Friday, August 5, 2011


I stopped listening to the news for a while, recently.
You know how when two people are arguing about the same old thing every time you come into the room, and for a while you hang around because you think maybe you need to be in on this, maybe this is important, but then, after perhaps the twentieth day in a row of walking into the middle of the exact same argument, you just decide to quit coming through that door? Because there's nothing there, just a lot of words that aren't talking about anything real. And neither of them really believe what they are saying anyway. You begin to realize that they are only saying the things they are saying because you appear to be listening.

I just finished reading an advance copy of Neal Stephenson's next novel (he'll be reading here in September, get your tickies, folks.) Without giving anything away, I'm gonna talk around the main concept, because it kinda hit me over the head. The online world is, in the end, a figment of our imagination, and as time goes on it's main purpose increasingly becomes the movement of virtual money around virtual space; just like most sectors of our real Economy are basically ways to move virtual money. And when a little unobserved player in that online world figures out a way to make some of that virtual money flow his way, big things start to happen in the real world, with real money, and real lives. And real deaths occur, at the business end of any of the trillion guns lying around all over the place (lying around in especially great density in America.) It's a really good book to read if you want a sober look at how a motivated terrorist who feels he has something to lose can move around almost at will in the world. Oh, and if you want to look at America's gun culture. There is not one page that isn't about guns. So here's a writer, a big idea man who has, several times now, redefined the field of science fiction, putting aside what is virtual and fabricated in order to talk about what is real: all the things that get people killed these days.

For dinner I plucked from the shelves of the Used Book Cellar a copy of The End of the Third Age: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part 4 by J.R.R. Tolkien's son, Christopher Tolkien. While I would recommend the reading or re-reading of The Lord of the Rings, immediately followed by The Silmarillion, to anyone who is able to read, I would recommend to almost everyone that they not read the younger Tolkien's history of the creation of the books. Every scrap of notes and nearly illegible revisions has been pored over and compiled into a massive shelf full of books. Do you want to hear about the minute deviations from the published version in Tolkien's third revision of the tale of the fall of Gondolin?

Well, I do. And I think I know why, now. As I was reading half a dozen variations (that Tolkien was working on over the course of several years) about Frodo's and Sam's desperate journey from Cirith Ungol to Orodruin, or Mount Doom, a warm, happy and hopeful feeling came over me. The feeling, which is with me still, seems to be unrelated to the words on the page; unrelated to the hard-edge of anger that Stephenson's novel had left in me; unrelated to the pathetic and hysterical unraveling of our democracy (which, in the end, is the only exceptional thing that America has ever had going for it.)

The warm, happy and hopeful feeling seems to be saying that, whatever it is, you can put it down on paper, and then come back and try it out another way. And try it again, from a different angle. And again. And again. Until it comes out right. Maybe it isn't true these days for those in Washington, who can only do their work by speaking coded messages into clusters of microphones. And it definitely isn't true, in this lifetime anyway, if you happen to get shot by some divinely-deluded jerk with an assault rifle.

But it is true for each one of us, if we are engaged in creating something.
Failure is the thing that causes you to revise, and eventually to advance.
Failure is to be welcomed in, then left to its own devices.

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