Being Human

Would you betray your kind? Your race? Your species?

I watched two movies a while back which made me examine my own feelings on the matter – the first, in the cinema and on the big screen, was the newest “apes” franchise movie, “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. The second, on TV and the small screen, was “Avatar.”

For those who have been living under rocks over the period covered by the release of these two fairly high-profile movies, here are basic nutshell summaries of them:

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”: A well-intentioned human scientist develops a virus which has cognitive improvement effects. Before human testing is approved, he tests it on our closest genetic relatives, the great apes, specifically chimps. The virus naturally turns out to be more than the scientist bargained for, and sends intelligence and sapience levels into the stratosphere.

Inevitable conflict between humans, the profiteering kind who are in it to grab as much money and power as they can,  and the now just-as-intelligent and certainly functioning on a higher moral ground great apes then ensues. Humans lose.

“Avatar”: Humans arrive on an alien world whose air they can’t breathe, which is populated by a sapient race that is inconveniently in their way when it comes to raping the planet of its natural resources. The humans conveniently classify the other race as “savages” and feel no compunction in basically ripping their world from them – because, well, they are sitting on “our” Unobtainium (and wasn’t that an inspired choice of name for the natural resource in question).

The ‘benevolent’ humans offer things like schools and medicine. The natives, understandably, want none of it. Which makes them ungrateful, and, well, savages, right? Therefore to be expediently exterminated. But as usual the humans who rely on the flash and the bang and the gung ho haven’t explored or bothered to understand or even learn about some of the more esoteric aspects of the world they are about to wantonly destroy for their own personal gain. The world fights back. Humans lose.

In both movies, I found myself tearfully cheering on… the OTHER SIDE. The one which was taking on the human beings. The one which would whip the human beings’ collective asses.

In “Apes”, during the great escape scene on the bridge, I was practically whooping when the apes got one over on the idiot police and army goons in their jackboots and helmets, pointing Uzis at unarmed opponents who fought with nothing but raw courage and faith and, when it came to it, sacrifice, throwing naked bodies into the field of fire so that some died and others could live, and live free. It was a palpable payback, and dear GOD, a deserved one.

Human beings had made this mess – they had dabbled in things that they did not understand, as usual, and their immense hubris in doing so had brought them down low before the thing that they had created. And no, I am emphatically not using their innocence or ignorance as an excuse in this. Yes, the human race is not perfect and yes we are fallible and perhaps I should simply stand up with the jackbooted thugs and scream “It wasn’t my fault!” and shoot at the nearest ape – but I can’t, dammit, I can’t, not when they look back at me with intelligence and even compassion (They! They pity ME!) and I know that what was done to them may not have been done by my hand but it was done by hands like mine and as like as not in my name, “for the common good”.

I pretty much could not watch the climactic battle scenes of “Avatar” at all, sick to the stomach at the inequality and the injustice of it all. When the gung-ho military leader of it all meets his Maker I may not have pumped my fist openly but inside I was jumping up and down and screaming “YES! YES! YES!”

And yet in “Avatar” we are left with a dubious proposition that the disparate alien clans are only able to win ONLY by submitting to and being led by a human who went native.

The leader of “our” side, the human side, is annoyed that the best and deepest deposits of the Unbotainium that we want and somehow claim as our, sits right underneath the Mother of All Trees which just happens to be home to an entire sapient specie. He is is willing to destroy that tree and is outraged that the “gone-native” fellow is trying to stop him. He asks a deadly question which is supposed to hobble him and destroy him: “WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE TO BETRAY YOUR OWN KIND?”

What is my kind, then? That guy? The one willing to order extermination, annihilation, genocide and environmental catastrophe because of a shareholder’s bottom line? THAT is the “kind” I should take my stand behind? Really?

What does it mean, then, to be human?

Rephrasing the question from the top of this essay, would *I* betray my kind, my race, my species?

Yes; in a heartbeat. Because in my mind and in my soul that ‘Being Human,’ a member of the homo sapiens species, is so much less important than ‘being human’ in a much broader sense. If I can’t identify with what is the best of us, there is no point in any of it at all. And sometimes the best of us, the most ‘human’ of us, is not found inside ourselves but instead in that thing which we are trying to control or destroy,

In a war like the one in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, damn right I would have stood with the apes.

In a war like the one in “Avatar”, damn right I would have gone over to the “savages”.

Send in the goons now, if you have to. But here I make a stand. I will stand for fairness, and decency, and compassion, and the basic idea that what is yours is not necessarily mine because I can simply take it by superior force. If my kind/ my race/ my species violates that, then I might well side with the ‘enemy’.

