How Realistic Should A Story Be?

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On Facebook, indie thriller group Brass Catchers asked the following question:

What may strike me as an offensive oversight of a key feature or fact may not even register on another reader’s radar. So >how much do we authors need to worry about getting every aspect right? Are we actually limiting ourselves by fixating >on minutiae? Is the typical reader willing to forgive such mistakes in the name of verisimilitude and an otherwise >engaging storyline?

These are interesting questions without clear-cut answers. Different readers (and, by extension, media consumers) have different expectations. On one end of the spectrum, you have readers who just don’t care about facts so long as the story is enjoyable. On the other, these readers are extremely demanding and will not forgive the slightest deviation from reality. You can’t possibly write to meet everybody’s expectations.

If a writer prefers to make up Cool Awesome Stuff instead of doing the research, he’s going to appeal to the first crowd, and annoy the second. The novel Brass Catchers uses in their post exemplifies this. If a writer decides instead to produce a work of painstaking accuracy and show his work, the latter might appreciate it, but all that effort will be lost on the former — if not bore them altogether. Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger novels delve in-depth into sniping, firearms and ammunition, but most of the jargon will be lost on people who do not come from that world.

What writers can do is to write up to the expectations of their intended audience and the conventions of their chosen genre. The market is huge enough that you don’t have to appeal to everyone – you just have to hook the kind of readers you are writing for. But this does mean you need to know who you are writing for.

Thrillers are notorious for requiring painstaking accuracy to establish verisimilitude. A significant number of thriller readers are police officers and soldiers, former or current. For these people, thrillers reflect aspects of lived experience. They know how firearms work, they know tactics, they know the tools of the trade. They know that the slightest mistake will leave people maimed or dead. They have been trained to accept nothing less than one hundred percent factual accuracy, for their lives depend on knowing how to use a tourniquet, how to clear a room, how to adjust for wind drift over distance, and other such arcana. This mindset transfers into everything they do, including how they read stories. They know that people who use tools, tactics, techniques and procedures incorrectly will die — and they don’t care if these ‘people’ happen to be fictitious characters who exist only inside a story. If writers won’t take the effort to ensure their characters will survive, or if the readers sense that these writers are artificially manipulating the environment or enemies to ensure that their characters survive their mistakes, these readers will believe that the writers either don’t care enough to do the research or not skilled enough to write convincing thrillers. Writers who want to write stories set in such unforgiving milieus must steel themselves to be as conscientious and accurate as their intended audience.

The same expectations apply to historical fiction. People who enjoy historical fiction are likely themselves students of history. They would have immersed themselves in the culture of their favourite time periods, investing time and money into learning everything there is to know about those eras. It may not be lived experience — save for historical reenactors — but these readers will be aware of established facts. Fiction that contravenes these facts through accident or negligence will not resonate with such readers, because the writers have shown that they do not embody the same dedication to historical accuracy as the readers.

While thrillers and historical fiction demand painstaking attention to detail and vast amounts of research, other genres tend to be more forgiving. Romance readers, for example, focus primarily on the romance, while horror readers want to be horrified. Specialist knowledge, such as how firearms work or the proper way to address a high-status lady are not usually important to such stories outside of equally specialist subgenres. These readers would be more likely to forgive such mistakes like taking the safety off a Glock or having a character wear a Colt Single Action Army in a story set in 1870, so long as the rest of the story feels authentic.

Different kinds of readers will have different interests, leading them to focus on different things. Thriller readers pay close attention to tradecraft while romance readers do the same for relationships. Readers are likely to forgive mistakes and fabrications outside their area of interest, but not those within their area of interest.

So what about stories that are not set in the real world?

The Art of Making Up Facts

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Science fiction and fantasy stories are differentiated from other genres by the presence of elements that clearly do not (and may never) exist in the real world, such as ultra-high-technology in the case of sci fi and magic in the case of fantasy. For such genres, writers have to walk the fine line between exercising the imagination and maintaining verisimilitude.

Once again, I think this depends on genre expectations. Or, more precisely, how you want to define your story.

Hard science fiction is defined by adherence to known science. Readers of such fiction may well be scientists themselves. Between genre conventions and reader expectations, writers who want to market their stories as hard sci fi must therefore strive to be as accurate as possible. Indeed, part of the magic of hard science fiction is to how creators can exploit known science to create interesting stories, leading to media like Planetes, Children of a Dead Earth or Corsair.

And yet even hard sci fi is less demanding than thrillers. Readers want the feel of high technology and realism but not necessarily slavish devotion to reality. Even for works lauded as hard sci fi, such as The Expanse or Starship Operators, creators have gotten away with softer science or just making stuff up. For instance, a critical plot sequence in Nemesis Games of the The Expanse series involves terrorists somehow launching swarms of kinetic kill vehicles without anyone noticing, while an episode of Starship Operators involves a showdown with a stealth warship. However, these counterfactual elements will require vast knowledge of niche subjects to detect; for everyday readers and consumers, such subjects do not fall into the category of lived experience of personal research, so they are far more willing to gloss over them — if they are, indeed, aware of such aspects to begin with.

This is not to say that writers shouldn’t do the research, rather that there is simply a bit more wiggle room for stories not set in the present day.

Outside of hard sci fi, factual accuracy matters far less than internal consistency when pertaining to these made-up elements. Readers already know that you are making stuff up, be they nanomachines or fireballs, warp drives or divine arts. They just want these imaginary elements to stay true to the rules established in-story — and for characters and societies to treat these imaginary elements as aspects of their lived experience. So, if magic in a story runs on stored mana and there are people with higher mana than most, than it would naturally lead to the rise of magic users who are defined by their higher-than-average mana and specialisation in magic, and this in turn would organically lead to the rise of magical schools to pass on knowledge and societies to govern the behaviour of such magic users.

However, this rule only applies to imaginary elements. Everything else should still accord with lived experience and known history as far as practical. Thus, you cannot state that Singapore is a part of China, or that a baseline human has four lungs. If a story does require such aspects, then the writer must justify them, placing them firmly in the category of ‘imaginary elements’. Failure to do so makes these elements look like outright mistakes or just plain carelessness, turning off readers who care about such things.

Between Fact and Fiction

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Writers are like alchemists, balancing fact and fiction to create stories that will resonate with their intended audience. Stories with a strong grounding in fact resonate with readers, allowing you to carry them off into your story world. At the very least, stories must accurately depict the quintessence of the genre they fall into: thrillers must reflect tradecraft, romance must reflect relationships, hard science fiction must reflect science. Stories that fail to meet genre conventions and reader expectations will not resonate with the intended audience, and will not be respected.

I think a reasonable standard of realism that will please everyone but the most hardened pro-realism or pro-imagination zealots is to ensure that key story elements should not contradict the targeted readers’ lived experience and known historical facts without justification. Such justification can be as complex as creating entirely new branches of science, or as simple as signalling to the reader that the story is alternate history / science fiction / fantasy or some other genre, depending on the needs of the story and the tastes of the audience. Beyond that, writers are free to exercise their imagination to the fullest.

Thoughts on the Isekai Genre

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Fantasy writers need to solve two problems. They need to create a believable fantasy world significantly different from ours that allows for fantasy elements. But this world and the people who live in it can’t be so fantastic that they alienate their audience.

The isekai story offers a neat solution.

