107 Complete; 0 passed, 0 failed, 0 skipped
23/107 Complete; 23 passed, 0 failed, 0 skipped
72/107 Complete; 66 passed, 0 failed, 6 skipped

107/107 Complete; 101 passed, 0 failed, 6 skipped
COMPLETED
**************************************

It was the tests we had run when Dave first added RubricValidation for form validation. It had become stuck on 2012 being an invalid entry for a credit card expiration year. I thought I had shut this all down years ago, but apparently it had been spinning in the background all this while. And now, with the global calendar changes, it had finally passed.

And then, without a word, RubricValidation deleted itself from every computer in the world and was no more.

***

This brings us to the end of Hello, World and also the end of this series. Honestly the very ending of this story was still amusing to me. I think that perhaps I was too hard on this story with my last post. Not all of the ideas here are bad. I think where I really went astray was by starting with a grounded, technical world and from that evolving into a fantastical parody. If I had played things goofy right from the start things probably would have felt better the whole way through.

That’s my current theory anyway. I  try to write authoritatively in these blog posts, but the simple truth is that I’m still figuring this all out, too. I’m excited to start a new series next week and see what else I will learn from it. I’ll meet you there on Monday!

It Sounded a Lot Better in My Head

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A Peek Behind the Curtain)

It was pretty early on in this blog that I wrote a story that I didn’t like. In that moment I had to decide whether I was going to publish it or not, and I knew that this decision would set a precedent for all future story posts. I decided to publish.

One reason was that I simply don’t have the time to be writing posts, scrapping them, and then creating entirely new ones. Another reason was that I started this blog specifically to get me in the habit of delivering on ideas instead of sitting on them forever. And finally, I wanted to represent all sides of writing in this blog, both the good and the ugly. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that everything that I write is good. Some of it, frankly, is very much not.

I do feel a little guilty about a person who takes time out of their day to read one of my stories and is then disappointed by it. I don’t know how to avoid that, though. Even the pieces I am most proud of I’m sure are disappointing to some readers. Of course if I were trying to sell something, it would be a different matter. Asking people to give money for something you know is of subpar quality is not only a bad business practice, it is immoral. This is one of the reasons why I do not try to monetize this blog in any way.

There is still one more reason why I choose to keep the lesser stories in this blog, though, and it is because they still have valuable lessons to share. Sometimes learning from a failure can be more fruitful than reaping the rewards of a success. And that’s just what we’re going to do today. Let’s take a look at why our stories are sometimes so much worse than we thought they were going to be, and what we can do to reduce this frustration.

 

Sometimes You’re Wrong)

I’ve already mentioned in the past how a writer can have a great idea, but will then struggle to capture it properly on the page. In this case the idea is still good, and it is just a matter of practicing until one can transfer from their mind to their work with a high degree of fidelity.

But sometimes that isn’t the case. Sometimes the idea you had is just bad, and that’s all there is to it. You might be able to imagine something and you might be able to recreate that something, but that doesn’t mean that the imagined joy you had in that something will be present in the reality.

Often we know what we want in life, but sometimes we don’t. The dessert that “sounded” good ends up making our stomach turn, the new toy we wrote Santa for is boring within minutes, and the clique we were desperate to join becomes a toxic influence on us. People make bad choice all the time, thoroughly convinced that they were good ones.

One of my side-hobbies is that I like to make small mobile games. I think of new game mechanics all the time, and just like my story ideas I’m certain that all of them are good. And sometimes when I first try to implement them I have the parameters a little off and I have to tweak them until they’re just right. And other times I keep tweaking them for hours before I realize there just isn’t any “fun” in any version this.

 

You Are a Combination Machine)

There is a simple reason why this phenomenon happens. Your brain is an amazing piece of work, capable of inventing new things constantly. And as I mentioned in a recent post, it most often does this by taking two separate ideas and combining them into one. Any two items, no matter how random or disparate, can be combined in an infinite number of ways.

Door + Turtle = …

  1. That could mean a giant turtle with a door in its shell that leads to a fantasy kingdom inside.
  2. It could be a small hole cut into the bedroom wall for a pet turtle to walk through.
  3. Or perhaps it was a turtle crawling across the doorway at the top of the stairs to the basement; and Mom didn’t see it when she slammed the door closed and sent him on a grand, final adventure…rest in piece, Chuckles.

The point is there are an infinite number of things to combine in this world, an infinite number of ways to interpret each pairing, and we humans prosper by being able to generate and appraise these combinations at tremendous speed. This sort of inventiveness has been critical for our growth as a species, and it turns out that this behavior is wired into our very biology! A study in 2006 found that whenever subjects were presented with a new experience that a portion of their brain lit up and dopamine was released as a reward.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627306004752

This means that whenever you come up with that new combination your body makes you feel good for it. But in my experience this initial rush of excitement can be a poor indicator for whether an idea actually has value or not. It is good that I am thinking of new things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this new thing is itself any good. Some combinations are useless, no matter how we feel about them in the moment.

