Wednesday, April 30, 2008



The strangling darkness vanished in an instant. His claustrophobic prison burst apart and Flavius found himself soaring a thousand feet above the ground.

He screamed against the rushing wind, flinging forward his cramped arms to shield his head. His sword spun away. The ground weaved wildly, see-sawing back and forth with the shockingly close clouds. Out of the corner of his eye he saw what looked for all the world like a brilliant green winged serpent dart off faster than a bow shot. Which would've been proof of madness right enough on its own, but the enormous, tooth-footed spider-thing hanging in mid-air was proof of insanity of nightmarish proportions.

"English devils is what ya are, the lot of ya," Flavius shouted. "Cumberland cannae face Bonnie Prince Charlie without shitting his breeks, so he conjures devils from Hell to fight his battles for him!"

Flavius no longer sailed through the sky. The clouds receded at a disturbing rate as the ground, wreathed in smoke and confusion, leapt toward him at an equally disturbing rate.

"If ya bastards think ya can win by cowardly tricks, ya better think again. I'm Flavius MacDuff, descendant of Bellona's bridegroom himself, the great Thane of Fife! I dinnae need sword or musket to beat the likes of you--I dinnae even need ground beneath my feet, d'ya hear me demons?"

The ground spun dangerously close. In the distance, a flash of green caught his eye. The serpent returned, a streak of emerald rushing headlong toward Flavius.

"Aye, that's it, beastie!" he bellowed. "Face me like a man, and I'll beat ya to death with my bare fists! I'll knot yer coils and fight ya to Hell and back. Cumberland'll ken then what it means to rile a highlander whose heart beats with the blood of Clan MacDuff!"

The raindrops surrounding him, Flavius suddenly noticed, seemed to hover motionless in relation to him. It was an odd thing to note, he thought, particularly with the muddy field seconds away from hitting him very, very hard.

"Och," he muttered. "This gonna sting a mite."

The ground lunged for him only to be beaten by a flash of green. Flavius' headlong fall turned abruptly into a ripping sideways jolt, knocking the breath from him as the strangling darkness enveloped him once again.

His stomach twisted. Sweat burst from his pores only to boil away in the suddenly-scorching air. No, not air. The howling wind took on a harsher, more ominous tone, and try as he might, Flavius could not manage to inhale. What little breath he had left trickled out through his nose and mouth, snatched away by the unnatural heat.

Unnatural. Something had gone horribly--unnaturally--wrong.

A creeping horror overcame Flavius. Maybe... just maybe... What if he had struck the ground? If he was dead, then this evil heat meant that he'd smashed right through the earth and straight into Hell itself.

It had to be a mistake. Sure, he wasn't the most pious man ever to live, but his faults were few. He'd always meant to tithe some of his gambling winnings to the church, but the sad truth was that winnings came so rarely they were invariably put toward covering earlier losses. And uncovering bonnie lassies, too, but nobody could deny that was money well spent. There was drink, too. But a man’s got to drink.

He'd killed many English, true, but deep down he'd always assumed that would win him special honor in the afterlife, not damnation.

Flavius struggled against his confines to no avail. His battered body couldn't muster the strength. He'd nearly exhausted himself fighting the constricting darkness the first time it'd enveloped him only to be beaten severely. His bruises still throbbed.

If he could only draw a damned breath...

Flavius' stomach knotted again. A lurch went through his body, and he felt strangely heavier. Then he dropped hard against rough ground, sharp pebbles and stone gouging into his hands and knees.

There was air. Flavius lay motionless, sucking in great lungfulls of the stuff. Gone was the sulfur stink of canon smoke and the damp, boggy odor of the field. This crisp, dry air was strangely clear of those smells, with only the faintest hints of a curious background scent-- Burned apples, possibly.

He climbed to his knees. Blinking against the harsh daylight, he looked around.

Flavius perched atop a bare granite dome some twenty yards across. Twisted, stunted trees bordered the dome's edge, growing thicker farther down the mountainside. Beyond, a craggy blue-green mountain range stretched as far as he could see beneath a violet sky.

