Saturday, April 10, 2021

Christmas at the Robinettes' – A Vignette


During COVID and isolation, I have been quite lonely, with no real-life people to spend time with. I realized that there are probably a lot of people who feel lonely like I do, so I thought, why not write a scene about the time I feel the least lonely, a family gathering. Children running around, aunts and uncles chattering, cooking, and playing games, and grandma and grandpa full of joy and thankfulness. So I hope that, whether you feel lonely or you simply stumbled upon this, that you can find in it the spark of family happiness. Enjoy!

Christmas at the Robinettes'

By Chris Horst

Snow blows around Grandma and Grandpa Robinette’s house, banking and swirling in thick wet clumps until it reaches the end of its journey and feeds the piles building up around the walls and window frames. Warm yellow light glows behind the curtains, contrasting with the darkness of the December evening and hinting at the liveliness within.

Aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandchildren bustle about the rooms like bees in a hive, their chattering, singing, and cries of excitement drowning out a trio chanting “We Three Kings” on the Oldies station. Aunts Mary, Sarah, and Jen chatter on the long couch, while, despite the ruckus, college-age Ariel naps on the short couch, scrunched up by its small size. Several of the family members sit around a card table, humming tunes as they fit pieces into a half-constructed jigsaw puzzle.  Little Sammy scurries around the room driving a yellow model Ferrari along any surface he can find, be it right-side-up, sideways, or upside-down, screeching, “Batmobile! Batmobile!”

Beside the CRT that soundlessly plays a football game that might have been recorded, Uncle Luke chatters and gestures with Uncle John in his raspy rural accent. “That whole area under there had rotted, so I ended up replacin’ those two’b’fours . . .”

On the floor, a gaggle of teens and tweens sit or lie on their stomachs in a circle playing a game they call Egyptian War when they know they are being observed, and something less scrupulous when they think the grown-ups aren’t listening. The players take turns placing the top card of their decks on a central pile until two of the same card appear in a row or with one card sandwiched between them, and then the first person who slaps the pile gets to add it to their deck. More than one card bears a red stain from fingernails meeting flesh at high velocity.

“Batmobile!” Sammy cries, holding his yellow car in the air as if it’s a toy plane. “Batmobile!” He lands the car on the side of his two-year-old sister Hannah’s head.

“No no no!” adult voices cry from all around. Mary, Sammy’s mom, reaches the children in two quick strides and kneels beside them, putting her hand on the car as Sammy pulls it away from Hannah. “Not on your sister, okay?”

Hannah begins to cry, and Sammy, realizing he’s done something bad, joins in. Mary makes soothing shushing sounds as she checks Hannah’s head. Finding no marks, she kisses it, then gently wipes the tears off Hanna’s cheeks. “It’s okay.” Hannah stops crying, and Mary turns and says, “Sammy, what do you say?”

Sammy looks away and shuffles his feet. “I’m sorry.”

“Good.” Mary smiles lovingly. “You can drive your batmobile on the floor and on the chairs and couches, but not on people. Okay?”

“Okay.” Sammy rushes off, stooping to roll his yellow batmobile across the room.

Mary returns to her seat. Gradually, the hubbub returns to its previous level, the incident forgotten.

“I’m making coffee,” Grandpa calls from the kitchen. “Anybody want some?”

“Coffee?” Aunt Georgie says in her strong alto voice practiced from decades of theater performance as she navigates the busy living room, making eye contact, noting the yeses, nos, bobbing of heads, and waving of hands.

Ariel raises a sleepy hand without opening her eyes. “I’ave coffee.”

“Luke, John, coffee?”

“Yeah, I’ll take some,” Luke says. John smiles and waves the offer away.

“Lexa, coffee?”

“No, it’s evening,” nineteen-year-old Lexa replies, not looking up from her laptop nor slowing the clicking of her fingers on its keyboard.

Georgie returns to the kitchen. “We’ve got six orders for coffee, Grandpa. Six cups plus you makes seven. Seven cups.”