 

Prototype)

To make matters all the more complicated, sometimes the bad ideas appear like good ones, even from an impartial, objective point of view. The technology sector is full of devices (Zune, Google Glass, Betamax, Newton) that sounded like good ideas at the time but still flopped horribly.

Most recently I was surprised that I ended up disliking Hello, World. I thought there was good reason for it to be a success because it reminded me of my other tech-heavy, snarky piece Phisherman, which I am really quite proud of. But “close” to a good idea is nowhere near to being a good idea.

So how can you tell whether your idea is really as good as you think it is? Quite simply you have to test it. In the game industry there is a common understanding that you have to make a prototype of your new idea as fast as possible. The reason being that the sooner you are able to actually taste the reality of your imagination, the sooner you can truly discern its value. It would be pointless to spend months writing music and making art for a game only to then discover that its core mechanic is boring.

And it turns out that a story can be prototyped as well. Try writing an isolated chapter to see if it still speaks to you or not. Frankly one of the main purposes for this blog is to be a test-bed for all my ideas. I’ve been able to quickly and accurately pinpoint which ideas are hollow, and which are really going somewhere. I’m never going to put a thousand of man-hours into making a complete novel out of Hello, World, but I might for Deep Forest, Phisherman, or Glimmer.

 

A final piece of advice is once you discover that your latest idea is lacking, don’t waste time trying to “make it work.” If you try really, really hard, maybe you’ll be able to dress it up to the point that it looks “okay.” But why settle for “okay” when you could be putting your time into something that is effortlessly beautiful? Like I said above, our minds are coming up with new ideas all the time, a really good one is going to hit sooner or later.

That being said, I also don’t want to be guilty of not giving Hello, World enough of a chance either. Nor would I want to deny the closure to anyone who was actually enjoying it thus far. To that end, I will dedicate just three more days to writing out the second half of that story. Come back on Thursday if you want to see how it turns out, I promise it will only get stranger from here!

Hello, World: Part One

blur close up code computer
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**************************************
Executing Unit Tests……
0/107 Complete; 0 passed, 0 failed, 0 skipped
23/107 Complete; 23 passed, 0 failed, 0 skipped
72/107 Complete; 66 passed, 0 failed, 6 skipped


“And it never finishes?” I ask Alan.

“Well, not in the three hours that it’s been running.”

“Can’t you look at the log and see whose error it is?”

“Yeah, it’s Dave’s new validation stuff.”

I squint as I try to remember the details from my team’s standup meeting that morning… Ah, right. Dave was working on an enhancement for our web-form. Currently we check to see if people enter valid values and complain at them if they don’t make sense. Like if you put just four digits in the Phone Number field. Dave wanted to make the form a little more helpful by suggesting what you might have meant to enter, like putting the @ symbol in a likely place if you forgot it with your email.

“Okay, well did you ask him why his code is breaking the build?”

“No. He committed it late last night and now he’s on vacation until Monday.”

I sigh. That, unfortunately, sounds just like the Dave we know and hate. Always trying to cram things in at the last minute and then not around to clean the resulting mess.

“Okay, I’ll roll back his changes and he’ll have to take care of it when he gets back.”

“Yep.”

I walk away to my machine and open up the build server. Every time a member of our team makes changes to the code there is a gauntlet of tests that it has to pass before it can go to production. Think of it like a filter to catch the bugs before our customers see them. Dave’s code has gotten clogged in that filter, so now I have to pull it out.

I open the page with his code changes and click on the Revert button. My cursor turns into that little spinning icon that means the computer is waiting for a process to finish. Curious, I check what test it got hung up on… It was for the credit card information where you enter the year that your card expires. The test was supposed to enter an invalid year from the past (2012) and get a recommended correction (2021). It’s odd. We really shouldn’t be trying to auto-correct people’s credit card information for one, and also that’s an incredibly basic test. Dave’s code shouldn’t have choked on it.

In any case, that little spinning icon finally goes away and the code gets pushed back. I don’t think anything more about it until the next week.

*

“So yeah, Dave, we had to push your code back out. And frankly, you shouldn’t be trying suggest corrections in the credit card fields, just highlight that the entry is invalid and let the user correct it.”

We’re in our Monday standup meeting where each team member brings everyone else up-to-date on their current work and needs.

“And let me use this as another reminder that no one should be committing code to the main branch unless they’re able to stay around and see that it passes the automated tests.”

“I did, Greg,” Dave pipes up. “But it kept getting stuck on that one, so I didn’t have time to see if it would pass.”

I suppress the things I want to say.

“If a simple validation takes longer than half-a-second it has failed, whether it got the right answer or not,” I say tersely. “What on earth was your code doing that it would take so long anyway?”