"Hmph," Flavius muttered, climbing to his feet. "This ain't Culloden."

He turned to find the coiled green serpent staring at him, wings outstretched.

"Take me through Hell, will ya?" Flavius shouted, and punched it square between its two rows of eyes.

The serpent squawked and shook its head.

“Oh, ya like that, eh? Have another.” Flavius punched it again.

The serpent walloped Flavius with a wing, sending him sprawling.

Flavius scrambled back up. The serpent slithered toward him, kakking and gesturing wildly. Flavius’ hand found his dirk, miraculously still in his belt. He may have lost his sword, but at least he wasn't unarmed.

"Yer a nasty bastard, right enough. Have a taste of this," he said, lunging forward.

Effortlessly the serpent slapped his hand with a wingtip, sending the dirk skittering across the dome.

"Right, beastie. I'll do ya for that!"

Shaking its head, the serpent reached up to its back and pulled forth a gleaming claymore.

"Ya dinnae scare me with tha-- are those whortleberries?"

The serpent thrust the sword at Flavius, pommel first. Instinctively he grabbed the hilt. Then his knees buckled and he dropped to the ground, clawing at his head, screaming.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Nebula Awards pics: A second helping

It is what the title says it is. More photographic efforts on my part, shared with a world eager for a glimpse into the swanky, jet-set life of science fiction authors...













No doubt about it--I've got to get a faster zoom lens. These pictures came out way too dark and grainy (they've undergone significant post processing to make them semi-presentable in this most public of forums). That's it for now, kids. More still to come.

A big ol' mess of Nebula pics

Here's a selection of my photos (read: all that I've managed to upload thus far) from the 2008 Nebula Awards Weekend held in Austin April 25-27. I hope you folks appreciate it--I went ahead and sprung (read: laid out cash money) for a Pro Flickr account to host them all. I haven't had a chance to add any identifying information yet (busy! busy! busy!) but those pictured know who they are. More will come eventually.








Alexis Glynn Latner, famed No Fear of the Future contributor!IMG_5426


That's all for now. Will be back later with some more candid scenes from the weekend's events.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Cutting off the face to spite one's nose

Let the pit fighting begin anew.

The above, or course, is in response to my participation in the annual SFWA business meeting during this past weekend’s Nebula Awards activities. Much of what went on during the meeting was the traditional, tedious bureaucratic rigmarole, but one issue came up that I foresee being quite contentious in the weeks and months ahead: Just what kinds of works qualify professional science fiction/fantasy writers for membership in our august little organization?

The issue here concerns the rise of the graphic novel as a major publishing form, and the continued popularity of comics as a medium. In recent years several creators (not a tremendous number, but still...) with significant publications to their credit in the graphic novel milieu have applied for membership only to be turned away. Or rather, offered Affiliate membership, which means they’d be allowed to pay dues like everybody else, but not have voting rights. This is a popular membership category for publishers and new writers who’ve only partially qualified for Active membership, but for someone who could conceivably have a more successful career than the bulk of current Active members, well, it has somewhat less appeal for obvious reasons.

Russell Davis, the SFWA president-elect, made a well-reasoned point that in order to remain viable and vibrant, the organization needed to bring in new members and grow. New members means more dues money (i.e. improved financial ability to actually do something productive) and additional warm bodies to take on volunteer positions and potentially contribute to running the organization. Despite the well-documented troubles of the comics industry, it’s more high-profile than genre publishing and the premier showcase of that field--the San Diego Comic Con--dwarfs SF’s showcase Worldcon (big and spiffy though it may be). There’s a significant overlap between comics and genre (and from here on out I’ll use “genre” as a specific reference to SF and fantasy publishing. Tough cookies to horror, mystery and everyone else) and Davis outlined an inclusive membership philosophy that I liken to a “big tent” approach. It was a logical presentation of his position and far more eloquent than my fumble-footed comments a few minutes later.

Naturally, opposition to opening the doors to comics creators coalesced with sudden and instantaneous vigor. This is the same organization that battled for more than a decade whether or not to include “Fantasy” in its official name (Science-fiction & Fantasy Writers of America we now be for those unaware of such nuances).