“Seven cups, coming up,” Grandpa says. The coffee maker heats up, and the gurgling of the machine mixes with the scent of home-ground coffee beans and brings sweet memories of many years to Grandpa’s mind. The times he would take little Luke, Mary, and John to the train tracks to find the flattened, featureless remains of the pennies they had left on the rails the day before. The first time he had seen baby Ariel, so small in Georgie’s arms, and had felt like a new father all over again. And when he and Grandma had gone to Armenia as Red Cross volunteers after the Soviet Union had dissolved and had stayed in the home of Gevorg and Margarit, who had come to the States and celebrated Christmas with the family that year.

Grandpa walks through the kitchen doorway and watches his sons and daughters, their husbands and wives, and his grandchildren, all enjoying themselves and each other in their own ways. A yellow warmth shines in his old bones.

Grandma appears beside him. She hasn’t entered his field of view, but after the many wonderful and adventurous years they’ve had together, he knows when she is near. “God has truly blessed us with such a large, happy family,” she says.

“Yes, he has,” Grandpa replies.

Eight-year-old Ben dashes from the bathroom and approaches Sarah. With an ear-to-ear grin, he says, “Hi Fake Mom!”

“Fake?” Sarah asks with a curious smile.

Finding himself the center of attention, Ben’s eyes dart, and his smile turns bashful.

“Fake Mom?” Uncle Luke prompts. “What’s up with that?”

Ben turns around and darts back into the bathroom. The other family members chuckle and roll their eyes. Ben runs out of the bedroom. “Hi Real Mom!” he shouts.

“Oh, so she’s real now?” Luke says.

“Yeah.” Ben looks around, as if expecting everyone to get it.

The clock strikes eight, and Grandma announces that she would like everyone to gather for a song. Heads are counted. “Anyone know where Kristina and Judah are?” Mary asks.

“They’re in the Wardrobe,” Ben says.

“You want to go get them?” Sarah asks.


Ben passes through the bedroom to the walk-in closet, which has a back exit to the bathroom. The kids have named this closet the Wardrobe because, like Narnia, if you go in one side and come out the other, you end up in another world. Except unlike Narnia, this new world looks exactly the same as the real world, and has copies of all the people. It is very important to keep track of how many times you go through the Wardrobe each way so that you end up going home with the right mom and dad.

11-year-old Kristina and Judah are sitting on the floor behind a forest of Grandma’s clothes. It’s snug and cozy back here, like a pillow fort. This is where they tell each other secrets and share feelings that only 11-year-olds can understand.

The clothes rustle and Ben’s face pokes through. “Hi!”

“Ben,” Judah says, “what are you doing?”

“My mom said to go get you.”

“Mm, okay.” Judah and Kristina crawl out from behind the clothes. After all, if a grown-up says to come out, they have to come out.

The rest of the family is standing in a circle, and they make room for the three kids. With everyone present, Grandpa says a few words about the meaning of Christmas, and how thankful he and Grandma are that the whole family could be here to celebrate it with them.

When he is finished, Georgie asks the group, “Shall we sing Silent Night?” She sweeps the room with her gaze, more to check if everyone is ready than if anyone disagrees. It is a yearly tradition, after all.

She begins the first line. By the time she gets to “Holy night,” the rest of the family have joined their voices with hers in four-part harmony. The melody resonates through the house and connects everyone’s hearts in celebration, and the dark and bitter cold finds no purchase here on this joyous Christmas night.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

NaNo Results 2020: Moebius

In November of 2020, I began my fifth NaNoWriMo book, then called MoebiusWar. The goal, as usual, was to write 50,000 words in a month. I wrote 34,000, several thousand of which were cut. It was the first NaNoWriMo where I failed the goal I set myself.

Now, two months later, it stands a finished novella at 37,000 words. Better late than never, huh?

You can read the final product, Moebius, here on WritersCafe.

Moebius is the story my friends and I built while we were teenagers. We were obsessed with it. We filled notebooks with characters and locations and storylines. We even made action figures for the characters out of colored pipe cleaners. The universe of Moebius occupied our minds day in and day out. It was our fantasy world, our creation.

Over the years, that world faded away, and other concerns and story ideas occupied my mind. But in the summer of 2018, I got nostalgic for the old days of carefree adventure, and that November, I wrote MoebiusQuest, a return to the first book I ever tried to write back in the day. My goal was not to produce a masterpiece, but to reclaim the teenage enthusiasm that kept me daydreaming in this world. I filled the story with nonsense, with jokes and cringeworthy prose, just like I used to do as a teenager. It was junk food, something to enjoy and then toss in the trunk.