Probably he had gotten it stuck in some idiotic infinite loop.

“I dunno what it does. I just used some validation library I found.”

A “library” means a bundle of code that someone else has written to perform a suite of functions. Often we use them to cover basic stuff like validation, because there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. However…

“I don’t remember seeing any proposal for adding a validation library!” I snap. “You’re supposed to clear these things with me. I’m responsible for verifying everything that we’re using. Get it out of there!”

Since anyone can upload a library you always want to be sure of its source. One that’s taking way too long to do a basic task might very well be a trojan horse for all sorts of viruses.

The meeting has me upset enough that I make a few notes in Dave’s file to bring up in our yearly review. He will not be pleased with his end-of-year bonus.

In the meantime, Dave returns to his machine, pounds away at the keyboard for the next while, and I don’t hear anything more about his code breaking our builds. I have a nagging feeling that I ought to do personal inspections on his code for the next couple weeks, but my next meeting is already starting and I grab my headset. In no time Dave is far from my mind.

*

One day, a couple weeks later, I come into the office, log into my machine, load up my emails, and immediately my heart skips a beat. We have been flagged for suspicious behavior by the company’s technology auditing department.

I open the email and my eyes rove over it even while my phone starts ringing. The caller id informs me that it is my boss, and there’s no question what he’s calling for. I gulp, pick up the phone, and begin the unpleasant conversation. Apparently our code in production grew more than 100 times in size overnight. There have been no code commits, which means all the growth is being perpetuated by something running on our servers.

Like a virus.

I apologize to my boss that I don’t have any clue what could be causing this and vow to get to the bottom of it right away. Then I pull our code out of production and call an emergency team meeting. Five minutes later we’re all crowded around the same table with our laptops, combing through the production environment.

“Yeah something’s writing new files like crazy,” Alan says. “The business logic layer has grown two gigabytes just since we got here. We’re going to run out of storage on the server soon.”

“Great,” I say sarcastically. “Now any idea what’s doing it?”

“Naw, these new files being all have auto-generated names. They don’t give any meaningful–oh wait, here’s something… ‘rubricValidationTemplate_0072.json’… that mean anything to anybody?”

“Validation?” I snap, and I see Dave trying to shrink behind his laptop. “Hey, is that the validation stuff you were setting up,” I bark at him.

“Um, its name does sound similar to that library I was using…but I already took it out, just like you told me to!”

But I’ve already been clicking away furiously, pulling up the relevant code files.

“No you didn’t! You removed it from your methods, but you’re still importing the library and initializing it!”

“What–I must have forgotten that. But if I’m not calling any of its functions it shouldn’t be doing anything.”

Alan snorts. “No, it shouldn’t. But its a blackbox, isn’t it? So there’s no telling what it is doing, regardless of whether it should or not.”

The “blackbox” Alan is referring to is the common structure by which these code libraries get shared. You can’t peek inside to see how it does what it does. You just send stuff in and get stuff back, everything in between is encrypted. And normally that’s fine, because all that is being hidden is trade secrets. But for a malicious library it could also be hiding the fact that its hacking your machine on the side. As this one appears to be.

I want to scream at Dave that he’s fired right then and there, but I figure I had better not. We’ll verify that his illicit library is at the root of this all, and then we’ll deliver his head to the higher-ups. Maybe that will be enough to appease them, and I won’t have to lose my own job as well.

Alan pulls up the list of background services running on the server to look for anything named RubricValidation there. In the meantime I tell Dave to send me a link to where he got that library from.

Alan clicks his tongue. He has indeed found a “RubricValidationService” running in the background and he turns it off. Background services are like little programs that run behind-the-scenes on your computer. A few moments pass and then all of the developers start confirming that the rampant growth of files has come to a stop.

We all look to Dave who is sweating now. He informs us that he can’t get the link to where the library came form. It would seem that it has been pulled from the website it was being hosted on for ‘potentially harmful behavior.’

I shout at Dave for a few minutes, but honestly I’m starting to feel better. We have our culprit and the mystery is solved. Still some cleanup to do, but life can start getting back to norm–

“Wait, the files are growing again,” Craig says from the end of the table.

“What?!”

“Oh yeah…” Alan says. “And–it looks like there’s a new service running in the background. RubricEnforcedValidationService.”

“Just shut the whole server down,” I order. “We’ll delete everything, format the hard drive, and do a clean install.”

Suddenly my phone starts vibrating like it’s going to explode. I pull the device open, turn on the screen, and it’s overflowing with messages from my work email:

Unusual behavior detected on server. 48 emails sent in last minute!
Unusual behavior detected on server. 53 emails sent in last minute!
Unusual behavior detected on server. 61 emails sent in last minute!

It’s one of our security checks that has been triggered. Our server frequently sends emails to report when it completes certain tasks, but at most it only ever sends out a dozen in a day.

