Learning isn’t always fun. Especially when you are learning something that you don’t care about, and must do so by a firm deadline! I still consider some of my required college courses to be the most torturous ordeals I’ve ever gone through! Not simply because they were hard, but because they just didn’t interest me. I could handle difficult courses if I cared about the subject, but if I didn’t, then studying for them was sheer misery.
And, like many students, I would run away from the drudgery, finding refuge in the likes of novels, movies, music, and games. I would “take a break,” trying to find something that was as far away from “education” as possible.
Or was I?
Because when I think about the movies I watched, the books I read, and the games I played, I realize that they were all educational in their own way. They challenged me and required me to learn things I didn’t know, just like the very lessons I was running away from.
Take Lord of the Rings for example, one of the most demanding novels I’ve ever read. It’s prose was thick, it’s world was sprawling, and it’s lore was voluminous. Without even realizing it I was filing away a multitude of facts about the geography, history, and politics of Middle Earth and these were often the very subjects that I was running away from in the real world. Here, though, they were a delight to me!
Or what about when I watched Good Will, Hunting, a moving drama about a young man who has incredible potential, but is held back by all the emotional scars he carries. I’d watch that movie and feel that it had taught me so much more about psychology, society, and mental health than any of the college courses I was taking.
And there was also Portal, one of my favorite video games of all time. Here I was taught basic concepts of physics and teleportation, and then required to prove my mastery of these concepts by combining them in increasingly intricate ways. Portal helped ease me into the art of complex problem solving, which was a great boon to my classes in logic, mathematics, and programming.
So was I really coming to these movies and games and stories to get away from education? Absolutely not! Learning is one of the absolute greatest pleasures for us in life! Learning is always fun!
When it’s done right, anyway.
A Curious Mind)
Our minds want to be stimulated. We genuinely hate to be bored. William Faulkner once wrote, that “given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain,” and there have been studies conducted that show he is far from alone in this sentiment!
Behind boredom is the insatiable yearning to discover new things. This is why we have never had a generation that looked at what they already had and said “that’s enough, I won’t try to add anything to it.” We always try to discover something more. Every invention and advancement is always surpassed by another, because we are made to learn and then create.
And whenever our learning surpasses what we can create literally, we create them literarily instead! Think of Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne, who lacked the technology to build out the rockets and robots in their heads, but they went to the workshop of the mind and invented it all anyway, laying a foundation that both fiction and science have continued to build upon ever since! Continued to build on because, of course, we do not see their work and say “that is enough.” No, we have to press further, reach higher, and discover deeper!
But then why are school courses often so tedious? What is it about some forms of learning that is so pleasant, and others that is so repulsive?
To some degree, of course, it will depend on the subject and the student. All of us may be curious, but none of us are curious about all things. For one student mathematics is a challenging delight, for another it is genuine torture. I mentioned a novel, film, and game that all stimulated my mind, but not everyone likes Lord of the Rings, or Good Will Hunting, or Portal. If each of these were required in school courses, there would be those that saw them as the exact same drudgery that I was trying to escape from.
But I do believe there is a common trait that typically separates positive learning experiences from negative ones. It is when the education involves some sort of personal interaction from its pupil. Being “told” an education is never going to be as stimulating as actually living it!
Earlier, when I spoke of how our minds want to be stimulated, that thread quickly ran into examples of people inventing things. Education is at its absolute best when it is gained through the act of discovery or invention. Thus the best education is given incomplete, requiring the pupil to make the second half of it.
Lord of the Rings, for example, is already an interesting book, but what made it truly come alive for me was when it sparked visions of fantasies that weren’t on its pages. And Good Will Hunting is a moving film in and of itself, but it became so much more because when it made me reflect on my own life, and the ways I keep my own potential locked behind my wounds. And of course Portal, being a game, is designed entirely around interactivity. It gives the problems and the tools, but every solution was an invention of my own.
And this same inventiveness has always been present in my favorite courses at school. Because yes, I actually do have a lot of pleasant memories from school as well. And virtually all of those pleasant memories are based around classes that told me to come up with my own program, or draw my own picture, or write my own story. Then I wasn’t simply using my education to rehash what other people had discovered, I was using it to discover my own secrets. Secrets that the world has never known.
And this is the exact sensation I am trying to capture in my latest story, Covalent. Cace’s exploration of the Ether is meant to capture all the best parts of discovery, invention, and education. But even more than that, I am hoping that it will spark a little inventiveness in the minds of my reader as well. Hopefully by my leaving some stones unturned, the reader will have a way to make their own mark in this world!
“Well,” Jeret said. “Why don’t I make myself something to get back to–to the base?” He had almost said “to get back to home,” but he refused to do that. It was not his home, it was the central point of his prison.
Jeret painted some more of the strange haze in the air, and started to imagine a Tramporter System. He pictured the wheels and platform, and the guideline pointing out in the proper direction. He even tried to imagined the Tramporter System Node back at the base, tethered to this first one.
The results were…disappointing. A couple of wheels materialized, and the general shape of a standing platform, but they all collapsed to the ground as separate pieces. He tried again, this time thinking of axles running through the wheels, keeping them connected to the body. And so they materialized, but still a bit wonky, and still without any power.
Well how exactly did a Tramporter’s power work? Jeret didn’t know. And it didn’t seem that this tool was going to figure it out for him. If he wanted to make something with it, he would have to understand that something in greater details.
Well maybe it didn’t have to be a Tramporter, then. At last he had a sort of cart now, even if it was misshapen. All he really needed now was something to pull it.
