Onward Into the Past

by wjw on August 19, 2022

Back in April Kathy and I drove the three and a half hours to Portales for the 45th Jack Williamson Lecture, and had to figure out how we were going to entertain ourselves for the long drive across the Llano Estecado. Kathy suggested we listen to the audio book of To Glory Arise, the first of my Privateers & Gentlemen books. I’d met Kathy more than ten years after saying goodbye to that series, and she’d never read them, so she was coming to them fresh.

So we listened to the book driving out and back, and were entertained by the book and Bronson Pinchot’s excellent reading of it. I found the book so entertaining that I’ve been listening to the rest of them as they’ve been released, though the reason I was so entertained was peculiar to me— reviewing that series was a way of re-discovering my twenty-five-year-old self, the person who wrote that series, a person who is not quite the man I am today.

I was surprised by how much time and energy I devoted to the psychological dimensions of my characters. I mean, I certainly knew the psychological element was there— I considered it a selling point of the series that it wasn’t about two-dimensional action heroes, but instead characters of some complexity. But there ended up being more pages devoted to psychology than I remembered, and I think more pages than the characters actually warranted. I did not understand the concept of enough. I was inclined to say the same things over and over. I wish I’d had editors who told me that.

But yet— a potboiler action plot mixed with psychological depth. Who else does that?

I remember my twenties as a time when I was bewildered by everyone around me– I simply did not understand why people behaved the way they did. I devoted a lot of energy into figuring it out, and failing. Apparently this energy leaked over into the books.

By my thirties I began to recognize patterns in behavior, and suddenly people became a lot more predictable. I didn’t know where the patterns come from, I didn’t know how they become so engrained— I still didn’t understand anybody— but I began to be able to predict behavior, and began to work out when the people in my life would crash and burn.

All attempts to prevent them from going on the rocks failed. Eventually I stopped trying, and tried instead to direct compassionate energy to helping them pick up the pieces afterwards. Which also usually didn’t work, because they’d just get back on the cycle again.

One friend of mine, for example, had a six-week cycle of hatred. Every six weeks he’d have to find someone new to hate. He would spent a couple weeks intensely hating them and convince himself that they were as obsessed with hating him as much as he hated them. He’d recruit all his friends into his League of Hatred, and they’d all spend tons of energy focusing their mutual hatred on the victim. I suspect that most of the people hated in this way were completely unaware of the vast malefic energies directed their way.

But I knew that sooner or later my friend was going to decide to hate me, and the knowledge helped cushion the blow when it actually happened— because of course many of my other friends were recruited into the League of Hatred, and were obliged to despise me, so I spent the period bereft of allies.

Knowing that it would last only six weeks certainly helped.

Anyway, watching people repeat patterns over and over left me with a profound skepticism regarding any claims for free will.

But back to Privateers & Gentlemen. The action scenes I found were very well constructed. It’s always been a minor talent of mine to do action well, and I’m pleased with all the action scenes I’ve encountered so far.

I’ve also been pretty good at doing research, and it certainly shows in P&G. Nowadays you have Wikipedia to answer a lot of questions, but back then you had to spend hours in libraries— and in my case, take a trip on a schooner in the Windward Islands and then dig into the archives of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

But anyway, when I had an officer order his crew to “overhaul the lift-jiggers,” I damn well knew what that meant. (That is to say, I knew then. I wouldn’t know a lift-jigger from a clump block now.)

Nevertheless there were some things I simply couldn’t find out, and I had to make a guess, and sometimes the guess was wrong. But now there’s Wikipedia, and in the 2011-12 rewrites I fixed everything I could find.

It’s been a pleasure re-acquainting myself with the younger me, and also in knowing that however anxious I might have been at the time, I turned out all right. (At least, I think so.)

Assuming that I live another twenty years— which isn’t implausible, as I spring from a long-lived family— I wonder what I’d discover if I looked back on what I’m writing now.

Oofoe August 19, 2022 at 12:43 pm

That seems to be one of the benefits of having a body of work… My engineer father got me into the habit of putting a date on everything I produce. It’s interesting to review my old writeups and drawings and consider where I was then, alternately amused and awestruck (I drew _that?!?_). I think having a sense of one’s own history like that is very important.

Klaus Æ. Mogensen August 23, 2022 at 3:29 am

“By my thirties I began to recognize patterns in behavior, and suddenly people became a lot more predictable. I didn’t know where the patterns come from, I didn’t know how they become so engrained— I still didn’t understand anybody— but I began to be able to predict behavior”

That’s remarkably how AI learn to recognize patterns without any conscious understanding of the recognition. With the difference being that we, at least understand the meaning of the patterns.

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