Hymns to Breath
A friend commented on needing to switch off the endless stupidity and hysteria of the so-called news for a few days. It’s a time which ought to be good for selling escapist books! (to show they have no nous look at what the trad sf/fantasy publishers are buying…) My comment was that I tended to go and do something dangerous. Not only can’t you think of anything but the task in hand (well you can. But not for very long) but it had a good way of putting things in perspective, and rendering the irritant in a proper scale.
I went diving this weekend. Now, for me these days that means using a hookah – the equivalent of leaving your aqualung in the boat, being constantly refilled, and taking a long air-hose to a second-stage regulator. Much used by commercial divers, they kill a few people every year. Most die from stupid, and I put in an effort at that.
The rig we were diving with was an old one my dive partner bought recently, had serviced and checked… and ordered new hoses and connecters for. The hoses hadn’t arrived yet, but the good weather had. Now the arrangement on this rig is different to any other I’ve used – it’s got 100 feet of 10 mm hose, which then splits with 50 feet of 8mm hose to each regulator. The 8mm hose needs replacing and is prone to kinking and tangling. A kink is particularly an issue at the full length, logically.
I think you know where this is going, don’t you? No one sings hymns to breath… but to be without it.
It actually gets worse, and here is where the stupid comes in. To get down needs a weight-belt to compensate for the bubbles in the neoprene of your wetsuit. That’s a 9mm longjon and 7mm hooded jacket. So we’re talking around 28-30 pounds of lead – without which you simply can’t get under water.
The trouble is your wetsuit compresses as you get deeper. So: if you’ve got it right for what we’re doing, you’re neutrally buoyant at about 18 feet down. Scuba divers have a buoyancy compensator vest allowing them to adjust – so they tend to start heavy. Hookah crayfishermen tend to start light –and don’t have a big bulky vest (or tank) that would stop them getting into narrow caves and cracks (because that is what we’re doing, 30 feet down). If you need help coming up… you just haul on your hose. If you really, really have trouble, emergency ascent trouble (believe me, you DON’T want to do this, and you DO want to scream all the way up if you do. It’s vital to do so. You will wreck your lungs and possibly kill yourself if not), you have an emergency safety release on the weight-belt. You go up really fast. I’ve had to do this once.
This was nearly the second time. It might have been the second time… I think this may be the time to mention that I lent out my belts (I use 2) one with the air hose attached and little weight, and one with a lot (which reduces the rapidness of ascent if you only drop 1 – a good thing). I noticed the little weight one was a bit heavier, but I assumed that meant they’d re-allocated the weight between them. Yes, on the bottom I did work out I was a bit heavy, and actually I had an extra 5 pounds of lead. This was my stupidity. It was –if nothing goes wrong, not serious.
Of course that’s just when something goes wrong.
My buddy was inside a cave – moved forward and the twists in his hose kinked mine. No air. And we were right at the end of the hose, and I couldn’t quite reach him to buddy breathe (his bubbles say he’s fine.)
Now… this is where being calm becomes important. I yanked his hose, and started to swim up and backwards – which was HARD with the extra weight. I decided, while swimming up to drop the lighter belt (slower ascent)… to have the catch jam. But I had moved back and up a few feet which had slightly eased the kink (still sucking, trust me) and so I just swam hard. I found the other belt catch and had that ready to drop, but I could by sucking furiously get another breath and get a bit higher (and I knew this was a better ascent than just dropping the belt was – controlled — scary as hell, bloody hard but you aren’t going to damage your lungs. And weight-belts cost. I tried hauling on the line, but that cut my air off. So it was just swim and suck hard.
I got to the surface and found the problem didn’t end (just improved) – I was sinking, and had to swim hard (against the current of course.) I couldn’t spit the reg and breathe air (I took one deep breath of surface air) and had to make my way to the boat. I couldn’t just haul, because that made my air cut off, and might make my buddy’s air cut off. And yes, I was a bit short of line to get back to the boat. Fortunately the boat came to me.
I took a breather, we untangled the hoses, took off some weight and about 10 minutes later jumped back in. It wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done.
But it was necessary. I spent another 4 hours underwater, and we came home with our bag of spiny lobster.
Sorry this has been a bit long – but there is fair amount that actually applies to writing there. Besides, now you know a great deal more than you wanted to about diving, and a little bit about the heads of the kind of people who do it.