‘Isekai’ is Japanese for ‘other world’ or ‘parallel world’. In this other world, the author is free to dream up societies, fantasy races, magic and other fantastical elements without being hemmed in by such minor things as history or the laws of physics. To create a connection with modern readers, the author plucks a character or a group of characters from the real world (typically 21st century Japan) and plunks them into the parallel world. Adventures and hijinks follow.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Three Kinds of Isekai Stories

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I’ve noticed three different types of isekai stories: transportation, reincarnation and video game.

Transportation stories involve traversable gateways or abductions. The protagonist may be mysteriously transported to an alternate world by means unknown to everyone. He may discover a portal, accidentally or otherwise, that leads into a parallel world. Or someone from that parallel world forcibly transports the protagonist to that world using summoning magic. Examples of such stories are Now and Then, Here and There, featuring a boy who is transported to a hellish dystopia, and Gate – Jietai Kare no Chi Nite, Kaku Tatakeri, in which a gateway to another world mysteriously appears in Ginza.

In such transportation tales, the protagonist must learn to adapt to his new environment while taking on quests and other missions. Heroes summoned from our world are typically selected to defeat a demon king or some other evil being, and must survive perils and overcome obstacles to achieve his goal. Heroes who pass through a gateway that allows free two-way travel typically serve as a bridge between this world and the other, passing back and forth to exchange or transfer technology, goods and knowledge. More realistic tales have the hero learn the local language and/or the locals learning Japanese; in others, the transportation process mysteriously grants the hero the ability to speak in tongues or the locals mysteriously speak fluent Japanese.

Reincarnation tales involve protagonists being reborn in fantasy worlds, usually retaining or recalling their memories of their past lives. This neatly sidesteps the question of how the protagonist can understand the natives of the fantasy world, since he would have grown up learning and speaking the language. Reincarnated protagonists will tend to use their knowledge to single-handedly spark an industrial revolution, drive themselves towards excellence, or otherwise gain an advantage over others. Moshuku Tensei features a NEET who decides to make the most of his new life after being reborn in a parallel world, while Isekai Tensei Soudouki has a protagonist with three souls in his mind, all of whom use their respective knowledge to build a commercial empire and drag the rest of the land into modernity.

In video game stories, in addition to being plopped into a fantasy world, the protagonist discovers that the world runs on video game logic. Status windows, levels, unique skills, and health and mana points abound. In some stories, the protagonist was heavily involved in the game, perhaps as a player or game developer. In others, the protagonist doesn’t have such an advantage. Sword Art Online is perhaps the most well-known of this time, starring protagonists who have their consciousnesses transported to a game world, and quickly learn that death in the game means death in the real world.

As these worlds run on video game logic, realism tends to fly out the window. Either the transportation process grants the protagonist the ability to speak in tongues or everyone speaks Japanese. A person’s ability to fight, craft objects, recover from wounds and other such matters are governed largely by his stats. The transportation process may even grant special powers. Reading video game isekai stories can become the equivalent of reading a role playing game.

Cheat Characters

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Common to almost all isekai protagonists is that they possess a special power or knowledge after arrival, or the protagonist is already special prior to arrival. These cheats, as they are known in the genre, automatically elevate the protagonist above everybody else.

At the far end of the scale, the protagonist becomes stupendously overpowered early on. In Death March kara Hajimaru Isekai Kyousoukyouku, protagonist Satou is transported to a parallel world based on the game he is developing, and discovers he can cast a meteor shower three times. He promptly utilises the meteor showers to wipe out an army of orcs. In that instant, he hits the level cap and secures useful gear and vast treasures, effectively turning him into a walking god.

At the lower end, in Isekai Tensei Soudouki, protagonist Balud Cornelius shares his body with the soul of Warring States commander Oka Sadatoshi and otaku high schooler Oka Masaharu. None of them have any special powers, but commander Oka is an apex warrior while otaku Oka retains his knowledge of the twenty-first century. Together, the trio accomplish such wonders as inventing shampoo and treating cholera, leaving their mark on the world.

In the case of Gate, Itami Yoji is a First Lieutenant in the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force. He is a mundane human, but behind him is the might of the JGSDF. Through the gate, the JGSDF can funnel troops and resources into the parallel world, allowing them to dominate the land. Thus, the might of the all-powerful Empire easily collapses in the face of modern combined arms, and nigh-invincible dragons fall before explosives and Panzerfaust 3 rockets. Here, modern military technology is the superpower.

A superpowered isekai protagonist, when mishandled, turn the story into a clumsy self-insert power fantasy. The reader can put himself into the shoes of the protagonist and imagine that he is now the lord of the story universe. However, when the protagonist is so hilariously overpowered that nothing in existence can stand up to him, action scenes lose all drama. There is no suspense, no doubt that he will lose, no possibility that he will ever be defeated in battle. Boredom follows.

If an isekai story must have a superpowered MC, there are three ways to get around this. The first is to make the protagonist powerful enough to evoke the feel of a superhero fantasy, but not so much that he becomes a Boring Invincible Hero. Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari, Naofumi Iwatani has unmatched defensive ability, but thanks to the world’s video game logic, he has virtually no attack power and he is still not invulnerable. As he is forced to rely on his squishy companions to do the fighting, there remains the element of drama and suspense.

The second is to reverse the superpowered MC trope: give the protagonist a seemingly useless power, if at all, and force him to make his way in the world. Arifurte Shokugyou de Sekai Saikyou features Nagumo Hajime, a luckless young man transported to a parallel world only to find that he was granted mediocre stats and a useless class. After plummeting into the depths of a monster-filled dungeon, Nagumo must rely on all his wits to survive.

The last approach is to play the overpowered character trope for all its worth. Hellsing got away with starring an immortal and invincible vampire as the protagonist through his force of character. In the case of Jaryuu Tensei, the protagonist is reincarnated as a dragon. In his dragon form, he is so overpowered that nothing his enemies throw at him can do so much as leave a mark on his scales. The story becomes defined by his empathy towards everyone around him in spite of being an evil dragon instead of how he steamrolls over his enemies. While the outcome of action scenes in such cases are preordained, a flashy, cocky or humorous protagonist can inject emotional beats into the sequence, staving off boredom.

What’s So Special About Isekai?

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What’s the key difference between a standard fantasy story and an isekai story? The presence of someone from the real world. Isekai stories need to explore the fantasy world through the lens of the modern-day character. However, handled improperly, the isekai trope becomes a clumsy tool.

In *Isekai Houtei – Rebuttal Barrister*, Yuuto Shiba is a washed-up wannabe barrister. After he dies in a traffic accident, he is transported to a parallel world. In this world, the god has decreed that the Kingdom of Luanolde shall implement the law of Japan, and that Yuuto shall be a barrister. Quite mysteriously, everyone speaks Japanese (or Yuuto is suddenly fluent in the local language).

Such a forced introduction makes it transparently clear that the author is basically writing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney WITH ELVES! Fortunately, the author ensures there is a clash of cultures to fuel drama and make the isekai elements relevant. In his first case, Yuuto must defend a half-elf, in a land that persecutes elves, against criminal charges laid by a noble, whose life and dignity the kingdom views as greater than that of a commoner. Later, he discovers more unpleasantness, such as the actual age of majority in the kingdom, that forces him to use his wits instead of just rote regurgitation of the law.

Without this collision of cultures, an isekai story just becomes a standard fantasy story. The isekai element becomes just a tool to lure in the reader and artificially create empathy.

