Maps in a mirror, p.22

Maps in a Mirror, page 22


Maps in a Mirror

Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font   Night Mode Off   Night Mode

  One night I realized that Geoffrey’s breath on my shoulder was exactly in rhythm with my wife’s breath as she slept in the other room. The two of them inhaling and exhaling in perfect unison. My mind immediately began to take the idea and wander with it. I thought: It doesn’t matter how long Daddy stands here singing to the kid, the bond with his mother is always the strongest one, right down to the level of their breathing. Mother and child share the same breath so long together—it’s no surprise that out of the womb the child still seeks to breathe with her, to cling to the rhythms of his first and best home. From there my thoughts wandered to the fact that the unborn child is so tied to the mother that if she dies, he dies with her.

  Before Geoffrey fell asleep, the story was written in my mind: Breathing in unison is a sign, not that people were born together, but that they were now irrevocably doomed to die together.


  My life can be viewed as one long struggle with my own body. I wasn’t hopelessly uncoordinated as a kid. If I tried, I could swing a bat or get a ball through a hoop. And I suppose that if I had worked at it, I could have held my own in childhood athletics. But some are born nerds, some choose nerdhood, and some have nerdiness thrust upon them. I chose. I just didn’t care about sports or physical games of any kind. As a child, given the choice, I would always rather read a book. Soon enough, however, I learned that this was a mistake. By the time I got to junior high, I realized that young male Americans are valued only for their contribution to athletic contests—or so it seemed to me. The result was that to avoid abuse, I avoided athletic situations.

  Then, when I was about fifteen, I passed some sort of metabolic threshold. I had always been an outrageously skinny kid—you could count my ribs through my shirt. All of a sudden, though, without any change that I was aware of in my eating habits, I began to gain weight. Not a lot—just enough that I softened in the belly. Began to get that faintly pudgy wormlike look that is always so attractive and fashionable, especially in teenage boys. As the years passed, I gained a little more weight and began to discover that the abuse heaped upon nerds in childhood is nothing like the open, naked bigotry displayed toward adults who are overweight. People who would never dream of mocking a cripple or making racial or ethnic slurs feel no qualms about poking or pinching a fat person’s midriff and making obscenely personal remarks. My hatred of such people was limitless. Some of my acquaintances in those days had no notion how close they came to immediate death.

  The only thing that keeps fat people from striking back is that, in our hearts, most of us fear that our tormentors are right, that we somehow deserve their contempt, their utter despite for us as human beings. Their loathing for us is only surpassed by our loathing for ourselves.

  I had my ups and downs. I weighed 220 pounds when I went on my LDS mission to Brazil in 1971. Through much walking and exercise, and relatively little eating (though Brazilian ice cream is exquisite) I came home two years later weighing 176 pounds. I looked and felt great. And the weight stayed off, mostly, for several years. I became almost athletic. My first two summers home, I operated a summer repertory theatre at an outdoor amphitheatre, the Castle, on the hill behind the state mental hospital. We weren’t allowed to drive right up to the Castle, so at the beginning of every rehearsal we would walk up a switchback road. Within a few weeks I was in good enough shape that I was running up the steepest part of the hill right among the younger kids, and reaching the stage of the Castle without being out of breath. We had a piano that we stored in a metal box at the base of the amphitheatre and carried—not rolled—up a stony walkway to the stage for rehearsals and performances of musicals (Camelot, Man of La Mancha, and my own Father, Mother, Mother, and Mom). Soon I was carrying one end of the piano alone. I reveled in the fact that my body could be slender and well-muscled, not wormlike at all.

  But then I began my editorial career and my theatre company folded, leaving me with heavy debts. I spent every day then sedentary and tense, with a candy machine just around the corner. My only exercise was pushing quarters into the machine. By the time I got married in 1977 I was back up to 220 pounds. Freelance writing made things even worse. Whenever I needed a break, I’d get up, walk thirty feet into the kitchen, make some toast and pour some orange juice. All very healthy. And only about a billion calories a day. I was near 265 pounds when I wrote “Fat Farm.” It was an exercise in self-loathing and desperate hope. I knew that I was capable of having a strong, healthy body, but lacked the discipline to create it for myself. I had actually gone through the experience of trading bodies—it just took me longer than it took the hero of the story. In a way, I suppose the story was a wish that someone would make me change.

  Ironically, within a few months after writing “Fat Farm,” our lives went through a transition. We were moving to a larger house. The first thing I did was take all my old thin clothes and give them away to charity. I knew that I would never be thin again. It was no longer an issue. I was going to be a fat person for the rest of my life. Orson Welles was my hero.

  Then I began packing up our thousands of books and carrying and stacking the boxes. The exercise began to take up more and more of each day. I ate less and less, since I wasn’t constantly looking for breaks from writing. By the time we got into our new place, I had dropped ten pounds. Just like that, without even trying.

