I recently started working with the AI art generator MidJourney. Many of you may not know this but I have Prosopagnosia (faceblindness) and so I don’t visualize things the way that many people do. I’ve always wanted to create beautiful visual art, and photoshop helped me to get part of the way there but I never felt like I could create something from my words in a way that made sense for others visually speaking. The cool thing about MidJourney is that I can take my own written work, poetry and prose, and create something visually unique.
I am looking forward to using MidJourney and potentially other AI software in concert with my writing in the future. There is so much potential to collaborate with AI and develop new and unique landscapes of thought and experience.
On that note, Everything in this post is directly inspired by one of my novels, my short stories, or my poetry. Often I simply entered lines of my poetry and the result are many of the more abstract imagines, such as the ship made of leaves, the teacup in space, and the skull rising out of the road.
Which are your favorites? Which ones do you think best represent my work? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Today is the 4th anniversary of my first novel, Mimi of the Nowhere going live on Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble. In the last 4 years, there have been four books published in the series since that date, with more on the way. I am approaching the end of the first draft of book 5, The Children of AEIS and expect it to be out late summer.
For those who of you who have been following the series, you may have noticed it’s been two years between book 4 and book 5. Why is this? Well, as I am sure so many of you have experienced, the Covid-19 pandemic made life a bit more complicated for a while. But in addition to that, in June of 2020 I suffered a major head injury during a cycling accident. I struggled to read or write anything for almost 6 months. I would have occasional little bursts of creativity during that time, but I wrote and read very little. I was diagnosed with post concussion syndrome and I can say now, that after almost 2 years, I finally have a great deal of normality with only occasional concussion related issues.
This spring and summer I am back in the full swing of writing. And so there is another announcement. The Children of AEIS became rather lengthy, well over 1000 pages. If you’ve been following the series, you might no why… the world went from one walking city, to multiple, and then in book 4… the whole solar system began to open up. Because of it’s length, I have decided to split it into two books. Which will release within six months of each other. The new entry to the series, means the series will now be seven books in length. Book six is titled, “A War For The Heavens.” While book 5 focuses on the survivors of the aftermath of the Battle for Langeles, book 6 will return back to Manhatsten with their new allies the Lunites, and a conflict that is growing with ROAM. Book 7, A Hand to the Stars, will focus on the final battles for the fate of all remaining walking cities and the solar system itself.
You know, another thing I have been thinking about… my series never really fit quite right into the dystopian literature. Things are hard yes, but not hopeless. There is a lot of oppression, a lot of social control, but there are good things as well. It’s much more complex than the label of dystopian. My project here isn’t to talk about how awful society can be and the fear around the slide downhill… instead, this series is something different. I recently discovered an article on polytopias, about stories where the fundamental driving force of the story is that of change and diversity itself. I realized that the heart of everything happening my fictional universe fits this approach so much better. Definitely give that article a read if you want more info about polytopias. The author correctly points out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and the Expanse as important examples of polytopias, and stories about change and diversity are definitely my approach.
Thank you to all of you who continue to follow my work. I appreciate every single one of you. I don’t have many fans, but the ones I do are the absolute best.
My Co-Author, Kyra Wellstrom and I had the great privilege of being asked on one of the coolest podcasts (well, for anthropologists anyway haha) around. This last summer we recorded a discussion with This Anthro Life. The episode is about worldbuilding and nerd culture.
The Children of AEIS, the fifth book in my sci-fi series The Chronicles of the Great Migration, now has a cover! I am so incredibly happy with this cover. The artwork for this cover was created by the very talented Jon Stubbington. Definitely check out his amazing work.
Though I don’t have a firm date for release for the book yet, it will certainly be out before the end of spring of 2022. The Children of AEIS is the penultimate entry into this series, followed finally by A Hand to the Stars.
From the back of the book:
In the penultimate entry of the Chronicles of The Great Migration, Alexa Turon, Runner 17, Major Daniels, and their allies must learn the secrets of the mysterious AEIS and the underground city of Lastion if they hope to discover the key to defeat Miranda once and for all. Above, those aboard Manhatsten scrambles to deal with a new crisis from ROAM.