Jeret waved his tool around the end of the cart, imagining a metal ring bolted to the end, and from that ring a cable running out into the distance. Then, along that cable he started to imagine a pack of dogs tied by leashes. As they started to come into form they were frightful to say the least. Disproportionate body parts, matted fur, excessively shiny eyes, and making strange guttural noises constantly. Why was it so easy to think an idea, but so hard to actually picture it properly?
Jeret thought of them running off in the distance, and all at once they popped into existence and bounded off with the cart!
“Oh!” Jeret barely managed to fling himself onto the vehicle before it was whisked away. The whole thing suddenly jerked to the left, and he fell to all fours! Then the cart jerked as suddenly to the right and he gripped the bolted ring for dear life.
The ground was perfectly smooth, so there were no bumps in the ride, but the dogs did not know how to run together. Indeed they couldn’t, so unequal were their different limbs. One dog on the left was at a particular disadvantage, with two limbs too long and two limbs too short. It would alternate between bounding and limping, which transitions accounted for the sudden jerks in the cart.
When there was a moment of calmness, Jeret waved his tool over the floor of the cart, fashioning an iron handle attached to it. This he held firmly, gritting his teeth as yet one another erratic jerk swung him wildly, and then another.
Still, they were moving, and in what generally seemed to be the correct direction. Also they were moving far more quickly than Jeret would have been able to on his own. And so, strange and uncomfortable as the ride was, Jeret could not help but feel a great swell of pride. He had made a transportation device, a tool to solve his problem. Already his mind was overflowing with ideas for what to make once he got back to his base.
He would have a feast every night. All of his favorite foods forever available. He would make tools, and resources, and he would build whatever he wanted. He would make creatures, people, and a beautiful home to keep them in.
He could build that tower he had been thinking of! And a parachute to safely glide back down to Amoria. He’d be able to go home, to find his old friends to–to get exiled all over again? No, what did he want with Amoria anymore. They didn’t want him, so he didn’t want them. Not in the same way as before, anyway.
Maybe he could build an army instead. An entire arsenal of weapons and machines. He could turn this entire asteroid into a giant cannon and blast the Communion to bits! Then, and only then, he could come back down. Come to rule and reign, to squash anyone that dared to oppose him! To make them beg him for forgiveness. To close them up in their own tombs of exile forever.
A glint caught Jeret’s eye and he turned his head. It must be his base, though still far off in the distance. The dogs were not pointed towards it, though, they were veering about fifteen degrees too far to the left.
“Turn boys, turn!” Jeret commanded, but of course the dogs paid him no heed.
“This way!” he said, grabbing the cable and tugging it to the left. The dogs startled and leaped high into the air. The sled followed, and Jeret gripped his handle all the more tightly as his stomach fell beneath him! With a thunderous crash they all came back down to the ground. One of the wheels gave an ominous splintering sound, and started warbling side to side, making the entire vehicle hum in vibration.
Every bolt and plank started to strain, and Jeret didn’t know how long the vessel might last. He certainly hadn’t thought out this part out very well! Frantically he looked all about him, and found himself staring down at the ground, whizzing by him at five yards every second.
This would hurt.
Jeret flung himself to the side, bailing off of the cart and onto the ground. He hit it forcefully, and his head smacked onto the rock. Senses reeling, he went into a rapid roll, skin rubbing off for not being able to turn quickly enough. He bounced into the air, and the next impact hit on the side of his knee. It throbbed in pain as he made another three full revolutions and finally came to a stop on his belly.
Every inch of him ached, his arms were scraped and raw, and any movement sent spasms of pain through his knee.
“I could…have made…a brake” Jeret snarled into the stone. Then, wincing sharply, he pushed himself to his feet and started limping back towards base. “A simple strip of steel on a pin, so that it could be pressed against the wheel and slow everything down. I could have made a cushion to fall on! Or a knife to cut the dogs loose!”
As he walked he created a stick and some ropes, binding them onto his leg for a splint. After a few efforts, he successfully made some bandages coated in soothing ointment, and wrapped them around his arms.
He would get back to his base, and he would make the deepest, softest bed ever known. And he would lay on it for days and not move an inch. And he would have a cool, frosted glass filled with golden Taroyl Ale, and it would constantly refill itself anytime he took a sip. That was what he would do when he got back!
And then a thought occurred to him. Why did he really need to make it back to the base? He could make a bed right here. And food right here. And a hole and a toilet right here. Anywhere on this rock could be his base and he would never be lost without resources again.
And so he set to work. The bed wasn’t perfect, a little lumpy, and with a hideous pattern, but it was good enough. And the toilet was nothing more than a small seat on top of a deep chute, but it was good enough. And the Taroyl Ale didn’t taste quite right, it had been a very long time since he had had the delicacy, after all, and couldn’t perfectly recall the flavor. But it did dull his pain, and it did lull him to sleep, and he was content.
And so the would-be ruler reigned, day-by-day his limbs stinging less, but growing more stiff. Then, day-by-day, they became less stiff, but more itchy. And finally, day-by-day, they came back to their normal, healthy function.
Of course the greatest problem that faced him in all this was the boredom. And so it was on the second day of recovery that Jeret thought to create some gladiators.
It was no doubt because he was in a foul, painful mood that he wanted to see things fight. It would give him relief to see others suffer more than he. At first he started to fashion another dog, but when he got to the point of making it menacing he thought better of it and erased the whole thing. A dog was large enough to be a threat to him, which was not a problem that he needed right now!
Much better to make something small, something that would only be a threat to others of its own kind. What sort of creature would be good for that? He tried a few different kinds, but he had the same problem as before with them appearing like some sort of nightmare versions of the original design. He gave up on them before they were finished. Then the thought occurred to him: why try to make something that already existed? Perhaps it would be easy to invent something new. The fact was, Jeret’s memory was shifting and fleeting, but crafting something purely from imagination was far more consistent.