And if anyone thinks that makes me any less ‘human’ and ask me in genuine outrage what it feels like to ‘betray my own, ‘ my answer  would be,

“I am not. YOU are.”

The art of (re)writing

Here’s the thing. First drafts are supposed to be awful. That’s what they are for. You simply give yourself the permission necessary to write badly if you have to, for the purpose of getting the bones of the story down on the page. There will be time for fix-ups later.

So you do this thing, and the story comes out, and there it is, staring at you. And yea, verily, in your mind’s eye it was ever beautiful – and it’s still marginally lovely – but now that it is outside of you it begins to be glimpsed in its true shape.

And there.

Are.

Imperfections.

Let’s see. This can be tweaked. That can be fixed. This other thing needs to go, really. Something else needs to be written, and added in, to add clarity.

You know the drill.

For most of us, the architecture of the town of FirstDraft is familiar, and I have no real doubt that we’d probably recognize one another’s FirstDraftTowns fairly easily. But a strange thing happens when each individual writer leaves the city limits, en route for the wilds of SecondDraftia. It’s a sort of dimension portal, and it sends everybody to a different place, unique to themselves, full or peculiar traps and difficulties that are never quite found in the same shape or form in any other writer’s world.

To paraphrase a well-known bon mot, all First Drafts are kind of rotten in a similar way. Every Second Draft has its own unique problems.

Different writers react to the art and the craft (and it is both) of rewriting in their own peculiar ways. Some tell me that they enjoy the act of rewriting and editing far more than they enjoy the actual storytelling – because for them the telling of the story is the hard part, and now that they have that, in however awful a shape, for them the real fun begins, and that is actually chiseling this raw and barely recognizable slab of marble into a real Michelangelo’s David, chipping away one tiny flake of marble at a time until it is all perfect and polished.

Others, – and oh dear GOD I fall into this category – want to tear their hair out at the roots at this point. Because the story, you see, it is told, and yes we who feel this way can see that it isn’t without flaw, nothing ever is, but in some senses it is perfect, it has a shape and a form and a balance inside our heads, and changing anything tends to have consequences everywhere, and you are faced with continuity issues from hell itself, and AAAARGH.

It’s the difference in tone – having a character say something as simple as “I’m sorry” in a different tone of voice, an inflection that might change it from an empty phrase of cold indifference (I’m sorry but I couldn’t care less really) to a genuine and sincere sympathy (I’m sorry that your goldfish died. I really am.) – well – it changes that character. And it changes the way other people respond to that character. And that changes other conversations. And that changes what people might have known, and when they might have known it. And that changes the flow of the story. And that…

Well, you get the idea. Before too long, you pull out one thread and you realize that it’s all falling apart around you and you’re scrambling to hold together in a coherent whole something that looked perfectly solid just a moment before. It’s like the cement holding the story together suddenly turns to jello on you and the edifice starts tottering precariously and oops, there goes a piece you really didn’t want to lose but argh it doesn’t fit any more, and dammit, there’s all those words on the cutting room floor and wasn’t there something important there that you absolutely need to salvage – or rephrase – or do something constructive with…

Pardon the mess.

I need to go back to my own reconstruction now. There is a glaring piece of continuity error that I need to address right now.

And you know what the worst of it is? It’s that if you’re good enough you’ll end up with a seamless piece of prose that doesn’t look like it’s been tinkered with, that looks like it’s always been perfect, that it was born this way. A reader who never saw the original will never know.

And they shouldn’t, that’s part of the point, but while you’re in the throes of working as hard as you know how, trying your damndest to change your beloved tale from passable to good or maybe even from good to great, you know that this part of your job is always going to be done alone and in the dark and without reward. It’s just a hard slog. Yes, knowing that there is something worthwhile at the end of it all helps but in the meantime you’re working on your own in the dark with a flashlight held between your teeth and with the right tools always just out of reach in the shadows.

I am hoping that this thing I am working on now is going to fledge very soon, and that it is going to be an eagle, soaring high and powerful up there in the open skies. I’ve got a good story here, I know that much. I am trying very hard to make it better, and it can always be better, I know that.

But still – this is one of those things that I will be glad to have done and that I am far from happy to be doing. With luck those of you who might read it one day will never know what I changed, how I tweaked, what I had to lose and what it was necessary to graft on.

And please, for the the sake of everybody involved… if you should happen to see a little dust, or a stray broken bit of a past imperfection littering the floor at the feet of the completed story statue, be merciful, and forgive. And kick it discreetly someplace out of sight.

Chisel in hand. Back into the fray. See you on the other side.