The objections ran the whole gamut (paraphrased here because I’m a notoriously awful note-taker. But the gist of the matter remains): “There’s too many of them--this will be like a mouse swallowing an elephant”; “Their contracts and issues are different than ours”; “If you take away the pictures, the words don’t tell the whole story”; “We have nothing to offer them”; “We need to grow and add more members first, then we can think about opening the organization to comics”; “Manga recycles the same plot over and over again--that’s not writing, and shouldn’t qualify” (ah, there are so many things I could say here, but I will exercise Herculean restraint); and, my particular favorite melon-scratcher, “There are so many self-published comics out there, we’ll be swamped with too many new members with credentials equivalent to The Pleistocene Redemption.”

Well, no. No to all of the above--none of those are reasons to exclude comics creators/graphic novelists. They’re excuses. It’s not as if the only way to admit graphic novelists is to throw standards out the window. Self-published and vanity press prose don’t count toward Active SFWA membership, so why on Earth would self-published or vanity comics count? That’s just silly. If membership credentials were expanded to admit comics creators, then of course the criteria of minimum pay rate, minimum publications and such would be addressed. Does one issue of Detective Comics or The Fantastic Four count as a short story? Does it count as a half credit because the artist shared half the storytelling duties? This would be worked out.

And it’d not be like “A mouse swallowing an elephant.” There may be more full-time professionals working in comics than genre, but I’ll wager there are significantly more professionally working genre writers overall than comics writers, if only because for many genre authors writing is a second career outside of academic, scientific or (ahem) journalistic pursuits. And I might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but “We need to grow first before we grow” comes off as reasoning that’s more than a little circular to me.

The sad thing is that this debate, which is only in the infancy stages of ramping up, can potentially damage SFWA in lasting ways. Already the group’s had a long, slow slide toward irrelevance. The Nebula may hold some degree of prestige among writers still, but it’s long since ceded the wow factor to the Hugo Award. Publishers weren’t represented well in Austin at all, and while this is due in part to not being in close proximity to the east coast publishing apparatus, it still says something that isn’t all that good. So the prospects of SFWA alienating a potential membership component--and their high-profile fan base--strikes me as insanely short-sighted to a profound degree. Case in point: Neil Gaiman (who is not a SFWA member) won a rightly-deserved World Fantasy Award in 1991 for his work on DC Comics’ The Sandman. The rules were immediately revised in the aftermath to bar comics and graphic novels from eligibility, a move that still rankles nearly two decades later and blatantly smacks of elitism. SFWA is poised to make the same move on a much larger scale--not only would we be banning a class of literature, we’d be telling their writers “You’re not worthy of joining our increasingly insular and inbred club.”

When I ran AggieCon back in 1991, I invited Marv Wolfman as comics guest of honor. Afterwards, he confessed to me that he was quite nervous about accepting the invitation, despite the fact that his wife had many personal ties with the convention and area. He’d never been to a “science fiction convention” before, and was deeply and truly worried that the genre writers would look down upon and ostracize him for being “only” a comic book writer. He was delighted to learn that many were fans and a significant number aspired to write for comics some day. Bridges--very small ones, I admit--were built that weekend. But those misconceptions Wolfman carried into the con are the very ones this coming debate has the potential to reinforce.

Vice President-elect Elizabeth Moon had the clear vision and good sense to point out that the debate has the potential to not only alienate non-member comics writers, but also current Active SFWA members who also happen to write comics. Gaiman and Peter David are the two highest-profile crossover talents that come to mind, but the list is a very long one indeed, including current, former and non-SFWAns alike, including such names as Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock and Larry Niven. After the business meeting came to the end and I departed, Joe Haldeman shook his head and said to me, “I didn’t want to say anything in there, but I write my share of comics, too.” The fact that Haldeman’s body of work qualifies him for Active membership many times over without taking his comics work into consideration is irrelevant. There’s just something wrong at a base level when the message going out is that of “Your creative efforts are lessened by the medium you choose to work in.”