By contrast the manga adaptation of *Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari* makes almost no references to Naofumi’s history as a displaced 21st century Japanese male. Aside from the occasional reminder about where he and the other heroes came from, Naofumi’s history plays no part in the story. We do not see him struggling to learn the local language or customs, no confusion over social protocols, no dietary incompatibilities or taboos, no significant employment of modern knowledge and technology, no indication that Naofumi came from a different world. If the Naofumi’s backstory were changed to ‘wanderer from a distant land’ or ‘teenager from the frontier seeking his fortune’, there would be no significant impact on the plot or character. The isekai element here is used simply to justify the fantasy elements, the video game logic, and to handwave Naofumi’s shield and defensive abilities – and even those can be justified using other tropes.

Isekai stories comprise of two key elements: a parallel world with fantastical elements distinct from our own, and a protagonist or protagonists who come from our world. For stories in this vein to realise their full potential, they must balance both halves to create a whole, while avoiding the pitfalls that lead to self-insert power fantasies. Done right, an isekai story shows the reader the best of both worlds.

You Are Not Your Weaknesses

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It’s never been easier to define yourself as a disabled minority. Autism, PTSD, agoraphobia, rape survivor, any and all of a long litany of modern-day maladies. You don’t even need an actual medical diagnosis; just slap the label on yourself, proclaim it to all and sundry as loudly and as often as you can, and only the brave will dare dispute you. If you can pass for an oppressed minority de jour–female, transexual, homosexual, racial or religious minority–more underprivileged points for you. Go on some special places on Tumblr and you’ll see people competing to slap as many labels on themselves: vegan poly autistic queer pangender otherkin diagnosed with ADHD, BPD, PTSD.

But what kind of person defines himself by dividing himself down to the smallest he can be?

Every gratuitous label represents a degradation of the human spirit. It is a narcissistic celebration of weakness. Define yourself by what you can’t do and you tell the world that you are a loser. Identify yourself with special snowflake labels and you tell the world you only crave attention.

I qualify for a number of tumblrina psuedo-labels myself. I will never use them where they are not appropriate. I do not even define myself as autistic. I choose different indicators: author, journalist, thinker, blogger.

I define myself by what I do.

Every declaration of what you won’t or can’t do tells the world that you are not interested in delivering value to others. Thus, the world will not take interest in you. Yes, you can get pity and attention with those labels, but they hold no water with people outside of those narrow circles, and feelgood brings no value to the world or to yourself. Every declaration of what you do and have done tells the world what you can, have and will achieve. It attracts like-minded people to you and bends the universe to your will.

I have achieved far more by drawing people’s attention to what I do and what I have done than to my weaknesses. So can you.

You Are Not Your Wounds

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Never before has the modern world rewarded people for being weak. All they have to do is stick those labels on themselves. Now that they are part of an oppressed underclass, they can organise and demand special rights and privileges. If someone disagrees with them, all they have to do is shout, “You are a privileged cis het homophobic/misogynistic/transphobic/Islamophobic/racist/nazi bigot!”.

This is the logic of social justice and the strategy of cultural Marxism. These people exploit social scripts of compassion, kindness, empathy and charity. By declaring themselves as part of some oppressed minority, they can claim that their demands are legitimate and draw attention to themselves. Anyone who says otherwise with them is a class enemy who must be destroyed.

In-groupers think these labels are power. They think lets them take and take and take from society without ever having to give back. But this is only possible in a society willing to give in. The winds of culture are changing. People are recognising these tactics and the parasites who use them for what they are. When society stops caring about them, what are they left with?

Nothing but shrieks and howls.

With that said, there are plenty of people out there who have experienced trauma, crippling diseases and disabilities, and genuinely need help. I am not unsympathetic. Social justice warriors have appropriated their wounds to wear as armour, and the siren song of power and pity is everywhere in the First World.

But you are more than your wounds. You are more than what you can’t do. If you want to live life fully, you cannot define yourself by the lesser part of who you are.

If you seek to excel, you must overcome them. Mind blindness, social deficits and phobias, sensory issues, what-have-you, these are not things that define you. I’ve seen too many people using them as excuses to justify why they aren’t getting jobs, why they aren’t achieving their goals, why they are wallowing in self-pity and like being losers.

Wounds are not to be picked at and paraded to the world. They are to be healed and learned from. If you want to be great you must step beyond your limits. Identify your weaknesses and reframe them. They are not things holding you back; they are obstacles to be overcome. Know your deficiencies, seek out professional advice to resolve them, and put in the work. Day by day, week by week, month by month, chip away at your weaknesses until they no longer bother you.

This can be terrifying. If you have identified yourself as ‘X’ your entire life, the prospect of changing it could make you feel adrift in the world. And the sheer amount of work needed can be daunting. One method is to identify something better to work towards, something that aspires you to act instead of dragging you into sluggishness. If you are fat, marvel at the beauty and strength of a well-conditioned human body, and work to get there. If you are poor, imagine what you can accomplish if you can increase your wealth tenfold or a hundredfold, and work to get there. Every day, find something that inspires you to reach your goals and take steps towards that, and remove yourself from people and things that prevent you from getting there.

Aspire to be your best self and work towards it.

Be Great

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You’re probably not going to overcome all your weaknesses. That’s okay.

As I grow older my sensory issues have grown more acute. Just today I went shopping for pens that glided smoothly across paper without transferring resistance up into my fingers. When I train with sticks at full power indoors I have to have hearing protection on standby. Once, when shopping for cold weather clothing, I ran my fingers across synthetic down jacket. It elicited a screeching white sensation of disgust overlaid with yellow spikes, a feeling so powerful that it blanked out my brain. These are things that have never happened to me before.

It may not be possible to completely overcome your disabilities. What you can do is strive to achieve a minimum standard of functionality. As a teen I could not stand human contact; today I can power through empty-hand martial arts training and remain functional. When I was younger I had significant social deficits; today I can maintain a healthy relationship with my fiancee. I learned to adapt and overcome, and I’m not done yet.

The wise understand their limits. You may not fully overcome your deficiencies and your weaknesses. What you can do is raise yourself to a level where they will not hamper you, allowing you to exercise your strengths and become the best person you can be.

You are not your weaknesses. You are the sum of your achievements and will become your future glories. Heal from your wounds and mitigate your flaws so they will not get in the way of your strengths. Present the greater part of yourself and leave your mark on the world.

Anime Analysis: Demi-chan wa Kataritai

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Cute monster girls doing cute things.

It’s tempting to summarise Demi-chan wa Kataritai (Interviews with Monster Girls) with that line, but the anime puts a fresh spin on an otherwise well-worn trope. An adaptation of the manga of the same name, Demi-chan wa Kataritai is a slice of life anime that posits the existence of demi-humans and explores the lives of four demi-humans in a high school in modern-day Japan.

As a slice of life anime, Demi-chan wa Kataritai has no overarching plot, no villains to defeat, no extended conflict to overcome. Without any of the elements that drive a plot, the franchise relies on its characters to sell the series.

And it does that in spades.

Four Monster Girls Walk Into A School…

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Takahashi Tetsuo is a high school biology teacher whose dearest wish is to meet demi-humans and learn more about him. By a stroke of fortune, when the school year begins, four demi-humans enter his school. He seeks them out and talks to them, leading to the titular interviews with monster girls.

