[guest post] Childhood Programming (a not terribly sneaky way to look at themes) by Michael R. Fletcher

I'm very happy to bring you the most amazing blog post that you almost didn't see, which is another blog post for another day.

TODAY is what is important, and Michael R. Fletcher is dropping by to entertain you while I hit the deadlines. Michael is a science fiction and fantasy author, whose novel, Beyond Redemption, just blew me away. You can read my review, or just take my word for it and buy his book.

Faith shapes the landscape, defines the laws of physics, and makes a mockery of truth. Common knowledge isn’t an axiom, it’s a force of nature. What the masses believe is. But insanity is a weapon, conviction a shield. Delusions give birth to foul new gods.

Violent and dark, the world is filled with the Geisteskranken—men and women whose delusions manifest, twisting reality. High Priest Konig seeks to create order from chaos. He defines the beliefs of his followers, leading their faith to one end: a young boy, Morgen, must Ascend to become a god. A god they can control.

But there are many who would see this would-be-god in their thrall, including the High Priest’s own Doppels, and a Slaver no one can resist. Three reprobates—The Greatest Swordsman in the World, a murderous Kleptic, and possibly the only sane man left—have their own nefarious plans for the young god.

As these forces converge on the boy, there’s one more obstacle: time is running out. When one’s delusions become more powerful, they become harder to control. The fate of the Geisteskranken is to inevitably find oneself in the Afterdeath. The question, then, is: Who will rule there?

According to Michael, the next two Manifest Delusions novels, The Mirror's Truth, and The All Consuming, are currently in various stages of editing while Michael tries to be the best husband and dad he can be.

Beyond Redemption is Michael's second novel. His début novel, 88, is a cyberpunk tale about harvesting children for their brains.

Children, brains, and delusions. I hope you see where this is going ...

CHILDHOOD PROGRAMMING

(a not terribly sneaky way to look at themes)

This will ramble because that's the way I roll. I can't plan breakfast, never mind a blog post or a novel.

I have come to realize that I spend a lot more time thinking about themes than I do plot. I know what my next book's themes are long before I know what horrendous shit happens to the characters. Take Beyond Redemption for example. I had the title before I'd written the first word.

I wanted to write a book where no one learned anything. The novel starts with a host of shitty human beings and at the end of the book I wanted the few survivors to remain shitty. It didn't quite turn out that way, but I stayed true to that vision. This grew out of a suspicion that people are basically too stupid to learn or change. What can I say, I was in a bit of a dark place. If I wrote the book today it would be different. For one thing, I've managed to learn a few things myself—who I am and how I interact with people has changed in the last year.

And if I can change, anyone can.

There was a theme there I wanted to explore, a thorn in my side I wanted to worry at like a starved wombat. Can we escape the bonds of our childhood programming? Can we get beyond who we think we are? You'll see it in Beyond Redemption; virtually every character is haunted by something in their past. They are defined by their choices and actions.

As are we.

My father was brought up by uptight stiff-upper-lip parents in the UK. Religion was pushed on him from a young age. All the proper social mores were programmed into him from birth. He knew who the right kind of people were. He knew what kind of people to avoid. He knew how a proper boy acted. He knew which fork to use when, and how to eat without making a mess. He was told his father was perfect, without flaws of any kind. They tried to make my father perfect too, whatever the fuck perfect is.

They failed. And that's probably for the best.

At some point my father made a conscious decision to toss most of his childhood programming. He screwed around at school and got funky with as many women would let him. He was and is an unrepentant letch of the first degree. He had no interest in pursuing that upper-crust school and instead drove a truck around England's southern coast, drinking and playing rugby. Much to his parent's disgust he regularly consorted with exactly the wrong kind of people. In short, he had great fun.

I remember a friend once saying, it's better to be one of those people your parents warned you about than to be afraid of them.

Skip ahead some years and this is the person who was, at least in part, responsible for raising me. He tended to be somewhat distant—he's admitted he has little interest in small children and that I only became interesting in my late teens—but he was there and he definitely had an influence. Come to think of it, I think he first really noticed me when I came home drunk during high-school and threw up all over the house. My mother told me to clean it up and I, still extremely inebriated, used the vacuum cleaner.

I grew up hearing (over and over and over) how difficult it had been for him to overcome his childhood programming and how it would be different for me.

And it was. No one pushed religion on me and to this day I don't understand the fuss. I bring the same logic and reasoning to religion that I bring to everything else.

And it wasn't. But I didn't see it until I had a child of my own.

I found myself getting angry at my daughter in the same way—and over the same things—my father used to get angry at me about. I found myself reacting in the same ways and threatening the same punishments that I was threatened with. At some point I caught my wife staring at me like I was some kind of alien who'd replaced her calm and loving husband. When I finally managed to step back and question what was going on, I realized I didn't actually care about many of the things I was reacting to. I was, in fact, reacting because I thought that was what I was supposed to do.