Writing is of course very committing: you expose yourself, and your ego to a lot of possible risk. Writing doesn’t have to be about taking risks in content of course, of course. But it does sharpen the experience. It was quite central to sf 50 or sixty years ago when Eric Frank Russell had a black Doctor simply accepted as part of the crew of the ship, when Philip K Dick wrote about drugs… and so on, back when the editors and publishers and even a lot of the avant-garde readers blenched a little, but allowed the boundary to be pushed. Oddly, sf was growing. That’s long behind us in trad sf, and you’ll meet with censorship and shutdown now if your ideas are not narrowly doctrinaire. So: desipe being popular with some readers (not me, but definitely others) John Norman’s Gor Chronicles were killed. Oddly, trad sf hasn’t thrived under this change. But there are still good stories without those risks. A story merely has to entertain, after all.
That hasn’t stopped most of us loading ourselves down with weights, just to get into that water. Weights of preconceptions, weights of politics, weights of message. Try to make sure they won’t sink you or your book.
A writing buddy (or buddies) are good things to have. No-one else will quite understand the problems. No one else can be there when you need to breathe.
But the most important thing you can take out of all of this is: When things go wrong, when the book fails (and they will) Get back in as soon as you can. I cannot say how important this is. The longer you stay away the harder it will be.
I wanted to say a little something about freedom of speech. I said doing dangerous stuff gave me perspective: and either that or brain damage has me thinking this is really important. In some ways I am a classical liberal. That’s got almost nothing to do with modern US (L)iberalism. It just means I think good the idea of “I disagree with every word you say, but will defend to the death you being allowed to say them.” Equally, I defend the idea that no one should be forced to listen to them, or prevented from listening if they want to.
I believe, if you like, in ‘comparative shopping’ for ideas. A free market for them, which if it doesn’t produce the best will give all of them a fair go. If a speaker can convince people that the earth is flat and I don’t agree, shouting them down or preventing them from talking, isn’t selling my idea that the earth is in fact pear-shaped. What is, is presenting a better and more persuasive argument.
Yet we seem caught in a rash of the opposite right now: The latest incidents at Berkeley with Milo Yiannopolous’s attempt to speak there – to an eager audience, being attacked by a mob of anti-free-speech thugs and arsonists and their cheering and supporting crowd. It’s Sad Puppy ‘No Awarders’ grown louder more censorious and more unpleasant – and supported by the same people.
There are two reasons I can see for not doing this:
1) Your ideas are so stupid and useless they could never sell in a free market of ideas. They can’t compete and would fail in to gain any traction if there was an alternative.
2) You think that most people are inferior and incapable of making up their own minds, and shouldn’t be allowed to do so, in case they get the wrong idea.
So which is it? 1 or 2 or both?
I’ve a habit of being Cassandra. Here is Cassandra’s blunt warning to those cheering and celebrating silencing and de-platforming: you have far more to risk and far more to lose if this gets turned against you. The same has been going on sf/fantasy for years, and when (not if) it turns… and you want to get published, get publicity and you are excluded and de-platformed… well, the time to have acted to make sure EVERYONE could have a voice, whether popular or not… is nearly past. It may be too late already.
Finally, on arson as a political tool…
There was a house fire on the island on the weekend (not something that’s happened here for a long time, and I was one of attending Volunteer Ambulance Officers. No-one needed us particularly badly – for which I was very, very grateful. One of the things I try not to think about is my experiences in the army with burns patients. I’m going to talk about burns as one of those dangerous subjects people avoid more than the ‘brave ‘ and ‘daring’ alternate sexualities or nasty conservative white men are misogynists ‘brave and daring’.
Severe burns still give me nightmares 40 years later – and I wasn’t the one burned. I was just the guy who had to touch to move a man who had no epidermis left (85% burns). No matter how careful, how kind you were, he would scream. It was not because he was coward or soft. He was a brave man who walked to get rescue for his companions. How he walked I cannot begin to imagine. I cannot comprehend the extent of the agony he went through, then, and for months and months. Every movement, every breath just more pain. And that was before the surgery started. That was before his wife arrived, screamed at his melted ruin of a face and ran away weeping. She never came back. And that was worse still because that pain will never ease. The psychological damage was horrendous. I doubt it ever went away.
I would not wish that on my worst enemy.
People who start fires because they’re not prepared to let someone speak which could burn innocent victims… Sooner or later, that’s what they will cause.
To those who started those fires, to the people who danced and cheered. To the people who said it was acceptable and justifiable. Go to a burns unit.
That is what you are prepared to do to innocents to stop someone speaking.
Wear it with shame.