First he thought of the basic details: a small creature, small enough to fit in the palm of his hands. It was a dark gray color, with speckles of black all around. It had a tall, curved back, which was covered in tough plates. It would crawl around on four, tough little legs. He watched it slowly take shape in front of him, but he wasn’t finished yet.
Now he moved on to finer details. The legs were furry and soft, as well as the underbelly. It had black, beady little eyes, and a narrow slit for its mouth. And emanating from that mouth was its single tusk. This was a long thing, curving slightly upwards towards the end. It was a very vocal creature. Not with loud shrieks or whoops, but rather a skittering sort of chatter, with the occasional shout if in pain.
And then he started to think of how it moved and behaved, and as he did so, it started wriggling to life before him. It was a nervous little creature, one that liked to hide in holes. And it lived off of small insects, and posed absolutely no threat to any creature that was larger than it. It gave birth to litters of three or four live young every year. And, of course, it was extremely territorial. Males would claim certain regions, and if two were ever in the same domain, they would fight to the death!
The creature came more and more to life, and as it did Jeret slowly shifted from defining it to observing it. Eventually it was real enough that gravity took hold and it popped out of the haze and fell to the ground. Once there, it immediately bolted under his bed and lurked there in the shadows.
Jeret’s leg twinged slightly as he got out of bed himself and lay on the ground, watching the animal. It was bunching its legs up around its body, and projecting its thick shell towards him, muttering with its strange little clicks.
“I guess you’ll need a home,” Jeret said, then set to work crafting a simple wire grid. He drew it out in an enclosed circle, and added a few rocks in one corner for the creature to live in. Then he made himself a net on a pole, and slowly reached it under the bed towards the creature.
It stayed immobile for as long as it could, then suddenly skittered off to the side. Jeret had anticipated that, though, and caught it in one quick swoop. He swung the net over the enclosure, and dropped the pet into its new home. Immediately it scampered into a small hole in the rocks.
“Good,” he smiled, and then began working on a challenger. This one was a little lighter in color, so that he could tell it apart from the first. He also made it a little bigger, but also with a shorter tusk. Other than that, it had all the same basic criteria as the first.
This one he fashioned in the air above the enclosure, and as he added the final details it popped into reality, then fell into the midst of the first one’s home. No sooner did it touch the ground than the first gave a little squawk and charged out from its hovel. The second turned, and rushed to meet it.
Then, much to Jeret’s surprise, the first one flailed its legs wildly, trying to halt its momentum. It was afraid of the new one’s size, and was trying to get away. The second pounced instantly, gripping the other’s shell with its two front legs. The second rolled the first over, exposing its soft belly and legs frantically running in the air. The second buried its tusk into the other’s heart. One, two, three, four, murderous jabs. The legs of the first twitched horribly with each plunge and it gave out a series of spasmodic cries. Then, all at once, everything stopped.
Up above them Jeret was trembling and tearful. What had he done?!
On Monday I talked about how Jeret was introduced in the most humble of circumstances, but then given a gift that could elevate him to the highest. Before his ultimate reclamation, though, I wanted the story to take an interesting arc in the middle. Here Jeret has more power than what he began with, but also becomes more morally debased.
Perhaps you, the reader, were horrified at his idea of “gladiators” as soon as it was suggested. Perhaps, like him, you thought it sounded interesting and inconsequential. In either case, I hope that the actual fight itself hit all readers as very unsettling and authentic. Certainly that is the experience of Jeret.
This represents an interesting line to walk. Because I wanted Jeret to have done something bad, but I did not want him to be irredeemable. How do I make his wrong actions matter, but not to the point of damnation? On Monday I’ll explain a little bit about how I approached this, and also discuss the wider notion of characters being flawed but redeemable. Come back then, and in the meanwhile have a wonderful weekend!
The trucks were upon them now. The winged discs stopped shooting from the back of the first, the engines sputtered out, and the doors opened. Out stepped eight men, all dressed in jeans and dark-grey jackets. They were uniforms, and each of their shoulders bore the name “Clecir.” Two of the men were carrying large briefcases, and four of them had sidearms on their hips. They didn’t draw their weapons, though, instead all eight slowly walked towards the two brothers, fanning out to keep them contained.
“Hello, boys,” one of them said. He had curly, white hair and dark sunglasses on. He grinned broadly. “My name’s Maxwell. Please don’t be alarmed, we’re not here to cause any trouble. Just to take back what is rightfully ours.”
“Yours?” Gavin asked. Curtis frowned at him.
“Yes, the beacons.”
It took the boys a moment to realize that “beacons” must be the men’s term for the strange materials.
“You’re the ones who left the box of them out?” Curtis asked, anxious to take over the conversation before Gavin could try to argue about ownership.
“That’s right. A careless mistake.”
Curtis nodded. “Well they’re in that storage shed over there.”
Now it was Gavin who frowned at Curtis. To him it seemed like a betrayal. But really the mass of “beacons” still hanging off the sides of their shed had already given that information away. It was just about appearing accommodating.
Maxwell smiled, then nodded to the two men carrying the briefcases. They broke ranks and made their way to the shed. One of them came back a moment later and tossed one of the rods to Maxwell. Maxwell caught it and peered closely at the grooves on the rod’s side. He smiled.
“Batch 18, confirmed.”
The two men filed back into the shed, opened their briefcases, and began filling them with the brothers’ work.
“How long ago was Batch 18?” Maxwell said to no one in particular. “Twelve years now?” He turned back to the brothers. “Did you two work them this whole time? You said you found them in a cardboard box?”
