My writing plans for Autumn 2017

While I was in CZ this summer, not only was I editing my scifi novel and my logic textbook, I also started two new works of fiction, intending both of them to be short stories that I could finish in a matter of weeks. As it turns out, I didn’t touch them again– until yesterday. Which is perhaps appropriate. They are October stories.

Autumn in Gatineau Park. My own photo, from 2015.

They take place in the same world as my Fellwater: The Hidden Houses novels, although they are set in a different town and they feature different characters. It felt good to return to “my world” again. A hint: one of them features Urania, the muse of philosophers, mathematicians, and astronomers; and it starts with her having a conversation with Nicholas Copernicus.

I have not yet heard back from any of the publishers I approached, back in the spring, with a pitch for my scifi novel. I know the publishing industry and I know these things take time. Now that it’s October, I will probably never hear back from some of the big-name New York agents I approached back in June (such as Tor). But that’s okay; the publisher I originally wanted is a mid-size indie, owned by a friend of mine, and they’re reading the whole manuscript right now.

By the way– I originally called it “Lorelei’s Planet” but I’m considering different titles. What do these possible titles make you think of?

– The Starshot Race
– The Nightfall Equation
– The Terminus Equation
– The Razor’s Edge
– Where There Appears To Be Nothing
– After Starlight
– After The Darkness
– The Verlassen Discovery
– The Distance

Probably the planet Venus, setting over the hill south of Krenicna, CZ, August 2017

While I wait, I can work on the beat-sheet for the sequel. And I can work on these other novels. And on a nonfiction project about ecology and enlightenment, which I also worked on this summer while in CZ. And on– well, you get the idea.

By the way– you can help me. By buying my books, writing reviews on Amazon (even if only one sentence, that’s all they need), and telling your friends about my work. (You heard that I published a new one two months ago, yes?) I do as much marketing as my time and money allow, but it isn’t much. I don’t expect to become a big-name celebrity intellectual. But I do hope that more people will read my books, think about them, study them, discuss the ideas in them with friends, occasionally criticise them. I’d like to see a community of sorts formed around the ideas in my books: made up of people who live according to the questions and the values raised in them.

And please accept my most sincere thanks for your ongoing support of my writing.

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Brendan’s Socratic Dialogue Game

Last week, while working on the second edition of my logic textbook, it occurred to me that Socratic Dialogue, the method of philosophical reasoning used by Socrates, is a kind of game. Or, it could be turned into one.

Insert obligatory image of classical Greek philosophers doing their thing.

Of course, Socrates didn’t write down any of his philosophy at all; everything we know about him, we know from the writings of others, especially from his student Plato. Still it’s possible to infer his method by studying how he did things. So, this game is based on my interpretation of Socrates’ method as it is represented in some of Plato’s early books.

I’m going to include it in the logic textbook. But I’m terribly excited about it and my students appeared to have a fun time playing it. So I will share it here on my blog for you now.

Bren’s Socratic Dialogue Game, Agora Variation

  • Find a partner. Choose one of you to play the role of “Socrates” and the other to play “The Expert”. Socrates will ask all the questions; The Expert will answer them.
  • The person playing the role of Socrates asks The Expert a philosophical question, chosen by a random draw from the “Deck of Many Questions”. The Expert answers.
  • If the Expert’s answer is something evasive (a description or an example instead of a definition, or a weasel-word answer, etc.), then Socrates may gently ask for a more direct answer.
  • When the Expert gives a direct answer, Socrates thanks her for it. Then Socrates asks the Expert to clarify any undefined or poorly-defined terms. Raise counter-examples or analogies, if necessary, to show that a term is too broad, or too narrow, or circular, or in some other way unsatisfactory. The Expert can also object to a question if it appears vague or irrelevant.
  • When the Expert has clarified everything that needs clarification, Socrates can ask questions which explore some of the likely consequences and implications, especially those which seem to lead to contradictions. If you can do so respectfully, then explore any implications which the Expert may find uncomfortable.
  • Continue this back-and-forth, question-and-answer exchange, until 1) you both agree you have a satisfying answer to the original question, or 2) Socrates runs out of questions, or 3) The Expert admits to having no idea how to answer the original question. Then switch roles, and start again with a different question.

The game requires at least two players, and in experimenting with this game in my classroom I found that it can work in small groups of no more than five members. Apart from the rules noted above, I also asked my students to observe the principles of informal logic which we had covered in some previous classes: good v bad types of questions, good v bad thinking habits. (See chapters 1 and 2 of Clear & Present Thinking, 1st edition, if you’re curious.)

Bren’s Socratic Dialogue Game, Symposium Variation

Players choose a card from the “Deck of Many Questions”. Each player writes a one-page speech to answer the question. Then everyone swaps their speech pages around: giving their answer to another player, receiving an answer (to a different question!) from a third player. Each player then writes a one-page counter-argument. Players then take turns reading their answers aloud, and hearing the counter-arguments read aloud; then a chance is offered for players to reply to the counter-arguments. This variation can be used as a classroom assessment technique. It also makes for a fun dinner party activity among friends, especially when the “answers” are prepared in advance, and the “counter-arguments” are off the cuff. In fact, I think I might like to host a symposium dinner party here at my house, some time this fall.

Some further remarks:

I like games. I used to write my own video games on my family’s old Commodore 128, using its BASIC 7.0 programming language. I played Dungeons & Dragons all through high school, then played White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” games (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage) through my undergrad years. I’m especially fond of chess even though I don’t know anything about strategy and all I can do is push the pieces around according to the rules; I haven’t won a game of chess in probably twenty years. But in general I think that games are good for us, and that’s one of the reasons I invent games for use in my classroom.

The Socratic Dialogue Game does not need winners or losers. The point is to practice reasoning skills, perhaps learn something about the complexity of simple questions, perhaps learn something about yourself (when for instance you are forced to acknowledge that you don’t know all the answers), and to enjoy the use of our own minds. It’s a game that does not require any specialized knowledge of philosophy as a discipline, nor any specialized knowledge of logic apart from what’s described in the rules. It’s a game in which it’s okay to ask for a moment of quiet to think, and it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” It’s foundational philosophy for the people; it’s the common heritage of all humanity.