In the summer of 2020, I once again felt nostalgic for the world of Moebius, so I decided to write the sequel, which my friends and I had actually spent more time on than the first book. I looked back at our old notes, picked a bunch of characters, constructed a timeline, and then when November began, I went at it.

In the beginning, I thought it was going to be nothing more than another MoebiusQuest, so I picked an equally cheesy title, MoebiusWar. As I wrote, I found myself surprised at how the characters and the world were coming to life. And when I was done, I realized this was not merely a sequel to MoebiusQuest; this had become the best story I have written yet. The jokes and cringe were gone, replaced by serious emotional themes. The whimsy felt like a part of the world rather than an author’s indulgence.

This isn’t another piece of self-indulgent junk food. This is everything my teenage self dreamed Moebius would be, and more. This isn’t MoebiusWar, the sequel to MoebiusQuest. This is Moebius.

It is not lost on me that this series will never be published. My dream is to share my stories and ideas with an audience, and maybe even make a living off of it. So I am making the decision right now to say goodbye to the world of Moebius. It has given me hope, inspiration, escape, and nostalgia. Now it is time to take what I have learned, the skills I have practiced and discovered, and channel them toward real books. I have a far-future speculative sci-fi in the works, and I’ve been getting ideas for a dark fantasy I might start putting more attention into. The time is coming when I will have something to submit to publishers. Someday soon, it will happen.

If you would like to read Moebius without having to push yourself through MoebiusQuest, I have included a 1-page review of the plot and characters after the prologue of Moebius to catch you up to speed. Happy reading!

Friday, January 1, 2021

Mockery: A Fine Line Between Healing and Abuse

Happy Holidays, and welcome to 2021, the Year of Healing (fingers crossed). In the spirit of that optimism, we are going to talk today about an essential ingredient of healing that I have been avoiding like the 2020 Plague: mockery.

For many years, I have believed that mockery of any kind is abusive, and any positive effects it might have can be achieved by actions of a more nurturing type. But this changed last month, after I was mocked by one of my friends. They did not intend it as mockery, and they were not aiming at me, but that was the way the cookie crumbled.

I’d had the mother of all existential crises brewing inside me for years, and that incident, combined with a cascade of others, forced me to face my inner Cthulhu. And in that confrontation, one of the things I have come to realize is that sometimes what feels like harm can actually be a blessing in disguise.

Some people mock because they want to hurt others. Some, because they feel insecure inside and want to feel momentarily superior (like me). Some mock because they want attention. Entertainment companies mock bluntly and offensively so that the shock keeps the dopamine dollars coming. But sometimes, on a precious occasion, you find someone who mocks out of love.

Mockery is like a hammer. Anyone can swing it around and break things, but it takes someone with skill and care to strike the nail. Mock someone in the wrong way, and they could end up in a worse place than they began, their fears and torment reinforced. But with just the right amount of delicate pushing, mockery can push someone over the hill of discomfort and into a place of healing.

If we can face a little bit of mockery, we will become more resilient to the bad kinds of mockery and more accepting of the good kind. When a bit of our silliness or cruelty is pointed out, if we are able to chuckle at it, it becomes smaller and easier to overcome. It does not have to be an act of self-hatred, as I have so long felt it to be, but can, in the right circumstances, be an act of self-love.

I want to become a person who can use mockery to learn and grow, and I think the best way to start is to practice on myself. After all, if I can avoid shattering the world’s most fragile snowflake, that’s a sure sign I’ll be good with anyone.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Breaking the Streak

 This is my 200th blog post, and the 51st Friday I have posted in a row. I have published a new blog post every Friday during 2020, and one of the things that kept me going was the desire to keep it up every Friday of an entire year. But I have decided I am going to break the streak now on December 11. Here is why:

Throughout the tribulations of 2020, one of the major things that kept me sane was keeping up with my streaks. I was writing books, making a YouTube channel, learning Japanese, and keeping up with this blog, and I was meeting my deadlines for all of them. Being unemployed during COVID-19, it was a way of proving to myself that I was a responsible person who kept up with productive habits.