Gavin’s frown deepened. “You didn’t misplace them at all! You planted them.”
Curtis elbowed his brother, but Maxwell seemed pleased by the insight.
“How perceptive of you,” he smiled. “And an excellent choice of words, we call it ‘seeding’ ourselves. I’m sure you’ve found that the secrets of the beacons are extensive. Infinitely so. Some of us even think responsively so.” Maxwell’s voice grew low, reverential. “Whichever way you push it, it discloses new truths. And so it is all the better to find curious minds that think differently from our own. We let them work uninterrupted, and sometimes they come up with the most novel inventions.”
The two men returned. They had selected the most complex examples of the brothers’ work and held them up for Maxwell to see. He looked them over one-by-one.
“I see. Crude clothing applications…but you’d run into trouble once you tried to make a full body-suit of course,” he chuckled. “You’d lose the wearer inside!”
Maxwell paused to look closer at the tunic, his brow furrowing. “Still…the fact that you’re using linked pieces instead of plates…how did you get them so small?”
“Perhaps this one sir?” One of the men held forward a piece fashioned by Gavin. It was the one where he had discovered how to create increasingly larger or smaller components.
Maxwell frowned in concentration as he turned it over until understanding set in. “But of course,” he gasped. “We’ve been blind all these years!” He turned it over more quickly now. Hungrily. “And it’s dual-ended! You can scale up or down with it! And I’d guess that this node-centric approach amplifies the resultant power!” His fingers clenched against the piece and a shudder passed through his body. A moment later he relaxed, and gently returned the piece to the briefcase. “Keep that one, get the bin ready for the rest.”
“Why take it all away?” Gavin asked before Curtis could stop him. “We’ve put so much of ourselves into it!”
Maxwell turned to Gavin and took off his sunglasses, looking him eye-to-eye. “It’s too risky to leave any developers operating outside of the organization, this stuff is just too powerful. Not to worry, though. We aren’t merely seeding new beacons, we’re seeding talent. The two of you have definitely proven yourselves ingenious and persistent….”
“You’re–you’re offering us a job?” Curtis cocked his head.
“So much more than a job,” Maxwell extended his hand. “I want you to be a partner to the future.”
The two brothers paused and looked to one another. Unspoken meaning passing between their eyes. They looked back to Maxwell.
“With all due respect,” Curtis said slowly, “we don’t like your style.”
Maxwell forced a smile. “Our way is necessary, but we know that it doesn’t appeal to all. Still boys, I like you. So just make sure you stay out of our way, and we won’t need to discuss the matter any further. You’ll do that won’t you?”
The two men with briefcases had finished hauling the rest of the brothers’ work outside. They had even brought all of their notebooks, clay, and graph paper, as well as all the winged discs that had slammed into the side of the storage shed. Another two men lifted a large “tube” out of the bed of one of the trucks. It was far cruder than Gavin’s solution for making larger structures. This tube had been fashioned by simply taking hundreds of the normal-sized discs and angling them to form pointy rings. Those rings were staggered so that they could slide over one another like some sort of giant telescope. The tube was capped at both of its ends.
Without a word the men opened a hatch on the side of the tube, put all of the brothers’ things inside, then closed the hatch and pushed the ends together. The overlapping flaps slid across each other, compressing down like an accordion until the two caps clanged against one another.
Gavin gasped as understanding set in. They had made the space inside too small to hold all of their things. With an open tube that had always meant the things would just spill out. In a capped one like this, it must mean that the items were obliterated into nothingness. Just like that, all their work was destroyed.
“You boys sure you don’t want to reconsider my offer?” Maxwell asked. “There are no second chances.”
Curtis shook his head.
“Suit yourselves.” He turned to the rest of the men and nodded, then they all filed back into the trucks and drove away.
Gavin and Curtis walked in silence back to their shed and stepped inside. They already knew what they would see…nothing. The men had been thorough. All that remained were two empty chairs and desks, the power generator, the lights and the fans.
“So that’s it,” Gavin said flatly.
“Yeah,” Curtis said, walking over to the power generator. He unplugged it and waited a few seconds for it to wind down. “Or at least it would be if they weren’t so stupid.”
He ran his fingers along the generator’s cord until he found a bump in the sheath. He felt out a slit in the rubber and peeled it back, revealing a microscopic tube that they had wrapped around the electric cable.
“I forgot about that!” Gavin said, clapping his hands to his head. “From when we were trying to get an electrical charge inside of a tube. We never took it out?”
Curtis shook his head. “Sounds like they aren’t accustomed to their ‘beacons’ being so small. They didn’t even think to check.” He unclasped the tiny tube and pulled it off the cord. “Of course those winged discs of theirs were able to hone in on us once…it’s a safe bet that they’ll realize they missed something sooner or later.”
The two brothers looks at one another, silently weighing their options.
“I say we don’t give it back,” Gavin finally said. “I say we run with it and start building again. Prepare for their return.”
Curtis grinned from ear to ear. “I was hoping you’d say that! Let’s go. I’ve got a lot of new ideas.”
The two brothers slapped each on the back and hurried over to their parked pickup truck. Curtis hopped into the driver’s seat and started the ignition while Gavin went around to the passenger side. He had just stepped up onto the running board when he froze.
“Uh-oh,” he said, and Curtis looked up to where Gavin was staring.
The two black trucks had turned around and were making their way back up towards the brothers and their storage shed.
“They figured it out already,” Gavin said.
“Yeah…do you still want to run?”
Gavin grit his teeth, then swung into his seat and pulled the door closed.