Genki girl Takanashi Hikari is a vampire who drives much of the story’s comedic moments. By contrast, Machi Kyoko is a quiet and intelligent dullahan who secretly wishes for more human contact. Being a yuki-onna, Kusakabe Yuki represents Japanese folklore in the series. The final monster girl is Sato Sakie, a shy and awkward succubus who joins the school as a math teacher.

In this world, demi-humans represent a minority of the population (Machi is just one of three dullahans in existence), but at least in Japan they are accepted as regular people with special needs. The conflict between the demi-humans’ natures and their needs drive their respective arcs.

Hikari is the most well-adjusted demi-human, and she is the glue that bonds the rest of the cast. Her drama arc centres on her relationship with her twin sister Himari, who is a regular human, and her interactions with her fellow demi-humans and teachers. Machi, being a dullahan, has her head constantly detached from her body (it’s suggested that her neck is a wormhole joining her head and body), requiring her to learn how to adapt to the modern world. She longs for more social contact, but people feel awkward around her because of her head. By contrast, Kusakabe believes that she can accidentally harm people around her, and avoids getting too close to anyone. Sato’s arc is a variation of that theme: being a succubus, her body produces aphrodisiacs that drive men wild. She wonders if she will ever have a romantic relationship, and comes to believe that Takahashi is immune to her powers. (Spoiler: he isn’t.)

Demi-chan wa Kataritai finely balances the monster girls’ dual natures, highlighting both their monster and girl selves. Throughout the series, the audience is constantly reminded of their biology, expressed through their human selves. Hikari and Kusakabe are susceptible to heat, and as the story moves into summer, they start complaining about the sun and retreat to Takahashi’s air-conditioned biology preparation room. Kusakabe herself has a constantly cool body and needs to manage her body temperature. Being a dullahan, Machi feels safe and comforted when someone is holding her head. Sato wishes to be a responsible adult and teacher, so she dresses plainly and avoids touching males — and her lack of experience interacting with males comes painfully to the forefront when interacting with Takahashi.

This tension between the monster and girl selves drives the story, allowing Takahashi to shine.

Great Teacher Takahashi

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Lesser studios and creators would have treated the series as a harem story with a perverted pushover as the protagonist. Instead, both the anime and manga portray Takahashi as a teacher who is genuinely concerned about his students. He thinks, talks and acts like a teacher, offering counselling when they are troubled and scolding them when they underperform. In Sato’s case, he treats her like a colleague, going out of his way to hide his reaction to her aphrodisiac.

Like the rest of the cast, Demi-chan wa Kataritai constantly reminds the audience of Takahashi’s physiology and character. Takahashi is buff and strong: he is occasionally seen carrying heavy loads, and among the cast he carries Machi’s head the most. When interviewing the demi-humans, he showcases his knowledge of biology, and sets up impromptu experiments to learn more about them. When interacting with Sato, we see his iron will in resisting her aphrodisiac — and he actually succeeds. Mostly.

Takahashi’s portrayal as a competent, (literally) strong male is refreshing in an industry marked by bland and/or weak and/or perverted male protagonists. The default Western approach of having a Strong Female Character demonstrate her ‘strength’ by tearing down a male is conspicuously absent — the one time this happens the male was a creep who got was coming to him. Indeed, everybody is portrayed positively in the series, supporting each other instead of tearing them down. In modern-day entertainment, this is an unusual approach, and all the more refreshing for its positivity.

From Character, Tone

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The worldbuilding and character-building lead to a relaxed, light-hearted tone. None of the monster girls are monsters; they simply have biological quirks. Vampires don’t need to feed on human blood, yuki-onna can’t cause fatal cold spells, succubi don’t need to seduce men to survive, and dullahans aren’t innately dangerously. None of the demi-humans face widespread societal discrimination; indeed, all of them receive help from sympathetic authority figures.

Because of this approach, the drama in the series is heavily character-focused, revolving around how the main cast interact with other people. As the setting is limited to a high school context, there are no wider conflicts with higher stakes. With every character doing their best to accommodate and support each other, the moments of drama and teenage angst are easily and plausibly resolved within the length of a chapter instead of being drawn out. There are also plenty of comedic moments, further softening the tone and reinforcing Hikari’s role as the joker of the crew.

Demi-chan wa Kataritai demonstrates how character-building and worldbuilding influences the tone of a story. The story minimises opportunities for discrimination, oppression and physical conflict, focusing instead of social interactions and relationships. The series deftly balances the characters’ physiology and personality to produce a cheery, leisurely slice-of-life story punctuated with moments of drama and humour. It is highly recommended for people who want to see light-hearted slice-of-life tales and for creators looking to study the intersection between worldbuilding, character-building and story-telling.

Image credits:

  1. https://myanimelist.net/anime/33988/Demi-chan_wa_Kataritai
  2. http://elvortex.com/guia-de-animes-invierno-2017-parte-1/
  3. https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2016-09-10/interviews-with-monster-girls-demi-chan-wa-kataritai-tv-anime-teaser-introduces-characters/.106315
  4. https://myanimelist.net/anime/33988/Demi-chan_wa_Kataritai/pics

Marital Rape Laws Expose Men to Abuse

 

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Two days ago, the Straits Times reported an impending review of Singapore’s law on marital rape to “ensure that married women have the same protection against violence as unmarried women”. Singapore’s legal code is built on English Common Law, which includes immunity from prosecution for men who have sex with their wives.

Removal of this immunity would expose the other half of humanity to legal jeopardy and manipulation.

Marriage is the recognition and legitimisation of a relationship between two parties. Marriage is a public, binding and lasting declaration of consent to sexual intercourse. Rape within marriage cannot exist.

The Other Half of the Sky

This review of marital rape is framed as ‘women’s rights’. In other words, it codifies the myth that men are the sole perpetrators of rape and women the sole victims—a myth that Singapore continues to perpetuate by defining rape as a crime committed only by men on women. It sweeps aside men who were coerced to penetrate someone else with their body parts. It exposes married men to false rape accusations and place undue legal burden on them.

The report says:

The Government may be wary that abolishing immunity may lead to false allegations of rape, or open up criminal proceedings that are overly intrusive to families.
But these are issues that can be worked out through consulting various stakeholders.

I am not convinced. Abolishing immunity will lead to false allegations. If a woman feels her husband offended her and wants to spite him, all she has to do is to have sex with him one night and accuse him of marital rape in the morning.

Since the ‘evidence’ states there was sexual contact, the onus is now on the husband to prove that he didn’t rape her or threaten to use violence unless she has sex with him. This is compounded by the fact that Singapore does not have Miranda rights. Suspects only have access to lawyers after the initial interview—and if the police and the public prosecutor decide to press charges, an innocent man is out of luck. It will be tempting for irresponsible police officers to pressure the husband into confessing for a crime he didn’t commit to speedily clear cases and to ‘protect women’. Regardless of what happens, the man will be dragged through the mud.

And if the woman were the manipulative sort, the criminal investigation is all the evidence she needs to file for divorce and a rich alimony.

If a system makes it easy for unscrupulous women to cry rape, it will happen. In America, between 6 to 8% of rape accusations are false. In India, it is 53%. Even if an allegation is proven false, the investigation would have caused great deal of emotional, financial and psychological harm to the accused.

‘Consulting various stakeholders’ is meaningless. The government did not consult stakeholders when formulating the White Paper on Population, its policies on new media, or, indeed, anything it have already made up their mind to achieve. The government may claim it will solicit feedback, but whether it will listen is something else. With the People’s Action Party retaining absolute dominance in Parliament, if the PAP believes something should be law, it will be law, regardless of stakeholders think—and nothing will stop them.

