It’s Tough to Be a God: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“Ungrateful beasts!” Jeret snarled as he swung his arms, sending the little attackers buzzing for safety. “I’m sorry it’s not a perfect world, but I gave you everything that I could. I tried over and over!” He picked up a rock and threw it at the nearing cloud. The Seclings easily swerved to avoid it, but it gave them pause. They hovered in the air, waiting for more numbers.

Jeret took the opportunity to reach down to his waist, where a self-made belt held the cylinder. He waved it, throwing haze all about him in the air.

“A dome,” he said. “Transparent, but thick and strong.” A vague bubble start to form all around him. “It’s made of glass, and has minute holes to let air in, but they are all much to small for any creature to pass through.”

The dome popped into existence just as the Seclings rushed forward in their attack. They bounced harmlessly off the glass-like surface, entirely unable to penetrate its protection. Jeret stared at them darkly.

“But why?” he asked them. “I’m not a Firling, I’m not an Impli. I did make them, but you don’t know that, so why would you attack me?”

Even as he said it he knew the answer was not based on reason or logic. It was just in their nature. He might as well ask why he had picked fights with strangers back home on Amoria.

Jeret shook his head, trying to dismiss the thoughts. That was then, but this was now. And now he had every justification for the destruction that he was about to cause. Waiting for these species to destroy each other naturally was no longer an option. Who knew what sort of trouble they might get up to if they were left alive together? Things would have to be expedited.

What would he use? A flood? A fire? Bolts of lightning? Drop a mountain on them? A cloud of poison? Creation was miserable and hard, destruction was just so much easier.

Jeret grabbed the cylinder, readying it for use. He would dig a tunnel out of here first, get beyond the gardens and up on a tower. There he would be out of reach, but could still see everything. And then he’d kill these miserable convicts.

Jeret’s hands started to shake, it felt like the world was somehow spinning beneath him. He fell onto his side, head cradled in his arms. Maybe…maybe he did know why he got into so many fights back home. And maybe he knew why the Seclings behaved this way as well. They had been hit so many times, that now they were in a perpetual fear of where the next strike was going to come from. No creature could be trusted, and it was better to destroy than be destroyed. Something about Jeret had always been afraid, and he had always fought. Fought against his neighbors, against the community, and even against himself.

“My poor little children,” he wept. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make you better. I tried. I wanted you to have a chance. If someone else had made you, you might have been happy. It’s not your fault.”

Jeret lifted his head, and touched his hand to the dome, pressing it against the point where the Seclings clustered most densely. They were still trying to break through to him.

“I’m sorry that I made you… when I was always just going to kill you in the end. Hopeless. It was hopeless. You were always doomed.  And now I’m going to kill you, and whatever I make to do it, then it’s going to kill me, too.”

The words came out without a thought, and even as he spoke them he was surprised at their sound. But somehow he knew they were true. Everything he tried to do here, it escalated. Every violence always came back round in the end. He didn’t know how, but if he destroyed his creations, he would destroy himself, too.

But maybe that was the right thing to do.

For the first time Jeret felt that he deserved to be here on this forsaken piece of rock. He really was unfit for society, wasn’t he? Given utmost power, and all he could do with it was destroy.

Jeret looked down to the cylinder. He would die violently, that much was certain. But did he have to die fighting anymore? Maybe there was still a chance for peace inside at the end.

His hands worked quickly, as if afraid that if he paused to think about it he would lose his nerve. He raised the cylinder and traced some haze against the dome.

“A very hot rock, cupped against the glass. A piece of burning metal, held in a steel cradle, melting through the dome.”

The Seclings started to lift off of the dome surface as it became too hot to bear. Even Jeret could feel the heat growing from where he sat.

“And the glass is melting, opening a wide hole to the outside.”

A glob of molten glass dripped down to the ground. No sooner had it cleared than the swarm of Seclings funneled in, making straight for Jeret. He closed his eyes, accepting the end. He felt their insect-feet perching on him, felt the small shift in their bodies as they lifted their stingers high, felt the sharp pinpricks score up and down his body.

The toxin flowed into him and he felt numb all over, as if fat cotton was being pumped through his veins instead of blood. His thoughts went fuzzy, and he was vaguely aware of falling backwards, though he did not feel the impact of his head against the ground.

The sounds all about him were fuzzy, too. The buzzing of wings sounded distant and echoing, not unlike the sound of the surf crashing on a beach. Even his thoughts were slowing down. It was as if he watched the ideas and sensations flow by like a river, and the water was receding until he could see each thought individually and clearly. And then he didn’t see the stream at all, he was alone on the shore of nothing. He was only aware of his awareness. And then that awareness lapsed, and came back, and lapsed again. And then he had only a vague notion of himself. And then the vague notion was gone, and it was just himself. And then…

And then, inexplicably, there was something. Not nothing, as he had expected, but an actual something.

Slowly awareness was coming back. Jeret couldn’t move, couldn’t open his eyes, but his mind was moving again. Slowly sensation was coming back as well, and his body felt…normal. There wasn’t any toxin in him. Or if there was, then it wasn’t toxin any more.

Jeret blinked and he was laying on his back, looking up at his garden. There was a pleasant buzz of Secling passing overhead. He sat up and a wave of them took off from his body. As they passed by his eyes he noticed that their stingers were falling from their abdomens. Somehow he knew it was because they didn’t need them anymore. Because all of their toxin had dried up.

There was a sudden rustle at Jeret’s side, and he looked down to see three Firlings wrestling on the ground. It was play. They were not trying to harm one another. They were not trying to hunt the Seclings flying all about.

They had changed. Even though they had been fully defined before, somehow they had changed.

And then came the strangest sensation of them all. A rumbling directly beneath Jeret, and the whir of machinery. Jeret squinted at the garden paradise around him, and had the distinct sensation that something was hiding behind it. Not only behind the garden, but behind the entire asteroid that was his home. Behind his entire consciousness, as if it was only a screen, and another world was underneath.

“And he’s coming out of simulation now.”

