Jim Mastro

Writing, and all things in between

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Have You Been Here Before?

The title of this post is a purposeful riff on the title of my previous posts that discussed the possibility that beings from another planet (or planets) visited Earth in the past. This post, however, is of a decidedly more metaphysical nature.

Every major religion (and perhaps every religion), past and present, holds as one of its central tenets that some form of consciousness survives physical death. The idea is universal enough that I don’t think I need to give any examples. For now, let’s just assume all these religions are right.

Certainly there is some anecdotal evidence to support the idea, such as the many documented cases of people reporting near-death-experiences (NDEs). (Actually, in the name of accuracy, they should be called “death experiences,” because the people are clinically dead — for a while.) Not everyone believes in their veracity, but there are enough cases where people have been revived and have related information they couldn’t possibly have known, had their consciousness not traveled to a distant location when they were dead, that it is difficult to discount the concept out of hand.

Obviously, in order for consciousness to survive death, there has to be a “soul” or “spirit” or whatever you might want to call it. The great eastern religions maintain that upon leaving the body the soul either joins the universal soul (Taoism) or else reincarnates, coming back to the world in some form time and time again (Buddhism, Hinduism). The three major monotheistic religions (Islam, Judaism, Christianity) maintain that you get one shot. One life, one chance to make good, then it’s heaven or hell, depending on the choices you make.

What evidence is there for that? None, really. No one has ever come back from a NDE to say “Whoa! I hooked up with Saint Peter and even though I couldn’t understand what he was saying (I think he was speaking Aramaic or something), heaven looks really awesome!” Or, “Yikes! the dude really does have horns and a forked tail! Man I am going to church from now on!” No, we simply have to take the word of the religious texts and the clergymen who interpret them for us (setting aside for now the idea that this dogma is one of the ways these religions maintain control over their adherents).

On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that we come back to this world repeatedly, living a different life in a different body each time. There are numerous anecdotal accounts of people recalling past lives under hypnosis, or having true deja vu experiences at places they’ve never been before, or waking up from a brain injury speaking a different language fluently. There are also well-documented cases of young children knowing intimate details about people they’ve never met and distant places they’ve never  even heard of, much less visited. These are things they could not possibly have known in their current lives. The evidence here is compelling, but it’s still anecdotal, and from a scientific standpoint anecdotal evidence is really no evidence at all.

Fortunately, there is actually scientific evidence (or, at least, evidence collected through the scientific method). A few decades ago, a psychologist named Helen Wambach began using past life regression as a therapeutic tool, not because she was particularly interested in it or believed it was real, but because she found it useful for helping her patients. However, she found herself intrigued by the compelling and detailed stories her patients were recounting. She also found it surprising that none of the patients she hypnotically regressed claimed to have been famous or important people. If the past life stories were fantasies, as critics claimed, Wambach expected her patients to contrive elaborate stories about being kings or otherwise historically important figures. Instead, the lives they described were mundane and unassuming. Intrigued by this, she decided to apply the scientific method to past life regression, to see if there was any truth to these stories of reincarnation.

There are certain things we know about the past, from biology, history, and archeology. We know that the ratio of men to women has remained a fairly constant 1:1 through time. We know the kinds of foods people ate in different parts of the world, and how that changed over time. We know what clothes they wore, from animal skins to rough cloth to finely woven fabrics. We know what tools they used. In the evolution of eating utensils, for instance, the fork started with two tines, went to three tines decades later, and finally to the four tines we see most often today. All of these things are verifiable.

In her study, Dr. Wambach hypnotized people not individually but in groups of ten or fifty or even a hundred. By the end of the study, she had hypnotized thousands. These were people from all walks of life and from all over America, all of them strangers to each other. And she didn’t just have them tell their past life stories. In fact, she wasn’t really interested in their stories. Instead, for each time period she took them to, she asked simple, mundane, testable questions. What is your sex? What is the color of your skin? What are you eating? What utensils are you using? What are you wearing? What kind of structure are you living in? At the end of the study she collated the data and compared them to the historical and archeological record. And they matched.


In their current lives, like most of us, few of her subjects knew much, if anything, about these mundane facets of history. Who knew how the fork evolved over time? I certainly didn’t. And there was no way for all those thousands of strangers from all over the country to have colluded with each other, over the course of years, in order to provide Wambach with the exact same answers to these questions for each historical period. Nor was it possible for them to discuss their answers with each other ahead of each session, not only because they had never met, but also because no one knew what the questions would be, and no one except Dr. Wambach knew what time periods she would be researching at each session.