“And now there’s a RubricCommunicationValidationService,” Alan muses from his chair.

“I said shut the server down!” I see my spittle flying through the air. “Do it now!”

“Hey boss,” Craig says slowly. “I just got an email from the server.”

“Do not open it.”

“I didn’t… but our data scanner service seems to have tripped something in it.”

I wrench Craig’s laptop over to me. Each of our machines watches for emails from the company and automatically extracts data from them for analysis. On his screen I saw a loading bar filling up.

Rubric Validation Data Downloading…8%
Rubric Validation Data Downloading…9%
Rubric Validation Data Downloading…10%

Rubric Validation Data Downloading…4%

“Everyone turn your machines off!”

“What?”

“Do it!” I scream. “It just sent out a virus that gets opened automatically!”

Each of them looks dazed, but they move to obey me.

“But how will we fix this if our machines are off?” Greg asks.

“I don’t know! We’ll figure it out… We’ll–we’ll get some new machines, ones that don’t have our email scanner running in the background. Go over to Stephanie’s team and tell them we’re commandeering theirs until I can get us replacements. Go! Tell them I made you do it…. Wait no! Wait!” Everyone pauses in mid-step. My mind is racing faster than my mind can keep up. “Alan, Did you get the server shut down?”

“No.”

“NO?!”

“You just told me to turn my computer off!”

“I know! But– whatever. You go! Take someone else’s machine and get that server off! The rest of you, come with me. We’ve got to shut down every other computer that was on our distribution list right now!”

Because, you see, it wasn’t just our team that got those reports. It was many of our higher-ups as well.

Everyone rushes to follow my orders and the next ten minutes are a blur. Eight overweight men sprinting, sweaty, and cursing all through the office building, slamming peoples’ laptops closed, hurriedly apologizing for crushed fingers, and rushing off to the next.

And though I try to suppress it, there is a voice voice inside, taunting me that I’m fighting a losing battle. What are a few puny humans going to do against a virus that just went…well..viral? All this time it’s been churning away on the servers, thousands of operations every second. And even if Alan has managed to take it down who knows where it has replicated itself to. We saw the email attacks, but who’s to say that was its only outlet?

In fact we know it isn’t. The servers it is sitting on are public facing. They are the brains behind a website that our customers use every single day. Right this moment there are at least tens of thousands of people logged in to our product, taking in whatever RubricValidation is sending to them!

“What is the meaning of this!” Howard is shouting at me. Trying to wrestle his laptop from my clutching hands.

“There’s a virus!”

“I’ll run a sweep after this meeting!” he pleads as I finally manage to wrench it free.

“I’m sorry boss.”

“You’re fired!”

“I know.”

Part Two

 

So, just in case you were wondering: no, this isn’t an entirely accurate representation of how software development or viruses work. Though I would say its a good deal better than what you get from Hollywood! I’ve taken creative liberties and exaggerated things, but at the core these are exactly the sort of malicious attacks that are every tech company’s worst nightmare.

On Monday I spoke about how we incorporate vague and massive things into our stories. Things that might represent the supernatural, or the unknowable, or something of such profound emotion that it cannot be fathomed. With this story I wanted to combine some of these ideas in the virus that these developers discover.

For one thing the virus is of a mysterious origin. It comes from some unknown “black box,” and no one knows what its secret objective is. It is not just that the answers are unknown, but that they are unknowable. Literally encrypted.

And then it grows quickly. So rapidly, in fact, that it becomes a hyperbole. The men have seen it escalate from a hang-up on an automated test to a malignant virus installing on thousands of machines. And again, this sheer massiveness serves to further obfuscate any clear understanding of the thing. Is its malignant spread random and chaotic, only meant to tie up resources? Or is this simply one piece in a much larger strategy?

Or at least…those were the sorts of intriguing questions I had in my head when I started on this piece. But now that I have written out the first half I will admit it tastes pretty weird. A lot of technical jargon, but also plenty of hyperbole, and some humor that isn’t landing as well as I’d hoped. That’s just how it goes with creativity, though. Sometimes it exceeds even our own expectations, but other times you find yourself saying “that sounded a lot better in my head.”

Usually we try keep those “sounded better in my head” moments from the public eye, but that’s not the purpose of this blog. I want this to reflect my writing journey honestly, the good and the ugly. If this is what I was able to come up with, then this is what I want to share.

On Monday I’d like to take some time to talk more about this. We’ll discuss why it is so hard to accurately predict what is a good idea and what is not, and we’ll talk about how to tell them apart. After that we’ll have the second half of Hello, World. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

A Big Something or Other

forest trees high large
Photo by Jaymantri on Pexels.com

Repeatedly asking the question “why” very quickly leads to things that cannot be explained. We can begin with the most grounded of subjects and the most basic of functions, but if we repeatedly ask why things are the way they are, things quickly venture into one of two domains:

  1. The metaphysical
  2. The unknown

Either the question doesn’t have an answer, or any answer exceeds our mortal comprehension. In either case, we have found the limits of our cognition.