This changed mid-November. It was National Novel Writing Month, and I had finally landed a job as a contract tutor for an online company. This meant I had to keep up with doing my job, writing 1,667 words per day, 1/2 hour a day on Japanese practice, writing a blog post every week, and uploading a new video to YouTube every two weeks.

And I crashed.

The first sign was when I did not get my YouTube video up on Tuesday like usual, and had to upload it on Wednesday instead. You might roll your eyes and say, “Big deal.” But for someone whose sense of self-worth hinged on keeping up with his streaks, it was a big deal, and it was the first domino to fall.

A week and a half later, I fell short of the 1,667 daily word goal. It was the first time in the five years I have done NaNoWriMo that I missed a goal I set myself.

That was it. From then on, it was all I could do to write 200 words every day, much less 1.7 thousand. The streak was broken, and it wasn’t coming back.

That was when I started to seriously think about what I was putting myself through with all these hobbies. So much work, and for what? Almost nobody reads my blog posts or stories. I don’t even like Japanese culture. I’m poor and essentially unemployed, and these things are taking away from time I could be spending on a job.

I quit Japanese practice when my streak reached 600 days, and have hardly thought about it since. No regrets. When November was over, I stopped writing my book, even though the story wasn’t finished yet. Of all my hobbies, there are only two streaks left: YouTube and this blog.

I am going to keep up with YouTube, because having one hobby is healthy, and YouTube is the one that gives me the most joy and sense of purpose right now. But for A Scientist’s Fiction, this post will be the final post in my streak.

You may say, “Chris, there are only two Fridays left in 2020. You made it through NaNoWriMo. It’s smooth sailing from here. Why not just finish it up?”

And I could. I had planned for this to be the final blog post, and had two others lined up for this week and next week. I could write those and finish out the year. But I won’t.

This crisis has brought me face to face with parts of myself I never wanted to acknowledge, and forced me to rethink my values and motivations. The truth is, for as long as I can remember I have lived in pursuit of approval and validation. I wanted everyone to see how smart and wise and talented I am. This has led me to build up all of these streaks and crank out blog posts, many of them ending up not good.

I could finish out the year, getting those satisfying check marks filling out the entire 2020 Fridays chart. But that would mean giving in to the forces that drove me to crash. Breaking off this streak two weeks before my goal is my way of tossing that aside and signaling to myself that I’m ready to live with new, more wholesome and sustainable motivations.

I will still update this blog from time to time, but when I do, it will not be because I want to feel good about myself, but because I have something worth saying. Starting now, I will focus on four things: strengthening my relationships with my friends and family whom I could not be more thankful for, my physical health, making quality YouTube videos, and making tangible steps toward a realistic and sustainable career.

Until next time.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Don't Idolize People

Sometimes we have the desire to find a person who has profound insight and follow them, listening to their every word like it is holy revelation. We look for this infallible saint among religious figures, philosophers, leaders of social movements, and famous entrepreneurs. In my own life, I grew up in among American Conservative Christian culture, and I believed they had all the answers. Then I started to see the flaws in that ideology, and I discovered Sam Harris, who seemed to have all the answers Christianity didn’t.

But then I started noticing Sam’s blind spots, and I searched again, finding other wise thinkers, including Jordan Peterson, Eric Weinstein, and Sean Carroll. And while all of these people have good ideas worth listening to, they also all have blind spots and ideas that are not so much worth listening to. And so I discovered something that should be obvious, but is not so easy to act as though we believe: No one has all the answers. No one is worth pledging our intellect to follow.

So how do we gain knowledge and wisdom without falling prey to the same pitfalls as the people we follow? The answer is to listen to many different people who come at ideas from different angles, and not to dismiss their ideas just because they are different from the way we think. We learn to evaluate their ideas, take wisdom where we find it, and leave foolishness behind.

As someone who seeks out new perspectives, especially ones I am told not to listen to, I am one of the few people who have read both Ayn Rand and Karl Marx. Both of these thinkers have a lot of bad ideas, but they also both have some good ideas worth listening to.

Rand’s big idea that hooks so many people is the idea of living rationally. To choose goals for one’s life and work toward those goals using reason, not tradition or peer pressure or rules or authority. This is a very empowering way of thinking, which I admit I have not done well in my life so far, and am working at doing better.