The first step to overcoming one's childhood programming is recognizing it. And that is more difficult that one might think.

Childhood programming. It's insidious and just as we don't realize we have it, we tend to be blind to the fact we're perpetuating it with our own children. How are you reacting to your child's forays into individuality? When they test boundaries, do you react the same way your parents did? When you play games with them do you ever let them win? Do you always let them win? Are you willing to give your child a task you know they'll fail at and still stay out of their way as they try? Do you really believe in god, or are you just going through the motions? If you haven't questioned your own faith, are you sure you want to put that on your children without at least giving it some thought? How about your relationship with your partner, how much does that mirror the relationship you saw between your own parents?

All this is a lead up to another—though definitely related—theme in Beyond Redemption: Taking responsibility for one's own choices and actions. We are all victim to childhood programming of some kind, and it's not all bad. Ideas like sharing and helping and being kind could all be considered programming. But sometimes it's a little more difficult to see.

Take anger, for example. We've all heard (and said) things like, that made me angry. But is that the truth? Are you sure you didn't decide to become angry, were you truly helpless in the angry/not angry equation? Is it possible you've merely been taught to shirk responsibility for your emotions?

Our inability to accept responsibility for our choices goes deeper than how we react to stimuli. Are you overweight, an alcoholic, depressed, having trouble sleeping? Perhaps your first response shouldn't be to seek something to blame or to reach for a chemical cure. Maybe you can accept responsibility and change whatever needs changing to rectify the situation. Responsibility is scary, but what most people miss is that it's also power. If it's my responsibility, I can change it. And before you get too angry with me, I have been and sometimes still am all of those things.

We are the result of our choices and actions. The lives we live—barring tragedies beyond our control—are the lives we deserve. Getting over the events of your childhood, be they large or small, is a choice. Perhaps it's not an easy choice, but it is within your power. Or you can be a character in my next book. 

The first step is making a decision.

* * *

Want to know more about Michael and his delusions? Check out his website, or give him a follow on Facebook, or Twitter.

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher: A Review

Damn it. I said I wasn't going to start reviewing books again, but I had to talk about this book, because like Zachary Jernigan's Shower of Stones, Michael R. Fletcher takes the themes of gods and madness and twists it all around in such a way as to intrigue me. Any similarities between the two novels ends there.

In Jernigan's world, the mortals defied a mad god.

In Fletcher's world, the mortals seek to create a god.

And what an intriguing world it is.

The old gods were broken by wars and plagues of the mind, left reeling like the most bloodied veterans. Infected with horror at the cost of their actions, they retreated into dementia ... Seeking to free themselves, they fled to a world of delusion, a world uncorrupted by jealousies and psychoses. And yet, in the end, even this they would pollute.

While Shower of Stones was a serious story that took itself seriously, there is something very tongue-in-cheek about Fletcher's Beyond Redemption. That's not to say that it's comedy, but as I read the novel, I couldn't help but envision Fletcher winking at me from behind the scenes and saying, "It's not really real, you know ... but what if ..."

Dreams became nightmares, and nightmares became reality, stalking the earth as albtraum, manifestations of man's earliest fears given flesh.

Or maybe that was just my delusion.

Let me explain ...

"Belief defines reality," said Wichtig, as if explaining to a simpleton. "I believe I will be the Greatest Swordsman in the World."

Beyond Redemption is dark--not gory, but I would slide it to the grimdark side of the ruler, borderline horror in places--I want to make that clear from the beginning. However, if you are reading this blog, my assumption is that you have already come to the dark side, so here ... have a cookie that bites:

Faith shapes the landscape, defines the laws of physics, and makes a mockery of truth. Common knowledge isn't an axiom, it's a force of nature. What the masses believe is. But insanity is a weapon, conviction a shield. Delusions give birth to foul new gods.

Violent and dark, the world is filled with the Geisteskranken--men and women whose delusions manifest, twisting reality. High Priest Konig seeks to create order from chaos. He defines the beliefs of his followers, leading their faith to one end: a young boy, Morgen, must Ascend to become a god. A god they can control.

But there are many who would see this would-be-god in their thrall, including the High Priest's own Doppels, and a Slaver no one can resist. Three reprobates--The Greatest Swordsman in the World, a murderous Kleptic, and possibly the only sane man left--have their own nefarious plans for the young god.

As these forces converge on the boy, there's one more obstacle: time is running out. When one's delusions become more powerful, they become harder to control. The fate of the Geisteskranken is to inevitably find oneself in the Afterdeath. The question, then, is: Who will rule there?

Beyond Redemption begins with three thieves: Bedeckt, an old grizzled warrior, who prides himself on his sanity; Wichtig, a minor Gefahrgeist (Sociopath), who is determined to become the Greatest Swordsman in the World; and Stehlen, a Kleptic with some serious anger management issues.