Literature changes. Publishing changes. Readership taste changes. Any entity that doesn’t evolve and adapt is doomed to extinction sooner or later. For a population of writers so often consumed and obsessed with the idea of the “genre ghetto” to cast disparaging looks toward comics writers--themselves subject to ghettoization to spectacular degrees throughout the 20th century--is as cruel an irony as any I’ve had the misfortune to encounter. Let it end here.

ADDENDUM: I just want to clarify here that all discussion during the business meeting was wholly civil and cordial. No in-fighting broke out. I predict that in-fighting will eventually break out over this issue, just as sure as "Requal" will someday rear its ugly head again. But for now the issue remains in the polite discussion stages. And for the record, the proposal by President Davis ended up being tabled on a motion from Lawrence Person, which passed by an approximate 14-7 vote (I voted nay). It is my belief that "further study" was inherent in Davis' initial proposal, but in any event, this is one issue that isn't going away any time soon.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Guess who I interviewed this weekend?


Joe Haldeman's a keen intellect and a fine man. And a helluva lot more accomplished as a writer than I have hope of ever becoming. The interview went down well. Now comes the transcribing and editing. Will keep folks appraised as it winds its way toward publication.

Blogging Sidewise

Wow. Courtesy of John Scalzi, I see that Prof. Nevins' amazing May 17, 2007 post here, "An Alternate History of Chinese Science Fiction," aka "The Humble Scrawl of Kuo Pao Kun, Mandarin," has been nominated for a Sidewise Award in the category of Best Short-Form Alternate History in 2007. The winners will be announced in August at Worldcon.

I think this is a first for a blog post to be considered alongside conventional narrative works Congratulations to Jess for taking invisible literature to the next level!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

SFWA announces 2007 Nebula Award winners in Austin

Well, the Nebula Awards have just ended, and I'm 50 miles to the south sending out the media announcement. I figured I might as well share it with my loyal blog readers. Now I'm out the door and heading back up to Austin. Cheers!
The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., has announced the Nebula Awards® winners for 2007.

The Nebula Awards® are voted on, and presented by, active members of SFWA. The awards were announced at the Nebula Awards® Banquet held at the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown in Austin, Texas on Saturday, April 26, 2008.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon - HarperCollins, May 2007

"Fountain of Age," by Nancy Kress - Asimov's, July 2007

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," by Ted Chiang - The Magazine of
Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2007

Short Stories
"Always," by Karen Joy Fowler - Asimov's, May 2007

Pan's Labyrinth, by Guillermo del Toro, Time/Warner, January 2007
shooting script)

Andre Norton Award
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling - Scholastic Press,
July 2007

Famed British author and Austin-area resident Michael Moorcock was honored as the Damon Knight Grand Master during the ceremonies, with long-time fantasy and science fiction writer Ardath Mayhar honored as Author Emeritus. East Texas literary icon Joe R. Lansdale served as toastmaster during the awards.

Also during the weekend, Melisa Michaels and Graham P. Collins were honored with 2008 SFWA Service Awards. The award is made at the sole discretion of the president, and has previously been called the "Service to SFWA Award."

Both Michaels and Collins received the award for the work they did on the SFWA website. Michaels single-handedly founded the website in 1995 and was webmaster from 1995-2000. Collins took over in 2000, and was webmaster from 2000 until he stepped down early this year. Both donated prodigious amounts of time and effort to maintaining SFWA's presence on the web, and were influential in making a valuable resource for members and non-members alike.

This is the eighth time that the award has been presented. Previous recipients were Chuq Von Rospach, Sheila Finch, Robin Wayne Bailey, George Zebrowski & Pamela Sargent (joint), Michael Capobianco & Ann Crispin (joint), Kevin O'Donnell, Jr., and Brook West & Julia West (joint.)

About SFWA
Founded in 1965 by the late Damon Knight, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America brings together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world.