However, that’s about the only idea of Rand’s that’s worth anything. Claiming to have bridged the is-ought gap and discovered objective symbolism and ideals is just bad philosophy, and to declare that people who do not live rationally are not worthy of partaking in the bounty of life is despicable. These ideas are the mark of someone who is full of herself trying to seize power and control the social narrative.

Marx is infamous for being the communism guy who inspired the totalitarian takeover of Russia and China and caused the collapse of many smaller countries. This means Marx is bad, right?

Not so fast. Marx identified a lot of legitimate problems with capitalism, some of which are still relevant today. For starters, he identified the problem of inequality of opportunity. In his day, it was much more rigid, with two distinct classes: the bourgeoisie, who owned factories, fields, and natural resource deposits; and the proletariat, who worked the fields, factories, mines, and stores in exchange for enough money to buy enough food to go back to work the next day.

These days it is easier for a factory worker or truck driver to rise up the ranks, get a good recommendation, and start their own business. But it is still hard, and relies on all kinds of factors out of the person’s control, like health, access to education, good connections, an encouraging environment, and natural talent. A sad fact of our economy is that the less money someone has, the harder it is to make money, and the less educated someone is, the harder it is to get more education. Forces are at play to keep those at the bottom of the economy poor.

Marx is considered the father of Social Conflict Theory, the idea that we humans divide ourselves into groups and those groups compete with one another for resources and status. Marx himself was a reductionist, saying all of human history is class conflict, which is clearly not correct, but it is equally clear that social conflict does play a significant role in history, and it is an essential lens for studying social science and for trying to resolve social issues.

For Marx and Rand alike, we should do what we do with all thinkers; take the good and leave the bad. The same is true for Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Michel Foucault, Søren Kierkegaard, the writers of the American Constitution, Jesus, Buddha, and Confucius. All have wisdom worth listening to, and all have pitfalls we can fall into if we follow them too zealously.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Consciousness and the Question of Meaning

The Hard Problem
Identifying Consciousness
Vast Minds
The Question of Meaning

We’ve talked about the Hard Problem of consciousness, and all of the ways it might be resolved. The conclusion that is the most consistent with my experience and knowledge is that consciousness is information changing and interacting with itself in certain ways, and that any time information behaves in these ways, be it in brains, computer chips, or large-scale systems, consciousness is there.

But if this is true, it leads to another question: why does each conscious experience have the character that it does? Why doesn’t chocolate taste blue? Why doesn’t a smooth ball feel like the direction left? Or one that is more easy to wrap our minds around: why does our vision fade to black when things get dark, instead of fading to white?

Religions and spiritual gurus have claimed to know the answers to this question since before history began: conscious qualia are what they are because they tap into a realm of existence beyond the physical where objective, transcendent meaning can be found. Materialists deride this claim, citing all the contradictions between religious and spiritual traditions, and how claims of objective meaning have been used to justify oppression. I am sympathetic to both views, and I think it is important to have waited until after we have talked about all the other topics in the consciousness series before tackling this one, to avoid falling into naive answers.

Let’s consider a question: could black and white have been switched? Could we have evolved such that dark things fade away into whiteness instead of blackness?

If physicalism is true, then whiteness and blackness are patterns in our brains. Intuitively, it seems the answer to the question is yes. It just happened in our evolutionary history that darkness is represented by the color black in our minds, but it could have been white instead. Or any other color, for that matter.

We have some evidence for this. An early psychologist, George Stratton, did a famous experiment where he wore glasses that turned his view upside-down. After a few days, he was able to function as if his vision were normal. When he took the glasses off for the last part of the experiment, he felt like his vision was upside-down again.

This suggests that at least the senses of up and down could have been switched, and if they were, we would not be any different from how we are now. This hints at the possibility that we would not be noticeably different if our sense of up were, for example, switched with the color blue, although it is not proof by any stretch of the imagination.

Alternatively, it may be that swapping around our qualia makes living less efficient, and if it is done too much, might mess up our brains in ways they cannot adjust to. It’s well known that we perceive reality symbolically, with concepts representing other concepts, which are connected to other concepts, in a web that encompasses everything we know and experience.

