I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Friday, May 29, 2009

The Comic Book Writing Paradox

I read comic books faithfully for over thirty years. I got hooked on them as a kid, collected them as a teen, and accumulated them weekly as an adult, spending a sizable portion of my monthly income on the continuing adventures of my favorite characters. But, I quite cold turkey a few years back. I realized I was part of the problem with comics--I was buying them out of sheer momentum rather than out of actual entertainment. DC and Marvel had tried to grow up with me, selling me comics when I was 10, 20, 30, 40... but the comics they were selling 40 year old me were of no interest at all to kids I knew.

Wores, I wouldn't want to show many of the storylines to kids if they were interested. Identity Crisis was great, but do I really want a child to read about Dr. Light raping Enlongated Man's wife? Or Green Arrow stabbing Deathstroke in the eye?

There's an interesting paradox in modern comics: On average, they are better written and better drawn than they were when I was a kid. At the same time, they just aren't as fun as they once were. Maybe it's just me... perhaps my "sense o' wonder" meter got broken when I turned 40. On the other hand, lately I have gone back and read some of the comics from the seventies, and I do spot some things that I think made comics better back then.

1: You got a LOT more story out of each issue. Comic books these days are very cinematic. A character can spend five pages just putting on his costume. You spend a few more pages of him dealing with friends and family, adding depth to the character. Before you know it you're down to only a page or two where the hero and villians can smack each other around, assuming you get there at all. In the seventies, things moved. Somebody was crashing through a wall by at least the third page. The Justice League could split up in a single issue and travel to the age of dinosaurs, Saturn, the 35th century, the Rock of Eternity, Smallville, and Atlantis and still wrap up all the plot lines by page 17. Seriously, the pacing is just headspinning. Most books today just move too slow.

2: You actually had new characters and villians showing up. Today, it seems like the majority of "new" heroes are actually reboots of old heroes. One surprise when you read Superman from the seventies is that Lex Luthor doesn't show up every issue. There are a lot of one shot villians. Batman can actually go a whole year without fighting the Joker. The storylines today overuse the same core characters. The characters are more trapped in their never-ending battles today than they were back then, even though comics were just as dedicated to returning to the status quo.

3: I know that this is going to sound dumb, but better writing has created worse comic books. I consider myself a pretty good writer, and feel like I have fairly high expectations of the novels I read and the movies I watch. I like depth of characters, I like thought-provoking plots, I like events that forever change characters and force them to contront hard moral choices. I think you can find these same elements in most modern comics. Today, if you get a writer on a comic book who is also a novelist (say, Orson Scott Card on Iron Man) he's going to bring to that comic book the writing aesthetics he's learned from novels. He'll spend a lot of time establishing motives for all the characters. He'll build a plot slowly and plausibly, nailing down every element and action so that it feels real. The science will be well researched and have at least some nod toward actual facts. Over the course of six issues or so, the novelist turned comic-book author will manage to tell a story that will present you with a smart, solid tale that will make you think.

When the story is collected as a graphic novel, it's a good tale. Unfortunately, when it's appearing in monthly installments, seventeen pages at a time, any given issuie is actually sort of... boring. (I'm not picking on Card here, by the way. I've seen this with almost all novelists turned comic book writers.) You pay four bucks to pick up a comic book, but you don't get a story for your four bucks, you get a fragment of a story, and it's just not that satisfying.

In the seventies, the depth of motivations for a supervillian was usually along the lines of, "Well, I've got this freeze-ray, and my mama sewed me this costume... why shouldn't I rob a bank today? What are the odds of the Flash showing up AGAIN?" And when the Flash would show up, he'd trap the villian inside a giant birdcage that just happened to be nearby at the giant birdcage museum, because, you know, you find these things in big cities. The moral dilema of the issue would be whether or not he should sign autographs for the cops afterwards or rush off to keep his date with Iris. It writing wasn't deep, and it wasn't sophisticated, the science made you roll your eyes, but, somehow, it also wasn't boring.