The Question No One Asks

Why do you want to be married to someone you don’t want to have sex with?

This is the question no one is asking about marital rape. Marriage is a partnership involving sexual rights and responsibilities, and holds both parties to uphold their duties of fulfilling the other’s sexual needs and desires. If either party consistently demonstrates an unwillingness to accommodate the other, the partnership is broken. In such a state, there are three legitimate responses: acceptance and adaptation, therapy and reconciliation, or divorce.

If you want the benefits of marriage, you must also fulfil the duties of marriage. If you do not want to fulfil the duties of marriage, then the marriage is over.

Marriage is a lasting declaration of consent. Defining marital rape as a crime opens the possibility of the wife unilaterally deciding to withdraw consent at any time without necessarily informing the husband and exposing him to criminal investigation. This isn’t just irresponsible and unfair; it opens the possibility for abuse.

If a woman no longer consents to have sex with her husband, she should revoke consent through divorce. If a woman believes that her husband is so violent that he will use force to coerce her into sex, then she should either divorce him and seek help, or better yet, not marry him at all. If a woman’s husband insists on having sex with her when she doesn’t feel up to it and she feels it is not right, she should either discuss it with him to resolve the issue, or file for divorce. Instead of abdicating all responsibility to the state, she should exercise it for herself.

Law is Not the Answer

The law is not a first resort. It is the last. Before entering a marriage, the parties involved must be certain that they are both willing to fulfil the other’s sexual needs. If either partner is not, rushing into marriage is a set-up for disaster. If either or both parties no longer wish to meet these obligations within a marriage, and do not wish to compromise or work around it, the responsible thing to do is to file for divorce.

A law that places undue burden on men is a law that will be abused. The law is not a hammer with which to beat the other party into psychological submission, nor to extract benefits from a former husband, nor to spite him. It is reserved for punishing and deterring actual criminals, not to take sides in a domestic dispute.

The answer to the problem of a person coercing his spouse into sex is not more law. It is teaching men and women the responsibilities of marriage and imparting life and relationship skills. It is educating people to recognise abusers and dissuading them from marrying such people. It is reaching out to abuse victims and getting them to leave abusers as quickly as possible.

In other words, it is teaching men and women to be responsible adults.

Can post-cyberpunk fiction be superversive?

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“The important part in Cyberpunk is just that: it’s not the technology, it’s the feel. It’s getting that dark, gritty, rain-wet street feeling but at the same time getting that rock and roll, lost and desperate and dangerous quality. Cyberpunk is about that interface between people and technology, but not in that transhumanist way where it’s all about the technology changing or improving them. It’s about how people use things… Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity. It’s about saving yourself.”
Mike Pondsmith

Cyberpunk is the literature of subversion. There are no clean, shiny and prosperous utopian futures promised in old-school science fiction; here you find the dirty streets of dystopias born from the unholy union of untrammeled megacorporations and state power. Technology doesn’t elevate people; it twists them into man-machine hybrids, exposes their secrets for all to see, and creates fresh prisons for the mind and body. Heroes are dead and forgotten; in their places are marginalised, alienated loners at civilisation motivated only by self-preservation. Where the best of science fiction tries to take humanity to the stars, cyberpunk drags humanity into the gritty, nihilistic underbelly of the world.

By contrast, superversive fiction is fiction for a more civilised age. Where subversive fiction undermines, superversive fiction builds back up. The best superversive fiction is a celebration of the values and ideas that underpin civilisation: family, law and order, morality, religion, tradition. To quote from Russell Newquist, superversive fiction is marked by at least some of the following:

Heroes who are actually heroic. They don’t have to be heroic all of the time, or even most of the time. But when the time comes, they must actually be heroic.

People are basically good. Not all the time, not in every case – and certainly not every person. But basically.

Good Wins. Not every time – a good story always has setbacks in it. But evil winning is most definitely not superversive.

True love is real. Again, maybe not for everybody. But it’s real.

Beauty is real. It’s ok to show the warts. But show the beauty, too.

The transcendent is awesome. There’s no obligation to show any particular religion, or even really religion at all. But superversive literature should show the glory and splendor of the wider universe around us, and it should leave us in awe of it.

Family is good and important. Not every family, sure. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Civilization is better than barbarism. This doesn’t mean barbarians are evil, or that they aren’t fun. But in the end, they’re… well, barbaric.

Strength, courage, honor, beauty, truth, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility are virtues. This can be demonstrated by showing people breaking the virtues. But they must be recognized as virtues.

There is hope. Superversive stories should never leave the reader feeling despair.

Cyberpunk is opposed to superversive fiction at every level. There are no heroes, only blackhearted characters either performing fell deeds or manipulating people into performing them. Love and beauty are either alien or transient, and functional families are unheard of. There is no hope of transcendence, except maybe as a ghost in a machine. The primary characters reject civilisation and its virtues, instead living by their own codes at the edge of society. Cyberpunk fiction rarely has happy endings, and those that do tend to be bittersweet or temporary.

Blend everything together and you have a recipe for darkness-induced audience apathy.

Meaningful conflict is the heart of drama. Readers need to empathise with characters. Actions should not entirely be in vain. Evil is punished, good prevails, civilisation endures or evolves. Without these elements, it becomes exceedingly hard for a reader to care. Why should a reader care about a self-destructive misanthropic loner who remains a self-destructive misanthropic loner? Why should a reader be concerned about the fate of an oppressive dystopia? Why should a reader cheer on a traitor, a liar or a murderer with no redeeming traits? With such societies and characters, it takes great skill to hook a reader and keep him invested in the story — a skill few cyberpunk writers, if any, have. Indeed, it is telling that the authors once associated with cyberpunk no longer write cyberpunk.

Is there room for superversive cyberpunk?

Probably not, but that’s what post-cyberpunk is for.

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Epitomised by works like Ghost in the Shell, post-cyberpunk draws upon the cyberpunk ethos and places its own spin on things. Shaped by the technological development and societal attitudes of the 21st century, post-cyberpunk represents an evolution of cyberpunk without necessarily retaining its nihilistic post-modern attitudes.

As Mike Pondsmith says, cyberpunk isn’t about the technology, but the feel. It’s the contrast of high tech and low life, of desperate struggles in the dark, of how people use and abuse technology. Even with this aesthetic there is room for superversion.

Ghost in the Shell (the anime and manga, NOT the live-action movie) features a secret police officer who protects a future Japan against terrorists and corrupt bureaucrats while exploring heavy philosophical themes. Psycho-Pass stars an idealistic police officer who struggles to retain her humanity as she defends a dystopian police state. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its sequel Mankind Divided features Adam Jensen, a former police officer and later counterterror agent who uncovers a conspiracy to rule the world. Watch_Dogs features hackers fighting a powerful megacorp and the omnipresent surveillance system it has created.

These stories are all called cyberpunk in the popular press. They certainly share the same ethos as older cyberpunk works. But instead of descending into the depths of nihilism, at the end of these stories their worlds are just a little better and brighter, and the characters emerge with their spirits tested but unbowed. Victories may be small, but they are meaningful to the characters and the story world.