The garden wavered. Something was behind. If Jeret could just see beyond what his eyes told him he saw…he could almost discern it now. He felt his body regaining its sensations again. And not the pretend sensations this time, the real ones.

All at once Jeret opened his eyes and the garden was gone. He was in a dark room, with a ring of dull, orange lights around the perimeter which were slowly turning brighter. He was laid back on a half-reclined chair, facing a man pressing buttons on a control panel. Every now and then the man glanced up, to see how well Jeret was coming out of his hallucination.

There was a sudden stripe of white light across the still-mostly-dark room, a door had just opened off to the side. Jeret turned, and against the blinding brightness he could see the silhouette of a rotund man, balding on top, but with a tangle of stray hairs bursting from the sides.

“Mister Jeret!” the man boomed jovially. “How are you feeling?”

Jeret’s brow furrowed in confusion. He had seen these men before, but his mind was still trying to remember where. Oh that’s right, it was the men who had administered the sedative immediately before his exile, the last people he had seen on Amoria. What was so confusing, though, was that his mind seemed to be of two ideas whether the time on the asteroid was real…or only a dream. Perhaps he had never left this room?

“Looks like you’re still coming to,” the man concluded when Jeret did not answer. The perimeter lights were now bright enough that Jeret could see the two men clearly enough to make out their details. Somehow, the more he saw them, the more his mind was pulled towards reality.

“I was…dreaming?” Jeret suggested.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“There was no asteroid?”

The man smiled.

“A–a simulation. And you put the cylinder there on purpose?”

“Jeret, I’d love to stay and chat, but really I’m just here to ask you one thing. Do you think you are ready to rejoin society now?”

“What? But I’ve been exiled?”

“Yes, yes. So you were told. But that was when you insisted on being a threat to everyone around you. So let me ask you again, are you a threat anymore?”

“No I–I rather think I don’t want to hurt anyone at all anymore.”

“That’s what our records show as well. Congratulations, man, you’ve been rehabilitated.”

The man extended his hand. Jeret winced slightly as he pushed himself off of the chair and to his feet. His muscles were still tingling from lack of use. He felt awkward taking his first, fumbling steps, but the man in the doorway smiled patiently and waited. Slowly feeling returned, and Jeret reached out and took the man’s hand.

“Let’s get you back home now.”

And together the two of them walked out of the room.

 

So here we are at the end of our story. I mentioned on Monday that this story had two possible endings. The first option–the tragic and violent end–was more in line with Jeret’s initial trajectory. He came as an unrepentant and bitter man, and the natural culmination of that character would be an act of self-destruction.

But then he would not have developed as a character, which was something I very much wanted for him to do. And so I wrote about him learning to care for other life, and to take responsibility for his actions. By exploring the power of creation, he slowly lost his need for destruction.

Hopefully this transformation was communicated effectively enough that the new ending felt earned. It would not have made sense for him to have had that conclusion from the outset at the story, but I think he deserved it by the end. Similarly, had he still received the somber ending after his transformation, I think it would have felt off.

Of course this also brings us to the end of an entire series. It has been a very long one, extending all the way back through It’s Tough to Be a God, The Toymaker, The Last Duty, and Shade. The first entry was clear back on October 3rd!

As I stated earlier, my intention with this series was to wrestle with all sides of responsibility and duty, particularly related to the guiding of wayward children. Jeret was himself a wayward child, completely devoid of any sense of responsibility. His family cast him out (seemingly at least), but gave him an opportunity to be a father in his exile. As we just discussed, the weight of that power had a redemptive effect on him. Yes, power can corrupt, but I also sincerely believe that it can refine us as well. None of us can improve if we cannot choose, and none can choose where they do not have at least some power.

In either case, I feel I have had my fill of these themes, at least for a while. Come back on Monday when we’ll go somewhere new!

We Can Do This the Easy Way, Or the Hard Way

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A Split Path)

On Thursday I will be posting the final entry in my latest short story. After the previous post, I pointed out that this ending could go one of two ways, either path serving as a fitting culmination to its themes.

From the very beginning of that story, Jeret has been shown as unfit for society. After a life of crime, his community finally ousted him, sending him on permanent exile to a floating asteroid. There he discovered a magical device, one that could create anything that he conceived of. Very shortly after discovering it, he fantasized about using this ability to wreak havoc on his home-world, destroying those that had condemned him. Condemnation and destruction have been consistent threads through his entire tale.

At the end of my most recent post, he has come to condemn and wish violence upon a race of beings that he himself created. He has come full circle, now becoming the authority that would blot out the rogues of his own nation. Thus he has the same hands as those that condemned him…which also means he has the hands that could liberate him instead. All that remains, then, is to see which path he will pursue.

In 1882, Frank R. Stockton published a short story that also came to a junction. In it, a princess loves a young man, but that man has been selected for a barbaric test of chance. He is placed in an arena, and must choose between one of two doors to open. Behind one is a ferocious tiger that will eat him, behind the other is a woman that he must marry.

The princess is seated in the stands, watching the trial, and she knows which fate is behind each door. She also knows the identity of the woman that has been selected as the man’s potential wife, and she suspects that the young man already has feelings for that woman. At the pivotal moment, the young man looks up to the princess, who motions towards a particular door, which he goes to open.

Then Stockton turns the narrative towards the reader: “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”

The end.

Do you think the princess condemned him to die out of jealousy, or do you think she let him live with another out of a sincere care for his well-being? What does your answer say about how you view feminine nature and romance?

This ambiguity works because there is still a complete story presented. It is not the story of the young man, his arc is most definitely not concluded. But there is a complete arc in the princess and in the question. No matter what she chooses, the princess has lost the man, her romantic story is concluded either way. The only question is whether she has done so graciously or not. It is a story of unrequited love, and it fittingly ends that subject with a hollow openness.

With the advent of social media, spurned lovers are able to follow the minutest details of old crushes from afar. Do they do so hoping to see their old flame find happiness, or hoping to see them in broken relationships and miserable? Perhaps a little bit of both?