Since its inception, SFWA® has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence, boasting a membership of approximately 1,500 science fiction and fantasy writers as well as artists, editors and allied professionals. Each year the organization presents the prestigious Nebula Awards® for the year’s best literary and dramatic works of speculative fiction.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Belated Pixel-Stained Technopeasantry

Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day snuck up on me while I was busy marking student assignments, so I didn't get anything new written, but in the spirit of the day (albeit somewhat belatedly), here are links to some of my free fiction currently on the web:

The Godfather Paradox
I've Got a Little List
Christmas at the Chushingura Cafe
The Big Bang Theory, Revisited

Dallas (Heart) Nebulas

I've been on the phone a bit this week dealing with media issues for the upcoming Nebula Awards in Austin. This is a good thing. The Austin Chronicle ran a somewhat snarky piece this week, but as P.T. Barnum said, it's doesn't matter if it's good press or bad press as long as the name is spelled right. But in dealing with Edward Nawotka of the Dallas Morning News, I had a very comfortable feeling. The man had already done a good bit of homework, and after our conversation kept in touch with me via email, clarifying points here and there and generally doing what a good reporter should. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and Nawotka's pudding, published today, is pretty darn tasty indeed:
"People always judge science- fiction writing by its worst examples," says author Joe R. Lansdale. "Sci-fi is more respected than when I was a kid – when it was considered that old hokey stuff. People are beginning to appreciate what a unique genre it is and what an interesting pocket universe we have here in Texas."

That universe will get some international attention this weekend as the 2008 Nebula Awards are presented in Austin. Mr. Lansdale, a prolific author of mystery, horror, comics and sci-fi works, often set around his hometown of Nacogdoches, will serve as toastmaster.

The Nebulas are one of science fiction's top honors, dating to 1965, when Frank Herbert won the inaugural best novel prize for Dune. Winners are chosen by members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Sci-fi's other top awards, the Hugos, are voted on by fans. "The Nebulas are essentially like the Oscars, while the Hugos are like the People's Choice Awards," said Jayme Lynn Blaschke, a communications officer at Texas State University who also serves as the Nebulas' publicist.

Texas is home to 71 members of the writers group. "That makes it third only to California and New York," says Betsy Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of sci-fi publisher Del Rey books.

Ms. Mitchell will be on hand to honor the 68-year old British-born (and part-time Austinite) Michael Moorcock as a grand master. Another Texan, 78-year-old Ardath Mayhar of Chireno, author of some 60 books of fiction and poetry, will be deemed author emeritus.

Other luminaries expected to attend the Saturday night awards ceremony are Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, whose The Yiddish Policeman's Union is nominated for best novel, and Bruce Sterling (a part-time Austinite), whose story "Kiosk" is shortlisted in the novelette category, as is "Memorare" by another one-time Texan, Gene Wolfe.

I wonder how much flack I'm going to take for the Oscars/People's Choice comment. There's no malice there, obviously, but you know how easily those wacky genre types get bent out of shape.

The article is really most excellent. I can't stress that enough. Read the whole thing at the link above.

The Robot in Japan, 1920-1938.

I've got twenty images--pictures, cartoons, and paintings--of the robot in Japan in the eighteen years leading up to World War Two up over here. I can't provide any context for them, since I don't read Japanese, but some of them are self-explanatory. Others...well, whatever ideas we come up with to explain what people were thinking is undoubtedly not going to match the strange reality.

But then, that's life, isn't it? Always stranger than fiction, and always stranger than anything we can imagine.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Mass autographing session highlights SFWA Nebula Awards Weekend

A little plug for this weekend's upcoming shindig:
Dozens of science fiction and fantasy authors will turn out for a mass autographing session Friday, April 25 from 5:30-8 p.m., kicking off the 2008 Nebula Awards Weekend® in Austin by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

The mass autographing session sponsored by Book People will be held in the third floor Longhorn Room of the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown, located at San Jacinto and 8th Street. The session is free and open to the public. Books will be available for purchase, but those seeking signatures are free to bring their own from home.

Authors scheduled to take part in the mass autographing session include 2007 Damon Knight Grand Master honoree Michael Moorcock, Nebula Award Nominees Nancy Kress, Joe Haldeman and Jack McDevitt as well as such notable authors as Joe R. Lansdale, Steven Gould, Walter Jon Williams and Connie Willis. A complete list of participating authors can be found at

The Nebula Awards Weekend is hosted by the Austin Literary Arts Maintenance Organization (ALAMO).