For me, this is compelling evidence. Intrigued by the evidence in her book, I had myself hypnotically regressed, and I experienced snippets of lives that were as real as the one I’m living now. Yes, I have come to believe that reincarnation exists.

Unfortunately, it raises an uncomfortable question: If we live multiple lives, as both men and women, at different times and places, and as members of different races, then who exactly are we?

If our consciousness does return to the physical world time and time again to inhabit different lives, does that make us extraterrestrial parasites, inhabiting and manipulating helpless humans like something out of Star Trek? Or are we symbionts that need human vitality for our existence, and in return we provide our hosts with consciousness, conscience, and motivation? Again, straight out of Star Trek.

Or are we instead part of a universal consciousness, complicit in the development and evolution of life, creating sentient life forms so we can leave the spiritual world and experience the physical?

Of these three possibilities, only the last one seems makes any sense to me. If we were parasites or symbionts, why would we enter a body (or stay in one) that was doomed to live a life of misery and pain? However, if our short physical lives are really only a small part of a much larger existence, well, it would be as though we were actors going on stage, and actors sometimes play some heart-wrenching parts. But then the question is: Why? Why do we bother?

For that, I have no answer.

For those who are interested, Dr. Wambach’s book is titled Reliving Past Lives: The Evidence Under Hypnosis. It’s long out of print, but you can still find used copies online.


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Perfection (And: Where To Find It)

I had to re-blog this amazing, short post by James Radcliffe. He may or may not agree with me, but his conclusion is the very definition of Zen.


I spent this weekend in the mountains.

It may sound strange but I get a lot of work done in the hills. Ideas for pieces of music and writing; revelations about love, life, truth and beauty – you name it – they all seem to come more easily than when I’m staying in the city.

I guess it could be the silence or the wide open spaces; it could be the change in environment or the result of amore primal mode of living. Hell, it could be divine intervention for all I know.

Whatever the reason, I always have a notebook ready.

This micro-blog is one of my favorite captures from my time away:

View original post 279 more words

Liberating Creativity – Re-Blog

To all you writers out there, this blog by Kevin Brennan is well worth your time:

“Last March I developed a long essay on the state of fiction these days, as I see it — particularly the fiction we associate with the indie market. It’s probably thought of mainly as genre fiction, though there’s a mixed bag of material out there, available predominantly as ebooks from Amazon.com. It struck me — still strikes me, in fact — that the tools offered by online publishing present an enormous opportunity that’s not being taken advantage of by writers, artistic freedom being the biggest elephant in the room.”

Click here to read more.

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The Best Laid Plans

It has been quite some time since I last posted, but the reason is simple: I have been completely immersed in the final book of my science fiction trilogy. The first draft is now done. I tend to be rather eclectic in this blog, but just so you know, this post is just about writing, specifically about the journey I undertook to write a trilogy, and what I have learned about the craft in the process. Fair warning: there are no pretty pictures; just a lot of words, which I hope are interesting enough that pictures will not be required.

The amazing thing about writing is that no matter how much you do and no matter how long you do it, there is always more to learn. Language is the most complex thing we humans do, and writing is the most complex aspect of language. I could live to be 300 and write books the entire time and never know everything there is to know about language — or about writing. That complexity is deceptive, though. Since we apparently acquire language effortlessly as infants and cannot remember a time when we couldn’t communicate with words, language seems to be a simple thing. Everyone does it, and most people take it for granted.

(Note that I did not say we “learn” language. Until the age of six or so, we acquire language in much the same way we acquire the cells in our growing body. After that, though, if we want to learn another language, it is definitely a learning process. To wait until high school to require a foreign language is nuts; it goes against everything we know about language acquisition. Foreign language training should start in pre-school. Kindergarten at the latest. Our school system is stuck in the Nineteenth Century — but that’s another blog post.)

One of my writing instructors in college said that if you don’t have a plan in mind when you start a novel, you’ll find that you have written yourself into a corner by page 100. I didn’t believe him. I thought, “How can you know that will happen, much less by page 100? What’s so special about page 100?”