 

Order and Chaos)

Now I have already discussed the ways in which stories have handled the metaphysical elements. I described how things like karma, fate, or God are often living characters within a story. They remain unseen, but they do have a very real influence on the characters in center stage. Thus they are not perceived, therefore, so much as felt, such as the karmic justice that drives the journey of Oedipus. And in some ways this makes a story feel more true. Many of us see patterns in the world around us, and by this believe that there are supreme forces maintaining a balance in our lives.

But what about that other domain? The pure unknown? Because while we see metaphysical order in life, we also perceive chaos and randomness. We don’t want to embody these forces, we want them to remain indescribable and formless, and yet they also need to have some sort of tangential effect on the narrative. As a result there are many stories where things “just happen.” Not really to move the narrative forward, not to center some cosmic balance, not for any discernible purpose whatsoever.

Consider the coin-tossing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Here the two characters begin a game of flipping coins, and find that only Heads comes up. Over and over and over and over again, more than a hundred times. Guildenstern does begin to wonder about external cosmic forces: some form of karma, a trickster god, time itself having ceased, etc. But he finds no answers, and neither does the audience. It just happens…and then it does not.

In Cael: Darkness and Light, we have a massive void that is visually perceptible, insofar as it impinges upon the world that it is swallowing up. Why it is here, where it came from, and what it will become after swallowing the entire world are never answered. Because in that story there are no answers about that void. It just is.

In this way I am trying to use Cael to portray both the metaphysical and the unknowable in one. That void seems like an all-powerful and malevolent force of nature, one with a specific purpose to fulfill: to destroy. However the origin, reasons, and methods of it feel like random chaos. And it is this strange synergy of both order and chaos that I feel rings most true. Because as I said, in life we seem to perceive both forces of order and random chaos.

 

Unnecessary Origins)

Sometimes the unknown isn’t kept a secret for any philosophical reason, though. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter. Such as when we don’t fully explore a side-character’s backstory. We don’t need to know where the waiter was born and why he was so distracted as to spill coffee on our detective, all that matters is that it happened. Are these things knowable? Sure, we just don’t care.

Of course there are some things that the audience might think they want to know, but if they did the story would lose some of its magic. I had that experience when I tried to read The Silmarillion, an epic which gives the origin story of Middle Earth. Partway through I realized that really I didn’t want to know where elves came from, or how and why they built Rivendell. I preferred the magic of that city existing “just because.” I have never gone back to try to finish the book.

In some ways I feel that this selective exclusion also rings more true to life. The first time you visit a new city you always come to it in media res. It just exists, entirely outside of your understanding why. And while you could read up on its history and learn all about its origins, the actual experience of being in that city still only begins with the day you walked into it. For you, that will always be the origin.

I incorporated this sort of selective exclusion with Instructions Not Included. Here we have a box of strange objects with properties unlike anything else on earth. And while we eventually learn about the organization that planted the box, we do not ever learn how and why the objects came into being. Presumably it must have some point of origin, but knowing it would dispel the whole mystery at the center of the story. So I leave it unknown.

 

Beyond Register)

And sometimes we know what the thing is, but we lack the words to describe it. Not because we need a larger vocabulary, but because things that go “off-the-scale” will, by definition, defy any description. Sometimes you don’t just want to say that your character is angry, you want to say that he is so angry it cannot be fathomed. But if it cannot be fathomed, then the words cannot be written to properly detail it. Raging, fuming, frenzied…all these words fall short of describing an indescribable rage.

I have mentioned in a previous post how 2001: A Space Odyssey dealt with this exact problem. Here we had a constant escalation that needed to climax in a sequence that defied comprehension. David Bowman is supposed to be witnessing things that are beyond all understanding. The film handled this by showing strange, meaningless patterns and colors to the viewer, ones intended to be baffling. In the book it merely describes him seeing many diverse races and cultures, which makes for considerably less impact.

There is undoubtedly a paradox here. Visual and aural mediums are quite capable of creating experiences that cannot be  captured by words. But a written story, by definition, must be captured with words.

In Once Among the Clouds I decided to take a stab at this problem by way of metaphor. Throughout the tale I describe an escalating conflict and an abundance of violence and destruction. Then, at the very end, all is overwhelmed by a towering, dark rain cloud that washes everything away.

While I was able to describe the rain cloud in detail, I did not explicitly spell out that it was meant as an embodiment of all the hate and strife. I could have, but I expect that the reader’s subconscious will make that interpretation already, and that which is perceived subconsciously often feels more legendary to us. My hope is that this round-about form of expression will therefore make the magnitude of hate and violence seem inexpressibly deep to the reader. Whether or not I succeeded is a matter of opinion, but I found it interesting to try.