Much of this is arbitrary, a product of upbringing and culture. But some symbols and their connections seem to come pre-loaded into our brain structure. It might be that the archetypal symbols we inherit genetically are inextricably intertwined with one another and the other functions of our brains that swapping them or changing them too much would leave us non-functional.

The question I am trying to ask is this: are the qualia we experience an arbitrary shake of the evolutionary dice, or did they evolve the way they did because the quale patterns themselves help us to survive and thrive? If the former is true, then existentialism is true: the meaning in life is what we make it. If the latter is true, it opens the door to the possibility that there is meaning outside of us, locked up within the possibility-space of conscious experience, brought into being when it is experienced by conscious creatures like us.

This is all idle speculation. I feel hardly more informed on this subject than the Ancient Greeks who proclaimed everything to be made of water. We do not have the tools yet to investigate this question scientifically, though we may someday. All we have is storytelling and armchair philosophy—both of which I am happy to engage in, writing blog posts and novels and filling them with meaning to the best of my ability. Whether I create that meaning or reveal it, I do not know. But what I do know is that this question will bring me a sense of wonder and mystery to the end of my days.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Hyperspace and Repeating Time – Worldbuilding MoebiusWar

The book I’m writing for National Novel Writing Month this year is a fantastic space opera. And what is a good space opera without faster than light technology?

The Moebiverse uses hyperspace, a fourth dimension of space that exists in addition to the regular 3D universe. This version of hyperspace is curved so that any straight-line trajectory will end up back in the normal universe at another place faster than it takes light to get there through normal space.

Since hyperspace is outside of the universe, it is impossible to run into anything while in hyperspace, unless it is right next to you in hyperspace. This detail was inspired by the Stargate SG-1 episode “Fail Safe,” where they make a hyperspace jump from one side of the Earth to the other. Adding my own twist, you cannot enter hyperspace when the density of material is too high; it can only be done in empty space. This also means that if there is mass where you exit, you will skip like a rock off a pond and exit a few light seconds away.

Faster-Than-Light technology is notorious for being very hard to imagine without allowing time travel, as I’ve explained in this blog post and this video. There is a saying: FTL, relativity, causality; pick two. However, as I explained in this video, there is a loophole. We can choose an objective reference frame, and if this frame is only special when FTL technology is being used, relativity is still preserved in slower-than-light regimes, embedded within a non-relativistic FTL-inclusive space-time-plus.

In the Moebiverse, the objective frame is relative to the Shaper’s Path, a chain of galaxies which move conveyor-style at extremely high speeds through the universe. I do have to think more about this, though, because there are other galactic chains with their own velocities, and I guess an objective cosmic frame through which they move.

Speaking of galactic chains, let’s move on to how time travel does happen in this universe. That’s right, there is time travel, but I didn’t want the characters to just be able to do it whenever and to whenever they want. So I set up the Moebiverse to have repeating history. Every galaxy along the Shaper’s Path is the same galaxy, 400 years apart, and the time it takes to move from one position in the chain to the next is exactly 400 years. So if you can travel between galaxies, it is the same thing as traveling through time.

Of course, traveling to another galaxy is not as easy as traveling to another star. Stars are light years apart, but galaxies are millions of light years apart. If it takes hours to travel to nearby stars through hyperspace, it will take hundreds of thousands of hours to get to the nearest galaxy. That’s thousands of years. So in order to travel through time, you need something else. At this point, I’m still at the “just use a magical artifact” part of the time travel worldbuilding, and haven’t built up much theory around it.

Speaking of magical artifacts, the Moebiverse has djinns (called talias in-universe), objects that go back in time and become their past selves in an infinite loop. For reasons no one knows, these objects grant people magical powers. For instance, the elemental medallions in MoebiusQuest grant the wielder limited control over their respective elements, and in MoebiusWar the evil Spellcaster’s staff allows him to manipulate others’ emotions.

And that’s how the faster-than-light and time travel science works in the Moebiverse. I hope I can finish this book soon; I’ve been under a lot of stress lately and haven’t made the NaNoWriMo word quota at all this past week. Nevertheless, I have pushed on a little further every day and I am determined to continue until the end.

(Last-minute update: I wrote 2200 words yesterday, which is 3x more than my other days this week, so my momentum might make a comeback!)