Post-cyberpunk fiction can be bent to the ends of superversion without sacrificing the core aesthetic that defines it. In a dark, oppressive world, kindness and virtue shine brilliantly. Tsunemori Akane’s humanity and idealism stands in stark contrast to the inhumanity and utilitarianism of the Sibyl System. Adam Jensen can choose to spare every enemy he meets. By creating sharp contrasts of virtue and vice, humanity and alienation, idealism and cynicism, post-cyberpunk is able to unmask the heart of darkness while still making a stand for truth and beauty and justice.

Like cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk is still dark and gritty and dystopic. There is still plenty of chrome and tech, and there are no end of villains scheming in the night. But here, there is also room for hope. Ruthless megacorporations, politicians and criminals are held to account or punished for their misdeeds. Civilisation chugs along, and ordinary people are better able to live in peace. The Leviathan may not be slain, but you still retain your soul, and even an all-powerful state can be convinced to reform itself for the better. You may not be able to save humanity, but you can still save yourself and everyone else around you, and lay the foundations for a better tomorrow.

Post-cyberpunk may be as black as pitch, but the darkness accentuates the brilliance of a candle.

And the flame can be passed from candle to candle, fiction to consumer, heart to heart.


First image: Cyberpunk 2077 trailer
Second image: Psycho-pass anime poster

Retrospective: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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When I first watched Ghost in the Shell, I was impressed by the fluid animations, the detailed visuals, the melancholic atmosphere and the slick action scenes. A dozen years later, after watching it again, I picked up the finer points my teenage self didn’t: the post-cyberpunk ethos, the characterisation, the tight storytelling, and most of all, the reversal of emphasis on philosophy and action.

When put together, Ghost in the Shell is a philosophy film disguised as a sci fi thriller.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Post-Cyberpunk, NOT Cyberpunk

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It has often been claimed that Ghost in the Shell is a cyberpunk franchise. It’s more accurately described as post-cyberpunk. Major Kusanagi Motoko and her colleagues at Section 9 are members of a secret police agency. Their job is to uphold the current order. They may face corrupt government officials, terrorists and cybercriminals, but they act under the colour of the law — even if the government cannot officially sanction their deeds.

Cyberpunk stories depict amoral, nihilistic underworlds populated by unscrupulous hackers, slick corporate representatives, hardboiled cops, well-heeled businessmen. Cyberpunk media such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash or the Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop role-playing games, emphasise the punk of cyberpunk. They focus on high tech and low life, powerful megacorporations and corrupt governments, and the people caught in the games of power and wealth. Cyberpunk is about how money and politics and technology conspire to degrade the human soul — and how people scrape out a living at the ragged edge of an increasingly dystopian society while trying to retain their sense of self.

Ghost in the Shell sets itself apart by making its protagonists members of a secret police organisation. This allows the protagonists to come into contact with the coterie of cybercrime archetypes, but it also charges the protagonists with upholding civilisation instead of eroding it. By being government agents, they will naturally have access to state-of-the-art tech and training, letting them plausibly have an edge over their adversaries, while giving them multiple opportunities to encounter black market tech. They see at first hand how predators use technology to hollow out the human spirit — but instead of dirtying their hands, they take a stand against it.

Post-cyberpunk contrasts those who use technology to uphold civilisation against those who abuse it for their own ends. The characters of Ghost in the Shell inhabit a world filled with corruption and dirty politics, but Section 9 still tries to serve and protect the people. Unlike traditional cyberpunk works that shows how technology dehumanises people, Ghost in the Shell aims to examine whether technology can elevate humanity, and the cost of doing so.

Merging Character and Plot

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In the original manga, Kusanagi was a vivacious woman who enjoyed practical jokes, had a casual approach to romance and violence, and had a wide range of emotional affect. Batou was a support character who played the role of comic relief, but otherwise sank into the background until the focus was no longer on Kusanagi.

The anime radically changed the characters. Kusanagi was now serious and focused. She rarely shows emotions, but when she does it emphasises the gravity of a scene. Instead of sticking her tongue at people behind their backs, she is more likely to exchange philosophical argument. Batou, in turn, was promoted to the role of her unofficial second-in-command, assisting her during key scenes and also voicing deep thoughts of his own. Now he is both a shooter and a thinker, able to match Kusanagi and drive both the action and the dialogue.

This character shift elevates the anime above the manga. Manga Section 9 comes off as a unit of cowboys just a few steps away from being loose cannons, who have no qualms turning their skills on their allies and superiors on a whim, and only slightly more skilled than the criminals they face. Anime Section 9 is an elite group of operators who take the time to ponder their humanity.

The anime characters created a somber, introspective atmosphere lacking in the manga, conforming with the anime’s philosophical core. With Anime Kusanagi and Anime Batou portrayed as intellectual cyborg shooters, it now makes sense for them to contemplate their navels when they’re not chasing bad guys. This, in turn, makes the ending believable.

In the manga, the Puppet Master abruptly launches into a pages-long exposition on life and transmission of information. It is a jarring departure from a manga otherwise filled with gunfire and cyberwarfare but little explicit discussion of higher concepts. In the anime, the exposition is reduced to a minimum — and since the characters are already established as deep thinkers who also act decisively, the concluding scene fits with the overall tone and direction of the anime.

The manga characters were action-oriented; the reader either had to tease out philosophy from the plot, or the mangaka had to break up the action to make the themes and philosophy explicit. The anime characters give voice to the philosophy explored in the franchise, showcasing their characters and explicitly drawing out the ideas the filmmaker is exploring. The latter approach makes the philosophy more accessible and digestible to the audience — and in doing so, raised Ghost in the Shell above other sci fi stories that merely used cybertech as stage dressing.

Lean Storytelling

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Ghost in the Shell does more in 82 minutes than what other films try to accomplish in over 2 hours. The anime achieves this through a minimalist cast and efficient storytelling.

The only extraneous scene takes place in the middle of the film, showcasing daily life in 2029 Tokyo. Otherwise, every sequence is tightly plotted, with ramifications down the line. Of great importance is the use of technology: every key bit of technology is used at least twice, first to introduce the audience to the tech, and then to facilitate the plot.

The opening scene has Kusanagi using thermoptic camouflage to assassinate a bad guy. It’s an iconic moment that defines the franchise, introducing the tech and the murky politics of the world. Later, while preparing for a mission, Kusanagi tells Togusa that she brought him aboard Section 9 because he has the least amount of cybernetic enhancements and Kusanagi values his different perspective. During that mission, their target uses thermoptic camouflage to evade pursuit, suggesting that the antagonists also have access to such tech, and showing that such camouflage can defeat Section 9’s sensors. When the Puppet Master appears, thermoptic camouflage plays a critical role in aiding the antagonists’ plans, and this allows Togusa to demonstrate his out-of-the-box thinking to detect the invisible intruders, enabling the final showdown later on.

In the movie, technology drives the plot and characterisation. We see this again in the use of high velocity rounds. During the chase scene, the target loads his submachine gun with high velocity rounds to disable Section 9’s truck. Batou later comments on how the ammunition damaged the weapon’s internals. Later, Kusanagi employs HV ammo against a spider tank, but takes the trouble to swap out the barrel of her rifle — and even so, the HV rounds don’t do squat.

The chase scene sets up the existence of HV ammunition and its limitations. This prepares the viewer for Kusanagi using them later and sets up the expectation that the HV rounds would tear the tank apart. Her taking the time to swap out her weapon parts solidifies her characterisation as an operator. When the HV bullets bounce off the tank, it undermines the viewers’ expectations and justifies the following scene which has her try to hack the tank’s cyberbrain, in the process ripping off most of her limbs. This in turn makes the climax possible, showing why she can’t simply evade the snipers targeting her, and ratchets up the tension further.