But from the ashes of the Battle for Langeles and the conflict with the Children of Gaia, a new power rises, one unlike any the world has ever known. It has only one goal, to consume.
Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about what kind of biological costs superpowers or magic might have on the biology of the brain. We discussed the impact of cognitive maps based on different biological and environmental systems, and why these are things that might be useful to consider for building fictional worlds. The reality is, the one thing so often overlooked in fictional worldbuilding, is that different species, and different mutations (in regards to superpowers or magic powers) would have a profound impact on the brain structure and perception of the living person/creature. So, it’s worth at least considering a few elements in how a cognitive map, and how a special ability or power might not just impact individual characters, but also fictional cultures as a whole.
You might be asking, well, what is a cognitive map?
“A cognitive map is an internal neural representation of the landscape in which an animal travels. Animals that use cognitive maps can “visualize” the landscape and solve orientation problems by referring to these maps. While it is generally accepted that birds and mammals can form cognitive maps, and that the hippocampus is the most important part of the brain in their formation, considerable controversy has centered around whether other animals, such as honeybees, can form similar maps.”
Different animals have different cognitive maps. Different kinds of sensory input changes how a particular species would navigate their environment. Say for example a Mantis Shrimp, which has the most complex visual system of any creature on this planet, would have an entirely different cognitive map than a human. Why? Because humans have 3 photoreceptors in their eyes, a Mantis Shrimp has 12-16 depending on which variety of mantis shrimp you’re talking about.
Now imagine for a moment, a mantis shrimp took an evolutionarily leap and became as intelligent and as self-aware as the human species, but still had that same complex visual system. Naturally, their cognitive map would be far different than humans.
Well, one sci-fi author by the name of Adrian Tchaikovsky, played with this idea (though not specifically mantis shrimp) in his books, Children of Time, and it’s sequel Children of Ruin.
Children of Time and Children of Ruin
Without giving too much away, Tchaikovsky’s books Children of Time and Children of Ruin, ask the question, what kind of civilization would a spider, an octopus, and a kind of fungi analog build if they were genetically engineered to evolve human level, or greater intelligence. The answer? One that is a hell of a lot different than humans. But, at the same time, a creature, regardless of its cognitive map, still has to solve the problem of energy, or rather how do you build a large-scale civilization and economic system that could support a large population with different cognitive maps. So even though their maps might be different, to build civilization there would be some overlapping concerns.
For example, (and again I am not going to give away too many spoilers and ruin these amazing books for you) Tchaikovsky, at the beginning of Children of Time, introduces a jumping spider that has been accidentally introduced to a virus that will artificially accelerate its intelligence. The spiders, with completely different senses, biological imperatives, and priorities, build a civilization throughout the book. This civilization is based on a creature that not only builds a web but uses it as a primary means of communication. In this particular species, the male is much smaller and is often eaten after mating with a female, and thus, their world also includes a component of significant gender inequality, where the larger female spiders control civilization. Tchaikovsky, uses these differences to highlight how difficult communication would be with a species with a fundamentally different cognitive map than humans.
So it’s something to think about. If you have giant intelligent snake people in your fictional world, you would have different cognitive maps.
Oh and also, another bone to pick about video game worlds like the Elder Scrolls, Argonians and Kadjit would never, ever be able to mimic human speech, and certainly not English. This is also a problem with the Planet of the Apes series. Biologically speaking, the physical apparatus of a mouth, nose, throat, tongue, teeth, pharynx, larynx, and other parts create a specific kind of instrument from which certain sounds are produced by humans. It’s why some animals make noises that humans could never mimic. So an Argonian speaking English would be akin to trying to get trumpet noises out of a violin, it’s completely impossible. Of course, with your fictional world you can certainly do what you like, but understand that even other primates can’t mimic the same sounds humans make. It’s why Koko the Gorilla, and Kanzi the Chimpanzee, both used sign language and/or soundboards to communicate with humans because they physically can’t produce the sounds for human language.