But if The Expert ends up feeling embarrassed or upset by the questions or by the exposure of her ignorance, it’s not okay for that player to make Socrates drink the hemlock.

Appendix: “The Deck of Many Questions”

I bought a stack of index cards and wrote an open-ended philosophical question on them; a different question on each card. If you can think of more questions to add, feel free to add them.

    What is love?
    What is justice?
    What is courage?
    What does it take to live a worthwhile life?
    What does it mean to be a woman? Or a man?
    What is friendship?
    What is the significance of death?
    What is the best kind of government?
    What is education?
    What is greatness?
    What is truth?
    What is the significance of sex?
    What is civilization?
    What is a family?
    What is the point of sports and games?
    What is our moral responsibility to the Earth?
    Should people always obey the law?
    What does it mean to be an “authentic” individual?
    What is God?
    What is our duty to the community?
    What is reality?
    What is art and beauty?
    What is wisdom?
    Do we human beings have a soul?
    Where does knowledge come from?
    What kind of people should we be?
    Do we human beings have free will?
    What are the best kinds of stories?
    What is the true value of money?
    What is health?
    What is fairness?
    What is the significance of history?
    What is happiness?
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Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and the Problem of Evil

On 1st November 1755, a Sunday that year, a powerful earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal. The quake itself and the wildfires and the tidal wave caused by it destroyed most of the city, and killed an estimated 60,000 people.

Lots of people back then said that the earthquake was sent by God to punish them for their sins, Old Testament style.

I’ve noticed some similar comments from people on my social media, and in the news, in reference to the three hurricanes that have struck or are about to strike the USA, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Some from Christians who say the hurricanes are sent to punish the sinful persons of their choice: abortionists, trans people, gay people, liberals, whatever. I have also seen a few greens and environmentalists pronounce the hurricanes a just punishment for America’s love of the oil & gas industry, and its pursuit of industrial capitalism in general.

Infrared satellite picture of hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Katia, as seen on 7th September 2017.

The earthquake in 1755 produced big changes in European culture. Seeing that lots of perfectly moral, God-fearing, probably mostly innocent Christians died in that earthquake, people began to think it likely that natural disasters had nothing to do with their sins. People didn’t become atheists overnight, obviously; philosophers like Voltaire and Kant, who wrote extensively on how nonsensical it was to connect the quake to God’s wrath, nonetheless remained religious men. But it did change the way people thought about their relationship with God, and it changed the meaning of their faith.

I wonder how religious culture in America, and the world, might change as a result of these three hurricanes.

There is at least one way in which the hurricanes of 2017 are different from the earthquake of 1755. The hurricanes were predicted in advance by scientists. Not that they predicted these exact three storms on these exact dates. But they did predict that global warming and climate change would lead to more storms and bigger storms. There are a few associates of mine right now whose Twitter and Facebook feeds have become a steady stream of “I told you so!”

(Which isn’t helpful. In fact it’s likely to alienate the very people who need to be persuaded to appreciate science better. But I digress.)

The fact that these storms were predicted, in broad strokes if not in fine detail, makes me wonder if more people will turn away from the Bible-thumping, foaming-at-the-mouth moral-panic-instigators who have insisted that climate change isn’t happening, or that it is happening but we deserve it, or that it is happening but we don’t need to do anything about it because when human suffering reaches a pinnacle of misery then God will come down from heaven and save us. Yes, there are such people, and they have bully-pulpits that reach millions. I’m sure those people won’t go away. But as “God’s judgment” continues to look more and more random in the people it kills, might the preachers of God’s judgment look more and more wrong?

I suspect that religious people are about to have a big discussion of a new form of the old ‘problem of evil’. If we believe, as most religious people do, that the gods care about humanity, why do they not prevent natural disasters? How can we see the divine in the hurricane that destroyed your city and killed some of your loved ones? And indeed, what shall we make of the apparent fact that the storm selected the people it killed at random?

Is it because the gods have some reason not to interfere in the world, as in the old version of the problem?

Or— here’s the new part of the old problem— if the gods reveal themselves in the world of nature (by the way, there’s a perfectly sensible way for monotheists to understand this proposition; you don’t have to be pagan to believe it), then what are we to make of the fact that some of those natural revelations are disasters and that science can predict them in advance?

Is it because the gods are not powerful enough to prevent those storms? In which case, is there still much point in worshipping them?

Or, is it because the gods are those storms? (Now that would be a pagan point of view.) In which case, how could you relate to them? I suppose you could make expressions of awe, and then offer propitiatory prayers (“Dear god, wow you are so big, now please don’t kill us…”). But it’s hard to see how you could build a positive life-affirming worldview around that.

Or, perhaps “the divine” is not a person, but rather some kind of presence or force or ‘way’ of things, rather like the Tao, or the old Neoplatonic idea of the One-And-All. In which case, ‘worship’ was never the point, but we still need to ask what to make of the way science can predict its movements.

I’m sure lots of people will resolve these problems for themselves by becoming atheists. Remember your Wittgenstein: “the solution to the problem lies in the disappearance of the problem.”

But for those people for whom atheism isn’t an option, perhaps because they have known the oceanic feeling of immensity and one-ness which lies at the heart of personal spirituality, I think this conversation about the problem of evil will produce a new understanding of divinity. It will look nothing like the religions of the past and the present. It will call itself Christianity, or Buddhism, or Neo-Paganism, or whatever, but it will be a very different animal.

I make only this one prediction about it: whatever it will be, it will be less otherworldly and more human. By which I mean: it will acknowledge our human ability to make stupid decisions, such as those which result in the destabilizing of our climate, costing us millions of lives. But it will also acknowledge our human ability to solve our problems, work together, find solidarity with others no matter how different or disagreeable they are, and to dispel the illusions that hold us back from realizing our original goodness.

I predict this, because I think these beliefs follow from the realization that God will not save us from global warming, nor from war, injustice, oppression, nor any of our other problems. We will have to save ourselves.

Addendum, a few hours later.