Curtis pressed the pedal to the floor and spun the truck out in a wide arc. They turned 180 degrees and moved off the road, pounding across the rough desert ground, kicking up a tall plume of dust as they fled from their pursuers.
As I said on Monday, the ending of Instructions Not Included is only an ending of its first act. This would signify the moment of transition where the story enters its central conflict. The brothers would continue an ongoing battle with this strange corporation, the tension escalating until the point of climax. The brother’s triumph would depend on them resolving the philosophical differences that have been introduced in the first act.
In the end, I like where this story is headed. I think it could be a fun adventure story targeted towards older children and teenagers. I would like to complete it, but I’m already committed to one novel, with many other concrete ideas for other ones after that. For a while I struggled with how many story ideas I had. I didn’t want to accept that there simply wasn’t enough time to make every novel that I wanted to.
It was a tough pill to swallow, but in the end I was able to accept the truth of the matter: my productivity will never keep up with my imagination. I’d like to talk a little more about the realistic limitations of an author’s productivity, how to accept those shortcomings, and how to choose which stories one should write. Come back on Monday where we will discuss these topics. Until then, have an excellent weekend!
Curtis listened well, only ever asking the occasional clarifying question and otherwise taking the information in. At times he raised his eyebrows, not so much in skepticism, only surprise. He had, of course, already noticed things floating strangely through the tubes during the past few days, Gavin hadn’t done anything to try and hide them on his desk. If he had, Curtis would have noticed and confronted him about it all the sooner.
“So it’s not just some art thing,” Curtis concluded after Gavin closed his notebook. “It’s a…machine of some kind.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I hadn’t really thought of that.”
“But we still don’t know what it’s for.”
“No…does it matter though?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I think if it did something useful that would be really cool…but really I just like playing with it and finding new things about it.”
“Hmm…yeah, that’s why you were able to keep playing with it after I got bored. Maybe if I started helping out now I’d just make you frustrated by trying to make it do something?”
“I dunno…maybe,” Gavin felt bad saying it, but it was the truth.
“No, it’s cool,” Curtis started to move away.
“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly again. “I have an idea. If we can find a way to grow discs, then we could recreate everything. Make two sets of it all.”
“Each have our own copy,” Curtis grinned.
“Exactly. Play with it exactly how we want and neither one of us feels frustrated.”
“Do you really think we can grow a disc?”
“I mean I haven’t tried, but I’ve already been able to get it to do all these other things. It seems like there oughta be a way.”
“What are some of your ideas?” Curtis sat back down in the seat, lifting one of the islands to take a closer look.
“Well I know I can make a whole rod with clay, so what if I had an already-completed rod in there, and then I made a clay disc at the end of it. So I feed the tube, it makes the black stuff, the black stuff moves down the rod, and start changing the clay into a disc.”
“Yeah, yeah, good idea. But that clay will have to hold its shape for days.”
“Oh shoot, I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Here hand me that disc. Look we’ll just lay the clay out flat on top of it. It’ll support its shape. And maybe each day we have to touch it up a little bit…”
The two boys kept chatting away, feeding off of one another’s energy late into the night.
Neither of the two boys knew at the time how endless the project would be. It was probably for the best, or else even Gavin might have balked at the commitment. The fact was it would be years of experimentation and discovery, each of them with their own set, each of them doing their own tests and sharing notes whenever they found anything exciting.
It was usually Gavin who would make a new breakthrough, like when he discovered how a series of islands could be combined as nodes around a larger shell, allowing for more massive structures to be built.He further discovered that these larger shells could be used as nodes for something larger, and so on and so on, recursively increasing the scope to any dimension required. If they had had the space for it, they could have built a tube the size of the an airport terminal, the material never buckled under its own weight.
Curtis, meanwhile, was the one who found all of the practical applications. It never buckled did it? With that in mind he went the other way and began crafting smaller and smaller levels of detail, forging links that he wove into clothing. It was extremely crude, but his initial tests made clear that robust body armor was a definite possibility for the material.
Gavin never said that he disapproved of those experiments, but he always seemed bemused by the idea of taking a technology so purely alien and applying it to mundane everyday things. His approach was always to explore what he felt the pieces “wanted” to be.
Curtis understood that the operation of the pieces was lenient. It allowed for variation in the pieces it crafted, and that meant it was intended to bend to another’s will. It was a tool to make whatever the wielder wanted it to make.
In either case, both brothers found enough to fascinate them for more than a decade. At first they tried to find places in their room to hide the experiments from their parents, and then in their later teens they pooled money from their summer jobs to rent a storage unit. They moved all the material into that and worked with it in there.
High school came and went, college did too. They were bright, and already trained in an engineering mindset. As they gained education they became aware of how significant some of their discoveries truly were. They realized this was an entire science unto itself. Even so, they still maintained the secret of it all. Boyhood promises to one another were hard to break. It had always been their project, not for anyone else.
Curtis was the first to question these old commitments. He suggested that they were holding themselves back by not bringing other minds to explore with them. At the very least he said they could create commercial applications which would fund larger experiments for them. They wouldn’t have to patent the inventions, no one would be able to reproduce what they made without the material anyway, so there was no need to disclose how it was done. It could still be their secret.
There was a flaw in that plan and Curtis knew it. Gavin knew it, too, and he didn’t hesitate to point it out. Their experiments had concluded that any piece of this material could be used to reverse engineer all others. To give away one element was to give everything away.
Other people wouldn’t figure out its secrets, Curtis said.
Not most, Gavin agreed, but some would.
Curtis pointed out that it wasn’t even their discovery anyway. Someone else put these things in that cardboard box in the first place.
Probably that person hadn’t even known what they were, Gavin said. “Someone must have been throwing them out.”