If I ever take up cosplaying, I'm coming as Stehlen. Beware.

When faced with a Gefahrgeist, set aside your honesty. Truth will be turned against you. Today's truth will be tomorrow's lie and you will be left questioning your own sanity. This too is manipulation ... Gefahrgeist often wear the mask of sanity. This makes them dangerous. This makes them successful ...

Bedeckt, who believes he is the brains behind the operation, decides he needs one last scam to take him into retirement. It turns out that Konig, Theocrat of the Geborene Damonen and an extremely powerful Gefahrgeist (remember they're sociopaths--Konig means king in German ... see how this works?), is busy creating a god.

Konig's plan is to cultivate the populace's beliefs so that his god-child becomes reality. This god-child is being raised to be subservient to Konig, who will help the boy ascend into the Afterdeath where the god-child will serve Konig in order to prevent Konig's delusions from taking over his body.

Konig knows his time is short. Three of his emotions have taken corporeal form as the Doppels Acceptance, Trepidation, and Abandonment (think: doppelgänger and you're on track). The stronger a person's delusions, the more difficult they are to control. As Konig's power over the populace grows, so do his delusions, which become more dangerous to him and to one another.

I heard a knock, and when I answered the door, there I was. Luckily I think much faster on my feet than I do and soon had myself tied in the fruit cellar. I'd kill myself but I'm so damned useful. Sometimes, when the High Priest has texts he wants copied, I'll unchain one of my hands and get me to do some of the work. Of course I do it! I'm so damned bored down there, chained to the wall.

Bedeckt's plan is to kidnap the god-child, Morgen, and ransom him back to Konig, thereby procuring enough gold to retire. This scheme sets off a chain of events that are simultaneously hilarious and dire.

Sanity, Insanity, Genius. Rampant stupidity. Frankly, I can no longer tell them apart.

All the while, Fletcher cleverly pulls and picks at our preconceived notions of religion and belief systems, slyly winking at us from behind the scenes with selected quotes from the historians, philosophers, and kings who inhabit this twisted world. He treats the story with a light hand so that his very irreverence prevents the novel from spiraling into soullessness.

I don't see what I want to see, I see what I need to see. If you don't like it, see something else.

Fletcher's characters--Bedeckt with his desire to retire; Wichtig, who is determined to be the Greatest Swordsman in the World; Stehlen, who isn't exactly as she seems; and Konig, who is racing against his own madness in search of wholeness--are the very thing that redeems Beyond Redemption. Fletcher brings them all to vivid life and shows us their doubts and dreams and foibles with unflinching prose. Simultaneously poetic and brutal, Fletcher executes a deft balancing act between the surreal and the real and yet he never loses sight of his characters' humanity.

The novel is grimdark, and I mean very, very dark, so if you normally avoid this kind of novel, then I wouldn't recommend it to you. However if you're like me, and you enjoy looking under psychological rocks in order to see what breeds there, come along where you will see that ...

The tales are only as dark as the teller.

Highly recommended.

The Cult of the Dead-Undead Cat and American Politics: Is It Beyond Redemption?

Some context for you: I'm currently reading Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher. This is an excellent novel that I've almost finished, and I will review it for you later. For the purpose of this post, it's enough to know that in Beyond Redemption, faith and belief have the power to define the world. If enough people believe the same thing, delusions become reality.

Remember that last bit: delusions become reality.

The novel is grimdark, and I mean very, very dark, so if you normally avoid this kind of novel, then I wouldn't recommend it to you. However if you're like me, and you enjoy looking under psychological rocks in order to see what breeds there, come along ...

There is a scene in Beyond Redemption where the god-child, Morgen, brings a severely injured dead cat back to life, but he doesn't heal it. The dead-undead cat crawls away, and that is--the reader thinks--the last we'll see of the dead-undead cat.

Haha, fooled you.

The dead-undead cat shows up again about two chapters later when another character, Asena, comes upon "the dead cat, spine and skull crushed, still twitching and dragging itself through a narrow alley. A trail of beggars followed the cat, proclaiming its divinity and protecting it from all who attempted to approach." [Emphasis mine]

And my brain went hmmm as it sometimes does, and I started thinking about how "delusions become reality" and couldn't stop, and then how one person's delusions can easily become another person's divinity. Then, this morning, while half-awake and semi-delusional myself, I'm surfing through the "news" and come across this little gem where one of the American presidential candidates, Ben Carson, holds forth with his theory on the pyramids:

"My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain," Carson said.
"Now all the archeologists [sic] think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don't think it'd just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain."
Carson added: "And when you look at the way that the pyramids are made, with many chambers that are hermetically sealed, they'd have to be that way for various reasons. And various of scientists have said, 'Well, you know there were alien beings that came down and they have special knowledge and that's how, you know, it doesn't require an alien being when God is with you."