In the seventies, comic books were written by people who understood they were writing comic books. They had a set number of pages to fill, month after month after month, and each month had to cram in a story. To meet their deadlines, they would throw in the wierdest crap you can imagine, and explain it with the flimsiest of logic. You wound up with 17 pages of strange wonder. Today, comic books are being written by people who write excellent novels, televisions, and movies... but who don't know squat about comic books, where a single issue is the most important unit of story. Today, any given issue of a comic is just a fragment of a larger graphic novel. Who wants to spend 4 bucks on a chapter when you can wait and buy the whole story line for half the price of buying it chapter by chapter?

If novelists want to write about superheroes, they should... in novels. In the mean time, the industry should go and find a bunch of hacks who turn out stories quick and dirty, in hope of recapturing the lost formula that made comics great.

Or, perhaps looking to the past is the wrong approach, and it's time to fully embrace evolution. Blasphemy of blashemies, maybe it's time for the comic book to disappear. Instead of publishing monthly issues of Batman and Spiderman, the publishers can release two or three graphic novels per year. I think you'd wind up with even better graphic novels as a result, because you'd finally be acknowledging that this is the artform that is actually being published.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ten Reasons to Believe in God, part 8, 9, and 10

A few months ago, I launched my "Ten Reasons to Believe in God, or Why I am an Atheist" series. I think at this point, I've tackled six of the reasons. Below is the original list, hyperlinked to relevant posts:

  1. Argument from design (life is just too complex to have arisen randomly... AKA the watch in the beach argument).
  2. Documentary evidence (various holy texts) Note: This links to the same post, but my argument against the documentary evidence is in the comment section in two long posts down near the end. I'll consolodate all this into an actual essay eventually. Right now, I'd rather tackle fresh topics than rehash stuff I've already covered.)
  3. Eyewitness testimony (plenty of people have talked to God directly) Note: Again, this is an argument I made in the comments section of the linked post.
  4. The Super Alien hypothesis (All the attributes of God can be plausibly imagined and explained by SF authors so... why not?)
  5. The God Shaped Hole (Something in the human psyche needs God. Why would this be if there was nothing there to fill that need?) I haven 't tackled this one in a coherent fashion yet. Stay tuned.
  6. The Master Plan (Life is too full of meaningful coincidence not to think there isn't a guiding intelligence behind it.)
  7. The Unthinkable Alternative (We must believe in God because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Take God away and we'll all be cannibals inside of fifteen minutes.)
  8. Pascal's wager (You have more to gain by believing in God than you do by believing in no-God.) See below.
  9. Respect for tradition (My father, my grandfather, my greatgrandfather, etc. all believed in God and it worked out great for them. Why disrespect a winning formula?) See below.
  10. Just because. Nyah! (When all else fails, you can't argue with faith.) See below.

The last three arguments are, to my mind, the closest things to strawmen I included on my list. But, what can I say? I was struggling to fill out my list due to some strange cultural need to put every concievable topic into lists of ten. And, these are actual arguments I've encountered over the years; it's not like I'm just making them up to shoot them down.

Pascal's Wager: This is an agument made by the philosopher Pascal that, even though the existence of God can't be proven, you should live as if it's true, because you have everything to gain if it is true, and nothing to lose if it's false. If you believe in God and there is a God, presumably you go to heaven. If you believe in God and there is no God, you die and that's it. If you don't believe and there is a God, you go to hell. If you don't believe and there is no God, you die and that's it. Only the first of the four possible outcomes has a good conclusion, so you'd be an idiot not to shoot for it.

Plenty of people have tackled this argument, so forgive me if this is mostly a rehash of stuff you've heard before. The first argument is: Which God? You can't simultaniously believe in the God of Islam, the God of Christianity, the Hindu dieties, the Great Spirit, and Xemu. Pascal made his argument immersed in a culture of Christianity. Today, we know that the proposed choices are many: Choosing one faith may lead to your damnation in another faith. The argument fails because God isn't a single definable quality.