Media coverage is invited. Media inquiries may be directed to Jayme Blaschke at or at (830) 214-4218. More details about the Nebula Awards Weekend are available at

About SFWA

Founded in 1965 by the late Damon Knight, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America brings together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world.

Since its inception, SFWA® has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence, boasting a membership of approximately 1,500 science fiction and fantasy writers as well as artists, editors and allied professionals. Each year the organization presents the prestigious Nebula Awards® for the year’s best literary and dramatic works of speculative fiction.

I expect to see each and every one of you loyal No Fear of the Future readers turn out this weekend. I can count on you, right?

The Xanadu Thread

As one who firmly believes that all pop cultural narratives are really just part of one Spectacular master narrative, I was quite keen on Charlie Jane Anders' "What If Every Single Joel Silver Movie Took Place In The Same Universe?" over at the consistently awesome io9.

But as the Matrix reboots itself over and over again, it becomes increasingly unstable. So the Machines create special programs, to go inside the simulation and ensure that free will remains part of the system — or that people are boogieing enough. Hence, Olivia Newton-John's roller-skating virtual self comes into the Matrix to help Steve Gutenberg's painter guy and Gene Kelly's nightclub owner find their true creativity.

But eventually, humans rebel and succeed in freeing themselves from the Matrix. They even reclaim the surface of the Earth from the Machines, but at a terrible cost — their technology reverts to medieval levels. Only a few pieces of advanced technology remain, but they are indistinguishable from magic. Those who wield these high-tech relics, the Mages, are able to crush the rest of the population, the Commoners. It's almost as if everybody is imprisoned in a Dungeon, and humanity's only hope is to summon the aid of long-dormant alien-cyborg Dragons.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Signs of spring

[Pic: Bird, sidewalk, Sixth and Lamar, Austin, Texas, April 19, 2008.]

Little birds fly from their nests, sometimes managing only to get plowed by one of the steroid-fueled hulking automobiles on the street below. Nature's way? Or just the way spring shows its true self during the age of the GWOT...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Mortality of the Soul

If you believe in the immortality of the soul, having a loved one with Alzheimer's might really rattle your existential cage.

There are medical conditions where somebody can't interact with the outside world, but relatives and nurses sense that the person is still aware in there. Also real and sad are cases when nobody's home in the wake of a brain-injuring accident. With Alzheimer's, though, there isn't a normal human being trapped inside. Nor has the mind flown from the mortal coil. It's more like dry rot of the cloth of the person's mind.

The Alzheimer's person loses vocabulary words—the window air conditioner becomes "that machine." They lose the ability to recognize people, including their loved ones. A friend of mine told me that when her grandfather developed Alzheimer's, the family relocated the old gentleman to Texas. He was more or less his congenial self, but halfway through the trip, he asked, "Who are you people?"

Then there is the paranoia. Here is a recent telephone exchange with my mother, who moved into an Assisted Living facility last December.

Me: "How are you doing tonight?"

My mother, resentfully: "I wish I had my nice blouses! When they emptied my house, they gave all my nice blouses to 'somebody' who 'needed' them."

Me: (thinking, damn it, you've got your nicer blouses in that closet behind you. And when my cousin and I gave up days of our Christmas vacation to make your house ready to sell, four sacks of your utterly redundant, cheap polyester blouses went to a charity that serves indigent ladies released from the hospital to the nursing home without any street clothes. And I've gently, kindly, clearly told you this several times already.) "I'm sorry to hear that."

When Alzheimer's paranoia gets really bad, the person may not recognize a loved one or caregiver, believe that they're an intruder, and attack them. One of the first things my mother's neurologist said, after he determined that she had Alzheimer's and I told him my concerns about her living alone at home until we could get her into Assisted Living, including my concern about her keeping a loaded gun under her bed—was, "Get that gun out of the house!" The gun went into my cousins' safekeeping.

With Alzheimer's there definitely isn't a normal person trapped inside. There's a somewhat normal-seeming shell of appearance and conversation. But it's more and more just a fragile shell. When it cracks, and broken bits fall away, musty voids can be seen inside.