If this story had a specific ending, then it would not make you consider your own conscience or question your own motives. In this case, a double-ended story serves a meditative purpose.

 

Choose the Better Path)

But such an ending would not fit my own tale very well. Yes, my story is allegorical, and hopefully inspires introspection; but in the end I want to make a statement about humanity, not ask a question of it. In tomorrow’s post Jeret will choose what he chooses, and there will be a specific outcome for that. I do, though, want the audience to understand what would have befallen him if he had chosen the opposite, so that I can compare and contrast which route was better.

One of may favorite stories of all time is an excellent example of this sort of ending. In the Frank Capra film It’s A Wonderful Life, we meet a man who is very unhappy with the hand he has been dealt. George Bailey has wanted to get away from his quaint hometown ever since he graduated High School. He has big ambitions, and he wants to see the world and do amazing things.

But one thing after another stops him from ever accomplishing that. Obligations come to him from his late father, his brother, his wife and children, and his community. Duty and responsibility prevent him from ever living his dream, until he starts to realize that he will never have a life of significance.

One Christmas Eve, his passive disappointment turns into a sincere loathing for life, once an unfortunate string of events has him drunk, beaten, and facing time in prison. In this moment, where he feels so terribly low, he commits suicide and ends a life of misery. The End.

Well, not quite.

The story makes absolutely clear that this is the tragic conclusion that the story has been building towards. But then, right before he can take his life, heaven intervenes. A guardian angel appears and shows George that he has been seeing one story, when really another was at play.

It is true that George has never traveled the world and made the things he wanted to. But it is also true that he has made a real impact on the world for good. In between his heartaches and disappointments, he has brought joy into a place where it otherwise would not have been.

George learns that his life has been full of worth, if he is willing to see it. But it isn’t just George that has changed, the underlying story architecture has as well. Before the lengthy introspection, a happy ending just would not have worked, it would have felt tacked on and cheap. But the threads are revealed to be multidimensional, building towards a sad conclusion from one perspective, but also fitting for a happy one from another. Doesn’t that ring so true for our own lives as well?

My latest story, as it has been written, is building towards a tragic ending. A sad demise is the natural trajectory of all that has transpired. This Thursday I am going to try and inflect things, though. I will attempt to turn the threads so that they could have been pointing towards a good ending all along. Come back in a few days to see how it turns out.

It’s Tough to Be a God: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Jeret was deeply intrigued by this development, and made himself a journal to track the creatures’ progress. It soon became clear that while both the Firlings and Seclings could adapt, the insects were far quicker at it. When he had fashioned them, he had made them as prey, and so had felt obligated to imbue them with greater cunning to defend themselves. Never, though, had he mandated that such cunning had only be used in defense.

And this explained the adaptation that Jeret saw them taking next. At first it was so subtle a change that he didn’t catch on to it. It seemed mere chance that from time-to-time a single Secling would be out, wandering the flowers on its own, a perfect victim for a pack of Firlings. Surely enough, the pack would come, attack, and devour their prey. Then, as they departed, they would suddenly hiss and recoil in pain. Only then Jeret would notice three or four Seclings that had burrowed, stingers up, in the vines around their solitary comrade. Those assassins quickly wriggled away, leaving the pack of Firlings to die.

After this same drama had played out multiple times in a week, Jeret knew it was an intentional behavior. He started watching for how these ambushes were prepared, and noticed that one Secling would land near to a flower first, and then stick its rear legs up into the air and rub them in a rhythmic humming.

That humming would attract any passing Seclings who would land by their partner, and attempt to burrow into the vines. If the burrower found three or four other Seclings already laying in wait, it would continue on its way.

There were quite a few points of this behavior that Jeret found shocking. For one, it seemed to suggest that the Seclings were able to collaborate with one another beyond a basic pack mentality. They were adapting their behavior in the moment, assuming separate roles according to need, and were prioritizing the colony over self. How else could he explain an individual Secling offering itself up as bait so that the Firling population could be more quickly diminished?

Perhaps the most shocking thing of all, though, was that it worked. It took some time for the new strategy to have a noticeable effect, but after a while the number of Firlings began to dwindle. If things continued unchecked, they would go extinct. The Firlings seemed to be aware of their decline, and they became more desperate in their hunting. Each attack on the Seclings was quick and ferocious. They still traveled in packs as they hunted, but would often fight with one another for the greater portion of any meal. As such, even when there wasn’t any Secling trap, they might still kill off one or two of their own number by themselves.

Of course the Balan parasite strove to bring these trends in check. It released its pheromones, both increasing the rate of Firling reproduction, and restricting that of the Seclings. It began to reach extremes, such that only one in a hundred male Seclings was capable of fertilizing eggs anymore.

But the Seclings were inadvertently taking steps to resolve that issue, too. They had been getting wise to their other predator as well: the Impli flowers, and they started developing tactics to eradicate that nemesis as well.

Thus far they had not learned how to tell the Impli flower from the ones actually grown by the tree…until the Impli closed up around one of their kind. And so, whenever a Secling passed by a flower wrapped around a corpse of their comrade, they would fly down to the base of that flower and sting it repeatedly.

Jeret had never put a limit on the range of effect in a Secling’s toxin, and it appeared that the Impli flowers were not immune to it. After being stung, one of them would wither and die within an hour.

At first Jeret saw no problem in this. He had anticipated the Impli having a short lifespan, due to the Firlings stealing their food source, and had dictated that they would spread their seeds very quickly after ingesting their meal. The Secling toxin was relative fast-acting, but still not fast enough to prevent most Impli flowers from spreading their seeds and securing the next generation.

The real trouble was that the larva Balans were losing their host before they could transfer to the Firlings. They were dying before they could progress to their final state and lay their eggs. And as their numbers dwindled, there were far fewer of the moderating pheromones being released in the air.

It took some time for the Secling onslaught to have any perceptible effect, but all at once their reproduction rates boomed back to normal, Firling numbers stopped replenishing so quickly, and the Balan parasite was all but extinct! Before long the Seclings would be the last remaining fauna in the garden.

