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.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

There is No Wheel: An essay on my particular brand of nihilism

I'm releasing an anthology of my short fiction very soon to Kindle and Nook, and will be posting several articles about it over the next few weeks over at dragonprophet.blogspot.com, my writing blog. But, I'm placing this essay here on my "politics and religion" blog, since this essay isn't so much about the book as it is about my central understanding of life.

One of the great debates of the last 300 years or so has been the tension between religious world views and rationalist world views. Both rationalists and theists look at the world and find patterns and designs within it.

People inclined to believe in religion look at these patterns and draw the conclusion that life can't be random. There is some driving force keeping everything in tune, even down to the level of individual life. As we humans wind our ways through the treacherous seas of life, some of us take comfort knowing that an unseen navigator has his hand on the wheel, and where ever we go, it's where we're meant to be. Religiously minded people may not agree on who the navigator is, or the final destination, but they do agree that an intelligent force with a master plan is behind everything we experience.

Rationalists deny that there is any navigator. Yet, this doesn't necessarily mean that all life is random. When Adam Smith wrote of an "invisible hand" that guided economies, he didn't mean that there was an actual being attached to that hand; instead, there are just laws that govern human behavior. Darwinists can explain much of the world through the guiding principal of natural selection. Objectivists (Ayn Rand's philosophy) argue that each man is responsible for taking control of his own wheel; where you go in life is where you choose to steer your life. More liberal minds tend to view our destinies as being guided by larger forces: We become rich or poor, success or failure based on elements such as the health, medicine, and education that was provided to us as children. Rationalists tend to be much more divided than religionists as to who or what has their hand on the wheel guiding our lives, but they do agree it isn't purely random. Yet what is the guiding force? Is it nature or nurture? Survival of the fittest, or survival of the fairest, the kindest, the toughest, the smartest, the wisest? What hidden laws govern the human past that we can then use as a guide to the human future?

It will surprise no one who has read the title of this blog post to know how I answer the question "Whose hand is on the wheel?" I don't believe there is a wheel.

The theistic interpretation of life's supposed patterns strikes me as almost too absurd to argue. I've heard brainless theists argue that we can deduce God's will by the fact that he sends hurricanes to smite godless places like New Orleans. After the Haitian earthquake, I read completely serious arguments made that the fault lay in Haitians having sold their soul to the devil to gain independence, leading to their present cursed state. The flip side is that some people who experience tremendous good fortune will attribute their success to God. All of life's rewards and punishments are meted out according to a higher plan, and the less the higher plan makes sense to us (as when seemingly wicked people thrive and seemingly good people suffer) the more we view this as evidence that God's plan is so far above human understanding that it must be truly freakin' awesome!

But the rationalists don't do much better. They tend to latch onto a set of "rules" and argue that, under perfect condition, life follows these rules. If you've ever tried to argue with a libertarian absolutist, you quickly realize how faith-based and impervious to reality their arguments are. I'm not picking on libertarians alone, however, since their philosophical opposites, communists, have also constructed a wall of arguments that can never be bashed down by experience or evidence.

Both rationalist and theists present models of the world that say, "If you behave this way 100% of the time, you will get this outcome 100% of the time." They want life to make sense.

I am pleased to report that it doesn't. Humans can and will slip free from the shackle of every grand predictive theory you care to place on them. I can show you children who were loved, well fed, safe, and well educated, including in morality, who grow up to become narcissistic monsters capable of abandoning their children, betraying their friends, and running their lives into the ditch. I can show you children who were bounced from foster home to foster home, subjected to abuse, who managed to grow into successful, compassionate adults. I know immigrants who arrived in America without a dime in their pockets, unable to speak English, who twenty years later own their own restaurants and are respected members of the community. And I know people who were born to millionaires, given almost limitless opportunities to chase their dreams, who wind up as nothing but bums. But, the reverse of all these are also true: I know rich kids from happy families who became rich adults in happy families. I know poor folks from broken homes who become poor folks with broken homes.

Nor can I take comfort in thinking that, while all the grand predictive theories of how to live may be hokum, at least I am the master of my own destiny. While many people's problems are self-inflicted, some times you just encounter forces that utterly disrupt whatever plans you may have once had for your life. You exercise, eat well, never smoke, and wind up diagnosed with cancer when you're 30. You build a successful business and it all comes crumbling down when a crazy person with a lawyer decides to take you for all you're worth. Or the flip side: you're just one of the millions of people who write a book or a song each year, essentially following the same long shot formula as the rest of the creative herd, and suddenly Oprah loves your book or Apple uses your music in a commercial and in the span of a year you go from starving artist to an embarrassment of riches.

I truly think that dumb luck is far and away the most consistent driving force deciding who comes out of this life judged as a winner or a loser.

I suspect that most people regard my world view as bleak. They want to feel as if they have some measure of control over their lives. Here's the compromise I've arrived at that keeps me comfortable and happy despite my underlying nihilism, and certainty that life has no higher meaning, as there is no higher judge to provide that meaning. I accept that there are no guarantees or sure fire formulas. Then I live my life the same way I'd live it if there were. I accept that I can't control whether a book I write will be sold or not. I write it anyway. I accept that the people I love may not be alive a month from now. I love them anyway. I know that some stray blood vessel in my brain may burst at any second and wipe away every conversation I've ever had with a friend, every joke I've ever laughed at... and I laugh at all the ones I remember now, here, at this moment.

There is no wheel. There is nothing holding us to the road we heroically follow into the terra incognita of the future. Stop clenching your hands at the ten and two positions. Lean back. Relax. And enjoy the ride.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The most dangerous thought you’ll ever have

I’ve given a lot of advice on how to be a writer over the years, but today I’m going to give my absolute top bit of advice on how not to be a writer. All you need is one single thought, a basic assumption that you build your future on. That single dangerous thought is this: When I’m a writer, I’ll finally have time to write.