A friend of mine who read this blog told me she knew someone who saw these storms as a sign of the end of the world. So, in the future, religion might grow even more fundamentalist.

Well, I suppose that’s possible. Indeed, I think some people may want the condition of the world to grow worse, so as to accelerate the arrival of the Messiah. (Actually, I think that is exactly what motivates certain climate change deniers and authoritarian politicians.)

But I predict– no, I hope, I summon my confidence– that as the end of the world continues not to happen, more people will see that kind of apocalyptica for the silliness that it is.

Whether or not God exists, the future is going to be all about us.

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Is Optimism Still Possible In the Age of Trump?

Timing is sometimes everything.

When I finished the final draft of Reclaiming Civilization and submitted it to my publisher, the US presidential election campaign was still in the party primaries. It looked likely at the time that Bernie would win the Democratic party ticket, and most everyone I knew including my conservative friends regarded Trump’s candidacy as a joke.

We all know what happened next. And now there are neo-Nazis marching openly in the streets of major American cities; racist police officers shooting black people without provocation; five states in the northwest are on fire; climate-change-related flooding in Texas and hurricanes the south-east; and the president appears prepared to force a constitutional crisis and to start a nuclear war with North Korea. And that’s just some of what’s horrible in the United States, to say nothing of what’s happening in other countries.

So it may be strange to promote a book whose subtitle is “A case for optimism for the future of humanity” at a time when it appears that there’s almost nothing to be optimistic about.

You might be angry that the world has come to the state it’s in. I am too: in fact the first few lines of the book say:

I wrote this book because I am angry. The practice of civilization, its customs and institutions and power-relations, and even the language by which we speak of it, has been hijacked by some profoundly evil people. I wish to wrest it back from them…

But I also wanted to know why we got here. What’s wrong with civilization? Let me briefly describe what I found when I reasoned about that question.

One of the purposes of civilization is to produce people whose character and disposition reflects some model of “the civilized person”. Different societies will have different models of the civilized person; but whatever the model, they’ll deploy its political, economic, religious, cultural, and social forces to influence people to become more like that model.

And we have some remarkably terrible models of the civilized person. Homo Economicus. Patriarchal Man. Someone who is born a straight white man is someone who could embody one or both of those models. That person would be rewarded for doing so, and punished for not doing so. Suppose someone could not possibly embody Patriarchal Man, because they’re black, or asian, or a woman, or whatever. That person would have to defer to (or obey, or give way to, or give precedence to, agree with, etc.) the people who do embody the Patriarchal Man. Or be punished for not doing so. It’s obvious to me that models of the civilized person like Patriarchal Man are ethically terrible. But I also think the solution can’t involve inventing new models. I think we need to look at the problems in the public sphere in an entirely new way.

Hence, my theory that the root of our social and political problems has to do with the maintenance of illusions. Originally invented to stave off nihilism and despair, they now also serve to export a lot of unnecessary suffering on to the marginalised people of the world.

Some of the illusions discussed in the book:
– the illusion of the permanent self
– the illusion of the higher and lower men
– the illusion of the virtuous prince
– the illusion of the self-made man
– the illusion of our separateness from the earth
– the illusion of “no alternative”.

Such is the short version of the argument.

Something else happened to my book in the year-and-a-half between finishing it and finding it published: some of my conclusions turned out to be somewhat prescient. For example, Trump’s ban on transgender persons serving in the U.S. military:

If my thesis about civilization is correct, we should see the civilizing forces move to punish people who renounce or who refuse to defer to that model. In the example of transgender women, that’s exactly what we see… For a person born a man, and thus born in a position to assume the benefits and privileges of the patriarchy, yet instead who undergoes the chemical and surgical and social process to become a woman, appears in the eyes of the patriarchal man as evidence that there might be something wrong with the image of the patriarchal man.

The anti-semitic slogans shouted by the Nazis at the rally in Charlottesburg Virginia, expressing the fear of being “replaced” by Jews, or by Black people, and so on, might have been anticipated here. First I show the evidence that Trump won the primaries in states where the death rate among middle-class white men had risen in the past 15 years. Then:

Contemporary psychologists have found that strong reminders of mortality tend to make people more conservative and nationalist, and more likely to express racial or religious prejudices. More than 200 scientific studies over the past 25 years confirm this… Simple knowledge of their [the Other’s] existence is enough to prompt the envious and fearful feeling that ‘we’ will not survive because ‘they’ will some day out-breed us, economically out-produce us, or even come down from the hills and kill us. They don’t have to threaten anything; they just have to exist.

And as for Trump himself, it seems to me that the one thing he is remarkably good at is political theatre, which is perfect for maintaining one of those illusions I mentioned:

A particular variation of the illusion of higher and lower men is the illusion of the virtuous prince. In this case, the glamour is cast not only upon a society’s nobility, but particularly upon a society’s leading individual, its commander-in-chief. This illusion serves the same purpose as its predecessor: to preserve the political and economic powers of whomever happens to already possess those powers. What makes this illusion insidiously interesting is that, unlike some of the illusions previously discussed, the person projecting this illusion need not actually believe it. Indeed, he may know perfectly well that the truth is the exact opposite of what the illusion portrays.

Amid all this, do any sources of optimism remain? One of my conclusions is that if we allow ourselves to let go of those illusions, we have a chance to re-discover humanity’s original goodness. This is not the naive optimism which imagines that everything will get better by itself, like magic. This is the intelligent optimism which looks at the world, sees it for what it is, and works to do something to change it. My four sources of optimism are:

  • First, the discovery that human nature is sufficiently malleable that human society and culture can change, even if it can change only very slowly, and even if it is supposed that some individuals cannot change;
  • Second, civilization itself emerged as we taught ourselves empathy and co-operation and compassion, and it continues to be partially sustained by those values;
  • Third, although we may be left with despair when we cast away our illusions, so we are also left with a chance to find greater depths of life than we could find any other way;
  • Fourth and finally, yet perhaps most importantly, many of the things we need to do to bring about a better world are things we are already doing.
  • .