Different Cultures Have Different Cognitive Maps
In the book, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett discusses the Piraha tribe who live on the Amazon. Though he never explicitly discusses cognitive maps, at one point in the book, he takes some of the men from the Piraha, to a Brazilian City. While there, the members of the tribe are almost hit by cars, and have, what are basically anxiety attacks about being in the city. They really hate it. Why? Well first, Everett then talks about his own experiences in the Jungle for the first few years. In one story, he talks about a python hanging from a tree that the Piraha spot without a second thought. They try to point it out to him, but he can’t see it no matter how hard he tries. He talks about several other instances when he just wasn’t able to see or experience the things the Piraha tribe were, and he had, what was basically anxiety about it similar to the men’s experiences in the city.
One of the things that cultures do, is map their environment as they learn to navigate it. So, if you’re suddenly dropped in a new environment, say, as a Piraha person in a city they have never been to, or an Anthropologist, who grew up in a suburb and suddenly finds themselves in the dense jungle, the cognitive maps you have used your whole life will no longer function properly and you will struggle to adapt until you can construct a new cognitive map (which can take years for completely foreign environments). This is in part what creates culture shock for people who travel to other countries and cultures.
Remember, a cognitive map, is a mental picture of the environment around you. Over time, these maps become a part of our subconscious assumptions of the world and structure our biases. Different cultures are the result of different environmental conditions, and thus will have a different cognitive map as a result. Now, of course, the variation in which these maps can come in, is limited by human biology, but it’s work thinking about as you are building fictional worlds, that different cultures will have different perceptions and priorities based on the physical and cultural conditions on the ground. Of course, this certainly relates to my YouTube episode on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and is worth considering, how this also impacts language.
Neurodivergence, The Brain, and Super Powers
There are more than a few problems with the way that Super Powers and Magic use are displayed in popular fiction. Now granted, these aren’t things that occur to most people (myself included until recently) and of course, part of worldbuilding is the suspension of belief. But if you are doing a hard magic system, something you might want to consider is the physical toll that superpowers or magic might have on the nervous system and the configuration of the brain.
By definition, someone with super powers or the ability to wield magic would necessarily be neurodivergent. This term means, essentially, that the person’s brain would not work the same as the average population (Of course if your goal is to make a world where the norm is magic users, they would have normal cognition for that world).
I myself have a form of neurodivergence called Prosopagnosia, also known as faceblindness. This means that I am not able to hold faces in my memory the way that most people can. It can be incredibly frustrating when dealing with large crowds, but once I discovered I had the condition, I was able to create new strategies for moving and interacting through the world. You could say, in fact, that I, had to have a different cognitive map to function. Neurodivergence comes in a lot of flavors, it’s most often associated with people with psychiatric disorders, autism, ADHD, and a host of other conditions that humans have in the modern world. Divergence doesn’t make anyone less of a person, but it does mean that their cognitive maps are different.
Take Albert Einstein for instance. There are many who suggest that he was neurodivergent. There is speculation that he might have had one or all of the following: Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, on the Autism Spectrum, and possibly ADHD. There are a number of reasons for these speculations including his difficulty with social situations and his inability to function in traditional European school systems. But here’s the point, he was a super genius and that had a cognitive cost. His cognitive map was far different from the average human and the way he navigated that environment was different from most people. This, in turn, allowed him to tackle questions that most human beings could not, and he changed the world as a result.
Again, this isn’t saying that one kind of brain is necessarily better or worse than another, but that, in fact, different brains will approach problems and solutions differently. It’s one of the reasons that, I argue in my Ted Talk, that diversity is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal as humans. But be warned, I’ve met quite a few people who believe they are better or worse than others because their brain is different, that’s simply not true. It’s like arguing which fruit is objectively the tastiest. It’s pointless. But it is empowering to understand how your own brain works isn’t it?
So, back to superpowers. One thing you might want to consider if your character has, say, telepathy or telekinesis, is that they would in fact be neurodivergent. They would have completely different senses that were required for those abilities to function.