  So I kept it up. Eating little—I now followed a thousand-calorie balanced diet—and exercising more and more, within a year I was 185 pounds and was riding a bicycle many miles a day. And I stayed thin for several years. Not until I moved to North Carolina and got a sedentary job under extreme tension did I put the weight back on again. I sit here writing this with a current weight of 255 pounds. But that’s down almost ten pounds from my holiday high, and I’m riding an exercise bike and enjoying the sensation of being hungry most of the time and—who knows?

  In short, “Fat Farm” isn’t fiction. It’s my physical autobiography.

  And it’s no accident that the story ends with our hero set up to fulfill ugly violent assignments. The undercurrent of violence is real. I hereby warn all those who think it’s all right to greet a friend by saying, “Put on a little weight, haven’t you!” You would never dream of greeting a friend by saying, “Wow, that’s quite an enormous pimple you’ve got on your nose there,” or, “Can’t you afford to buy clothes that look good or do you just have no taste?” If you did, you would expect to lose the friend. Well, be prepared. Some of us are about to run out of patience with your criminal boorishness. Someday one of you is going to glance down at our waistline, grin, and then—before you can utter one syllable of your offensive slur—we’re going to break you into a pile of skinny little matchsticks. No jury of fat people would convict us.


  I think it was in a conversation with Jay and Lane that we began wondering what death might feel like. Maybe, after all our fear of it, the actual moment of death—not the injuries leading up to it, but the moment itself—was the most sublime pleasure imaginable. After a few months of letting this idea gel in the back of my mind, I hit on the device of using time travel as a way to let people experience death without dying.

  Time travel is one of those all-purpose science fictional devices. You can do anything with it, depending on how you set up the rules. In this case, I made it so that the time-traveler’s body does materialize in the past, and can be injured—but upon return the body is restored to its condition when it left, though still feeling whatever feelings it had just before the return. It’s a fun exercise for science fiction writers, to think up new variations on the rules of time travel. Each variation opens up thousands of possible stories. That’s why it’s so discouraging to see how many time-travel stories use the same old tired clichés. These writers are like tourists with cameras. They don’t actually come to experience a strange land. They just take snapshots of each other and move on. Snapshot science fiction might as well not be written. Why write a time-trav
el story if you don’t think through the mechanics of your fantasy and find the implications of the particular rules of your time-travel device? As long as we’re dealing in impossibilities, why not make them interesting and fresh?

  But I digress. Being a preacher at heart, I found that with this story I had written a homily of hedonism as self-destruction. Absurd as these people may seem, their obsession with a perverse pleasure is no stranger than any other pleasure that seduces its seekers from the society of normal human beings. Drug users, homosexuals, corporate takeover artists, steroid-popping bodybuilders and athletes—all such groups have, at some time or another, constructed societies whose whole purpose is celebrating the single pleasure whose pursuit dominates their lives, while it separates them from the rest of the world, whose rules and norms they resent and despise. Furthermore, they pursue their pleasure at the constant risk of self-destruction. And then they wonder why so many other people look at them with something between horror and distaste.


  The origin of this idea is simple enough. I learned to drive a car only in my early twenties (the state of Utah required that you take driver’s ed. before you could get a license, my high school didn’t offer it, and I never had time to take it on my own), and so went through my aggressive teenage driving period when I was over twenty-one. Thus even as I went through my bouts of naked competitiveness and aggression on the highway, I was intellectually mature enough to recognize the madness of my behavior. And, rarely, that intellectual awareness curbed some of my stupidest impulses. For instance, long before freeway shootings in California, I realized that when you flash your brights at some bozo you’re taking your life in your hands. No, the way to punish a freeway offender was to do it passively. Follow them. Just—follow. Not tailgating. Just—following. If they squirt ahead in traffic, don’t leap out to follow. Just work your way up until a few minutes later, there you are again, following. If they really deserve a scare, take a little bit of time out of your life and take their exit with them. Follow them along residential streets. Watch them panic.

  I never actually went to that extreme—never actually followed somebody off the freeway. But I did follow a couple of bozos long enough that it clearly made them nervous; yet I never did anything aggressive enough to make them mad. They could never really be sure that they were being followed. It was the cruelest thing I can remember doing.

  I thought for a while of writing a humor piece about freeway games—ways to pass the time while on long commutes. But when I showed my first draft to Kristine, she said, “That isn’t funny, that’s horrible.” So I set it aside.

  Later, taking a writing course from Francois Camoin, I decided to write a story that had no science fiction or fantasy element in it. While trying to think of something to write about, I hit on that “freeway games” essay and realized that when Kristine said it was horrible, I should have realized that she really meant that the idea was horror. A horror story with no monster except the human being behind the wheel. Somebody who didn’t know when to stop. Who kept pushing and pushing until somebody died. In short, me—only out of control. So I wrote a story about a normal nice person who suddenly discovers one day that he’s a monster after all.


  I remember reading a spate of stories about human beings who had been cyborgized—their brains put into machinery so that moving an arm actually moved a cargo bay door and walking actually fired up a rocket engine, that sort of thing. It seemed that almost all of these stories—and a lot of robot and android stories as well—ended up being rewrites of “Pinocchio.” They always wish they could be a real boy.