By compressing technology, characterisation and plot into as few scenes as possible, the director made the philosophy scenes work. When discussing the philosophy and implications of technology in the work, the characters don’t stand around and exchange lines in a context-free vacuum. They always talk philosophy in transitional scenes.

In these scenes, the characters are either on the way to somewhere or waiting for something to happen. One exchange takes place while Kusanagi and Togusa are on the road, preparing for a mission; another takes place on a boat when Kusanagi and Batou are off-duty and awaiting orders; a third is inside an elevator as Section 9 prepares to head out.

In other movies, these scenes would be short takes, empty of beats. Here, the director used the opportunity to fill the gap by delving into matters related to prior scenes, making the philosophy feel organic instead of being forced on the audience. It also eliminates the need to have separate talky scenes dedicated solely to philosophy.

Ghost in the Shell is an exemplar of lean storytelling and a masterclass in the craft of maximising the efficiency of every scene.

Reversing Action and Philosophy

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In most movies, action scenes are the highlight of the film. Scenes in between the action are crafted to lead up to the combat.

Ghost in the Shell reverses this logic: the action scenes lead to the philosophy.

Conventional films feature lengthy action sequences featuring kinetic gun battles, furious hand-to-hand combat and waves of mooks, creating spectacles that hook the audience and keep them watching. The payoff of the film is watching the protagonist overcome the antagonist through wit or violence (or both), saving the day and winning the girl. Any deep thought is incidental.

Ghost in the Shell, by contrast, treats action scenes differently, with long periods of building-up and short bursts of overwhelming violence. The action scenes are much shorter and feature a far lower body count than conventional action films, because they do not exist to create spectacle, but to set up the scenes where characters ponder their humanity and their place in the world. The assassination in the beginning reveal the political system of future Japan and sets the stage for the rest of the plot; the chase scene later on reveals the possibility of false memories, in turn leading to Batou and Kusanagi musing on what makes them human; the final showdown creates the setting for the actual denouement.

Unlike traditional movie logic, the true antagonists of Ghost in the Shell aren’t directly dealt with. Indeed, at the end Batou describes the resolution as a ‘stalemate’. This wouldn’t work in a film that places spectacle first: audiences would expect nothing less than total victory after experiencing one action extravaganza after another that consistently raises the emotional tenor and stakes of the story. However, in a story that places philosophy first, underscored by an introspective atmosphere, it is appropriate: the true resolution lies with the merging of the Puppet Master and Kusanagi to create a higher life form. It is the ultimate payoff for an audience already primed for a movie that promises to explore transcendental matters in the guise of sci-fi action. The stalemate is an afterthought, but it fits into the overall cyberpunk culture, in which there are no major lasting victories, just personal successes at the individual level.

Philosophy with a Dash of Action

 

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In an industry defined by visuals and spectacle, Ghost in the Shell dares to do something different. While it employs a high standard of visual quality, instead of relying on the Hollywood standbys of intense action scenes, Ghost in the Shell delivered philosophy with a dash of action. It made full use of its sci fi mileu, setting up scenarios that organically explore the implications of these technologies and characters who combine combat skills with intellect.

Lesser filmmakers would have stumbled, either by making the philosophy ultra-abstract and the action scenes boring, or by concentrating on action and neglecting deep thought. Ghost in the Shell finds the perfect balance between the two, cementing its position as a masterpiece.

All images from Ghost in the Shell (1996) and publicity materials.

5 Life Lessons for Autists

I won’t call myself an autist. Not yet. I don’t have a formal diagnosis. Nonetheless, I display many of the classic signs of autism: deficits in speech and communication, repetitive behaviours and rigid rituals, hyper-focus on areas of interest. And the Big Three: poor verbal and non-verbal communication skills, impaired social skills, hyper-reactive senses.

I have experienced the same challenges many autistic people have faced. Many of these challenges persist. Even so, I have met many people along the way who have illuminated the path and provided sage advice, people who have helped me make life a little brighter, a little more bearable, a little more worth living.

For National Autism Awareness Month, here are five lessons I have learned along the way.

1. Endurance

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You ready to go the distance?

The measure of a human is how he endures the unendurable and continues to function.

The world is a noisy, swirling, chaotic kinetic maelstrom of sound and motion and odour and tastes and textures. My synaesthesia marries them in unions of audible colour, tactile light and visible smells. Couple them with hyper-reactive senses and the weight of the world is too much to bear.

The slightest human caress was fire against my skin, a pat on the head needles in my mind. Singlish, the true lingua franca of my country, is an ugly irritating spiky blob on the best of days and physically painful at the worst. The screech of train brakes emits painful yellow sparks and a lingering metallic aftertaste. Every clack of a mechanical keyboard is a sharpened sledgehammer to the brain. When I took up kali training, every clash of stick on stick was an explosion of brilliant white spikes.
And the people. People yammer on and on and on, creating floods of inconsequential noise, suddenly touching others and assuming it is benign, holding people to unspoken and unarticulated standards of conduct.

There is only so much the brain can process. So much energy a person has. There will come a breaking point, when the bulwarks fail and the world comes crashing in. When every sound is a stiletto to the ear, every sight sandpaper scraping against the eye, every texture the scratching of a thousand ragged fingernails in the imperceptible space between flesh and bone. It is a sensation that is there and not there, firing nerves in places without them, an infiltration and corruption of the interstitial places between skull and cerebrospinal fluid and brain. It is the corrosion of sense and reason and the descent of chaos and pain.

Humans call it a meltdown.

Running is easy. Secluding yourself in your room and hiding under the covers is pleasant. All too often it is the only sane option left in an insane world.

But there will be times when that option is not available. If you’re in a boardroom meeting, suddenly leaving will jeopardise your career. If you’re standing in a military formation, breaking discipline will lead to collective punishment. If you’re in a crowded elevator frozen between floors, you have nowhere to go.

There’s only one option.

Endure.

Even if you feel that the world is closing in on your mind, you must endure. If that is the least of bad options, endure. Success goes not to the man who quits at the first sign of discomfort, but the one who endures and pushes through pain to the other side.

Autists can—and should—armour themselves against overwhelming sensory experiences however they can. I wrap my sticks in heavy tape to blunt the noise of impact. I carry Flare Audio Isolate titanium earplugs all the time. I choose clothes and accessories and equipment with an eye towards minimal sensory impact. I work in quiet rooms and stay away from noise.

But there is only so much you can do. If you wish to interact with the world, much less leave your mark on it, you must engage it fully. You must open yourself to the unceasing pandemonium that is life in the modern age. If you will not blind or deafen yourself, life will seep through in all its wonder and chaos.

You must endure.

And in enduring, you learn that it is not a fixed capacity.

As you expose yourself to greater and more frequent sounds, you desensitise yourself to them. You learn how to mitigate them, how to cope with them, how to keep functioning. You learn to recognise the signs of an autistic meltdown and either head off the symptoms or leave the area. The truest test is to function at the ragged edge of your abilities, to keep thinking and talking and responding on the threshold of a meltdown—or in the middle of one.

It is not easy, but it is necessary if you live in a bustling city like I do.

To achieve great rewards one must endure great hardships. If you would do more than merely exist, you must push through pain and suffering to achieve your goals. You must develop the ability to endure.

2. You Are Not Special

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Snowflakes melt. Don’t be one.