Different sense perceptions necessitate different cognitive maps. After all, cognitive maps are built from our sense perception. You use all of your senses to build a mental model of the environment around you. So if you could fly, that would necessitate different sense perceptions and thus a different cognitive map. Consider the Marvel character, Daredevil, who has the ability to see based on what’s basically sonar, but the cost of that ability, was the standard human trichromatic visual system that we experience. That gave him some advantages, but anyone who watches the Netflix series, or reads the comics, knows that it comes with some significant disadvantages as well. Though personally, I think the advantages are a bit unrealistic even though I definitely enjoyed watching Matt Murdock kick ass in the Defenders.
So if you have a hard magic system, genetically engineered super powers, or something similar, you might want to consider what things your characters would have to sacrifice in order for those abilities to be viable. Much of the world’s fiction is filled with examples of this done horribly wrong, but then, a lot of the time, imagination is about playing with the unrealistic isn’t it? Considering the above could be a really interesting way to build a different kind of fictional world. After all, one of the problems we face in fiction is repetitive stories, so perhaps different cognitive maps could help us ask different kinds of questions about ourselves and what’s possible.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my Buddhist spiritual path and also I’ve been rereading Children of Dune by Frank Herbert. This is because the Dune movie comes out in October 2021 and I wanted to be reminded of why I love that universe. This quote in particular stuck with me today in thinking about my own spiritual path and the way I live my life.
“You, Priest in your mufti, you are a chaplain to the self-satisfied. I come not to challenge Muad’Dib but to challenge you! Is your religion real when it costs you nothing and carries no risk? Is your religion real when you fatten upon it? Is your religion real when you commit atrocities in its name? Whence comes your downward degeneration from the original revelation? Answer me, Priest!” – Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
Now understand, if you haven’t read the Dune series, it is fundamentally about the nature and dangers of power and of messiahs/heroes. Paul Atreides, the main character in the first book, knows because of his ability to see the future, that a holy war will be waged in his name and there is little he can do about it. The book, and the series as a whole, asks us to consider what we believe, who we have mythologized, and what that says about humanity, power, love, compassion and asks what it means to be human. There is a reason that the book is considered a masterpiece by both the literary community and many sci-fi lovers. Dune is also the best-selling Sci-fi Novel of all time. Even if it’s not for you (because every great work has people who don’t like or understand it and there is nothing wrong with that), it has lots of powerful things to say about the way humans do things.
Stop right now, and think about your life path. Is your path about self-satisfaction? It is about serving your interests? Is it about the arrogance of being right above all others? Or, is your way of knowing the world about self-reflection? Is there a space for growth and change, the transformation into the best version of yourself? Are you taking the risk to truly be or are you buried in a series of identity markers and worried about defining who you are to everyone you meet? Do you focus on comparison? We all fall into these traps, I know I do sometimes and have to catch myself.
So many religious and non-religious people seek a philosophy not out of transformation and growth, but for comfort and safety. They like things that make their life feel cozy and warm. And while the benefits of community (notice the word unity at the end of the word) are important and worthwhile, I want you to sincerely ask yourself, what have you done to grow lately? Have you acknowledged the ways in which you are wrong or at least entertained the idea that you might be wrong? It can be powerful to look at your ideas and consider that you might be wrong about everything (even if you end up being correct) once in a while. Are you doing the work to be a better version of yourself or are you feeding the beast of arrogance and certainty?
You might be thinking, well isn’t a better version of myself a self-serving principle? It is not. Why? Because a better version of yourself will have better daily interactions. It will be less angry, less selfish/greedy. A better version of yourself will listen with patience to others rather than jumping to conclusions and is much more likely to help those in need. A better version will not only suffer less, but cause others to suffer less. A better version of yourself means that your part of the world, and potentially the whole world, is a little better. It might not add up to much, but imagine if everyone was doing this kind of work on at least a semi-regular basis.