The second argument can boil down to: "If God is real, he's not an idiot." If you don't really believe, but act as if you do because you think it might lead to a reward, presumably, He'll know. Acting as if you believe when you don't really believe is just hypocricy, and Jesus specifically had no time to waste on hypocrits. Maybe Marduk is more forgiving.

So, we move on to the next argument: Respect for tradition. I honestly feel that this is the dominant reason for belief in God. Your parents believe in God. They take you to church where you are taught about God. Your extended family shares the same beliefs, and the friends you make in church form the foundation of your social circle. There's a very strong need for people to be part of their group. Many faiths have traditions of shunning members who wander. The consequences of formally leaving a faith can be devastating. An atheist who was formerly Mormon or Jehovah's witness might find themselves given the cold shoulder at family reunions... a fundamentalist Muslim might find himself beheaded at a family reunion. Peer pressure doesn't stop in high school.

Of course, this isn't just the negative argument: Stray and you will be punished. There's also the positive argument: You respect your parents and grandparents, and they made a pretty good life as devout Baptists, or Catholics, or Wiccans. You witness your father going out and doing something charitable--taking Christmas hams to the poor, maybe--and he tells you that he's doing it because the Bible says it's a good thing to care for those less fortunate. You've seen good people who credit their goodness to faith in God, and you want to be a good person. The virtues of your role models leads you to emulate their faith.

This is a tough argument to refute because it's not so much an argument as it is an ingrained human cultural behavior. Christian parents give birth to babies who are most likely to grow up as Christians. Buddhists give birth to future Buddhists. So it has been and so it shall be. If religion were really something people spent a lot of time thinking about, it seems like we'd see a lot more mixing of faiths within nations and families. And, to America's credit, we do see a lot of mixing. We are simply exposed to more faiths than our forefathers were. And, the more faiths you encounter, the harder it is to feel like your ancestors had a lock on the Holy Truth. Sure, you saw your parents delivering Christmas hams and learned that Christians are charitable. But, later, you go and help build a house with Habitat for Humanity and you find you're working beside a tattooed lesbian Buddhist who drives nails in a single strike and seems to really be happy with her place in the universe.

The most effective argument against "Respect for Tradition" is that a person paying any attention at all to the world will quickly come to realize there are hundreds of different traditions that are worthy of respect. Are all these charitable acts drawn from all these different traditions? Or is there something more fundamental at work? If you strip away all religion, would you find that humans would still be charitable? Might the good behaviors of humans be attributed to their humanity, rather than to divinity?

Which brings us, at last, to number 10: You can't argue with faith. Nyah! Long time readers of my blog know about my relationship with Laura Herrmann, who died of breast cancer three years ago. Laura believed in God. She wasn't a Christian, she didn't pray, but she felt, deep down, that there was some force in the world that gave meaning to everything. There was no name for her god, other than God. There was no religion. She just believed in a "guiding force." Someone was watching the light at the end of the tunnel.

Once she got sick, I certainly wasn't going to argue with her faith. She took comfort from it; it was a source of strength. But, early on the relationship, I'd talk a lot about my beliefs and would ask her to expand on her beliefs, and her whole argument was, essentially, "It's just what I feel." It is, perhaps, the ultimate argument ender. You can't really tell people that they aren't feeling what they are feeling, or that a feeling they may have is right or wrong. You can of course argue that people have their facts wrong, but Laura's argument was free of all facts. It was pure feeling. It was her hunch, and she was sticking with it.

I've argued in a previous post that my atheism is mostly an act of faith. You can intellectually refute all the factual claims made by various religions, but you can't actually prove the non-existance of an amorphous, undefinable God. So, to make that last leap from agnosticism to atheism is, for me, a leap of faith.