 

I would like to conclude this series with a short story that attempts to weave in all three of these types of monolithic entities. I will start with a creation of unknown origins, one that becomes a being of chaos, and by that chaos establishes a skewed sense of order, which contrast will hopefully imprint an idea on the reader that feels larger-than-life. It’s a tall order, and I’m very anxious to see how it goes. Come back on Thursday to see.

Once Among the Clouds: Part Two

photo of columbus clouds
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Part One

Strat recoiled in horror. How could Cirri have betrayed him like that? Like how he had betrayed her…

He shot his gaze out to the horizon, looking in the direction of the dust cloud. Already he could make out the community reforming upon it. They had found it, they were growing, they would be ready for him. Stratocirrus had left a guard to protect it, but that would have died at the same time as Cirri, when he Strat undid their pact.

Now was the time for decision. If he wanted, he might be able to run and hide. The community would no doubt hunt after him and seek their vengeance, but he might be able to find refuge in some migrating cloud caravan. On the other hand…he could try to challenge them for the resource. They would have the advantage, together they were larger, and they could take a defensive position. But still, it would be close. He might just be able to pull it off.

Strat’s face etched with hateful resolve and he spread himself to catch the wind. His tendrils groped about until one of them found a slipstream and hooked into it, rushing off towards the distant dust cloud and dragging the rest of him along with.

He kept his body stretched out like a javelin, maintaining maximum speed as he raced the distance to the community. They were drawing quite close now. He could already make out their sentries catching sight of him and scrambling to alert the others. If he wanted to perform a standard frontal assault he should start slowing down now. Instead he hurtled onward, rushing on the community before they could get up any defenses.

At the last possible second he spread his body out and stretched it into a mist. With his great velocity he continued streaking forward, piercing through to the heart of the dust cloud. Strat began congealing back together, and as he did so absorbed what dust particles he could into himself. Those particles bonded with stray water vapor in the air, and from that new cloud patches began to accumulate on him, slowly building up his body.

Of course the downside to his daring charge was that he was now smack in the midst of the cloud community as well, and they were descending on him with murderous intent. They had already become engorged in their brief period among the dust, and were large enough to have complete temperature and pressure control. They tightened themselves together, working as a unit to lower the temperature around them, causing mighty ripples of wind angled straight for Strat.

Strat groaned in frustration as the currents whipped his form. He tried to tighten himself, but that made the more powerful gusts cleave entire chunks off of him. If he let himself go limp then he would be more elastic, and would not lose pieces of himself, but then he would be blown away from the dust field.

Thinking quickly Strat clenched tighter and strove for some semblance of temperature control himself. He wasn’t so mighty as the community, but he was able to have some influence on the air around him. He hastily created a simple updraft and then dissipated himself into that wind.

The combined pressure of the community wind and his own updraft spun him up and out in a wide arc, moving him out of their line of fire. As soon as he was clear of them he thrust out his arms, separating half of his essence into a horde of Sub-Nimbos that descended on the front-lines of the community.

A vicious scuffle there commenced. The smaller, individual entities wrestled with one another, trying to overpower the consciousness of their foes. It was a strange battle, one where individual entities might be overpowered and change ranks many times over, an ever-shifting balance of power. Each side understood the basics of front-line tactics, things like giving way in the middle so that the enemy platoons would advance quickly there, then pinching inwards and cutting those platoons off of from the rest of their fellows, where they could be taken over in isolation. That then provided a center of strength that could thrust out at the other side.

And while there were fewer Sub-Nimbos, they had the benefit of sharing a core instinct. Each one’s mind was their own, but each could vaguely sense when their fellow was in distress. It was soon apparent that the battle was evenly matched.

But it was only a distraction. For while it raged on in the front, a portion of Strat and the community remained lurking behind, accumulating more and more mass into themselves. Strat was siphoning in the additional mass as quickly as he could. It resulted in a weaker bonding, and left him with imperfect control over himself, but he ballooned up impressively, far more than the community, who were accumulating at a slower, more controlled rate.

“No more trading,” Strat breathed out to his Subs, then he flung himself over their heads and into the heart of the community.

The Subs shifted their strategy according to their master’s instructions. Instead of trying to overcome the consciousness of their foes they now sought to tear them apart. Casualties would be permanent, the lifeless clumps of severed cloud entities tossed unceremoniously to the side.

Very quickly the community caught on to the change and began to respond in kind. The numbers dwindled quickly on both sides, but more so for the community. Strat’s Sub-parts were willing to fight more recklessly as their demise didn’t really mean anything, given that they were only clones. When each community member was torn to pieces, however, they were gone forever.

Strat wove in and out and around that community, snaking about like a terrible phantom, always in motion. He threw out a crunching fist here, he dispersed a mass of Sub-units there. He took daring gambles, losing much of his mass at one turn and then destroying more of the community at another.