Because, aliens ... I guess.

I have no idea what Carson is even talking about here. It's like he lives in another world--not even a parallel world ... just this strange alternate plane of existence where whatever the hell pours out of his mouth is reality. Frankly, this wouldn't be a problem except that he (and to be fair, other presidential candidates, as well) expects everyone else to buy into these delusions.

Now this particular theory probably wouldn't have bothered me as much had it been posited by someone with an elementary school education. Nor would it have bothered me if someone who got their entire worldview from Fox News said these things, or even if it had been someone who had never left the county in which s/he had been born, meaning someone too ignorant to know better, but Ben Carson is a neurosurgeon. This indicates to me that he did, at one time, attend an institution of higher learning. Of course, his delusions prove a long-standing theory of my own: that acquiring a college education does not make one smarter, it simply teaches one how to better utilize the intelligence already within one's grasp.

So what does all of this have to do with a dead-undead cat and delusions that become reality?

The problem with Ben Carson, and the other presidential candidates for that matter, is that they can pass themselves off as credible. Nowadays, no matter what kind of half-dead, mewling ideology a person espouses, when that individual speaks authoritatively to an issue, others simply accept the premise as true.

[And yes, I will pause our little discussion in order to point out that I do, in fact, see the irony in that I am presenting my own crackpot theory here, but hey ... I've always wanted my own cult. My cult is intentional--that is my delusion.]

The Dead-Undead Cat is my new metaphor for these crackpot theories, or delusions. The cult arises when other people start to follow the Dead-Undead Cat, proclaim its divinity, and attempt to protect the premise from all who challenge it. The adherents of the Cult repeat their theories ad nauseam, breed even stranger theories, which are, in turn, followed by more beggars, because everyone seems to think that repetition breeds reality.

Don't get me wrong, faith and belief are wonderful things and give many people much comfort; however, if we want strong leaders and good government, we need people who are not afraid of facts. We should accept nothing less than leaders who are strong enough to critically examine problems, who understand compromise, and can motivate others to arrive at workable solutions.

It would also help if these leaders understood that the Egyptians didn't store grain with dead bodies in pyramids, because, aliens.

While faith and belief are important aspects of character, we should never, never, allow faith and belief to be the sole basis for our realities, or our delusions, or our presidential candidates. Otherwise, our political system and the freedoms that system gives us will truly be beyond redemption, and we may not be able to resurrect it.

Comments are off ... I'm on a deadline. Go read a book.

Where I've been; what I'm reading; what I'm watching

Without Light or Guide will be here tomorrow!

*throws confetti*

Read Chapter 1 RIGHT HERE!

I've had a couple of blog posts about Los Nefilim go live recently:

A CONTEST! We all love contests: At r/Fantasy, I am running a contest just for Redditors. If you're in the community and want to enter, go here to find the details.

If you're still on the fence about whether Los Nefilim is worth your time or not, here are a few early reviews:

T.O. Munro: In "Without Light or Guide" Frohock continues to carve out a unique path for herself through the hinterland of horror with an digression towards fantasy.

Sense of Wonder:  The writing is beautiful, with a more serene prose and more profound and detailed descriptions, that help build a really evocative atmosphere.

Over the Effing Rainbow: Los Nefilim is so enticingly fresh that I can’t help loving it for that alone.

Bibliotropic [Personal note here: I'm sad and happy to see Ria stop reviewing books at Bibliotropic--sad, because she has really grown as a reviewer over the years, and I have enjoyed her reviews. I'm also very happy that she is now pursuing her own writing career. I hope you will join me in wishing her the absolute best of luck in all her future endeavors!]: Frohock’s storytelling shines as she tells a story of redemption and love and faith, all wrapped together with angels and demons and music and vivid history. It’s a series with a low level of investment and such a high payoff that if you enjoy any of those things, or just enjoy dark fantasy in general, then you’d be foolish to overlook it. Without Light or Guide is a brilliant follow-up to In Midnight’s Silence, hands down, and I’m already eagerly anticipating visiting all the characters again in the next installment.

The BiblioSanctum: Typical urban fantasy takes you to current American city streets, but here we walk alleys and roads and tunnels in Spain, with the Spanish Civil War looming on the horizon. We also have a a main protagonist who is older than usual, and an approach to magic that toys with your senses.

What I'm reading: Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher. Grimdark and, in some places, hysterically funny--okay, I have a weird sense of humor--Fletcher manages to take the reader into a world where madness is the road to godhood and belief creates reality.

I'll be reviewing this one for you when I'm done.

What I'm watching: True Detective, Season 1. I know most of you saw this when it first came out, but I had to wait for the DVDs. I have thoughts about this show that I might be sharing once I've finished it.