Before it sounds as if I'm in full retreat in the face of argument 10, let me make a counterargument. It may be fruitless and unrewarding to argue with the faith of others, but I personally find it to be highly rewarding to argue with my own faith. It may look to the casual reader like I've compiled this list of arguments for believing in God only to shoot them down and make myself feel more smug in my atheistic triumph. The truth is much more complex: I actually go out of my way to discover new arguments for God and against atheism because I enjoy testing what I feel. Laura may have been satisfied simply believing, but I like putting my brain into gear and grinding away at questions that may, ultimately, have no answers. I actually am excited by the possibility that I may discover that some of my fundamental assumptions are wrong.

By constantly questioning and challenging my own assumptions, I think I gain a few things. First, I believe I learn empathy by trying on the thoughts of others. I may not believe their arguments for believing in God, but I can see where they're coming from. I don't walk around assuming that the faithful are all deluded fools blind to the truth; I assume they have reasons for believing what they believe. Second, I find that spending hours thinking about this stuff is good for my creative life. My novel Dragonseed (coming soon!) is driven thematically by how much faith people should have in their leaders, and what paths one can follow to discern what is true. (Plotwise, it's driven by dragons biting people and people stabbing dragons. Also, dragons biting dragons and people stabbing people. In other bits, dragons stab dragons and people bite people. It's a work with many, many facets.) Anyone could make up a fictional world and fill it with heroes and monsters. What makes my novels interesting (I hope) are the thousand sleepless nights I've spent tossing and turning as I contemplate God and the Absense of God.

So, yes, you can argue, "this is just what I believe, so shut up," and I'll leave you alone. But I'm here to testify that beliefs you can examine and argue possess their own rewards.

At least, that's what I feel.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is America a Christian Nation?

Barack Obama is on the record as saying, "Whatever we once were, we're no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers." In response to this, a group of 41 congressmen have introduced House Resolution 397, a bill that basically says, "We are too a Christian nation, so there!" In the body of the bill are a long list of arguments explaining why and how our founding fathers specifically established America as "Christland," and it was only a clerical error that resulted in the name "America" getting into the official record. Or, whatever.

This is just the latest response to the increasingly popular notion that Christianity is under attack by the government, despite all evidence to the contrary. I am unaware of a single church in America that was surrounded by armed policemen this morning preventing people from going inside. Christians enjoy the same rights that I do to print their own newspapers and books, to rent billboards and advertise their spiritual products, and even to go door to door and spread the good news. The few restrictions that are in place are restrictions placed on the government, not the citizens. The principal of a school, as a representative of the government, cannot go on the intercom each morning and read the Bible to all the students in the school. But, that same principal, as a private citizen, is free to read the bible out loud to anyone in earshot when he's not serving in his official capacity. The man can be Christian, but the office can't.

This seems like splitting hairs to a lot of Christians. But, the "America is a Christian nation" crowd seems, to me, to be a little unclear on what, exactly, the central tenents of Christianity are. From a theological standpoint, can a government even be Christian? Does a government have a soul that can stand before the Lord on Judgment Day? Does a nation? Or does it all come down to individuals? It seems to me that the concept of group salvation is specifically dismissed in the scriptures. The notion that a nation can be Christian is as spiritually meaningless as the idea that a cat can be Christian.

The central dogma of Christianity is summed up in good ol' John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, and whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life." The contract between God and man in the New Testament isn't a group contract. In the old testament, the pact was between God and a collective nation or race. But in the New Testament, being a Christian is a contract between God and a specific individual. Your salvation doesn't depend on the actions of your neighbors. If you live in the heart of, say, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and your neighbor to the left is a lesbian wiccan who dances around naked in the pentagram in her backyard during full moons, and your neighbor to the right is a full-blown radical communist atheist with a hammer and sickle tattoo on his bicept, and the family across the street has just moved in from some country you can't pronounce, and you aren't sure exactly what their religion is, but it seems to involve doing horrible things to chickens... it doesn't matter to God. When the rapture comes, God isn't going to pass you by because he doesn't approve of your neighbors. All he cares about is whether you're a "whosoever."

