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Who Goes There? Uh, Let Me Think…

Written by Tim W. Brown

“Who goes there?” – the sentinel’s challenge. And I think to myself: good question! Who am I? What am I? Where am I going? And by the way, why should I tell you?

As far as we know for sure, humans are the only creatures that wrestle with the question “who am I?” From the moment we are ejected from the most comfortable, nurturing environment we will ever know this side of Heaven, each of us is confronted by the problem of working out who and what we are, even as our own bodies change, new social situations arise, and the world around us changes.

This is one of the reasons we enjoy stories so much – of the things which are universal across all cultures, storytelling is one of them. Stories give us a glimpse into experiences beyond our own, to see how others (real or fictional) deal with the questions of who they are, and how they deal with various situations. Stories – listening to them, telling them, talking about them – allow us to share insights and experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible.

The SF/F we so love typically features non-human characters, from the human-variants (Klingons, elves, androids, and so on) to the outright not-human (dragons, Hutts, AIs, and the rest). Whatever their appearance or origin, in almost every case these characters think and act in ways we recognize as basically human – with variations in style, method, priorities, and social norms, but basically human. A truly alien mentality is rare; there are plenty of non-humans who remain largely unknown, but even those generally act in ways that are consistent with human practices (which is, after all, a pretty broad category, considering the range of cultural miscommunication we’ve seen here on Earth, both large and small, humorous and tragic).

That’s not a criticism: good stories are about relationships, and for a story to have much meaning, it has to reach us on some level – and, as far as I know, everyone in every audience is human. Plus, creating and maintaining a truly alien mentality takes a lot of work – and I rather suspect that a story that features such an interaction really revolves around the human reaction to the alien more than it does the interaction with the alien, whether that involves personal interaction, or figuring out what the alien is about.

So who does go there? Who am I? I could give you dozens of labels – but none of them would really tell you all that much about me, just parts of me. And each of those labels point to a story, expressing what that label means or how it relates to my own identity. For anyone – myself included! – to really learn about who and what I am, we need to hear stories: stories about myself, the stories that touch me, the stories I like, the stories I dislike. We are each of us fascinating and complex beings, made in the image of the Creator who is beyond anything we can know or imagine (Isaiah 55:8-9), who not only made the story we are all part of, but entered the story himself, as one of us – a Creator who is, to coin a phrase, both fully human and fully…alien.

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Not A “Real” Anything

 

by Tim W. Brown

Last month was November, which means it was National Novel-Writing Month to some of us (NaNoWriMo for short); the basic idea of which is that one attempts to write at least 50,000 words of a novel within the thirty days of November. To a great extent, it’s a community exercise in overcoming writer’s block, and one can find encouragement and all sorts of advice at their website, at local gatherings, and so on. This year marks the third time I’ve made an attempt at doing it (spread out over the last ten years or so), and yes, the third time I’m falling laughably short of the required word count. I’m hardly unique in this: apparently, less than twenty per cent of people who sign up actually hit the 50,000-word goal. (For the record, the only thing I’ve ever written that ran over 50,000 words was a background story for a character I was playing in the Star Wars universe; the best I can say for it is that at least it didn’t sink into a dump of sex, violence, or Mary Sue-ism.) One of the big lessons I’ve learned in my pathetic attempts at NaNoWriMo is that, while joining in does provide an opportunity to learn and share about writing, it also demonstrates that, when push comes to shove, I’m just not much of a writer. When I run across people – professional or amateur writers – who work every day on their material, who plan and create and edit and rewrite constantly; and people who have multiple notebooks full of background information, character biographies and descriptions; and people who drill deep into theories about storytelling and mythologies and social-psychological constructs…I get the feeling that I’m completely out of my depth. I don’t fit into any of those categories; I don’t obsess over writing; most of the theory-craft I’ve heard strikes me as a bit, you know, not quite right. In spite of the fantasies of youth, and the occasional forays into the realm, I don’t fit the profile. I’m not a “real writer.”

This image is a wallpaper created by Cedric
at Autour du Web (http://www.autourduweb.fr/20-fonds-
decran-de-geek/)
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I’m pretty much not a “real” anything. I’ve played and run RPG’s (role-playing games, for example Dungeons and Dragons) since I was a teenager over forty years ago, as well as a fair number of wargames and ‘civilian’ board games. I’ve played computer games for almost as long (on the order of thirty years now). But am I a “real gamer?” Well, from what I’ve seen (mostly but not exclusively online), a “real gamer” not only plays tons of games, but knows all about which game companies are doing what, can play, analyze, and critique practically every game on the market, and perform well on all of them. Again, that’s not me. I play, I know a little bit, but I know practically nothing about console games, and maintain only a passing awareness of the game industry in general. Every time I see someone define what a “real gamer” is, I don’t fit the definition. So, too, with geek fandom in general. I read Lord of the Rings half a dozen times by the times I was twenty (and a couple more times since then); I’ve read a fair amount of science fiction and fantasy, as well as a few comic books. But again, I don’t keep up with all the trends; I’ve barely watched a single episode of Doctor Who, for example; that fact alone casts me out from being a “real geek” according to some that I have known. So I’m not a “real geek.”
Just to drive the point home, the same is true with my faith. I’ve been a Christian of some kind since my 20’s, and just a few years ago converted to the Orthodox Church. The whole time, I’ve come across many who will  say, “If you’re a real Christian, you’ll…” and fill in something that, as often as not, I don’t do, whether out of neglect or deliberate choice (a choice sometimes made after review of Scripture). I still see this in Orthodox circles. “If you’re truly Orthodox, you’ll…” – fill in the blank: follow all (all!) the fasting rules; maintain a rigorous and priest-approved order of prayer; have certain icons in your house, set up in just the right way; always wear a cross – a certain kind and size of cross! – around your neck; and so on. Again, a checklist of items that, if you fall short, you’re not a “real” Orthodox Christian. Some of those things I don’t do, often by neglect, sometimes by choice; so by those standards, I’m not “really Orthodox.”
The fact is, I’ve become convinced that most of us aren’t “real” anythings – that is, the (supposedly) objective standards held up by self-appointed elites are almost always setup to divide and exclude. To be sure, it can be great fun to share a common interest, and to discover the delightful potential in exploring many of these things, for the most part, that would be the motive most people would claim: that they want others to join them in their particular form of geekness. After all, one doesn’t become a geek unless one finds a natural fascination. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of elitism and exclusion. We can only hope and strive to be open and  inviting, sharing enthusiasm and insights without unconsciously looking down on those who do not measure up to ephemeral standards that would supposedly qualify them to be “real” participants.