I think one of the earlier things to go as Alzheimer's gets worse is what they call theory of mind: "the ability to attribute mental states, beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. to oneself and others. As originally defined, it enables one to understand that mental states can . . . explain and predict others’ behavior." (Wikipedia). My mother has less and less ability to conceive of my feelings, intentions and motivations. Or to assess her own state of mind, either.

This might unnerve me, even more than it already does, if I believed in the immortality of the soul. I don't. I'm convinced that the essential reality of human beings is embodied. When our bodies succumb to trauma or illness, when our brain's neural pathways are attacked by Alzheimer's plaques and tangles, we will die—not necessarily all of a sudden. I can live without immortality of the soul until the end of my life, at which time I will die without it.

Immortality of the soul seems to have been a Greek idea that floated into early Christianity along with philosophical idealism and a devaluation of matter. Progressive Christian theology tends to see it as a metaphysical Trojan horse: loaded with distractions and detriments to the faith. For that matter, Eastern Orthodox theology apparently doesn't posit immortality of the soul either. Eastern Orthodoxy is highly conservative in many ways. Yet in the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology there's this remark from an essay by Andrew Louth on Orthodox eschatology: "The central truth affirmed by the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is that human beings are not simply spiritual but are constituted by both soul and body. . . . Recurrent temptations strong (though not universal) in the late classical culture in which Christianity first developed to think of human life in essentially spiritual terms are to be resisted. At death, the body becomes a corpse; the gift of life in the kingdom of heaven means, in some sense, the restoration of the body."

In other words, theologically speaking, death is utterly real; and yet the end of human life is not death but resurrection. As in, the whole human being remembered or recreated or whatever the Divine does. The myth of humans being resurrected whole—body and mind woven together—seems to me to be a much better myth than an immortal soul that lives on apart from the body. How could there be mind without matter, feeling without physiology, emotions without neurotransmitters? Don't know. Can't imagine.

Easter was a few weeks ago according to the calendar, and I went to church, but then I more or less reverted to a Lent of doubt and darkness. I'm coping with my mother's condition and her finances, while my fiction writing career gives me all the work I can possibly do, more self-promotion opportunities than I can tolerate, and not much income, so I have to earn a living by means of additional work. Some of my friends find themselves in a long dark season of life too. Every week I hear from good friends coping with aging parents, mentally ill siblings, paid work that seems like a daily uphill battle, careers in danger-and-opportunity crisis, and surgeries or serious illnesses and health insurance trouble. A few nights ago one friend, who is in position to know whereof she speaks, gave me advice in the form of a quote from Winston Churchill: "If you're going through hell, keep going." With so many people in my social circle having that kind of experience, it certainly feels like Lent hasn't ended.

Fine. The Eastern Orthodox Church has been observing Lent since March 10 and only now is it almost over!

Sunday, March 30, was a week after the Western Easter, but the exact middle of the Orthodox Lent this year. Friends invited me to St. Joseph Orthodox Church. It turned out to be the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross. Veneration means prostration—as in, a whole church full of people on hands and knees touching their foreheads to the floor. And kissing a cross surrounded by roses. Starting with the Veneration, being in church that morning was a very physical experience. Sweet incense hung in the air. The walls gleamed with golden icons of saints, and above all there was a great golden icon of the Virgin Mary as Theotokos," the one who gives birth to God." There wasn't a crucifix in sight—the Orthodox don't have much use for statues—but there were icons of Christ the child of Theotokos, Christ the Teacher, and Christ's liberation of the dead from Hell. All of the worshipers, including those not taking communion, were offered chunks of holy bread to munch on. (The holy bread isn't communion, it's just bread that had been blessed: a very nice Orthodox practice, perhaps for the sustenance of those who fasted before communion, but generously shared with everybody else.) So even on the Sunday of the veneration of the Cross, there was no overwhelming impression of Christ crucified, the crucifixion and the victimization of the body of Jesus, and by extension, the physicality, rest of us. Instead it was Christ victorious over death.

