The Scrolls of Tian Tan, and When the Flow Collides

This month's story:

The Scrolls of Tian Tan (25 minute read)
"There is a scroll inside every one of us."

Read it now (or send to Kindle)

I’ve been busy lately working on this piece for a forthcoming magazine about recursion. It’s an ancient Chinese allegorical tale meets Turing Machines. This is the penultimate draft. Would be happy to get feedback, even if it’s a simple “it’s great” or “it sucks.”

Those of you who know me personally know that I don’t talk publicly about politics. For the moment, I’ve dedicated myself to the craft of stories, so most of my time goes into The Work. But I don’t hide from The Flow, and sometimes, The Work and The Flow collide.

The recent drama surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court and allegations of sexual misconduct was, to put it lightly, a shit show. Polls in the aftermath show how divided voters are, with equal numbers disapproving of how both Republicans and Democrats handled the process.

During the live broadcasts, my friend messaged me saying, “Wow! You really called it with your short story about that biased judge.” It took me a few seconds to understand what they were talking about. It was a story that I wrote a few months ago, and I hadn’t made the connection to Kavanaugh until that very moment (more evidence that humans are bad at remembering historical states of mind—more on this later).

The story is River Rising and you can read it here. It’s a ten minute read, so I’ll wait here until you’re done.

Finished? Great. Now I can spoil it.

It struck me how so many elements were similar:

  • Judge being accused of a crime? Check.

  • Cultural flash point? Check.

  • Real time broadcast? Check.

  • Twitter mobs? Check.

  • A twist at the end where the judge is banished? Okay… maybe not that one.

I wanted to explore the theme of people brainwashing themselves into believing an alternate history of themselves. When provoked about inconvenient truths, the reptilian brain is backed into a corner and attacks.

Whether or not you believe Kavanaugh is guilty of the allegations, the way he reacted during the hearings is deeply revealing. What I saw was a man not unlike the main character in River Rising—a man credibly challenged, clearly lying about something, and reacting in rage. Should he be put in jail? That’s not the question. But I sure as hell know he shouldn’t be sitting in the highest court of our land.

On a recent visit to my parent’s house, I dug up my first computer: an IBM 286. It boasted a whopping 1MB of RAM and had a dedicated (!!!) hard drive with 40MB capacity. After dusting it off and flipping the heavy power switch, I heard the loud click click click of the drive and the harsh beep of the BIOS. I was back in the early 90s. The text crawled slowly across the screen, not as an effect, but because it took milliseconds for the display buffers to fire the pixels in the CRT.

It was still functional. Except for the mouse buttons, but that was okay, because back in those days, programs that supported the mouse had good support for keyboard shortcuts. Desktop apps today could learn a thing or two about accessibility from these programs of yore.

I mused at the games that let me wile away lazy summers—Commander Keen, King’s Quest, Doom. I played a text adventure game that I wrote to teach myself QBasic. It was fun looking at my first lines of code. At the time, I didn’t know about random number generators, so I looped a numerical variable until user input—a poor way to get even distributions.

I vaguely remember writing a story or two back then. My favorite authors at the time were golden age science fiction like Asimov and Bradbury. To my surprise, I found a few dozen stories tucked away in the Lotus Works 1.0 directory, and I felt that I was reading stories penned by an entirely different person.

Okay, so perhaps it had the same quirky humor. Aside from one of the stories, I didn’t remember any of others. But I knew I had spent hours crafting them. One of my favorite notions is that a person separated by vast gaps in time is best understood as two entirely different people. I found the stories immature, funny, full of unnecessary exclamation marks and adverbs, and, at times, deeply bizarre. This was written by an entirely different person—someone thirty years ago that happened to be named James Yu as well.

Much of my digital history from this time had been vanquished to the dust bin—Geocities and Angelfire sites, AIM logs, and tons of dial-up BBS activity where I slayed at door games. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I grew up in the 00s; everything perfectly encapsulated. Perhaps platforms should bake in a rolling delete feature like some third party services.

In any case, I was happy to find my old and terrible fiction. I scrounged up a 3.5” floppy disk...

...and found that the floppy drive was dead.

I didn’t have time to fix it on this trip. Perhaps next time. And even if I lose the files, I’m okay with that. The author is long gone now.

I recently enjoyed Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. It’s a compact novella that grapples with how primitive our modern society can be in practice. It asks the question: what kind of animal are we? There’s a bit of Murakami and Kafka in this one, and, even though it has its flaws, Sayaka paints an absurd picture of the worker bee life.