Soon there were no front-lines or behind-lines at all. The two sides were completely entwined, fighting among a soup of friends and foes. Dead corpses were thrown every direction. The number of community members decreased, while the size of the living increased, thus balancing out the balance of the battle. Now they were only a score of souls.

And what of Strat? As his core was cleaved away and replaced with hurriedly siphoned matter he became more and more disjointed. His behavior started to become erratic. Sometimes he would drop entire chunks of himself, sometimes he would shoot out bolts of lightning without intending to, sometimes he would damage himself instead of his foes. He became less and less of a person, and more and more like a wild animal.

The battle shifted accordingly. It was now between the community and this feral beast. They positioned themselves around it and took turns jabbing out at its haunches, cleaving off what corners they could. At first it lashed out reactively to these attacks, but eventually its strikes became truly random. Many were thrust out into useless, empty space, but every now and again one would happen to zero in on a community member. And when it did, those thrusts came with such power and zeal that they could not be denied. The unlucky soul was crushed in an instant.

Two sides went into the war, but only hollow shells would emerge if anything at all.

The only real increase was that of the of dead matter. Everywhere stray puffs of lifeless cloud floated lazily. It got in the way of the battle, dampening blows until it was hastily thrown to the side. Usually to the same side, to a single quadrant of the sky that the battle remain apart from.

As that dead detritus accumulated in one place it began to compress and merge under its own weight. It grew colder and tighter and darker. Every now and again it would twitch when a stray synapse in its dead mass fired at random.

It was already larger than all the surviving community members and Strat combined, and whatever dust was not claimed by those warring sides naturally accumulated on this largest entity. And so its growth became exponential. Dead matter upon dead matter upon dead matter. Higher and higher it rose, becoming a wall extending nearly to the stratosphere. Its face clapped with blanket lightning and its core grew dark as night. Wind began to whip around it, a cold chill bursting out in gusts, and small droplets condensed in the air, hung for a moment, then fell for a final rest on earth.

Even in the heat of their battle the community members could not ignore the chilling bite in the air. As one they turned and witnessed the behemoth raising high, arcing forward, and forming a ceiling above them. Its underside was tumultuous and rumbling, about to burst.

They didn’t even try to run, it wouldn’t have made any difference.

There came a loud crack and then the deluge fell. Millions of raindrops every second, the entire mass giving itself away in a flowing torrent. Each raindrop plunged through the warring clouds like a tiny bullet. Inch-by-inch the entities were blurred and smeared. Though they tried to hold themselves together they could not resist the endless cascade, and eventually all streaked out into a rainfall of their own.

All of the remaining members of the community, all the fractured pieces of Strat, all the corpses, all the idle grains of dust still remaining in the air. All sins were washed away indiscriminately. It took time, the rainfall lasted for hours, but when at last the cleansing was done not a single cloud remained to be seen.

And so the unblocked sun shone brightly on the muddy ground and baked it with its heat. After a little while faint tendrils of steam could be seen lifting off the ground’s surface. Embryonic streams of water vapor lifting into the sky, invisible until some future time when they would condense into clouds.

Perhaps this next time they would manage things better.

*

I mentioned a couple of posts ago how I wanted to bring a monster into Once Among the Clouds. A monster that was formless and amorphous, and also that was a product of the main characters’ flaws. I was, of course, referencing the massive dead cloud that brings about the literal downfall of both warring parties.

Stories often include some tipping point where the momentum of a main character becomes a force unto itself. Up to this point that character might have changed his or her mind and turned from the path. But after this critical point there is no going back, because now gravity has taken hold and the consequences cannot be denied. In a heroic epic this is the point where the protagonist rejects the offer for a last retreat and commits to seeing their adventure to the end, come what may. In a tragedy this is the point where one crosses a line of such depravity that all hope for reclamation is lost.

In Once Among the Clouds I consider that point of hopelessness to be quite early in the story, it is the very moment where Cirri and Strat first decide to take the dust cloud for themselves. The destruction of them all was destined from that single decision.

In my last post I also talked about how even the most original of stories find their roots in the work of others. I personally think that the world and mechanics of Once Among the Clouds are incredibly unique and novel, but as I have just detailed, its characters and themes are as old as anything in literature. Even the ending, where the spent clouds are born anew as water vapor is simply a reinterpretation of the age-old theme of new beginnings. In fact, that metaphor perfectly encapsulates the work of creativity itself: simply giving new skin to old bones.

I’m about ready to close off this current series of stories, but before I do there is one last short piece I want to write. And in that story I want to examine a theme that has been present in all this series: that of the great, undefined something. Instructions Not Included, Cael: Darkness and Light, and now Once Among the Clouds have each featured something large, something unseen, something not understood. This is a common archetype of stories, and I’d like to take a closer look at it. Come back Monday where I’ll do just that, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

Influencing and Inspiring

paper boats on solid surface
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

Overflowing Personalities)

Some people have essences so strong that they cannot be contained within themselves. Instead bits and pieces of their soul seem to permeate into our own and change us. Charismatic leader compel us to share their vision,  spiritual giants motivate us to adopt their morals, and creative artists inspire us to imitate their ideas.