“Well, perhaps that’s all there is to it,” Jeret said in exasperation. “Tried to setup a balance, it seemed to work for a bit, but in the end survival has to be earned, doesn’t it? The Firlings had a good run, and no one can say I didn’t try to keep them going.”

But of course, he still had that sense that he had set the Firlings up for failure from the very beginning. He had created the species without any sustenance, had then given them sustenance, but then made that sustenance cunning and lethal. The Firlings had never stood a chance!

“If I intervened again…what would I even do?” he wondered. “Add yet another species? And try to keep that balanced as well as all these others?”

He shook his head hopelessly. Course correcting was such a hard thing to do. Alterations didn’t take full effect until long after they were implemented. And so to curb an immediate threat required a powerful deterrent, which deterrent would then carry long term consequences, and likely tip the balance again.

Unless he could make a change that was limited in its nature. What if he could create a one-time effect? Something that struck in a moment, corrected the balance, and then went away.

An exodus. The Seclings were simply too lethal. So long as they remained with the Firlings and the Impli, either they or the other two would have to be destroyed, and each of those prospects was unacceptable.

So they could not remain with the Firlings and the Impli. If there was a divide, then the Seclings could live off of the trees’ flowers without being molested. They would preserve the garden, and be preserved by it. There would be no predator behavior whatsoever.

Meanwhile the Impli would receive a new pollinator, and the Firlings another food source. The simplest solution would be a slight variation on the Seclings, one that wasn’t so ruthless and didn’t have any toxins.

Jeret thought through the proposal a few times. He could see no way for it to backfire…but he had felt that way before. Still, he might as well go through with it. In the worst case, the species would still prove unsustainable, and he would be back in the same situation as he was right now.

And so he started to prepare a second garden alongside of the first. It was identical to the first in its flora: the broadleafs, the tendrils, the trees and the flowers. It also had a high perimeter of containing rocks, and as the Seclings were the only species that could fly, they alone had access to the new area. It did not take them long to explore it, and it quickly became a regular stop along their circuit. They did not, however, entirely abandon the first garden area. Apparently competition-free sustenance was not compelling enough to give up half of their available resources.

No matter. Jeret fashioned a fungus that he placed along the rock-tops in the old garden area. They didn’t like sharing their space with any other creatures, and put out a repulsive scent to drive them away. Gradually the Seclings retreated onto the uninfected quarries of the new garden area.

During this time, Jeret began introducing his new variation on the Seclings to the first garden. He called them Thirlings. Thirlings were almost identical to the Seclings, though he omitted their intelligent and aggressive nature. He ended up deciding that they should still have their stingers, to defend themselves, but he reduced the potency of these. They could momentarily paralyze a Firling and allow the Thirling to escape, but they were not lethal any more.

The tree flowers were still pollinated by the Thirlings, and the Impli flowers were still able to trick and consume them as well. Jeret specified that the Thirlings were closely enough related to the Seclings to be affected by the same pheromones, and so the Balan parasite continued to moderate the ebb and flow of the populations.

And once again there was balance.

Jeret divided his time between each of the two gardens, and each seemed to progress well. The Seclings thrived without any predators, and so the trees and flowers that they pollinated did as well. It seemed to be an entirely mutual arrangement, and Jeret wished that he had been able to set things up this way from the very beginning.

Meanwhile the Firlings flourished as well, in fact to a shocking degree. Jeret had expected them to revert back to solitary hunters once the threat against them was removed. But they didn’t. They retained the new techniques that they had had to employ against the Seclings, and proceeded to hunt the Thirlings with just as much ferocity, gorging themselves on the far more timid quarry. Jeret observed them eating to the point of vomiting, and then continuing with their meals. They had been traumatized by living off of a species that was more dangerous than themselves, and the terror of those necessary walks with death were not so easily set aside.

Of course the Balans had to release pheromones to drastically suppress the reproduction rates of the Firling population, while strongly boosting those of the Thirlings. Rather than improve things, though, it only made them worse. Now there were Thirlings all over the place, and the insatiable Firlings became even more mad! They spent their every waking moment in the hunt. The females joined in as well, given that they weren’t spending any time raising young. The hunting packs were entirely dysfunctional. They would still patrol in groups of three of four, but the whole way they snarled and scrabbled and outright killed one another.

Meanwhile, over in the second garden, things had taken a turn for the worse as well. Without anything to threaten or moderate the Secling population, it had exploded ridiculously, and done so far more quickly than that of the trees and flowers. Soon their numbers outstripped the sustenance that was available, and their one colony fractured into vaguely defined factions emerged, each vying against the others for control.

The Seclings had been instructed to preserve themselves at all costs, and now they perceived their own kind as a threat. They were ruthless, slaughtering themselves off by the thousand. Of course this did provide its own form of regulation, but at such a terribly violent cost. It got so that Jeret could not walk through their garden without his every step crunching upon the carpet of dried insect corpses.

And they did not stay within their bounds either. Though they were repulsed by the fungus on the rocks, they managed to push through to the other side from time-to-time. These rogue groups did not come here to live, though, they came only to satiate their desire to destroy all hostiles. They murdered their cousin-Thirlings in droves, but more especially they sought out and killed Firling packs. Sometimes the Firlings prevailed, but most times they did not.

The animals had learned to kill for killing’s sake. Kill out of fear, out of competition, even just for sport. And this led to perhaps the most troubling development of them all. It took place one day, while Jeret was walking through the gardens, racking his mind for a solution. A hundred options occurred to him, but he had lost all confidence in himself. Every plan he implemented backfired, things only became worse because of his involvement.

Indeed, he wondered whether it wasn’t finally time to leave things to their natural course. Would it not be simpler to just let the species work out their own ruin now? Yes, it was simpler, but even after all the frustration and failure …that choice still pained him. He had felt such a delight as he invented each creature. He knew the beauty that was in them, the delightful little nuances, the reasons that they deserved to live.