I used to firmly believe this. When I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I had a job I hated, and I told myself I could be a writer if only I had the time. So, I paid off all my debts, saved a little money, and quit my day job. And, I did write… some. A little. I tried to find the discipline to write every day, but, looking back, even though I was without a day job for the better part of a year, very little of the writing I did during that time amounted to anything. I made a few story sales to markets that paid in copies. Eventually, the money ran out, and I went back to work.

I didn’t hate my new job as much as my old job, but I still wanted to make it big as a writer and quit. I’d squeeze out a short story every few months, always dreaming of the day I’d have the time to really write. Then, I had a second chance to ride the “time to write” pony when I attended the Odyssey Fantasy Writer’s Workshop. My work agreed to let me take off the six weeks for the class, and my wife at the time covered all the bills and was generally a trooper. I went to the Workshop feeling like I’d have all the time in the world. After all, classes were just a few hours each morning. The vast bulk of the day was free time, far from home, without distractions. Six glorious weeks immersed in writing to produce… precious little. A few deeply flawed stories. I went home certain I’d failed; I wasn’t a writer. I’d had my best possible shot, and hadn’t written a thing worth reading.

Back home, my life got more complicated as I took on new responsibilities on my job. I bought a house and suddenly had yard work and maintenance to deal with. I had less free time than ever. Whereas before Odyssey, I’d make a point of setting aside whole evenings to write, I now had to write in little bits and fragments. I used to get together with friends every Friday night to play video games; I didn’t want to miss their company, so I started taking my laptop and writing while they played, then join them when they took smoke breaks. Everything I had in my head about the proper conditions for writing told me I should be alone in a quiet room with unbroken, dedicated blocks of time before me. Now I was writing in the barest scraps of time, in the moments in between and on the way to the rest of my life.

And from these time scraps came Nobody Gets the Girl, and Empire of Dreams and Miracles, and To the East a Bright Star, and a dozen other stories I consider my prime work.

It’s almost a cliché to say that as you age, it feels like the days get shorter. But, I swear, my own personal experience confirms the cliché. Subjectively, I feel like I have half the hours in a day that I used to have when I was 40, and back then I had half the hours in a day I had when I as 30, and I can’t even remember how I filled all the hours of my seemingly endless free time when I was twenty. The future never holds more time. Not only are the hours of my life ticking down like a clock on a bomb, the clock hands are moving faster and faster, until they’re just a blur. Hell, I woke up this morning a whole hour from my life had vanished while I was sleeping!*

If you’re waiting until you have the time to be a writer to start writing, I pity the unborn characters and worlds within you. If the thought “when I am a writer” ever enters your thoughts, get rid of it. Shoot it, bludgeon it, cut it out; employ the violent metaphor of your choice to remove that phrase, because it’s utterly poisonous, the most dark and wicked viper crawling around in your skull. The thought you need is “always I am a writer.” And then you should $#%&ing write something, you procrastinating fool.

*The day after daylight savings robs you of an hour is a good day for a rant such as this.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Really? I skipped a whole month? Also, Sharia4America

So, somehow I skipped a whole month without finding anything in politics to rant about. Primarily, this was due to my being distracted by writing. I'll be announcing news soon about a new multi-book deal, the second of which I'm now writing, and it's been difficult to focus on the "real" world when the world of fiction is proving so satisfying.

Then, there was also something tiresome about the news lately that made it difficult to care much. The major news stories seem to me to break down to: 1. The middle east is unstable. 2. Neither democrats or republicans have any serious proposals to deal with our budget crisis. 3. A lot of speculation about who is an is not running for president. 4. Hourly updates on a famous actor behaving very badly.

Are any of these items news any more? The headlines may as well read "Status Quo Maintained."

Then, yesterday, I found an interesting headline. I cruise both far right and far left news sites, and can usually count on World Net Daily to produce a news story or two about the atheist conspiracy to destroy America. Since, as an atheist, I feel I should keep informed of this conspiracy, this is news I can use. I'd much rather be getting the master plot updates directly from the Grand Poobah at Atheists Against America, but I guess he's lost my email address. Oh well.

Anyway, the headline yesterday, in a World Net Daily Exclusive, was, "Will Statue of Liberty be fitted with Muslim burkha?" I figured this might be a fairly short article--"No."--but read on anyway. It seems an outfit called Sharia4America has announced plans to place a veil over the Statue of Liberty to hide this shameful false goddess until such time as it can be torn down and replaced with a mineret. I read the article certain that it was parody, but WND was reporting on the story as if it was real, interviewing a variety of "experts" on the threat that sharia law poses to America's freedoms. And, the story had, you know, a photograph showing the statue of liberty with a burqa. What more evidence do you need?

If you're World Net Daily, I suppose you take a site called Sharia4America at face value, since it fits into your master narrative: America is under assault, here's the evidence, the Muslim's aren't even trying to hide it any more. But, it took me precisely two minutes worth of googling to discover that the image of the Statue of Liberty in a burqa dates back to at least 2003 and was created by something called "AES Art Group," as part of a larger project called Witnesses of the Future, the Islamic Project. The art was full of images meant to comment on the conflict between Islam and Western values, and was characterized by some critics as being anti-Islamic.

I suppose that it's possible that Sharia4America is a genuine organization, but the fact that their primary image can be traced to artists who had the intent of criticizing Islam leads me to suspect that it's a hoax or a parody. But, at this point, it looks like a thousand bloggers have picked up on the story as a real event, and I see even the AP is now carrying the story. Maybe I'll be proven wrong. But, right now, my gut tells me that this is a case of people not being able to recognize satire and "reporters" not bothering to check their facts. Which, come to think of it, isn't news either.