I suspect I would get much less frustrated with the more vocal proponents of Christianity on the right if they would show some glimmer of understanding of their own religion. It matters not one whit to Jesus if America is a Christian nation. Nations aren't the functional spiritual unit that he cares about. They are doing nothing to advance the work of Jesus by introducing these bills. If these congressmen really want to spread the gospel, I'd like to suggest they've chosen the wrong profession. They might be more effective evangelists as preachers or missionaries. Their attempts to legislate Christianity into the hearts of their fellow citizens is just sad. If someone can give me even one good reason why they should be wasting a dime of their tax-paid salaries worrying about this, I'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Road Trip!

Stairs at Hatteras Lighthouse. There are 240 of 'em.
Lake Mattamuskeet, a big honkin' lake

Egrets, we saw a few, but then again, too few to mention....
(all photos are by Cheryl Morgan)
I took a three day weekend and hopped into my friend Cheryl's space-age Toyota Hybrid and together we went out to see the watery parts of the world, or at least the sort-of damp parts of North Carolina. While exploring Google maps, I couldn't help but notice that there's a great big chunk of land on the inner banks that has no towns of any size. Once you leave Washington, NC and head east on 264, you cross about 90 miles of highway with no Walmarts, McDonald's, or even a chain grocery store. Also, no traffic. There was a stretch of highway between Englehard and Stumpy point where we didn't pass a single car going the other way. Nor were there any driveways, mobile homes, or any other signs of civilization save for the highway itself. We passed a town sign for "Leechville." There were no houses anywhere to be seen. I assume the place had plenty of leeches, because it fell somewhat short on the ville. It is good for the soul to spend time in such emptiness.
The highlight of the 264 journey has to be Lake Mattamuskeet. This is the largest natural lake in North Carolina, almost 18 miles long. There are places where you can stand and not see the far shore. (In the photo above, the trees you see are an island... beyond the island, it was water as far as you could see.) Almost every other significant body of water in North Carolina is cluttered by development, but Mattamuskeet is mostly untouched. The southern shore is a federal wildlife sanctuary. The north is presumably open for development, but there's nothing there. No hotels, no restaurants, just miles and miles of open space. We did see one boat ramp, but never saw a boat on the water. One reason the lake is probably undeveloped is that it's shallow--the average depth is 2 feet. I imagine this limits the use of larger boats. I also can't help but think that mosquitoes probably rule the land later in the year, though we weren't bothered on our trip. The wildlife on the wildlife reserve were ridiculously helpful in showing themselves. We saw deer, otters, egrets, herons, snakes, and turtles, lots and lots of turtles. Also, we saw the tracks on the shore that just had to come from a bear. I definitely want to return with binoculars and a better camera. Also, a fishing pole.
For more pictures of wildlife, check out Cheryl's flickr from the trip.
Manteo lies at the far end of 264. It's the start of the "touristy" area, a gateway to the Outer Banks. But, Manteo was still nice. One thing we really appreciated was the work they had put into their public spaces. The waterfront is all one long boardwalk with plenty of places to sit great views. It was very inviting and open. You felt like they really wanted people to enjoy the town.
The following day, we drove down Highway 12, from Nags Head to Hatteras. This is not empty space, devoid of humans. But... it's not without its charm. And, the Hatteras lighthouse is again open to visitors. We climbed to the top. It was something of a workout, but totally worth it for the view.
Afterwards, we took the ferry over to Ocracoke. Ocracoke was lovely--very empty on the northern parts of the island. And, the town itself is quite charming. However, the public space is the exact opposite of Manteo. Every square inch of the waterfront is private property. It's really tough to find a space to stand to watch the sunset. All the people we met were really friendly, but all the "no trespassing" and "keep out" signs gave the town a slightly hostile vibe. The highlight of the island was the star gazing. We drove back up to middle of the island. There were no man made lights for miles. The night was a little hazy, but even with the humidity the stars popped out with spectacular clarity, nearly free of light pollution. We had a guide to constellations and were pleased to spot a half dozen or so. Normally, when I look up at the night sky here in Hillsborough, I'm lucky to even see the Big Dipper.
Monday, we left Ocracoke on the ferry to Cedar Island. It's a two hour boat ride. For about an hour of the ride, you can't see land in any direction. It rained, alas, and the wind was fierce, so we spend most of the ride in the car. Cedar Island had a beach that was one of the uglier beaches I've ever seen. Lots of trash, and dead jellyfish everywhere. But, the drive out of town through the wildlife preserve is gorgeous, just miles and miles of marsh.
When we finally reached Beaufort, it felt strange to see fast food restaurants and grocery stores again. Beaufort isn't a big city, but it felt like a metropolis after three days spent on 264 and Highway 12. A few hours later we were back on I-40, and the star-starved skies of Raleigh-Durham. But, it's nice to know that the wilderness, and the stars, are still out there.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Shadows on the Screen: Laura Herrmann, Three Years Later