But all that beauty was tarnished by this predisposition to violence. It was a black mark that spread like a cancer. But it was only in them because they had been made of him, and it felt wrong to punish them for his own mistakes.

Suddenly all his thoughts were interrupted as a sudden pain shot through his hand. It was a localized heat, which then pulsated down his veins, making his entire arm twitch involuntarily. Looking down he saw a Secling drawing its stinger out of him.

“What? I didn’t do anything to you,” he said softly.

Then another sting, this one on his right thigh.

“Stop it!” he cried.

A third Secling landed on his back and stabbed him. Now Jeret could hear the buzzing growing louder, the din of an approaching swarm.

He breathed quickly and his eyes narrowed. He looked down at the offenders with deep bitterness.

It was the last demerit.

Part Five

 

On Monday I discussed the idea of a main character creating their own nemesis. I spoke about how this can be used for a poetic hubris, where the fatally-flawed protagonist impales themselves on their own sword. I also said that it could be used in a redemption arc, where the hero sidesteps the destruction by proving that they have overcome the flaw that set it in motion.

In the past few sections we have seen Jeret work to create a peaceful utopia, his own Garden of Eden. But doing so is impossible, because he is not a perfect god. He is a flawed mortal, and his flaws bleed into his work. He seeks to evolve and adapt them into something better, but it is their violence which advances most quickly of all. The more he tries to fight it, the more his own nature looms right in front of him.

Now we are going to come to the decision point. For the first time the violence is coming all the way back to him. He has been stung by his creations, threatened by his own hand. This makes him angry, and will compel him towards violence. At this point there are really only two ways that the story can end. On the one hand, he could give in to his old nature and attempts to squash his subjects. Of course, they are merely an extension of himself, and so by trying to destroy them he will doom himself in the process. On the other hand, he could overcome his anger, forgive the offending creatures, and at last discovers true inner peace. Of course, they are merely an extension of himself, and so by cleansing himself of violence they will become peaceful themselves in the process.

I am certainly leaning towards one of those endings over the other, but I will have to write it and see if it feels authentic. In either case, we will see the culmination of the story next Thursday. Before that, though, I’d like to examine this situation a little more closely. We have two possible endings, and each seems a fitting closure to all that has come before. On Monday let’s consider how such dual-path stories exist, and what some of the defining characteristics of them are.

I Regret You

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Karma)

Oedipus is introduced at the outset of his story as a well-meaning king of Thebes. Not all is well in Thebes, though, the city has been cursed with a plague. Oedipus seeks guidance from the Oracle for how to dispel this plague, and she tells him it is a punishment for a imbalance of justice in the city. As she points out, the prior king’s murderer was never found or punished, and so the curse will remain until he is.

Anxious to bring relief to his people, Oedipus vows to track down this killer and bring him to justice. He relentlessly pursues the fiend…which makes things rather awkward when he discovers that he, himself is the perpetrator! Years ago he killed the king in a scuffle, believing the man to be someone else.

The irony does not end here though.

As it turns out, the king Oedipus killed is actually his own father. Why did Oedipus not recognize the man he fought as either his father or the king? Well, because his father tried to have Oedipus killed as an infant, after the Oracle predicted that the son would one day destroy him. Instead, Oedipus was left alone in the wild, until a husband and wife passed by and adopted him.

Thus the father set in motion the vehicle of his own destruction, and Oedipus’s sin of patricide, even if performed ignorantly, condemns the son as well. It is a tragic tale, but also a very balanced one. Characters do wrong things, and retribution finds them in a very poetic manner. It turns out that audiences greatly enjoy stories with this sort of balance. Whether or not they believe in karma for the real world, people tend to like it in their stories.

In my story, It’s Tough to Be a God, the main character has discovered a tool that permits him to create anything that he wishes. He does not appreciate the solemn responsibility that such power requires, though, and in a moment of foolishness, constructs two creatures for the sole pleasure of watching them fight to the death. He regrets that decision, and does not repeat it…but also he has not payed for that sin. As such, I feel the story lacks a cathartic balance, which I intend to correct in the next half of the story.

But balance, karma, and catharsis are not only about punishing characters in a story.

 

Growth)

An essential element in most stories is character development, and often a story seeks to prove to the reader that the character is different at the end from how they were at the beginning. An excellent way to show this comparison is to have the character possess a flaw earlier in the story, and by it set in motion the karma that will destroy them at the end. Just as with Oedipus. But then a twist comes, because by the time we reach the end our hero has changed. They are no longer the same person that they were at the beginning, and they no longer possess the flaw that created the karmic demon. So they defeat it instead, freed from the past by having overcome it.

An excellent example of this sort of tale is the Disney animated film Aladdin. In this, the titular character discovers an object of immense power: a genie that will grant him three wishes. Aladdin squanders his first wish in selfish pursuit. He tries to achieve the life that he has always dreamed of. His second wish is burned in a moment of sudden danger. Then Aladdin decides to walk back on a promise he made to the genie, that he would free him with his third and final wish.

As Aladdin explains, if he frees the genie, then he loses his power. All of the façade he has carefully built up will be torn down, and he isn’t willing to lose control over his fate. This unwillingness to surrender control is Aladdin’s fatal flaw. Because of it, he leaves the door open for a new character to take power. Jafar steals the lamp, and like Aladdin, spends his first two wishes reaching for greater and greater power. Aladdin seeks to stop him, but he isn’t just facing a Sorcerer Sultan Jafar, he is facing the undeniable power of his own karmic justice. If this were Oedipus, Aladdin would now be destroyed for having been selfish before.

But then the twist comes. Aladdin knows Jafar’s weakness because it was his own weakness as well: insecurity. He knows that Jafar’s power is propped up only by the genie, and that Jafar’s greatest fear, like his, would be to lose control over that power. And so he appeals to that fear, and taunts Jafar. He points out that so long as the genie gave Jafar his power, he will always be able to take it away. Jafar takes the bait, and wishes to be made into a genie himself, unaware that the power he receives will be counterbalanced by eternal imprisonment. His karma catches up to him.