    I hope you will take a look at my book, consider its ideas seriously, and experiment with them in your communities. What other illusions might there be? What other sources of optimism might we discover if we let go of them? I want to know! I hope you do too.

    Purchase from: Amazon / Barnes and Noble / Chapters Indigo / Direct from the publisher

    Watch my “Book Trailer” on YouTube, here.

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    Twenty-seven days of solitude

    Two years ago, I came to visit friends in Krenicna, Central Bohemia, and to look after the gardens and the dogs while they were away. I wrote the first 20,000 words of Reclaiming Civilization here. I returned again this summer, again to take care of the gardens and the dogs while the family was away. Here are some new photos, and a few thoughts.

    Hedgewitch House in Krenicna, and Kringle the elderly dog

    View of Krenicna, Czech Republic.

    Mouth of the hollow hedgerow

    Interior of the hollow hedgerow

    View of the Vltava River

    Rose on the edge of a cherry orchard

    I count twenty-seven days of nearly complete solitude, from the day the Reidinger family left for their holiday in America, to the day they returned. That’s a personal record for me. But I was not totally alone. I knew some of the neighbours, having met them two years ago: and I’m especially grateful to Tomas and Ivanna for checking in on me every so often, to make sure I had enough food and that I wasn’t injured or sick or going insane.

    But for most days, I had a routine that involved no other human beings at all. In the morning, I feed the dogs and the cat, then take all the critters outside for the morning potty. Then I see to my own breakfast, usually jam on toast and a pot of tea. The dogs got their first walk in the fields in the mid morning. One of them, Kringle, is very old and sickly, and I was warned to expect he might die while I was looking after him. The other, Helli, is a four year old Czech wolfdog and full of running and bouncing. So, as I walk down the Cim road to the field that they like, I’m pulled ahead by Helli and held back by Kringle. In effect, I wasn’t walking the dogs: they were walking me. Then we’d get to the field. I would let Helli off-leash– she is comfortable enough with me to stay near me most of the time, and to come to my side when I call her. (A consequence of this is that most of the Czech words I know are dog commands. Pojd’ sem! Pozor!) We would walk a loop around a grove of trees in the middle of the field, then take a side path home through a stand of pines.

    Wolfdog in the meadow

    After that part of the day, I would lose track of what clock-time it was. I would measure time by the position of the house’s shadow on the yard. And as the retreat grew into its first week, I lost track of what calendar-day it was. Mondays and Julys and thirteens and seventeens mostly disappeared. There were clocks in the house and on the computer, but I had lost the habit of looking at them. And I have to say, I liked living in natural time instead of in clock time. I still got as much work done as was necessary to do, watering the gardens and cleaning up after Kringle, but there was never any hurry, and thus never any stress.

    Most afternoons, I spend my time editing two books of mine that will be published later: one a science fiction novel, the other a second edition of my logic textbook. In the late afternoon, I would go for another walk in the hills, this time only with Helli, because she needed the extra exercise, and so did I. We’d go to one of three or four favourite spots of mine, each at least two kilometres from the house by my rough foot-measure, sit there for a while, and return. I liked to imagine that I was a philosopher-hero on an epic quest to find the treasure-knowledge hidden in the places to which I gave my own private names: the overlook at the end of the hollow hedgerow, the research station at the end of the pine cathedral, the hunter’s platform in the great meadow.

    We also explored places which I did not visit the first time. For example: see the notch in the tree line, on top of the hill in the distance?

    Last visit, I wanted to explore it but didn’t. This year, I found a way to get there without disturbing the cattle or crossing electric fences. Here’s the view from that notch:

    Another day, I followed a path through the woods to Cim, the next nearest town to Krenicna.

    Then at night I made my dinner– sometimes the same dinner as last time, so that there was a five-day stretch when I ate the same chicken and pasta dish– and read a novel or a nonfiction text until I felt like going to bed.

    Such was my routine. And I loved it. Most of the time, I felt rested, at home, active in my mind, healthy in my body (if a little bit heavier and less clean-shaven than I’d like to be), and free. And on three or four nights in the first two weeks, I enjoyed a visit from the English-speaking neighbours, where we talked of things like why city people don’t understand country life, or why mushroom-hunting is a Czech national sport, or why shamanism is better than Christianity.

    But this routine was occasionally interrupted by the prickly side of solitude which most people call ‘loneliness’. It was during these times that I felt profoundly isolated, as if the nearest neighbours, whose houses were perhaps only thirty meters away, were instead a hundred kilometres distant. I felt cravings for junk food, and television, and social media; I felt sexual fantasies for people who I know wouldn’t have me, such as a past girlfriend who lives in Germany in a village that’s perhaps five or six hours’ drive from here. (I’ve no reason to believe she would want to see me. In those last weeks of the relationship, I was too involved with my own needs, and so I neglected hers. That was unkind of me.) The old bugbear of solitude is the belief, which in my mind comes unbidden like a natural fact of reality, that I am alone because no one wants me around. Because they have concluded their lives are better off without me. I know this isn’t entirely true; most of the time I am alone because I choose to be. Nevertheless, the old bugbear is my most regular visitor, and he doesn’t leave until I concentrate my mind on something creative and interesting and difficult, which I can share with others when I emerge to see them.

    Thus, on one particular night when the old bugbear seemed especially overbearing, I heard the voice of one of the characters in my half-edited novel, and I wrote down what she said:

    “Loneliness is my laboratory. If you want to create or discover anything genuinely new and beautiful, then you have to see and hear and think of things differently than other people. You have to look where it appears that there’s nothing, where no one else will look; you have to go where maybe no one will follow. And if you find something that way, then the chances are people around you won’t understand you anymore. You won’t belong to the same world they do, anymore. But you have to accept that. You have to pass through the night, if you want to reach the morning.”

    When the Reidinger family returned, I was delighted. I was living in an inhabited world again. And the following day they took me to Prague, which I had visited last time as well, but this time I wanted to see only one sight: the grave of the scientist Tycho Brahe, discoverer of “Tycho’s Star” (a supernova) and very possibly a secret devotee of the Greek goddess Urania, one of the nine muses. I don’t know that for certain; it is likely that he admired her in the same manner as other Renaissance intellectuals admired Greek and Roman paganism, that is, in the mode of a fantasy that they could contemplate and enjoy when their Sunday obligations to Christianity were fulfilled. But he did name his observatory after Her. And I am an admirer of Urania, too.