In the classic 1931 book titled Christus Victor, Gustav Aulen wrote that it was the view of the early church, and it remains the Orthodox view, that the resurrection of Christ was above all else a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil. To appreciate how significant that might be, you don't have to tally up sins or invoke a literal devil. For sin, think greed, hatred, misogyny and all of the other destructive human impulses reported in the newspaper every day. For the devil think dictatorships, predatory corporate capitalism, war and all of the other powers that make so many people in the world afraid to get out of bed in the morning or afraid not to. And as for death, just contemplate a parent having an inescapable, ugly, and gradual but overwhelming death.

My mother's Alzheimer's torqued me again the other night. It seemed she'd walked twice around the outside of her Assisted Living facility that morning. Good, good—exercise is very beneficial for her. She sounded almost like her old self, telling me she'd seen birds and a tree that another resident identified as a Pin Oak. My mother was always most alive when walking in the woods, walking in the park, or gardening around her house. Then, however, came the following.

My mother, resentfully: "I wish I had my nature books! When they emptied my house, they gave my books to 'somebody' who 'needed' them."

Me: (I was seriously nettled, because when she moved we asked her which books she wanted and we dutifully schlepped them over to her new place. Then I thought, why not make a little game out of this, so my feelings are not just a doormat for her paranoia?) "I'm sure am sorry to hear that, what else is missing?"

My mother: "Oh, well, I think, my Halley's Bible commentary."

Me: "Oh, dear. How do you suppose something like could have happened?"

After another vague response from her, and another prompt from me with the implication that I was shocked, shocked, shocked about her things having been taken, she lost track of why she was upset and drifted to another topic! That's having a loved one with Alzheimer's. Maybe what they feel inside is something like a river drying up. Where a stretch of thought, feeling, and conviction still flows strongly—whatever misshapen waterfall now happens to stand in the broken bed of the river—it feels terribly important to them. They won't react well if you try to tamp it down. So if at all feasible, you just go with the flow of what's left to flow.

After seeing my mother's Alzheimer's, I can't imagine what would bring me back to a conviction of the immortality of soul.

Could anything give anyone or me back a belief in Heaven—? As in, your immortal soul goes to Heaven, where you meet up with all of your departed family members? I've doubted that since the age of twenty. Heaven, as the nearer presence of God, may not mean existence as a separate ego. Many religious and meditative traditions, plus people who practice depth psychology, identify the disembodied, deluded individual ego as the main problem of the human condition, not the salvation of it.

Then, though, there was the experience of attending St. Joseph's in the very middle of the Orthodox Lent. My friends explained that in Orthodoxy, going into church is entering into Heaven. The saints surround you, chandeliers shine in the high ceiling, sweet incense suffuses the whole place and ornate processions of mystery flow up and down the aisles. From what I can tell, Orthodoxy is neither intellectual nor anti-intellectual; it's all about mystery. It isn't defined by what beliefs you subscribe to; it's about the liturgy you participate in. I think that means you don't have to believe in Heaven; just go to church. How very interesting. That Sunday and this long hard Lent, it was also unexpectedly comforting.

Today is the Orthodox eve of Palm Sunday: it's Lazarus Saturday. Never heard of that one in the Episcopal, Lutheran, or Methodist churches I've attended, and definitely didn't hear about it in the Southern Baptist church I grew up in. But it's a remarkable commemoration. The Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote these words (found at

"The joy that permeates and enlightens the service of Lazarus Saturday stresses one major theme: the forthcoming victory of Christ over Hades. Hades is the Biblical term for Death and its universal power, for inescapable darkness that swallows all life and with its shadow poisons the whole world. But now—with Lazarus’ resurrection—'death begins to tremble.' A decisive duel between Life and Death begins giving us the key to the entire liturgical mystery of Pascha. Already in the fourth century Lazarus' Saturday was called the 'announcement of the Pascha.' For, indeed, it announces and anticipates the wonderful light and peace of the nextThe GreatSaturday, the day of the life-giving Tomb."

For me that works infinitely better as a mystery, comfort and hope than the immortality of the soul works as a belief and expectation.