Overdue!

I moved into my new flat this past weekend, Sunday was taken up with watching the new episode of Doctor Who, and Monday necessitated a great deal of unpacking in addition to job prep for my last day of teacher training (for today), so when I suddenly realized at about 1930 on Monday night that I had to write a post, I was somewhat flummoxed. I had no ideas whatsoever for a topic, and I was contemplating the writer’s version of ritual seppuku (making and sharpening your own quill pen before disemboweling yourself with it as you chant the names of all your literary ancestors in hopes that they will forgive you), when Tom stepped in with an alternative.

humperdinck
But not like this.

“Write a short story!” he said, as I sharpened my quill, only half-paying attention. “About a time traveler,” he added, knowing exactly what would pique my interest. A few more interesting details were added to the prompt, and I arose, dramatically tossing my quill to the side, salvation in sight. “I will take it! I will take the Ring to Mordor!” I declared, apparently unaware of the irrelevance of the reference, and began to write. For your enjoyment today, I present “Overdue!” a short story by yours truly.

****************

You’d think that being a time traveller would mean never having to deal with library fines. It’s a completely logical thought to have, what with the ability to jump around the time stream and all, but it’s also completely wrong. Studies have actually proven that owners of time machines are more than twelve times more likely to be chronically late about returning their books. The entire Warsaw library system is funded completely by fines from sheepish chrononauts who thought they were popping in right at closing on the due date to return their copies of Welles’s novels and other historical fiction, only to discover they were showing up at noon two years, six months, and four days later. “Sounds like the voice of experience,” you might say, and you’re quite right, kids. My name is Morstan, Elliott Morstan, and I’m a time traveller. And as of three days ago by linear time, I’m also a library criminal.

Until recently, I’d always been conscientious about taking care of my library books. They keep telling you the rules: never leave your library book in your time machine, don’t check out books from libraries in more than one time period at the same time, and above all, don’t ever try to return your book while using your machine. We all know libraries are bound by linear time in order to contain all the strange time irregularities that happen within, and strange things sometimes happen if you mess around with that. We’ve all heard about what happened when someone broke the rules in Alexandria.

Oops.

But even though we know these stories, something deep down inside still whispers “but it could never happen to me. I’m so much more careful; I’d never cross my own time stream while returning a book” and so on and so forth. That’s what I thought, too, when I took my library copy of the best-selling theoretical manual Wibbley-Wobbley, Timey-Wimey, and Other Stuff for the Discerning Time Traveler by R.T. Davies, along to occupy me during the boring bits of the Battle of Hastings. This in and of itself isn’t a problem…but I became so engrossed in the battle that I left the book inside my machine. All on its own. With all of that peculiar book magic that wreaks havoc on the temporal mechanics of any time engine if left unsupervised.

Ugh. Keep in mind, this was a genuine moment of forgetfulness. Not a good thing to do, but not criminal.

So when I made the return journey home, I planned to arrive just 5 minutes after I left, which would give me two hours to finish my book before returning it. I opened the door, stepped out, yawned, and then my jaw dropped as I stared ahead, terrified. Where the library had once stood instead loomed a giant Starbucks. The 50-mile high green and white logo leered at me as it proudly pronounced in glowing neon letters, “Meeting your linear caffeine needs since 2367.”

The library was closed.

My book was at least 50 years overdue.

When the library branch police caught up with me, and we all know they always will find you if your book is overdue, the fines would be horrendous. I’d never be able to pay them off. And I’d never be able to live with the shame of having my name on the list of those “Banned for Reckless Endangerment of a Book,” the terrible fate of those who eat tomato sauce near a book or return it more than 5 years overdue. I had to go back. Surely just going back along my own time stream to the library just long enough to drop my book in the slot wouldn’t hurt anyone… Fortified by resolve and blinding fear, I jumped back into my ship and headed back for the original due date.

Upon landing (in the correct date this time), I opened the door and cautiously peered out. The fabric of reality seemed to be holding together pretty well thus far. Emboldened, I grabbed the book and stepped out, prepared to make a dash for the return slot just a few feet away. But the moment both feet touched the ground, I realized I’d made a huge mistake. Time seemed to constrict and expand all at the same time. Something started screaming in a high-pitched tone that threatened to shred my eardrums. The whole world began to shake and I felt as though I was about to turn inside out and explode. Terrified, I dropped to the ground, curled up in a ball, and began pleading with the universe to calm down.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “Just please stop. It was stupid of me. Don’t unravel all of space and time. I’ll never do it again, I promise.”

“We know you won’t,” a cool voice said from behind me. I sat up, my eyes blurry, to find myself surrounded by severe-looking people in dark red uniforms.

Damn…not the library police! Dear god, please no.

The speaker, a stern woman in a peaked cap glared down at me over the bridge of her spectacles. “You are lucky we were on hand to stabilize the fabric of reality before your reckless actions could cause any real damage to the universe,” she said, nostrils flaring. I shivered. “We cannot allow such actions to pass with just a warning. Your machine will be confiscated and you are hereby restricted to the index room for twenty years, with no chance of parole.” I stared at her in horror. The index room…where I would only ever be able to see the bibliographical information for books but never see the books themselves.

“Mercy,” I pleaded, kneeling as the tears streamed from my eyes. “Anything but the index room!”

It was clear that to her, the matter was now over. “Confiscate her library card and give her an index room pass,” she declared to the uniformed officers as she swept past me.

“Yes, Madame Librarian.”

I have been restricted to the index room for three days now, and I already feel my soul dying. Follow the rules, kids, no matter what time you’re in. Don’t be like me. Don’t be…a library criminal.