I went to Laura's grave to leave some flowers. It turned out that the earth was already quite generous in this regard... the whole section of the cemetery where she was buried was white with clover. With the rain we've been having lately, it seems as if clover sprouts and blooms in the wake of a lawnmower. The persistence of the tiny flowers is aggravating if you desire a crisp looking lawn. But, with a flip of a mental switch, you can see the flowers as flowers once again, and wonder why anyone in their right mind would ever wish to mow them.

The clover triggered a memory of driving around with Laura in the country a few weekends before she died, specifically to look at fields blooming with clover, wild sage, and other tiny flowers that in aggregate paint the spring landscape. And of course, one memory can trigger a cascade: I wound up thinking about our trips to the beach, and about scouring the shoreline for fragments of beach glass, which she collected with the goal of decorating, well, something. Maybe a table one day. She did cover one light switch plate in her bathroom with beach glass.
Foolishly, I once spotted beach glass for sale in one of the gift shops at the beach, and suggested she could reach her goal of a table-sized quantity much quicker just buy buying a bag or two. She looked at me as if I were an idiot. The stuff for sale at the shop wasn't "real" beach glass. It had been manufactured in a rock tumbler. It was actually much nicer and smoother than the stuff we'd find on the shore, some of which would still have a sharp edge or two. But it wasn't real. It wasn't of any use to her.
In hindsight, it's plain to me now that our hours spent walking along the beach, heads down, eyes searching for any hint of green or blue (the most cherished forms of beach glass, with brown and white the most common), weren't about gathering the glass. They were about gathering memories.
It's so easy to pass through life in too big of a hurry to stop and build any memories. Last summer, I spent nearly all my free time hunched over a computer banging out books. With the exception of a few moments, most of last summer just blurs into one long haze of typing. This year, I'm not going to be such a slave to the keyboard. I want to go out and see the world, and look at some flowers. I want to go hiking and fishing; I want to just get in my car and go places I've never gone. The one thing I definitely don't want to do is spend my summer sitting around watching television, or surfing the internet. Nothing is worse than a skull full of memories of all the TV shows you've watched. It's like bringing home bags of beach glass from a shop. Sure, you've got recollections of exciting adventures, clever things people said, and breathtaking scenery... but they've all been manufactured for you. A real memory isn't going to be quite as clean. You're going to remember that when you walked on the beach, you got sunburned. When you went hiking, you inhaled a pound of gnats. You went fishing and caught some nice fish, but you also buried a hook under your fingernail when you were reaching into the tackle box.
And you'll cherish these experiences all the more.
Real memories, like real beach glass, should have a few sharp edges.