But that was not the case, as the two would soon find out.
The two of them were seated at their separate desks inside of the storage unit. A power generator hummed in the corner, powering a number of lights and two fans to keep each of them cool in the tin oven. Curtis now had his own house, but it felt fairer to keep the materials in the storage unit like this. It was their No Man’s Land.
Each of them was bent over their stack of materials, absorbed in their never-ending work. Then, all at once, the silence was shattered by a reverberating clang! Something had just slammed into the roof of their storage unit. The two snapped their heads up and looked to each other in surprise as a second crash sounded from one of the walls.
“Kids?” Gavin suggested. “Throwing rocks?”
“Maybe,” Curtis said, but he appeared entirely unconvinced. He stood up and grabbed a heavy wrench from his workstation. “C’mon.”
Together they lifted the sliding door and walked around to the side of the unit. There was twelve feet between it and the next unit, but that space was entirely empty. No kids, no burglars…nobody.
What there was, however, was a smooth white disc that was sticking to the wall. It was about the width of a hand and with little wings on opposite sides to each other. Gavin stared in disbelief, knowing what it was before he even touched it and felt the way it rippled his skin.
“It’s the same material,” he frowned.
“I didn’t show our stuff to anybody,” Curtis said, as if he was anticipating an accusation.
“Sure…” Gavin said slowly. He turned to look in the direction the winged disc must have come from. “But how–” his eyes went wide and grabbing his brother he pulled them both to the ground just as two more discs came hurtling through the air and slammed into their storage unit. At the same time they heard another thud from the opposite side, and another two hitting the roof.
“Get away!” Curtis shouted, crawling as quickly as he could along the ground.
Gavin started after him, but then paused to look at the open door to their storage shed. All their work, all their secrets were on open display. He turned and made his way back, the discs continuing to whiz overhead like bullets, three-to-five impacting every second. Gavin reached the entrance and cautiously raised up until he could grip the bottom of the door and pull it down along its track. He had the door about halfway down when another of the discs slammed into it, bending the steel shutters so that they refused to budge any further.
“Leave it!” Curtis roared, grabbing Gavin from behind and hauling him away.
“But it’s all of our work!”
“If they tracked us down here do you really think a little door-and-padlock is going to keep them out of the shed?”
Curtis jerked his thumb off to the side and Gavin turned to see what he was pointing at. The storage facility was on top of a natural rise in the land, with a single road providing the only access to it. A quarter-mile down that road, and making their way up to the facility, were two black pickup trucks.
From the bed of the truck in front came those white, winged discs. They were being flung up into the air, hung in empty space for a moment, then hurtled off in random arcs. Each disc curved through the air for a little while, and then suddenly zeroed in on Gavin and Curtis’s storage shed, each striking it from a different angle.
“You think they’re here for our stuff?” Gavin asked.
“You think they’d be here for anything else?”
“We’ve got to stop them,” Gavin’s voice was panicky.
“If they’re coming here like this…I think they mean business,” Curtis’s voice was calm.
“Then…we gotta run!”
“They seem to have accounted for that.”
Gavin looked back to the trucks, they had separated and were now approaching the brothers in a pincer. Being off the road, the trucks now kicked up huge clouds of dust in their wake, churning up the sage under their heavy tires.
Gavin stared incredulously at his brother, unbelieving of how he could be so resigned. But he was right.
“You let me do the talking,” Curtis quietly ordered.
Well, I said that I would finish the story today, but I’m going to need just a little bit more to cap it off. The good news is, I found out how I want to end this story! I mentioned on Monday that I would try to incorporate a couple themes here at the end. The first was going to be a theme of never-ending discoveries. The story is progressing to a cliffhanger, one where the brothers will move into a new stage of development and invention. I have that whole sequence all worked out, and I feel that it satisfies this story’s desire to forever explore the unknown.
Another theme I had toyed around with was how one needs to be responsible with their creativity and employ that power for good. Ultimately I don’t think that’s an idea I’m going to be able to deliver on with this piece. It’s a good theme, and I even sowed the seeds for it when describing the brothers different approaches to their inventions. If this were a full-sized novel, there would definitely be a pay-off on that idea later on, but I just don’t have enough time in this short-story format to give that theme its due.
This brings up a question of what scope fits a story. It is a very important consideration for an author. We often say in writing that one is limited only by their creativity, but that isn’t entirely true. There are other constraints, such as the number of words before a story becomes unwieldy. On Monday I’d like to talk some more about those limitations, and about the balance of depth and breadth that an author should consider in their work. After that I reallywill post the end of Instructions Not Included. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!
The next morning Gavin’s alarm had barely sounded a single note before he was on his feet and gathering up the tubes from his desk.
“What are you up so early for?” Curtis groaned from his bed but Gavin ignored him.
With the tubes tucked under his arms he marched to the bathroom and locked the door behind him. He plucked a fresh cup from the mirror cabinet and began to scoop out the water, then the apple juice, and finally the alcohol.
“Obviously they haven’t had as long to grow stuff as the first batch…but that’s alright, now I’ll know whether I get more or less depending on the amount of time it cooks for or not.”
No sooner did he say so than he found his answer. He had emptied enough of Tube #1 to see the dark splotches on its surface. The amount that had been there before was almost exactly doubled. Did that mean the amount of material mattered more than the length of time?
Tube #2 came next, the one with bits and pieces from nature. The black spots seemed to be made of the exact same black, miniscule threads as the first one. The amount produced also seemed similar, perhaps a bit less, but also the volume of material he put in had been less as well.