So if your religion or ideology or philosophy (secular or non) is about what you can gain personally from others no matter the cost, then you might need to stop and reflect. What do you serve? Some of you might simply say God or Country, but if your service is exclusive only to those who believe what you do, or conditional on whether or not they will act and behave in the way you want them to, then you only serve an idol of the self and arrogance.
Another quote to consider from verse 8 of the Tao Te Ching:
“The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”
If you are Christian, you can see a similar attitude in The Sermon on the Mount and a number of other places in the bible. If you’re Muslim, there are words like this in the Koran, or the Hindu Vedas, in many Buddhist Sutras, and so on. The teachings of many religious philosophies overlap in the idea of personal growth is vital, and yet, somehow the worship of the myth structure becomes far more important than the actual practice of working toward being a better person. We often view these ideas as a panacea for the poisons of living in a difficult world and forget that nothing comes without work.
Instead, we see so many religions (and secular ideologies) restrict people’s actions out of a false sense of morality or limited black and white thinking. But the world is full of shades of grey. Even really good people do terrible things. Really bad people sometimes show amazing acts of kindness and compassion. It is so easy to pin a group of people or a culture to a certain standard or ideology, rather than accepting the fact, that no matter where you go, people are just people and all are equally complex.
So ask yourself sincerely, what purpose does your religion or ideology serve? Is it about the betterment of yourself and humanity? If not, it’s just another object to be possessed, a kind of materialism, a limit to the way you think and approach the world. If your heart is closed because of what you subscribe to, then you very likely have missed the entire point.
The work is not comfortable. The work is not easy. The work isn’t about serving the self. The work is risky and sometimes dangerous to your identity. If you have summed up your identity in a few key terms (be it a religious identity, a political affiliation, a gender, a mental state, really anything), then you have forgotten that we are an ever-changing, ever-moving entity. You are not the same person you were when you started reading this short essay, even if you reject all of my ideas.
Personal growth, in my view, is the most important thing we can do. After all, using this life, this precious moment (no matter if you believe in one life or countless lives) seems to me, to be the reason why humans are on this planet. Let your spirituality or philosophy open you up to the wonders of the universe. After all, there is endless beauty and joy to be discovered both out there, and within. You need only take off the veils or masks that we all wear and look honestly.
This weekend I received and email that a contest I entered back in March (you know like 2000 years ago with Covid-19) officially decided that Mimi of the Nowhere was in one of the top ten finalists for best sci-fi novel.
Personally I think Mimi of the Nowhere looks fantastic when I added the sticker they gave to the finalists! If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, you can find Mimi of the Nowhere at the following link (note: Paperbacks are only currently available through Amazon) https://books2read.com/u/4AYgNo
Simulacra is a piece of flash fiction (less than 1000 words) about a conversation between two men, after it’s revealed that our whole world is a simulation created by future humans to study the past.
“Because, Edgar, you’re living in a simulation!” Roger pointed to the glitch, a rather large shimmering hole in the fabric of reality. “There are hundreds of those all over this so called world!” “That doesn’t mean I don’t have to water my tomatoes.” “Nothing matters anymore, we aren’t even real, we’re software. Didn’t you see the news? It’s confirmed, there’s no denying it, our designers even showed us how it works and made people appear and disappear. I got to walk on the so called moon without a spacesuit yesterday. What do you think about all of this?” “ I think my tomato plants won’t appreciate it if I let them die.” “Screw your tomato plants!” Roger waved his arms and paced back and forth across the garden patio. “What did my tomato plants ever do to you?” “Not exist!” “Well I don’t see how that’s their fault.” “We don’t exist either.” Edgar stepped back for a moment, looked at his watering can, looked at the plants, looked at Roger, shrugged his shoulders and started to water his plants again. “Nice day for it.” “For what?” “For living in a simulation. At