  In years since then, the fashion has changed and more sf writers celebrate rather than regret the body mechanical. Still, at the time the issue interested me. Couldn’t there be someone for whom a mechanical body would be liberating? So I wrote a story that juxtaposed two characters, one a pinocchio of a spaceship, a cyborg that wished for the sensations of real life; the other a hopelessly crippled human being, trapped in a body that can never act, longing for the power that would come from a mechanical replacement. They trade places, and both are happy.

  A simple enough tale, but I couldn’t tell it quite that way. Perhaps because I wanted it to be truer than a fantasy, I told the story from the point of view of a human observer who could never know whether a real trade had taken place or whether the story was just a fantasy that made life livable for a young girl with no arms or legs. Thus it became a story about the stories we tell ourselves that make it possible to live with anything.

  All this was many years before my third son, Charlie, was born. I never really believed that someday I would have a child who lies on his bed except when we put him in a chair, who stays indoors unless we take him out. In some ways his condition is better than that of the heroine of “Sepulchre of Songs”—he has learned to grasp things and can manipulate his environment a little, since his limbs are not utterly useless. In some ways his condition is worse—so far he cannot speak, and so he is far more lonely, far more helpless than one who can at least have conversation with others. And sometimes when I hold him or sit and look at him, I think back to this story and realize that the fundamental truth of it is something quite unrelated to the issue of whether a powerful mechanical body would be preferable to a crippled one of flesh and bone.

  The truth is this: The girl in the story brought joy and love into the lives of others, and when she left her body (however you interpret her leaving), she lost the power to do that. I would give almost anything to see my Charlie run; I wake up some mornings full of immeasurable joy because in the dream that is just fading Charlie spoke to me and I heard the words of his mouth; yet despite these longings I recognize something else: You don’t measure whether a life is worth living except by measuring whether that life is giving any good to other people and receiving any joy from them. Plenty of folks with healthy bodies are walking minuses, subtracting from the joy of the world wherever they go, never able to receive much satisfaction either. But Charlie gives and receives many delights, and our family would be far poorer if he weren’t a part of us. It teaches us something of goodness when we are able to earn his smile, his laughter. And nothing delights him more than when he earns our smiles, our praise, and our joy in his company. If some cyborg starship passed by, imaginary or otherwise, offering to trade bodies with my little boy, I would understand it if he chose to go. But I hope that he would not, and I would miss him terribly if he ever left.


  This story is a bit of whimsy, based in part on some thoughts about censorship and in part on the experience of knowing Doc Murdock, a fellow writing student in Francois Camoin’s class. Doc really did support himself at times by gambling, though the last I heard he was making money hand-over-fist as a tech writer. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

  I almost never consciously base characters on real people or stories on real events. Part of the reason is that the person involved will almost always be offended, unless you treat him as a completely romantic figure, the way I did with Doc Murdock. But the most important reason is that you don’t really know any of the people you know in real life—that is, you never, ever, ever know why they do what they do. Even if they tell you why, that’s no help because they never understand themselves the complete cause of anything they do. So when you try to follow a real person that you actually know, you will constantly run into vast areas of ignorance and misunderstanding. I find that I tell much more truthful and powerful stories when I work with fully fictional characters, because them I can know right down to the core, and am never hampered by thinking, “Oh, he’d never do that,” or, worse yet, “I’d better not show him doing that or so-and-so will kill me.”

  And, in a way, “Prior Restraint” is proof that for me, at least, modeling characters on real people is a bad idea. Because, while I think the story is fun, it’s also one of my shallower works. Scratch the surface and there’s n
othing there. It was never much deeper than the conscious idea.

  By the way, this story was a long time making it into print. I wrote the first version of it very early in my career; Ben Bova rejected it, in part on the grounds that it’s not a good idea to write stories about people writing stories, if only because it reminds the reader that he’s reading a story. His advice was mostly right, though sometimes you want to remind readers they’re reading. Still, I liked this idea, flaws and all, and so I sent it off to Charlie Ryan at Galileo. He accepted it—but then Galileo folded. Charlie wrote to me and offered to send the story back. I knew, however, that I wouldn’t be able to sell it to Ben Bova or, probably, anybody else. So when Charlie suggested that he’d like to hang onto it in case someday he was able to restart Galileo or some other magazine, I agreed.

  It was almost a decade later that a letter came out of the blue, telling me that Charlie was going to edit Aboriginal SF, and could he please use “Prior Restraint”? By then I was well aware of the relative weakness of the story, particularly considering the things I’d learned about storytelling since then. It might be a bit embarrassing to have such a primitive work come out now, in the midst of much more mature stories. But Charlie had taken the story back in the days when most editors didn’t return my phone calls and some sent me insulting rejections; why shouldn’t he profit from it now that things had changed? As long as the story wasn’t too embarrassing. So I asked him to send me a copy and let me see if I still liked it.

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up