Unsurprisingly Tube #3 maintained the pattern. Black spots of the same sort of material, less in total surface area, because it had had the smallest volume of them all. Gavin also noticed that the rocks, glass, and brick had all dissolved, but the metal screws had only partially done so. He could still make out their shape inside of the third tube, though they looked worn and eaten away, as if they had been subject to decades of rust. Coating their broken surfaces were those same black, little strings. As the densest material, he supposed it made sense that they hadn’t been able to disintegrate entirely.
Gavin scribbled all this information into his notebook and then paused. What came now? For the first time in a while he wasn’t sure. He could produce patches of strange, black fibers, but where was he supposed to go from there? He was sure he could probably come up with other experiments related to feeding the tubes, but that could only be interesting for so long. He wanted something new to pursue.
He flipped back through the pages in his notebook and saw his old notes about fitting the pieces together. He had stopped pursuing that avenue for a while, and now it seemed interesting to him again. He could hear the noises of his family waking up, so he didn’t feel bad relocating back to his bedroom.
“You were up so early for that dumb puzzle?” Curtis grumbled.
Gavin ignored him and sat down, taking summary of the remaining rods and discs. He was quite sure he had fit together every piece that he could, yet there still remained 13 disconnected rods, 6 empty discs, and even his “islands” still had an unfilled hole or two. None of these pieces fit together, so he was back to the assumption that some pieces were missing from the set.
One of the holes in Tube #1 didn’t even look like it could take a rod. It had an obstruction in the middle of it, and was wider both above and beneath that protrusion. Thus there was no way for any solid material to slide all the way into it, unless perhaps the rod’s end had some spring-loaded mechanism to let it compress and then expand. None of them had any such setup.
Gavin open the drawer on his desk and sifted through his various supplies until he found his modelling clay. He took a handful and smashed it into the hole, prodding with his fingers until it filled every nook and cranny inside. Then he pulled out the top and bottom halves separately, reconnected them on his desk, and peered closely at the model.
It looked like a slightly misshapen cube with a bite taken out of its side. It was a little wider at the top than at the bottom, with a slanted edge causing the difference between them. Those same precise, right-angle lines had been molded into its side, which seemed a bit odd, because Gavin had not noticed them inside the hole when he had been peering into it.
He checked again, even felt the surface of the hole with his finger. No lines anywhere, yet somehow the clay had still been imprinted with them. Curious, Gavin took the clay and pushed it back into the hole. This time he would let it sit for longer, so he set his watch for five minutes and drummed his fingers impatiently on his desk.
“Seriously, why are you still playing with that stuff?” Curtis asked as he changed out of his pajamas.
Gavin shrugged. He hadn’t been going to any special lengths to hide his discoveries, but he also didn’t feel like sharing them either.
“It’s just something fun to do. Why? Does it bother you?”
“Only when it has you waking me up early on a weekend,” Curtis rolled his eyes, then made to leave the room. “Hey, don’t stay cooped up for too long, it’s a beautiful day out there.”
“Sure Curtis, I’ll come play soon.”
Curtis nodded and walked through the door. As soon as he was gone Gavin grabbed the tube. He turned it over in his hands while waiting for his watch timer to run out. He pressed his palm against it and paid close attention to the way it made his skin ripple. Could those ripples be what made the lines in the clay? But the ripples moved across his skin and the ones on the clay had seemed stationary. Still, the distance between each ripple seemed about the right size. Or maybe–
Gavin froze. He had been turning the tube over, and while doing so had glimpsed the inside. And in that brief moment he had seen those strange, black fibers from the previous experiment moving, crawling up the sides of the tube. He looked closer, and sure enough they really were moving. Not in the strange, sudden hairpin way that the bugs had done, but in a constant line, converging towards one common destination: the hole he had stuffed with the clay.
Gavin looked closer at the individual fibers that made up the dark splotch. They hand deepened their bowing motion, allowing them to touch their upper ends all the way to the surface of the tube and then slide their bases forward so that they step-by-step marched towards the foreign object. Once they reached the clay they began to prod themselves into its soft form, poking through it like thousands of little hairs on a white scalp.
Gavin’s timer went off, startling him. He dismissed it, and watched patiently until every last fiber had reached the clay and burrowed itself deep into it. Then he tried to remove the clay, which proved a great deal more difficult than before. It was far less pliable now, and as he pulled the top and bottom halves apart there was a strained cracking noise from its center.
At last he got it out and placed it on his desk, where he could see that the clay had been being transformed. It looked marbled, divided between two materials. About three-fifths still just ordinary clay: soft to the touch, gray in color, covered in fingerprints. The rest of it was white, glossy, just like the material that the discs and rods were made of. It even had those same strange properties of heating and rippling his skin when he touched it.
“So…these are changers,” he said slowly. “It eats stuff, and turns it into those black splotches, and then it uses those to build new parts…” he smiled broadly. “I’m not missing any pieces after all! I can make as many as I need. As many as I want.”
He still didn’t know why that was significant. None of these discoveries were actually useful to him in any practical way, yet it felt like it mattered even so.
Holding the tube under one arm he dashed down the stairs and out of the house. Once there he found the nearest patch of dirt and began shoveling it into the opening of the tube.
“It doesn’t seem too picky about what it eats, so I’ll just give it what I can get the easiest: dirt and water. And maybe play with the ratios. A bit more dirt and a bit less water. See if it makes more of the black stuff that way.”
He finished with the dirt and ran over to the spigot sticking out of the side of their building. He turned the water on and began transferring it by the handful into the tube.
“Hey, are you finally ready to play?” Curtis asked, tossing a football up in the air and catching it. Gavin hadn’t noticed him here in the yard.
“Yeah…almost…I’ve just got to run this upstairs and I’ll be right down.”