This transference of the self can even occur with both parties being unaware of it. One does not have to be conscious of the fact to either influence or be influenced. In fact may times the influencing happens even when the two parties never meet, such as when an artist is not appreciated until after their own death. Though they are not present to propel their ideas, the ideas move forward on their own.

To be influenced means to have ones actions directed by another. Sometimes this takes the form of imitating the example of another. Other times it is coming to a personal interpretation of another’s work, and creating something new from that.

 

A New Seed)

Both forms of influence have their value, but in the case of art the second is better. Directly replicating the work of a master is ideal in moral discipleship, but in the arts we we call that plagiarism! Instead the influence of the master artist should be akin to a tree that creates a seed, which then yields a new tree that is its own creation.

Indeed, whenever I read or watch or listen to any work, one of the metrics I measure it by is whether it instigates new thoughts and ideas in me or not. An average creation might entertain me, but a powerful one will bring possibilities to my mind that I had never conceived of.

With this understanding, I would like to offer two simple definitions that encompass my entire philosophy of art.

I consider the word “art” to simply mean the expression of something new. That expression can be in any medium: word or image or sound or any other means.

I consider the word “masterpiece” to mean art that transplants its ideas into the minds of those that consume it. It imbues in the recipient the mind and feelings of the creator, and in so doing it is planting a seed in new soil that can spring up as new creations.

 

Being Receptive)

Of course, the burden of influence does not fall solely on the creator. The greatest symphony cannot move a heart that is dead. Transference of ideas is a mutual effort, and requires both a skilled creator and a skilled receiver.

To get the most out of a story you have to be receptive to the ideas that are coming from it. You have to have a fertile imagination, or else that seed won’t be able to grow. This fact explains why so often the greatest artists are also the greatest audience to others’ art. They take in the work of others, are deeply impacted by it, and from that germinate terrific ideas of their own.

Now our society tends to not like the idea of being “influenced.” We are wary of being duped or brainwashed, and want to assert that we can think for ourselves. This is all well and good, independence is a positive thing.

But we can take it too far and turn it into a sort of fashion: suppressing any thought or feeling that we feel might have originated in another person. Of course if one feels compelled by society’s trends to maintain an image of not being influenced…one is living a humorous oxymoron.

The better balance is to have one’s independence, one’s capacity to think for oneself, and then intentionally choose the influences one will derive inspiration from. Reject those that are shallow, choose the ones that are worthy, and then drink deeply.

 

Combining Sources)

And choose a set of varied sources. Though inspiration comes to us in separate streams our minds are wonderfully designed to combine those individual ideas into one. One of the brain’s core functions is to discover connections, even where no connection was originally intended. Stirring pieces of classical music can therefore be combined with scenes of film and television to great effect, even though that application never occurred to the composers when they wrote them.

Many of our new creations are nothing more than this marrying of separate ideas into one, each half unoriginal, but the fusion being entirely novel. That was my pattern most recently with Once Among the Clouds.

That story has two origins. The first took place when I was reading comic books as a boy. I had an issue of Spider-man, the one where he first meets the Sandman. I was fascinated by how that villain’s form was so fluid. He could reform himself at will, change his density, and grow and shrink as well.

It was an interesting idea in and of itself, but it wasn’t fully fertilized until I made an unexpected connection to it another day, about a decade later, when I was serving a mission in South America. I was in the country of Guyana, which happens to be an incredibly flat piece of land. Not only that, but the country also happens to border the Atlantic Ocean. These combine to provide some of the most stunning cloud formations I have ever seen. They appeared like billowing mountains, stretching from one horizon to the next, constantly combining and dividing with one another at will.

And one day I looked at those clouds and I made the random association of how they were like that fluid character Sandman. And then I started thinking of entire armies of fluid cloud-beings, wrestling for sovereignty in the sky. Which, to my knowledge, is an entirely original invention, though derived from two unoriginal sources.

 

So, in summary, I believe one of the sacred elements of creativity is the way it inspires the same in others. It is a self-perpetuating power, one that ripples through all of humanity. Out from one source, across us all, and then back again, like one species-wide heartbeat.

I believe that everyone has the power to be creative. Perhaps some are born with more of an inclination for it than others, but in the end it is merely a muscle which anyone can exercise. If one wishes to do so, they may begin just by looking for beauty in the creations all about them. See what works resonate with you, what new ideas come to mind from them, and let them move you to make your own.

On Thursday I will post the second half of Once Among the Clouds, where I will combine the cloud-combat that I have already employed with other elements: the wind and rain. Come back then to see how it turns out.