    If there was any wisdom I drew from this summer, it was only a reaffirmation of some truths I already know and accept: that solitude is good for us; that it is not selfish; that it is far more difficult to distinguish solitude from loneliness than most people acknowledge; and that although solitude is a place everyone should regularly visit, still it is a place where we should not stay for too long.

    Or, if you must go there for a long time, bring a couple of dogs.

    Helli the wolfdog, and me.

    More photos of my trip can be found on my twitter feed. This one, “Philosopher dog”, turned out to be a favourite.

    The book I wrote here two years ago, Reclaiming Civilization, is available now!

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    Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine”: A novel for all time, yet also of its own time.

    Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury is a world. It’s the author’s fictitious Green Town Illinois, but it’s also a fairyland where boys are young forever. It’s a town where a new pair of tennis shoes can make boys run and leap like gazelles. Where a mechanical witch in an amusement park was once a real woman, imprisoned in wax for telling true fortunes. Where a boy could be cured of a summer flu with bottled spring air given him by a junkman. Where an old man is a human time machine, and who makes random phone calls to faraway foreign cities so to listen to the traffic and remind himself those places are still real.

    But it’s also where death, the Lonely One, hovers over everything. He appears in old age and in murder victims, in machines that fall apart, trolleys that set out for their last run before they are replaced by unromantic buses, and the inevitable return of autumn, and most of all in the darkness of a Ravine that splits the town in two.

    What better world can there could be, in which young boys can come of age?

    But this blog entry is not just about how wonderful Dandelion Wine is, and why you should go read it. It’s also about why it is a product of its time, for better or worse. As our values change, so do our evaluations of the art of the past, including the recent past. A book or a song or a movie that might have been regarded as beautiful when it was new, might today be regarded as problematic. Here are two ways in which Bradbury’s work is a case study for the point.

    First, his style is a richness of imagery. Yet today’s writers are often encouraged to be terse and minimalist: to pack the maximum information in the fewest and simplest words. Stephen King told us never to use adverbs, ever; Dandelion Wine veritably and wonderfully overflows with them.

    What would Bradbury himself have to say about the contemporary demands for terseness and minimalism? He would have called it “Tosh!” In a coda published in the 1979 edition of Farenheight 451, he said:

    In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a “God light.” Looking up at it from the viewpoint of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in “the Presence.”
          The editors had deleted “God-Light” and “in the Presence.”
          Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ’em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?
          Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito – out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch – gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer – lost!
          Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like – in the finale – Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention – shot dead.
          Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?

    In this particular case, I think Bradbury has it right, and contemporary minimalists have it wrong. Editors, and for that matter writers, who assume readers are half-illiterate, really must find another job.

    By contrast. Some of today’s writers are encouraged to be the opposite of minimalist: they’re snarky and edgy, like howling Ginsbergs, where long-winded metaphors beat you over your head with their cleverness and make you feel stupid for not having thought of them first. That, too, is not Bradbury’s style. His style is full of metaphor, and often invokes the language of infinity, such that simple events and ordinary places take on world-defining significance. Yet his style is also also somehow matter-of-fact about it. In a passage that stood out to me because it reminded me of my town, his Green Town is styled like a ship at sea, and all the residents cut grass and trim hedges like sailors bailing out the water to keep the ship steady and floating. It’s a magnificent piece of writing. Here’s another, where an elderly woman shows two pre-teen boys photos of herself when she was their age:

    “It was the face of spring, it was the face of summer, it was the warmness of clover breath. Pomegranate glowed in her lips, and the noon sky in her eyes. To touch her face was that always new experience of opening your window one December morning, early, and putting out your hand to the first white cool powdering of snow that had come, silently, with no announcement, in the night. And all of this, this breath-warmness and plum-tenderness was held forever in one miracle of photographic is chemistry which no clock winds could blow upon to change one hour or one second; this fine first cool white snow would never melt, but live a thousand summers.”

    Go read Dandelion Wine if you want to see what a non-minimalist style looks like when it is done right.

    Second: Dandelion Wine also has another marker which signifies it as a product of its time. All its characters are white and middle-class, or they can be assumed so because that’s the way white middle class people wrote books back in 1946. It’s a town where men smoke cigars on their porches after work and women bake pies and cool them on windowsills. Today, readers demand representation and diversity, and strong female and POC protagonists. Dandelion Wine was published more than half a century ago, and therefore has none of those things. Further, some of its metaphors jar the modern reader with their contemporary inappropriateness: an old man describes a herd of buffalo by saying they had “heads like Negro’s fists”. Today an editor would be right to jump on that metaphor and erase it immediately. But in 1946, an editor would only ask if it the reader could see the buffalo that way.

    What would Bradbury say to the contemporary critic who felt the work was sullied by such things? Again, the coda from Farenheight 451 provides his reply:

    I sent a play, Leviathan 99, off to a university theater a month ago. My play is based on the “Moby Dick” mythology, dedicated to Melville, and concerns a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Comet and destroy the destroyer. My drama premiers as an opera in Paris this autumn. But, for now, the university wrote back that they hardly dared to do my play – it had no women in it! And the ERA ladies on campus would descend with baseball bats if the drama department even tried!
          Grinding my bicuspids into powder, I suggested that would mean, from now on, no more productions of Boys in the Band (no women), or The Women (no men), Or, counting heads, make and female, a good lot of Shakespeare that would never be seen again, especially if you count line and find that all the good stuff went to the males!
          I wrote back maybe they should do my play one week, and The Women the next. They probably thought I was joking, and I’m not sure that I wasn’t.
          For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own.