Curtis was looking at him with a bemused expression. Gavin was sure his manner of filling this tube up looked pretty strange, but he still wasn’t going to address it right now. He would probably have to explain things to his brother sooner or later though.
Gavin tipped in one more handful of water and the tube overflowed. He dashed back inside the building and up to his room. He grabbed another chunk of the clay and began to fashion a rod from it. He was trying to imitate the general dimensions of all the other rods he had, then he stuffed its end into the hole he had been experimenting with before.
Now there was nothing left for it but to wait…and this would probably take a while. So he might as well go and play with Curtis in the meantime, even though his mind wouldn’t really be on it. This afternoon he’d come back and see how far things had progressed, feed it more dirt and water if it needed it. Probably he would be feeding the tube for a few days before it could transform the entire rod, and he would have to think about buying more clay, too.
It did take a while for the rod to fully form, though not as long as Curtis had feared. He had been correct to increase the amount of solid material, and after a few more “feedings” he found the ideal ratio to be 80% solid and 20% liquid. With that the rod was completed in three days.
While it was growing Gavin set up a series of experiments to conduct with his other islands, so that he could test the limits of their abilities. From his first trial he established that the tube could not grow a rod in just any shape. He had filled the hole flush with clay, and then put another misshapen lump on its end that didn’t resemble any of the actual rods. The part in the hole transformed as expected, but the lump remained entirely clay. Bit-by-bit he prodded the lump closer to the shape of the rods, at each step pausing to look at the black splotches inside to the tube, waiting to see when they would begin moving towards it.
In the end the splotches activated before the clay was shaped perfectly. Apparently it just had to be close enough. Not only that, but the “close enough” clay ended up being altered during the transformation into the exact form it was supposed to be. That was how all the little lines ended up being etched into its sides.
So evidently there was a way that the rod was generally “supposed” to be…but now Gavin wanted to see whether there was any leeway allowed in that. He started by making a proper, straight rod, and it grew in just fine. Next he tried to do the same thing, but smoothly curved it to one side as it extended. The new rod grew in, and did so without straightening the piece out. He tried it again, bending it back the other way, and it also worked. So long as he didn’t try to have it zigzag back-and-forth, or make too sharp of a turn, he could fashion a wide array of possible rods.
Next Gavin experimented with the endpoint. After a few experiments he found that he could cap off a new rod with any of the already-existing slot-shapes and it would be accepted. Not only that, but he could also fashion it into entirely new shapes, so long as they were “similar” to the already-existing ones. Though if he tried to mold anything dramatically different, like a sphere shape at the end of the rod, it would be rejected.
Gavin tried growing a rod that was short and then capped off, and then he grew another that went for three times the length before being capped off. Both worked.
Gavin grew two incomplete rods that weren’t capped off at all. Then he put their incomplete ends together with a little clay in between, and inserted the whole contraption into one of his “growing islands.” The clay turned into the same rod-material, and it fused the two parts into one perfect piece without so much as a seam.
So I have to follow the fundamental shapes of the already-existing pieces, Gavin wrote in his notebook, but then I could really steer these into any setup that I want.
He paused to bite at the end of his eraser. What exactly did he want? He could join all of the tubes into one larger piece to see if there were any new properties there. He could try building a disc now instead of more rods. If he could accomplish that then he could make a dozen copies of the same tube, but each with slight variations to see if that influenced their behavior at all. Or maybe–
“So when are you going to tell me what you’re doing with all this stuff?”
Gavin jumped in surprise. He had been so lost in thought that he hadn’t noticed Curtis standing behind him.
“Curtis! You scared me. I–uh–I’m just still playing around with it. I still don’t know what it was meant to be. There’s not much to say, really.”
“Uh-huh,” Curtis raised an eyebrow. “Why are you lying?”
“Look, little bro. I included in you that stuff from day one, didn’t I?”
“Well yeah, but…”
When Gavin didn’t continue his excuse Curtis sighed in exasperation.
“You know what, if you don’t want to share, then fine.” He turned to go out the bedroom door.
“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly. “I’ll show you, come here. I just–I guess I just liked having my own little thing for a while. But you’re right, you shared with me first.”
Curtis smiled and sat back down, then patiently waited for Gavin to talk him through it all.
“So…it’s pretty weird actually,” Gavin said. “But if you don’t believe me about any of it I’ll show you and you can see for yourself.” He flipped his notebook back to the first pages and began from the last progress Curtis had seen.
He told him everything. How he figured out how to put the pieces together into islands, about how things floated in the middle of them, about reducing material down to the black splotches, about putting clay into the holes, about making new pieces, and even about all of the questions he had for where to go next with it.
I mentioned on Monday that with this entry I wanted to bring Gavin’s brother back into the picture. This would allow Gavin to start speaking and expressing his emotions, and cause him to become a character that the reader can settle into the perspective of. We can see the beginnings of that here, although thus far still we aren’t yet in Gavin’s head any more than we’re in Curtis’s.
The fact is this story has resisted getting into a specific perspective, and part of the reason why is because I don’t know where it is going. It is hard to commit to a specific point-of-view, when I don’t know what to point that view at.
Sometimes with my short pieces I start with a clear roadmap from start to finish, but sometimes I like to just explore an idea and see where it takes me. Instructions Not Included followed that latter approach. I knew I wanted to have boys exploring these strange devices, but I didn’t know what it was all leading up to. Sometimes this approach has led to some very fruitful discoveries, sometimes it meanders around and resists proper closure.
So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!
From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.
What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.
First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.
Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.
But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.
How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.
And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.
The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.
To Find Truth)
The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.
So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.
Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.
This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.
Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.
Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.
On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.