If you’re autistic, chances are you have an all-consuming interest. It could be anything: prime numbers, train schedules, memorising pi, baking pies, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the complete genealogy and medical history of a flock of sheep, the search for a Grand Unified Theory.

It doesn’t matter.

Your special interests do not make you special. If you can’t find a way to contribute to people’s lives through your special interest, you are not special.

Writing remains my singular focus in life, but I also pursued knowledge in other fields, moving from one to another in days or weeks or months. In primary school I could discuss atomic power, King Arthur and the human immune system. As a teenager I could hold court on terminal ballistics, the discography of the Bee Gees and epistemology.

None of it mattered.

Nobody was interested in such arcana. Nobody benefited from my discourses and lectures and writings. Ergo, no value was delivered through these obsessions.

It’s fine to pursue these interests as a hobby. But if you can’t find and manifest the intersection between your interests and what people desire, nobody will care about them.

Autistics will feel distressed when they cannot pursue their interests. It is tempting to drop everything to focus solely on them. But that is attachment, and attachment is the root of suffering. If you deliver no value to others, people are not going to support you or pay you or otherwise help you continue existing so you can continue to pursue your interests.

The ideal, of course, is to make a living through your passions. To get there, you must act. You cannot limit yourself to stuffing your head with information or delivering lectures to unreceptive audiences. You must act. You must be the best in your field, identify missing needs and fill them. You must be give people a reason to give you money. In my case, there is a resurging demand for excellent fiction, specially science fiction and fantasy, and I intend to fill that gap. Likewise, there is high demand for articles about self-improvement, travel, life hacks, martial arts, the craft of writing and more—and my record on Steemit speaks for itself.

It is nice to imagine that one can make a living from one’s interests, but it isn’t always so. I would love to be a professional fiction writer, but that’s not on the horizon anytime soon. There was a time when I could simply write all day and not worry about anything else, but those days are over. I have bills to pay and responsibilities to uphold. I had to scale back my writing, again and again, to accommodate reality. There will come a day when I will be a professional writer, when I can support myself through my interests…but for now, life demands its due.

Your special interests do not make you special. What you do with them does.

3. Scripts Rule Society

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How much of this scene is on autopilot?

If you will not take holy orders and seclude yourself in a hermitage, or live by yourself alone in the wilderness, you must interact with people. It is an inescapable facet of life. If you want friends and lovers and children, if you want to buy goods and services, if you want to live in the modern world with all its trappings, you have to talk to people.

Social interaction is the chief weakness of most autistics. You don’t have to be a social butterfly, but you can at least be functional in society.

Fortunately, society runs on social scripts.

Social scripts are predictable and expectable responses to specific circumstances. People who know each other exchange greetings when they meet. If someone does another wrong, the wronged party expects an apology and the offending party issues one. Societies enforce taboos and teach their members how to behave in public and private. Organisations have specific procedures and jargon so everyone is on the same page.

Imagine an intricate machine filled with uncountable numbers of enmeshed gears rotating in unison. That is society. Social scripts, especially codes of etiquette, are the lubricants that keep everything turning smoothly. They allow complete strangers to interact each other, and intimates to predict what the other party will say or do.

Social scripts enable mutual understanding and minimise conflict. Most people are unaware of these scripts. Autistics cannot afford to be—and, at the same time, can craft scripts of their own to pre-empt difficulties. For example, when buying groceries, the standard script takes six steps:

  1. Set groceries on counter
  2. Wait for cashier to register every sale and declare the price
  3. Check the price and make payment
  4. Receive change or card as necessary
  5. Double-check all items and gather them up
  6. Leave

To regular people, buying groceries is a simple, mindless transaction. It took me years to figure out how to do it smoothly. A neurotypical person may see groceries as an undifferentiated mass of stuff. For me, every bag, every good, every coin, every card, every person, every gesture, every sound, every perceivable action and object and event is a discrete item that must be logged and tracked and moved into appropriate positions or otherwise accounted for.

For autistic people, the mere act of buying groceries is a recipe for mental congestion. And that’s before accounting for off-script events.

It’s the little things: the cashier talking to you, children chatting behind you, dropping coins, incorrect change, a cash register noisier than usual, a bellicose customer. Neurotypical people may not have a problem with it, but autists with their minds busy processing the transaction will not be able to respond effectively.

If you can break down a script, you can pre-empt it and create your own scripts to your advantage. On the way to the counter you can start calculating the bill. As the cashier keys in the sales, you can prepare payment. When you pay the cashier you can take the time to check items. This frees up cognitive capacity to check items and prepare to go.

A script allows you to work with minimal cognitive load. It is a reliable heuristic governing human behaviour. Life is difficult enough; no need to make it worse

4. Empathy is A Skill

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If you can talk and think you can do this.

Neurotypical people instinctively learn social skills through everyday interaction. Autists are challenged to consciously learn them.

Empathy is a skill. Charm is a skill. All kinds of interpersonal communication are skills. Skills can be learned. If you are not brain-damaged, you can pick up the ability to communicate effectively in society.

Social scripts are useful, but they only apply to specific contexts. When events go off-script, you need to respond smoothly and appropriately. Social skills allow you to respond with a minimal of disruption. They allow you to broaden your horizons and spontaneously interact with people in multiple environments. To be an integral part of society, you must know how to talk to people. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.

There are hundreds of books and websites out there that teach people, specifically autistic people, social skills, empathy and charm. After learning them, put them into practice. Start with social scripts, then graduate to unplanned encounters. Work your way up to ever-increasing levels of difficulty.

To highly introverted autists, this is extremely difficult. It requires obsessive study, the willingness to put theory into practice, the recognition that failure is inevitable and the will to get back up and try again anyway. It requires endurance and courage and sheer bloody-mindedness to keep trying. It is exhausting, but this is why you manage your energy and develop endurance.

And the rewards?

Friends, family, a career. The ability to be a functional member of society, to share your thoughts and aspirations and emotions, to find companionship, to divide sorrow and multiply joy. To live, fully and completely, in the world.

It is difficult, but it is worth it.

5. Change Yourself, Change the World

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Start with the man in the mirror

The world is not made for autists.

It’s simple demographics. Most people are neurotypical, ergo they shape society per their thought patterns, their quirks, their foibles. Many of them don’t know how to interact with autistics, many don’t want to, many don’t even care.

It’s nice to call for autism awareness. It’s nice to call for neurodiversity. It’s nice to call for autism rights. People who want to be nice will try their best to accommodate the needs of autists.

Not everyone will.

Nobody can change the world. Not by themselves.

Nobody can force people to change. Not without guns and concentration camps and the tools of dictatorship. People who demand that everybody change to accommodate them without themselves being willing to compromise are little more than bullies and petty tyrants.

You can’t change people without coercion but you can always change yourself.

You can choose many things: how you feel about events, how you act in response to stimuli, whether to change or stand fast.
Choose growth. Choose change. Choose to be the best person you can be. Choose to surround yourself with people who bring out your best.

Do this, and the world will change with you.

Summing Up

I lied.

These five lessons aren’t just for autistics. They are for everybody. Autists need them the most, but they apply to neurotypicals too.

No matter where you stand on the autistic spectrum, if you are on the spectrum at all, you are as human as me and everyone else. Growth is universal to all humans. All I have done is lay bare a few aspects of growth and placed them in a frame. Frame them a different way and the lessons still apply.

Life awaiting.

Embrace it.