Taking the Psychopath Test

Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test is an enthralling read for anyone who is even the slightest bit odd. (And if you’re reading this, chances are I mean you.) It’s a wild ride, a Philip K. Dickian roller coaster through some of the darkest crevices of human behavior, spiraling out into the macro-levels of societal power structures and human history, and then back into the minutiae of everyday people living lives with the greatest intentions of normalcy. And in its way it is an act of torah, in the universal sense — a paean of love for humanity, of love that looks closely and does not flinch.

Be warned that if you go in and go deep you will probably go a little crazy. And perhaps the great honesty of the book is that it dives in deep here as well, pushes you to reflect on your own crazy, and the expanded crazy of the greater semi-conscious social system that we live in.

It will make you think about your friends, your enemies, your coworkers, your family. I know people who are capable of violence. Some of them great violence. You know people like this, too — maybe you even are one. One of the questions at the heart of this work is one asked by dystopians for centuries, and yet one that seems to get sharper with every increase in our civilization and technology: where do you draw the line around what kind of abnormalities should be eliminated from society, by imprisonment, by medication?

To draw that line is to say that we have found the pattern. We want so badly for there to be a decisive list, for there to be labels and boxes, for things to be clean. We are pattern-seekers. Patterns make a chaotic world comprehensible, they lull us into functionality. And so ultimately, we need books like this, the world needs books like this, that peel back the skin of reality and have a good sticky look inside, to challenge the artificiality of the psychological borders that keep us safe. And as all truly well designed things are, it achieves a life of its own by being entertaining, by taking us from Douglas Hofstadter’s Strange Loop to Bedlam to Mississippi industrial ghost towns, from Wall Street to the brainstem of psychiatry to mass murderers, from Scientology to DSM IV, from opulent Florida mansions to four-year-old children being treated for bipolar disorder.

In the end, once we have gone through the wormhole of inquiry and emerged onto the far side, changed, the concluding question is: if there were a “normal”, truly, would we want to be it? Even considering the consequences of the vast systems around us, their need to contain us, to statistically filter out danger and potential disruption?

Hopefully, the answer remains no. Hell no. My cold dead hand no. God is dead no.

And yet, being the social animals that we are, it is inevitable that we try. And that’s okay. And also a little bit crazy.

A tribute to Piers Anthony, Xanth, and interactivity in fiction

I write this today to set you all free.

By way of disclaimer, and to start the story, as many of you already know, Piers Anthony did me the great honor of reviewing and blurbing Sword of Fire and Sea. My brief email interactions with him were part of a process I went through after selling Sword that helped convince me I was not a charlatan, and that this whole lifelong-dream-of-book thing was actually happening (and would not kill me).

I actually started a letter to Piers many years ago. In 1999 I sold my first short story to James Richey, who has also co-written a book with Piers, and was publishing his anthology Enchanted Realms through Xlibris, one of the earliest print-on-demand publishers, which Piers had invested in as part of his long and awarded efforts to put more power and control in the hands of authors. When I sold that story, I wrote the first half of a letter to Piers, and planned to write the second half when I sold my first novel. Last year I sold the novel — but life had happened, and my original “time capsule” letter was nowhere to be found. I wrote him anyway, explaining what had happened — and tell this to you all as context for how Piers and his work have been inspirational to me for a very long time.

And now Xanth fans are discovering that blurb, and supporting my work as a result. It’s astonishing and humbling. I had no idea just how many Xanth fans were out there — the answer is, on Facebook alone, tens of thousands! And they, too, love Piers Anthony’s work with a passion, from Xanth to Incarnations to the Mode books and beyond.

Like many readers, and especially writers in the modern genre fiction communities, it is peculiarly difficult to get people to admit that they read and enjoyed dozens of Xanth books. (You all know who you are.) As I’ve dug into this, interesting patterns emerge: male readers are more likely to connect with the Incarnations books, while more traditional, older readers of fantasy and science fiction recall A Spell for Chameleon or The Source of Magic. Source was my first Xanth book and my first genre fantasy (which I picked up — you might want to sit down for this — because it had a griffin on the cover), but through these informal surveys I’ve concluded that I’m part of another generation of Xanth fans, one that connects most with the “third generation” characters from Isle of View, Demons Don’t Dream, and the infamous The Color of Her Panties.