Aladdin defeats Jafar, but really he is defeating his own former self. And so, his first action upon gaining control of the original genie is to grant him the freedom he had promised. He is no longer required to pay for his crimes, because he isn’t a criminal anymore.

 

Scales of Justice)

As a reader, we require our stories to give us catharsis and balance. Subconsciously we are weighing the scales, silently waiting for each imbalance to be righted. But while we demand fulfillment, we are not so demanding as to how exactly it is delivered. Sometimes the sinner will pay for his own sins. Sometimes he might repent, and another sinner is tricked into paying for him. Sometimes a sacrificial lamb covers the cost. Just so long as the cost is paid, the story satisfies us.

Quite honestly I’m still trying to figure out how to make the balance work in It’s Tough to Be a God. I can feel that it isn’t there yet, and I will keep mulling it over until I find the right balance. I haven’t quite decided who must pay the price for Jeret’s wrongs in the end.

What I have decided, though, is in which form the karmic demons will arise. In my next post we will see how Jeret, by his own hand, has created the forces that seek to destroy him. Come back on Thursday to meet this specter of justice!

It’s Tough to Be a God: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

Jeret reached down and scooped the poor, lifeless creature up.

“It–it sometimes plays dead,” he said in fear, imagining it starting to stir, “but then it pops back up after a moment.”

Nothing happened.

“Really the way these creatures fight is just a game. They wrestle, one wins, but then the other comes back. It always comes back!”

But no matter how he tried to picture it, the creature did not wake. Perhaps once an object came into full relief it could no longer be altered. Perhaps it was because he was actively breaking the rules he had already established for these creatures.

Jeret dropped the animal and picked up the cylinder. He frantically spun it through the air, drawing a haze around him. He pressed his fingers against his temples, trying to recall the exact pattern for how he had made the first creature. He started with the shell across its back. And then was it the legs? But even as he saw the first features beginning to form in front of him he stopped.

Somehow it felt wrong.

He might make another creature…but it would be something new. Even if he managed to make it look exactly like the first, it would not be the first.

Because he had killed it.

Jeret gave a shout and threw the cylinder as far as he could. It arced through the air and clattered on the smooth stone a hundred paces away.

“What are you getting so worked up about?” he scolded himself. “It’s pretend! You made that miserable thing.” He heard the words echo off the ground at his feet, totally hollow.

Because while a part of him wanted to argue that he hadn’t done anything wrong, in his heart he felt he had. In the end, wasn’t that all that mattered? No further explanation needed.

At that acceptance the dam within him broke, and tears flowed quickly down his cheeks. The right thing to do was obvious to him now. He picked up the dead creature and carried it with him as he walked off in the direction that he had thrown the cylinder. He came to it after a minute, then used it to create a rough pickax. He hoisted it and beat through the top layer of smooth stone. Beneath was a fine powder, and so he fashioned a small trowel to dig a little grave. The small creature went in there, and he buried it up.

The mound of gray dirt was unmissable in a sea of otherwise unchanging rock. It would catch his eye many times each day, a permanent reminder of what he had done.

“Demerit number one,” he sighed, then made his way back his camp.

He came to the cage with the still-surviving creature, and he stepped up to it, wondering what he ought to do with it. The thought occurred to him that he should destroy it. It was a killer after all, and forever that instinct would remain a part of its nature.

But punishing it for doing the things he had designed it to do seemed unfair. Yes, he regretted having made it, but it had been made still the same. Now it had a right to live.

But how could it? He had specifically dictated that it lived off of small insects, and there wasn’t a single one of those to be found on this asteroid. He had created something that was entirely unviable. It could not grow, it could not live, it could not propagate…it had absolutely no purpose. Of course, if he had no power, then he could leave it to starve and wash his hands of it. But he did have power. He had all the power.

He could make an ecosystem to support it. A little garden, complete with streams to drink from, dirt and plants to burrow in, and even a mate to perpetuate its species.

But would he also make insects for it to eat as well? Either he had to kill this creature, or he had to make a new life for it to kill. There was no getting around that.

Jeret grabbed the cylinder and started to draw out a haze.

“Six legs,” he said, “half as long as my finger, with two antenna on the end.”

It wasn’t the same as making a victim for sport. This was an insect with a purpose. If he was going to have a garden, it was going to have plants, and those were going to need to be pollinated.

“Two wings, and a long tongue for drinking nectar.”

This insect would have a life. It would cultivate the garden, and the garden would provide sustenance back to the small creature. And when that creature died, its decomposing body would be returned to the garden. It was balanced.

In fact, so long as he was worrying about balance…

“And it has a stinger on its end, which it uses to deter its predators. It is intelligent, and does whatever it can to overcome every threat. It injects a toxin. Usually it doesn’t manage to inject enough to kill off the predator…but it does have a chance to.”

No sooner did Jeret make this pronouncement than the creature popped into reality. That was the last element it had needed, a chance to defend itself. There would be life and death in Jeret’s little garden, but nothing would threaten the life of another without risking its own as well. It wouldn’t be a perfect world, but it would be a fair one.

He would make more of these insects, enough that the other creature would not be able to destroy them before they had reproduced themselves. And he would watch every day to help maintain the balance, to ensure that even if a species started to advance on or recede from another, that it would never totally overrun, nor be overrun.

“Firling is the name of the small creature,” he announced. “And Seclings are the insects.”

Slowly his asteroid slid into the night, but Jeret did not sleep. He had much more work to do.

First he made a plot of dirt. It was a fine, brown powder, one that felt more like sand than the soil he knew back home. He dictated that it sat in a level field, and extended deep beneath the asteroid’s a surface. He contained the whole thing inside a ring of large rocks, more than fifty yards in diameter. This would keep the sediment from sifting away, and would refresh it as erosion wore the large rocks down.