This segment of the Library Criminals PSA cycle is brought to you by Librarians Against Time-Space Book Negligence. Don’t read and time travel.

It Rather Hurts, Getting Thrown by the Balls…

Just to show you what I mean by ‘Back Kick’, in case you didn’t get it.

So, I’ve mentioned before that I practice martial arts.  I have been for a long time (approaching twenty years now), and I’ve practiced a few different styles in that time.  However, currently I take (and often help teach) a class in Aikido-Jujitsu Ryu, which is an art that focuses on throws and locks.  I was working with one of our students on some kick defenses (throws that begin with an opponent trying to kick you) that he’s working on.  One of these was a throw off of a back kick (… this should be pretty obvious…) that involved the nage (defender) reaching through the uke’s (attacker) legs and grabbing… well, whatever he can find, then pulling very, very hard.  The uke generally flips and winds up on his back (at least if he’s smart), and even then the technique is very painful.  Generally, as the uke, we make our belts very accessible so that the nage has something to grab, and I did this.  The student did grab my belt, but he got a handful of… well… more delicate things as well… then he pulled… very, very hard.  I spent the next couple of minutes limping and yelling at the student not to apologize for performing a technique correctly.  Honestly, I really don’t know if he was trying to apologize or not… I wasn’t exactly paying attention at the time… but this student has a habit of apologizing whenever he thinks he’s hurt someone.  This happened about twenty-four hours before I wrote this post, and as I write I’m still hurting a little bit. So, why do I bring this up? Well… for one it’s a great story, and seriously, who can resist reading a post with this title.  However, aside from that, a lot of fantasy and action fiction has a… well, let’s just say a creative relationship with the reality of physical injury.

The man who can fight without his tendons…

I was watching the Princess Bride the other day (which is a great movie), and I was amazed (as I always am) to watch Inigo Montoya fight masterfully, even though he had just had a foot of steel rammed through his liver… and both shoulders… yeah.  In writing we can often get away with a lot, but we have to remember two things: 1) some people are going to realize that you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, and 2) what you write influences what people believe. I’ve written about the first issue before. Whatever you’re writing about, if you don’t do your research, and if you don’t take the time to actually think through what you write, then someone, somewhere is going to catch it. Different people will catch different things. A hydrologist might point out that your rivers are impossible. A botanist might catch that you’ve written a jungle plant into a desert setting. A martial artist might catch that the fight you’re describing isn’t actually possible, and a doctor might point out that a person couldn’t actually stand with the wounds you’ve described, much less fight a healthy opponent to a draw. Sometimes you can get away with this, Princess Bride does so because the entire movie has a facetious, slightly ridiculous air, and this fight fits right in.  However, sometimes doesn’t mean always.

So… who exactly is cleaning up after this?

However, what I want to talk about today is responsibility in writing. I don’t know about you, but whenever I watch an action movie in the back of my mind I’m silently calculating the personal and financial tole that the character’s actions inflict. Some movies recognize this and handle it well. The Avengers is a good example of this. Many of the battles in the movie take place in relatively obscure locations where literal to no collateral damage is possible, and even though the final battle in New York City does devastating damage to that icon of American consumerism, this tole is recognized in several ways. 1) The heroes generally do their best to avoid unnecessary destruction of personal property (with the exception of the Hulk), 2) The personal tole is not only recognized, but turned into a integral part of the movie both through the death of Agent Coleson, and through the scenes featuring Captain America (in particular) going out of his way to preserve the lives of the citizenry, 3) The collateral damage that does take place throughout the move is briefly addressed in some of the new commentary featured at the end of the movie, and both voices calling for the characters to do their part in the clean-up, and voices calling for the heroes to be thanked for their actions are heard.

Compare this to Live Free or Die Hard, in which the ‘heroic’ John McClane causes massive collateral damage, apparently without concern, throughout Washington D.C. in an effort to ‘save the world’, and in which the lingering effects massive collateral damage is simply ignored throughout the movie. While some books and movies do a good job of bringing across the notion that actions, even actions taken for nominally ‘right’ reasons, have consequences, many bring across the notion that only the action matters, and the consequences don’t exist… an attitude that can be seen filtering down throughout our culture.

What’dya mean I blew up Washington?

Now, does this mean that movies like Live Free or Die Hard and Princess Bride have no place in modern culture? Absolutely not. While writers, filmmakers, and any other artists have a responsibility to consider the messages that they are presenting, we as consumers also have a responsibility to consider those messages, and determine what place they have in our lives.  Neal Postman argued that television was the great evil because it turned everything into entertainment, and the populace simply swallowed whatever messages were presented (I know I’ve talked about Postman before). He was correct in this, when we do not consider the entertainment that we take in, and make the time to reflect on the messages portrayed through it and their place in our lives, then we destroy ourselves, and the blame for this cannot lie solely on the feet of the producers of entertainment.

However, as a writer, it is your responsibility to present messages that you want your readers enacting in their lives, not simply messages that get their attention and titillate them. While accuracy in the enacting of violence might seem to be a minor issue in this pursuit, it often isn’t.  After all, our culture seems increasingly incapable to distinguish fantasy from reality, and if John McClane can drive a car off a ramp into a helicopter without consequence, what couldn’t we…

Obviously, this is an extreme reaction. A better might be, if the A-Team can fire off a thousand rounds without hurting anyone, then why can’t I (your seven year old son) play with your revolver.  After all, it’s not like guns hurt people. While we must balance realism with appropriateness for our audience, repeatedly presenting unrealistic situations for the sake of appropriateness is just as, if not more, harmful. Just something to think about.