    My point here is not only to show how contemporary values change how we enjoy (or do not enjoy) things. It’s also to show that the contemporary debate about representation in literature is much older than most people realise. In one corner of this debate there’s Bradbury who claims the absolute freedom to write whatever he wants, without interference from anyone, and subject only to the judgment of the work’s aesthetic merits. In the other corner, there’s the readers who notice that their gender, their class, their language, their experience of life, doesn’t appear in the literature of our time. These readers have a serious and important point. All voices deserve a hearing; all faces of all shapes deserve to be seen, and everyone’s story deserves to be told, and to be told with all the beauty and tragedy and love that can be mustered in the telling. So if writers are still only writing about Americana, and let us admit that for all its universality Dandelion Wine is a slice of Americana, then where does that leave all other voices? Is their absence a way of saying that those other voices aren’t important enough to be included in our stories? Is it sufficient to say, as Bradbury says, that if you want representation then you should write it yourself?

    My other point is, it’s okay to be critical of the things you love. I will likely continue to read and love Bradbury’s work, and I’ll encourage others to love his work as well. But I will also be conscious of what it is. You can read a book like Dandelion Wine with a question in your mind like this one: is the experience expressed in the book important and beautiful enough that you can suspend your criticism of the parts which contemporary values render problematic? Or, is the book’s experience so deeply embedded in its own time that it can’t leap past its own problems and speak beyond its time?

    On those last two questions, I think Dandelion Wine is artistically successful, and completely readable today. It is a story where perhaps nothing happens for thirty pages or more, and then everything happens, and it is beautiful and tragic and right, all at once. Death amidst magic; sadness amidst wonder, and yet all of it loving and caring and human. There it is, a whole world in one summer, printed on a page as much as stoppered in a bottle of wine– dandelion wine, no less. It’s a book to read in winter, when you have half-forgotten what summer feels like; or a book to read when you’re old, and want to remember being young again; a book to read when you hear the footsteps of the Lonely One, and it’s time to learn how to welcome him in.

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    Can book launches be as big as weddings? Some (slightly selfish) thoughts about celebrating books and writers

    While attending my brother’s wedding last week, I had a rather selfish thought: no one has ever celebrated my life and accomplishments on a scale that big.

    Of course the reasons for this are obvious. I’ve never been married; I lead a solitary life anyway; I don’t have that many close friends.

    Still, all six of my brothers and sisters have now had a big day (really a big week) with live bands, DJs, caterers, photographers, excursions, pub nights, suit / dress fittings, rented halls, and more than a hundred friends, some of whom traveled very far to be there. So I wondered if my turn would ever come. I’m not getting married in the near future, if I ever get married at all. And I don’t want to have a “getting married to myself” party because I think that would be silly. But I was discussing this with my sister Bridget during Turlough’s reception and we hit upon the obvious solution:

    A book launch!
    For all seventeen of my books!

    My next book, “Reclaiming Civilization“, will be available for purchase in late August; and some of my previous books, including my “History of Pagan Philosophy”, and the entire “Fellwater: The Hidden Houses” urban fantasy series, didn’t have launch & signing events at all.

    So: perhaps in October 2017 (because I may need that much prep time) and perhaps in Toronto (because it’s closer to more of my friends and family), I’ll rent a pub, or a hotel function room, or maybe a campground, and I’ll invite everyone I know. Perhaps a bookstore could be persuaded to sponsor the event and sell copies of the books there. We can have a huge dinner, and do live readings from some of the books, and maybe some of my musician-friends could do a concert. If there’s sufficient interest, I might do it again in Montreal.

    It’s not all about my ego (well, okay, it might be mostly about my ego); it’s also the principle of the thing. We tend to celebrate weddings on big scales; sometimes we also celebrate birthdays, school graduations, retirements, deaths, etc., on similar scales; I’d like to celebrate writers and their books the same way.

    If you agree, and you’re willing to help, let me know.

    (And if you think I’m being pretentious and selfish, my reply shall be to write more and better books.)

    At the launch event for “Loneliness and Revelation”, 2010.

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    An expedition to the lake, and thoughts along the way

    As often as I can, I like to walk from my house to Pink Lake and back; my usual route is about 12kms long, and I love every inch of it as much as I love my library and my guitars. Here are some photos, and some thoughts that came to me as I made the circuit for the first time this year. All these photos were taken today. 🙂

    About half of my usual route follows a bike trail in the park, where the view along both sides is forest and rocky ridges, like this:

    And in my private mythology, some of these rock ridges have magical names. Here below, for instance, is “The rock of ages”, a boulder by the side of the path which I like to tap with my hand as I pass by:

    And here are two of the three rock piles which I call “The three brothers”:

    And across the bike path from the three brothers is a fourth rock pile, which I like to call “the motherstone”

    The trail also offers some variety in its tree life. For instance, this gravel path leads to a birch and juniper grove:

    I love the intimacy of the forest. Especially in the spring, when after a few hours my skin will be slightly slick with the tree oils in the air. I love the peeping toads and frogs in the ponds, and play of sunlight through the canopy, and the sense that everything around me is connected. Yet in the last few years I have begun to love tall-grass meadows, and I wonder if I like the meadows more. Open distances, stronger breezes, a full sky above! And often, more variety in flowers. Here, for instance, is an area which I call “Colovia” (after a region in Cyrodil, because when I first came here I was playing TES:IV all the time), which appears after a dramatic bend in the path:

    Just look at this part of the meadow, where the buttercups seem to float like stars:

    And this particular spot, where the path through the meadow re-enters the forest again. I think I have photographed this view every year since I moved to Gatineau; and I think I will never tire of it. Even though this is the angle that shows where I’ve been and not where I’m going, still I like to imagine this view is of a path to a kind of wonderland, full of discovery and welcome.

    From here my usual route takes me through the forest, past several more landmarks that I am fond of: swamps, ancient hollow trees, forks in the road, and the like. Today I took a side-spur that led to the Gatineau Hills parkway, a road I have to share with cars. I decided to take the parkway today just to cut down my hiking time (I want to get back to writing, after all), but perhaps because of this decision I found that I noticed the cars in a way I normally don’t. In my neighbourhood in the city, it’s easy to ignore the cars; they’re everywhere and the infrastructure is build to serve them and so they look like they belong. In the forest, they look like an imposition, an invasion. More than what they look like– what they sound and smell like feels invasive. I come into the forest for peace and contemplation; if I want the sounds of civilization, I can go to the downtown core. Well, this park belongs to all Canadians, not only to me, so of course I can’t lobby the authorities to ban cars in the park. But next time, I will take the trail that keeps me as far from the road as possible.