It’s easy to think of any of a dozen reasons to dismiss Anthony’s books, and especially Xanth. Piers himself is notoriously cranky, a self-identified ogre, which gets people incensed (I find him robustly and admirably opinionated); the books were and are outrageously popular, which offends the edgy self-conscious nerd culture of fantasy and science fiction; and, probably most fundamentally, there is something about puns that cause people to go instantly into dismissal mode. They are silly; children love them; neither of these things should cause them to be denegrated, and yet they are. We assume for some strange reason that because puns are so entertaining to children that they must be easy. To anyone who seriously thinks this, my advice is: try it. It’s not as easy as it looks. Because it feels effortless, it feels easy to dismiss — but that very ease is its genius, and it is in fact very hard.

Piers, through Xanth, also had an extremely close relationship with his fans, insofar as one can when one has thousands upon thousands of fans. When I was young — quite young, ten years old or so — I wrote him three letters, and he replied to each. This is rather astonishing and is an example of how he was ahead of his time. Now it is expected that an author so interact and cultivate their fans, and as I understand it a few years ago a critic even referred to Anthony’s Author’s Notes as “blogging”.

The majority of the letters Piers received about Xanth he has always said were suggestions for puns that should go into the books. This started early in Xanth’s history and is actually quite important. It emphasizes how the world itself was always interactive — another way in which he was ahead of the curve. As a kid I sent in a pun — “see weed” — and promptly forgot about it, until my younger brother excitedly told me that I had gotten a credit in Faun and Games. I suddenly remembered that long-ago letter, and how I also thought that Grundy the Golem should get together with Chet Centaur and some reverse wood and use Chet’s shrinking ability in reverse, so that he could be full size with Rapunzel — but I digress.

Now that I am embarking upon my own professional novelist career, such as it is in the modern novel market, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it was that made Xanth so powerful. And how it was that a writer with such powerful idea stories — because if you look back into Piers’s earlier publications you see intense old school idea stories of the stuff that science fiction was originally made — could live so long in a world that seemed so comparatively simple. But the extraordinarily clever thing about Xanth is that it is not simple at all. It engages with the fundamentally interactive bones of story and plays with us as readers. It constantly dances between expectation and reversal. There is a deep, whimsical logic to Xanth — a childlike logic of our hearts, one that fulfills our abstract expectations while surprising and delighting us (a breadfruit tree that grows loaves of bread, cherry bomb trees, the concept that everyone is born with a completely unique magical talent). There is a resonance with my binge-reading of Oliver Sacks — a resonance with symbolism and the metaphorical thinking that is actually far more natural to us than “realism” is. And oh, man, if you only knew how complicated the cognitive processes that produce these patterns are! It is the stuff of the wildest, most complex science fiction.

Xanth also captures one of those obvious but strangely elusive qualities of a fantasy world in that it is a place you want to go. I printed up the beautiful painted map of Xanth from its mid-90s hardcovers when I was a kid, put it up on my wall and dreamed of what I’d do if I ever went there (survey says: track down Magician Trent and get him to turn me into a winged centaur). And he did this not once but multiple times, from the fractal worlds of the Mode books to the amazing dual scientific and fantasy worlds of Proton and Phaze from the Apprentice Adept series. Those books in particular I suspect will become increasingly classic over time, powerfully symbolizing as they do the tension in our modern world between the technological and the pastoral.

For years Piers has, in asides, lamented that he has never been appreciated by critics or awards committees (though he does have quite a large pile of Hugo and Nebula nominations). And without question this hasn’t hurt him in the marketplace. Readers love his worlds, and that is one of the highest compliments in our craft. What he has created will live long past his mortal shell and the memories of a list of award recipients.

But these are the lessons that remain hard to learn: just because something is “fun” does not mean it is “simple”; just because a ruleset is “intuitive” does not mean it is “easy” (especially to create!); and just because an audience feels compelled to interact with a form does not mean that it can be well made by a committee. In fact, the opposite is almost always the case. And it takes both great skill and great enlightenment to reach out and become vulnerable to one’s audience, and to ordain their ideas by making them a part of the work.

I love Xanth, and I will never apologize for it.