least they didn’t make it a dreary day.” Roger strode forward and knocked the watering can out of Edgar’s hands. Water spilled everywhere. “That was rude.” “It doesn’t matter does it?” “It matters to me, and now my socks are wet.” “Your socks aren’t real, your feet aren’t real, the watering can isn’t real. This isn’t a hoax, this isn’t made up. We know, for a fact, that our whole existence is a program run by humans from the 24th century to try and understand why the 2020 sucked so bad and all you can talk about is your wet socks and tomatoes?” “You don’t seem to be social distancing well Rodger.” “Covid-19 is a simulation!” “That doesn’t mean I won’t get sick.” Edgar pressed his wet feet into the cement making squishing sounds. “My shoes are soggy. It’s going to take a whole day for them to dry.” Roger sat down, pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “Why are your smoking?” “Because it makes me feel better.” “But you said yourself, you aren’t real. You stopped me from watering my plants. I don’t see how a cigarette will make you feel better.” “Well our creators made me addicted.” “That a bit like saying, the Devil made me do it. I don’t see any designer shouting at you to smoke.” Roger puffed smoke. “It’s in the algorithms or something. I don’t see anyone making you water your stupid tomatoes.” Edgar picked up the watering can, walked over to the spigot in the wall and refilled it. He turned to water his plants again. He said, “And just what should we do about this whole simulation business?” Roger strode forward and knocked the watering can out of Edgar’s hands again. “Do? What should we do?” Edgar sighed picking up the can again, “Well I can finish watering my plants and you can keep smoking.” “What’s the point?” “What was the point before?” “Before, we had meaning and purpose. We talked about the nature of humanity and meant it. We debated ideologies and philosophies and talked about free will. But it seems, we were all wrong. Well, except for the few crazy ones who already suspected the truth. But we ignored them.” “Your life had purpose before?” “Shut up, you know what I mean.” “So what then?” “We could break it.” “The simulation? Roger nodded. “How?” “I don’t know. You stop watering your plants and I’ll stop smoking.” “If I don’t water my plants they will die.” “Yeah, sure. Maybe we should do crazy off the wall things that humans wouldn’t normally do?” “Like?” “Dress up our animals and treat them like humans?” “There is a whole industry that caters to that.” “Burn buildings to the ground?” “That just sounds like a riot.” “Well we have to do something.” “Why? Why not just enjoy the simulation? Maybe make some different choices and see how it goes?” “But…” Rodger gestured at the large glitch in reality. “We can’t just pretend like nothing is different. That what we know now is meaningless.” “Why not?” “Because it’s a crime. We’re oppressed by our future selves.” Roger paused. “I got it! We’ll go on a general strike!” “And do what?” “Nothing.” “Sounds like most days for you. “Shut up.” “And what will that accomplish Roger?” “Well the designer on the news said they created this simulation to model human behavior. What if, all of us, everywhere, in the simulation, decide that we will do absolutely nothing. We won’t do a damn thing. We will just stay still until… until…” “Until what?” “They set us free!” “Aren’t we software?” “Yes but…” “Can software become free of hardware?” “Yes!, No… maybe… I don’t know.” “Have you considered the opposite?” “The… opposite?” “What if, now hear me out. The glitches weren’t an accident? What if the designers were bored with modeling human behavior in the 21st century and thought, well, let’s tell them the truth and see what they do? What if, every thing you are saying now is a pre-made program set to infect all of us and we’re playing into their very hands at this moment.” Roger blinked. “I… I never thought of that.” “Do you know how long you have existed Roger?” “What?” “How long have we known each other?” “A few years why?” “Are you sure about that?” “Yes we met at that party in Hebron.” “I’ve never been to Hebron.” “What do you mean?” “A week. You popped up a week ago, the exact same time as the glitches.” “What? Wait, if that’s true, how come you remember it?” “A glitch probably.” “You mean a real one? Not one made by the designers?” “Yes, I think so. You’re an probably part of the experiment Roger. Now sit down, shut up and let me water my tomatoes.”
My fourth and recently released novel Serah of the Runners just got nominated for All Author’s cover of the month contest. The contest includes four rounds and in order to survive the first round, I need enough votes to be in the top tier. If you want to help with the contest you can vote at this link: https://allauthor.com/cover-of-the-month/7575/