    So, after about an hour and a half, I arrive at Pink Lake:

    …where I often stay for an hour or more, contemplating the waters, and the life all around. It is one of the few places in the world where I feel at home, safe, welcome, and at peace; it is one of the places where I feel as if the land knows me. This feeling is enriched as much by my knowledge of the science of ecology, as by the association in my mind with the fairy lakes and otherworldly waters in the myths of my Celtic ancestors.

    Today, I didn’t stay long, because it’s a Saturday and that means the lake is crowded with tourists. Again, I don’t begrudge their presence: this lake belongs to them too. But today I was reminded of why the ideas for my book on Civilization were born along these shores. And as I meditated on the snippets of their conversations that I could overhear, I was also reminded of an unquiet thought which occurred to me here while I was still researching that book.

    Explaining it will require a little bit of philosophical history.

    Aldo Leopold proclaimed in 1949 that humanity had to change “the role of Homo sapiens from conquerer of the land to plain member and citizen of it”. Charles Reich declared in 1970 that “There is a revolution coming” and that this revolution would involve the “recovery” and “greening” of first the individual self, and then the body politic of America. Arne Naess declared in 1986 that the ultimate norm of deep ecology was “Self-realization!”; that the biosphere of the earth is a kind of expanded self; the realization of which is both a moral postulate in its own right, and also the basic premise to support the argument that the industrial destruction of the environment must end. In 1990 Karen J. Warren and Vandana Shiva taught that the destruction of the environment is a feminist issue: the oppression of women and the domination of the environment follows the same logical structure and the same substantive value system. These were the bold and forthright ideas in the air when I encountered the green movement, and the pagan community, in the 1990’s. They were serious, action-oriented, pervasive, and even optimistic, although the latter quality was perhaps not obvious at first. They were the ideas that configured the vocabulary of most spiritual people I knew back then; and most of them felt their sense of one-ness with the Earth so deeply and profoundly, that they were convinced “the greening of the self”, and then of the nation, was inevitable.

    It was a different time.

    So, it’s been nearly seventy years since the first proclamation of “the greening of the self” (well, according to that little list.) And yet all the major life-signs of planetary biosphere health continue to decline. (I direct your attention to the most recent IPCC report, if you are curious.) It is not that those streams of thought lacked logical coherence or explanatory power. It is not that they couldn’t be translated into political action or spiritual inspiration. Nevertheless, the practical fact on the ground right now is that the greening of the self, which these philosophies predicted and demanded, has not occurred. It has, perhaps, occurred among people like myself who are already disposed to it (and I am no exemplar: my eco-footprint is smaller than that of my neighbours, but not by much.) It has certainly not occurred among the majority of politicians and industrialists and other wealthy and powerful parties who are in any kind of position to do anything on a global scale to halt the degradation of the planet’s biosphere. And it has definitely not occurred among a majority of the world’s middle-class and working-class consumers and voters. The failure of this prophesy is perhaps best exemplified with President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord. But it’s been growing on my mind for at least a year, maybe more.

    Here, then, is a question: what can be said to persuade people who have not felt the greening of the self– who will perhaps never feel it– that the earth should be protected from climate change and ecological destruction? What can be said to people who will never feel for the land the way, for example, I feel for everything along the path from my house to Pink Lake? What can be said to people who believe, following the logic of a different spiritual path, that they don’t have to care about climate change and global warming because they expect to be saved by God?

    Well, that very question is likely to be the topic of my next nonfiction book. But in the meanwhile, I invite your comments.

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    Kenny Klein: Guilty on all charges

    Kenny Klein: pagan celebrity musician and songwriter. Arrested and charged for possessing child pornography; today, found guilty on all counts.

    Here’s the court docket.

    Not that there was ever any serious reason to suppose the conclusion would be otherwise, beyond the pro-forma of court procedure.

    Klein’s music was a big part of my life when I started out in the pagan world, some 25 years ago. I always looked forward to his shows at Wiccanfest. Now I feel like some of those happy memories are not quite so happy, seeing as I now know how the story ends. Friends of mine pointed out to me that I enjoyed playing his music during a time when I had no idea what was going on behind the curtain, so I shouldn’t worry about it much. I suppose that’s correct; still, for my part, I doubt that I’ll ever play his music again.

    We could discuss whether we can separate the man from his art, and so enjoy his music without endorsing the man, or his colossally bad moral choices. And between us, we philosophers have been having this discussion for almost a century now, whenever we talk about Nietzsche or Heidegger.

    But a more useful discussion would be: a discussion about how to write new and better songs. As well as new and better books, and poems, and stories. New relationships among ourselves with new songs to lead the way.

    However terrible your old idols may turn out to be, however dysfunctional the community can often be, none of it can cover the spiritual epiphany you had when you were young, when the earth and sky revealed itself to you in beauty and showed you who you are. Whatever may be going on in your life, or in the world, the Immensity will always be there, and it will always gain a hearing.

    The thing to do, therefore, is to reclaim that golden moment– but to do so intelligently. Without forced or false innocence, without pretentiousness, without illusion.

    Then to carry the inspiration of that moment forward into your work, with new and better songs to lead the way: affirming the living, affirming the beautiful, affirming the good.

    Affirming the just.

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    Why I’m Writing Science Fiction Now

    I used to write books about druids. Then I wrote books about philosophers. Then I wrote a six-volume urban fantasy series. Now I’m writing a science fiction novel, and a second edition to a college textbook on logic. A friend remarked to me yesterday that it looks like I’m randomly re-inventing myself, and leaving people confused.

    I disagree: I think I’ve been completely consistent to myself the entire time– but to explain why, I need to tell a story.