Next he worked on a source of water. For this he fashioned a great hole in the very center of the garden. He stipulated that it connected to a massive underground cavern. Then he imagined water filling up that cavern, the passage leading up from it, seeping out of the hole’s mouth, and  saturating the dirt. He stated that the water had a weak magnetic quality in it, such that various drops were attracted to one another. A large body, such as was contained in the underground cavern, would pull all of the water through the soil and into itself. From there it would overflow into the soil above, where it would again be slowly sucked back to the cavern. And so the water redistributed itself, over and over in cycles.

Traces of the water would be liberated from this process by the plants, but when those plants died the moisture would be returned to the cycle. These plants included broad-leafed fronds that reached as high as him, and spread out over a massive surface area. In their shade more delicate, wispy tendrils grew in curls, tangling with one another into a springy carpet.

Next Jeret added a grove of trees. They shot straight up from the ground, but only to a height of eight feet. Once there they shifted all of their momentum outwards, splaying out a pinwheel of branches like the legs of an octopus. Rather than leaves, the tree grew knotted vines, whose roots bristled out from the very center of the tree’s nervous system. Those roots pierced out of the bark, and then sprawled out over the surface like long fingers.

Wherever the root of the vine emerged from the bark, a small stem sat, and upon those were the flowers: pure white creations, each with six round petals, and a deep, deep anther. In fact the anther ran clear through the stem, and clear through the vine’s root, and clear down the heart of the tree’s branch, and also it’s trunk, and then came out below as a single root in the earth. And thus the inside of each tree was a massive tangle of life cords.

Towards the base of each flower were the nodules of nectar, the source of life for the Secling insects he had fashioned. The Seclings would collect in large hives at the the top of the perimeter boulders, much too high for the Firlings to reach. But from time to time the Seclings would have to come down, both to have their daily meal and to lay their eggs, so the Firlings would patrol up and down the flowers, patiently waiting for their chance.

Jeret designed each element of the garden one at a time. He made a prototype of each species, and then repeated the process for the entire race. So first came all of the ferns, then all of the wispy tendrils, then all of the trees and vines and flowers, and last of all the rest of the Firlings and Seclings. He tried to balance their numbers out as best he could.

Jeret’s next few days were extremely busy. He spent all of his time walking about the garden, observing the ebb and flow of life within it, and modifying things for a better balance. At first the Firlings were not catching enough of the Seclings to survive. He tried to counter this by creating more of the Seclings, so that there would be more of them to catch. This didn’t quite work, though, because the insects became more bold with their greater numbers, which resulted in several Firlings being stung and killed.

So he started to design a new flower. He called it the Impli. This one perched itself upon the trees, and made itself to look like all the other white flowers that grew from the vines. But it was impostor, and indeed it lacked any roots to draw nutrients from the tree. Instead it waited for a Secling to confuse it for one of the authentic flowers, and when it tried to feed on its nectar its leaves closed around the insect and digested it. That digestion took a while, though, and the Firlings could open the Impli and take out the partially-digested Secling for themselves. There were relatively few of these flowers, but it meant that some of the Firlings could feed without being stung, and it provided just enough of a boost to keep them alive.

But then, of course, there would be the problem of Firlings taking all of the food source from the Impli. If the flowers could not digest the Secling, then they would die, and the Firlings would lose their free snack.

So Jeret added another parameter to the flowers before they were complete. It was alright for them to die quickly, because they would also propagate quickly. Partially digesting a Secling would be enough to let them spread seeds for the next generation. Then the Firling would take the sustenance and the Impli would die, but the seedlings quickly grew to continue the cycle.

The balance between these three: Firling, Secling, and Impli was tenuous to say the least. One day Jeret would increase the numbers of one, and the next day increase the numbers of the other, trying to find the perfect amount of give and take to keep them all sustained.

After a while, Jeret began to wonder if there was a better way. And so one day he created a parasite. He called it the Balan. It was so small that it was almost invisible, and it passed through three stages of life. It hatched inside of the Impli flower, and siphoned sustenance from it as a grub. Then, when a Secling was captured and the flower released its digestive juices, the acid transformed the Balan into its second stage: that of a small worm. This worm would wait for the arrival of a Firling snout, which it would latch onto and burrow within its body. It would stay there for a season, then press back to the surface, appearing something like a miniscule crab.

This was the adult version, and it would return to the flowers to lay new eggs. And so it could only survive by the continual existence of all three species. And in each of its three forms it could release a different type of pheromone. One for each of the three species it depended on, either to stimulate or repress their reproduction. It released one or the other, depending on how long it had taken for each next step of its transformation to take place.

This moderation finally allowed the garden to self-balance itself. Now Jeret was able to let things flow on their own without further intervention. Now he only used his time just to observe, and indeed he found his self-made creatures to be full of many fascinating secrets.

The Seclings, for example, learned to stop going out as individuals to drink the nectar from the flowers. Instead they would travel in groups of two and three, so as to better fight off the Firlings that attacked.

Eventually the Firlings caught on, and became pack hunters themselves, going out in pairs to break the Seclings defenses. This was a fascinating development, because the Firlings were still naturally territorial by nature, but they would set aside this part of their nature, if only during these cooperative hunts. They were adapting.

Part Four
Part Five

 

On Monday I talked about how Jeret did something intended to offend the audience: inventing two creatures for the sole purpose of them fighting to the death. I also discussed how he regretted this action, and would now have the opportunity to grow past this ignorant foolishness.

We see the first hints of that character development in how he cares for the surviving Firling. Building a complex ecosystem for it is a very long and arduous process, but he has made the life, and so he is responsible for preserving it.

This ties back to my initial intention for writing this story. As I explained before, my wish was to explore responsibility, including responsibility for past mistakes. Jeret invented violence in this world, and it is too late to close that Pandora’s Box. The garden he has created is therefore full of violence, but it is balanced out with birth and life. It is a flawed world, but still one where a creature can fill a purpose and propagate itself.