    In 1982, I was in grade three, and my teacher put me on an enriched reading program, separate from the rest of the class. I read the autobiography of Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut. I think that around the same time, I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And my dad bought a telescope, and showed me how to use it to project an image of the sun on to a screen, so we could count sunspots. Meanwhile, every year someone would give me for my birthday a bag of mixed Lego bricks, which almost always included some of those wonderful blue and grey spaceship themed pieces. Soon I was creating entire fleets of spaceships, some of them G-Force style fighters, and some of them Star Trek style exploration vehicles. My Lego astronauts had names like ‘the leader’ and ‘the one who likes fighting’ and ‘the curious one’. I had my own Trek style space-exploring federation. I built base stations that resembled temples– one of them was a tower, which I built almost two meters tall, and which was the home for the fleet’s leader. He had a black body and legs, and a blue captain’s hat, and a scratch over his mouth which erased part of that famous Lego smile. He also had mystical Jedi-like powers; and he sometimes secretly consulted a disembodied head for guidance. This being a child’s fantasy, after all. I never gave my space fleet a name– it was enough to know the fleet was my fleet. These were my first science fiction stories.

    My childhood sci-fi fantasies tended to look rather surreal, like this frame from Star Trek The Motion Picture.

    In the fourth grade, I committed one of those stories to pen and paper. It was about a group of rabbits who build a rocket ship, but on their first launch something goes wrong and they found their ship on course to crash into Jupiter. I never did finish writing the story, but I drew lots of doodles of the rocket ship and its crew all over my notebooks. Probably in the same year, I read Arthur C Clarke’s 2001, and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and The Halloween Tree, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Thinking brave new thoughts about infinity and reality cannot help but do weird things to a young mind— in fact, at the time, some of my teachers led me to believe that such books were as dangerous as experimenting with drugs. Naturally, therefore, I read them anyway– often in my secret place in the forest outside my village; often under my blankets at night, with a pen-light given to me by my grandfather. In high school I kept the habit. My teachers asked me to read The Grapes of Wrath and The Stone Angel. Instead I read A Canticle for Leibowitz and Rendezvous With Rama. And I read Camus’ The Plague and Sartre’s No Exit, but that’s another story.

    In my first month as a grad student at the University of Guelph, I met Prof. John Leslie, just after attending a lecture he delivered on the Carter-Leslie Doomseday Argument. Although I ended up writing my Masters thesis on a different topic, and my doctorate on another completely different topic, the logic of the argument always loomed in my mind. I bought Leslie’s book The End of the World right away, and it stayed on my bedside table for many years. Usually beside a copy of Watership Down.

    Many more years after that, as a professor at Heritage College, I read Azimov’s Foundation trilogy. And around the same time, several NASA-funded scientists published an essay called “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY)“: a mathematical model they had invented, which shows how “over-exploitation of either Labor or Nature results in a societal collapse.” And then things began coming together. I thought of Michael Collins again, and the Doomsday Argument, and my story about the rabbits in their star-crossed rocket ship, and all the sci-fi that my teachers wouldn’t let me read in class but were secretly proud that I read anyway. Azimov’s story features a fictitious social science, Psychohistory, which predicts the mass movements of huge populations of people; the Carter-Leslie Doomsday Argument together with the HANDY model seemed like the obvious real world analogy. And I found I still wanted to understand it better, and write about it.

    That’s where Lorelei Bloem, the heroine of my scifi novel, comes from. She is not a new self-reinvention. She lives in a world which has always been with me. She’s the scientist, philosopher, and ecologist, who discovers the evidence that the world has a bright and good future– but no one believes her. I have loved her for a long time. And I’m almost ready to share that love with everyone.

    Nobody in life is entirely ‘one’, in the sense of being a unified person, having a single unchanging identity throughout her life. In my forty-two short years I have already lived many lives; I am as different to my ten-year-old self as I am different to my next-door neighbour; I have been a different person to different people and different communities. I might ask, as Walt Whitman asked: “Do I contradict myself?” And I can answer the same way: “Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” But there is a thread tying them all together, a long red string that was sewn together from other strings before I was born, and which I lay on the ground behind me as I walk, like an explorer in a labyrinth keeping his finger on the way back to the door. That red string is my story, my narrative, my logos; it is that which emerged whenever I found myself facing an immensity, and instead of running away from it, I sought to understand it.

    The names of the planets and moons in the fictitious solar system of my novel.

    Flags and other symbols for the various political factions in the novel. Unfinished and very subject to change.

    Postscript: Here’s the (draft) marketing text, for when I eventually seek an agent and publisher.

    A scientist discovers a crashed alien space probe, thereby triggering a new space race, and a new cold war.
    Cover copy:
    A bored technical team discovers a crashed alien space probe on Verlassen, the furthest dwarf planet from the sun. The discovery triggers a new space race, to build a starship and travel to the planet that the probe came from, only nine light-years away. Lorelei Bloem, the team’s science officer, persuades The Conference of the Nations of Humanity, a global diplomatic and humanitarian agency, to build a ship. But the competition includes military juntas, corporate oligarchies, and fanatical religious groups, all intent on sabotaging her work. She calculates that the ship must be built in less than sixteen years: after that, the looming cold war between the superpowers will collapse the world’s economy and biosphere. Under pressure from all sides, and thrust into the spotlight unprepared, her choices will determine the future of civilization.

    State of the Manuscript:
    The first draft is 80,000 words and almost finished. I expect to have a complete first draft by mid May, 2017.

    Post-postscript: My friend also asked me, Why is my lead character a woman? The short answer is, I have long been fascinated by the story of the Lorelei, the Germanic siren-spirit who lives in the rocks beside a sharp bend in the river Rhine. I have a lot of lingering nostalgia for my two visits to Germany, in the summer and autumn of 2004.

    And because the gods of philosophy are women: Saint Sophia, and Urania, for instance.

    Urania, Muse of mathematicians, astronomers, and philosophers.

    Although my Lorelei isn’t Greek, and I haven’t yet asked her whether she wears a tichel.

    Also, because of the magnificent song by The Pogues.

    And because women can do things in stories that men can’t do; and women also face different (usually bigger) social obstacles. My acknowledgement of the literary politics of our time.

    And because– well, it’s best I keep my last reason to myself. When you read the novel, I hope you’ll see.

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