Jeret has taken some important steps in being accountable for his actions, but I wish to push him still further. Things are going to start to unravel in the garden, and it is going to be his old mistakes that come back to haunt him. And this time, the danger that arises is going to be enough to threaten him directly! The idea of the hero inadvertently creating his own nemesis is not a new idea at all. I’d like to explore this concept in greater detail, and why it captures our attention so effectively. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then next week we’ll see the rise of Jeret’s demons.

Update on My Novel: Month 8

black pen near white printer paper
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DECEMBER STATS
Days Writing: 7
New Words: 1,964
New Chapters: 0.5

Total Word-count: 25,907
Total Chapters: 7.5

Well, I knew that in December I was going to be limited in my work on With the Beast, and perhaps having already made that expectation it became easy to not prioritize it each day. I think I could have accomplished a bit more if I had tried, though just how much I can’t really say.

To be fair, though, it’s not as if I wasn’t writing anything during this month. I am rather proud of how I was able to maintain both this blog, and the spiritual one that I write. After doing those, and all the many other family/holiday activities, I simply found myself sapped of energy to write my novel.

And the section I am working on now definitely requires energy. I am about 25% of the way through the story and coming out of the first main transition. This is the point where we change from the first act into the second, and I am introducing the problems that will shadow the main characters from now until the very end.

Because of the narrative importance of these chapters, I have found myself writing and rewriting each passage over and over. It is slow, but it is progressing. With January I should be able to get myself firmly into the second act, and hopefully the work will pick up more quickly there. Even if it doesn’t though, that’s alright.

For this month my goal is to write during 22 days. I want to finish the chapter that I’m in the middle of, and add at least one more, maybe two. I’ll see how it goes, and will give you an update on February 1st.

Bad, but Not Too Bad

On Thursday I shared the middle chapter of my latest story. In it, our main character has discovered an object that will create for him anything that he imagines. He decides to entertain himself by creating two small creatures to fight to the death. This occurs, but rather than being fun, he finds himself horrified by its stark realism. It is all the more terrible because of his responsibility for the act. In this world, he has invented its first violence.

I wanted this moment to hit every reader as unquestionably wrong, but I also want them to see it as a mistake, not a sign that Jeret is the embodiment of pure evil. I try to bring about this perspective by immediately showing Jeret’s reaction of horror at what he has done. Perhaps he should have known better, but he did not. That doesn’t let him off the hook entirely, but it does shift him from the malicious category into the foolish and unthinking.

The fact, also, that he did not perform the violence himself, is an important factor. Consider a similar case in A Christmas Carol. Here Ebenezer Scrooge turns down a request to donate to the poor, suggesting that these people should go to the poorhouses. He is rebuffed by the statement that many would rather die than go to those miserable grindhouses. His response?

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

It is a truly terrible thing to say, and Scrooge later regrets these words. But at the same time, it isn’t as though Scrooge performs an actual act of violence in the story. He never so much as slaps another individual, he only thinks and says hard things. In fact, the story makes firm the fact that Scrooge really doesn’t know what he’s talking about in this moment. He says, in reference to how deplorable the situations in the poorhouses are “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.” By which he means he has not verified the conditions of these facilities.

And so Scrooge is guilty of not taking an active interest in his fellow man, and much like Jeret he later sees the reality of his ignorant words and comes to regret them. A Christmas Carol never tries to suggest that what Scrooge does isn’t wrong, indeed the whole crux of the story is that what he does is wrong, but it carefully walks a line to make sure it isn’t irredeemably so.

On the flip side, consider the characters Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan from the stage play and Hitchcock film Rope. The story opens with them murdering a fellow student, and then holding a social for mutual friends. Throughout the party, the story takes some steps to explain the boys reasoning for their crime, and also to show them in a multi-dimensional, relatable light.

But in the end, no audience member is going to get over the fact that these two have done unspeakable wrong, nor indeed does the story ever expect you to condone their actions. It isn’t trying to make murderers more palatable to us, it is trying to caution us that men can reason their way into being unreasonable monsters.

Thus far we’ve talked about how to help keep a character from doing something that is irredeemably wrong, but another consideration is what actions are unquestionably wrong. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge simply wouldn’t have the same emotional impact if we didn’t dislike him from the outset.

We can have a character that is a thief and a liar, but still beloved by the audience, such as Captain Jack Sparrow and Starlord. Though they perform behavior that we pretty universally consider wrong, we give them a pass for some reason.

We can also have a character that says they have done something wrong, but which the audience doesn’t condemn them for. Think of Tony at the end of West Side Story. He is given some misinformation that his beloved Maria has died. This makes him reckless, and ultimately leads to his being mortally wounded, just as he sees that Maria is actually alive. As he fades in her arms he sadly confesses that he “didn’t believe hard enough.”

In a story about how loss of faith in humanity literally kills us, Tony’s crime is enough to warrant death. But obviously we, as the audience, don’t hold his momentary weakness against him. He might be flawed, but we don’t consider his actions as morally wrong.

The thing in common with Jack Sparrow, Starlord, and Tony is that they are never seen harming the innocent. Indeed, this seems to be a very important line in establishing the morality of a character. And so if you want the audience to think of your character as bad, the surest way is to have them hurt another. Ebenezer Scrooge is wrong because he is carelessly consigning others to suffering, he is redeemable because that cruelty is kept within careful bounds.

I believe that virtually every reader will agree that my main character, Jeret, did something wrong in creating two creatures to fight to the death. In the end, a being suffered at his whim, and that is bad. The fact that it was an artificial being of his own making does not let him off the hook. Indeed it makes him even more culpable.

When I first wrote this segment, I actually played around with it to make sure it would hit as impactfully as I could manage. One of his two creations was going to die, and I found that it was sadder to have it be the first one. There was something special about it being the first, about having heard it built piece-by-piece, and discovering the little quirks in its nature. It made that first creation more interesting, and therefore more valuable to the reader. It was good, and thus it was very wrong to destroy it.

But at the same time, I believe Jeret can be redeemed. Because while he did wrong, he was ignorant of the extent of it, and he has shown true and immediate remorse directly afterwards. We’ll see where that remorse takes him in the next chapter, coming this Thursday. See you there!