Well, it turns out he was right. For the first novel I started (and which I may yet return to — I still like the premise), I did not have a plan, and sure enough, by page 100 I was stuck. So when I decided to write a children’s science fiction novel, I knew I needed a plan. I bought a book called The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, by Evan Marshall. The book presents a formula for designing an effective novel. Now, normally I abhor formulas. When I was teaching Freshman English in college, there would always be a significant fraction of students who would attempt to fulfill the assignments I gave them with the infamous “5-paragraph essay.” It drove me nuts. The person who came up with the idea of the 5-paragraph essay as the ideal model for that form of writing should be forced to sit in a room and read nothing but freshman 5-paragraph essays for a week — and then EAT them! They’re horrible, contrived, and formulaic in the extreme. So you can imagine that I was dubious about using a formula to design a novel.

Nonetheless, I had to start somewhere. As it turns out, I didn’t stick precisely to the formula, since it was based on multiple point-of-view characters, and my novel had only one POV. I also opted for third-person limited, to keep the structure simple. The reader knew only what the protagonist knew. All that being said, Marshall at least gave me a rough structure, and he taught me the importance of mapping out a novel completely before starting. In the first book of the trilogy, The Talisman of Elam, I knew what was going to happen from beginning to end (except for minor details). It made the actual writing process very straightforward, and I didn’t get stuck at page 100 — or anywhere else for that matter.

Originally I had intended to write only one novel, but in mapping out the story structure I discovered there was no way I could get it all in one book. That’s when I decided to go for a trilogy. So I mapped out the whole, epic story, then broke it down into three parts and mapped the first book in more detail using Marshall’s techniques.

It worked well. Once the mapping was done, it only took me a couple of months to write the first draft. So naturally, I took the same approach to writing the second book, The Hand of Osiris. If you’ve written a trilogy — or even if you’ve only looked closely at trilogies — you can see there is a definite structure to them. The whole trilogy is like a single story, with a beginning, middle, and end. The first book is the beginning, the second the middle, and the third the end that contains the big climax and denouement. But each book must also stand alone as a complete story, with its own beginning, middle, and end. This makes the middle book of a trilogy rather challenging, because typically the middle part of a story is where tension builds as we head toward the climax, but the excitement of the beginning is gone, and we already know the big climax is not going to happen here. It’s just a series of obstacles the protagonist must meet and overcome, with each obstacle more difficult than the last. Finding a compelling beginning and a compelling climax to the middle part of the story, thereby making the middle stand on its own as a complete story, is not easy. At least, it wasn’t for me. That difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the second book you are constrained by what happened in the first. You can’t do just anything. You’ve established your fictional world and the direction of the narrative, so you don’t have the same freedom as you did in the first.

So it should come as no surprise that mapping out the second book was harder than the first, and it took longer. Nonetheless, the Marshall system worked again. I stuck to the script I developed and was able to write the first draft fairly quickly. (Interestingly, though I think the writing is better in the second book, and though I think the story becomes more interesting, people seem to like the first book better. Perhaps because the first book is more clearly good vs. evil and there are no blurred lines. Things become more complicated and more nuanced in book 2.)

If you are constrained in book 2 by what you did in book 1, imagine how constrained you are in book 3! In fact, I found that mapping out book 3 was much more difficult than I had thought it was going to be. I knew where I needed to start and I knew where I needed to end up, but the middle part gave me fits. Finally, I finished mapping it out and began to write. And then a very funny thing happened. The writing went flat. The characters went flat. It was almost as though they had taken on lives of their own (something I felt very strongly in book 2) and were telling me that I was making them do things they didn’t want to do. It just wasn’t working. By page 100 (there’s that magic number again! I wonder if that’s coincidence?!) the whole thing felt dead. It was boring to write, which I knew meant it would be boring to read. That is worse than death for a story.

So I quit. I threw away those first 100 pages and I threw away the plan I had worked so hard on and I started over knowing only where I would begin and where I needed to end. In essence, I let the characters drive the story. Once I did that, the story came alive and took off. I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with it. As I noted earlier, I have now finished the first draft and have begun the first revision. The characters took me places I had absolutely NO idea I’d be going, but in the end it worked. I’m very excited about it. I think this is the best book yet, and I think the story will boggle a few minds. But like all writers, I won’t really know until readers get their hands on it.

I’m looking forward to that, and to finally finishing this project that has occupied me for the past ten years. I’m already thinking about the next novel, a completely unrelated fantasy.

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Earth as seen from Antarctica

Some things take on a certain resonance when viewed from a windblown, polar desert. Since I arrived here at McMurdo Station a little over two weeks ago, the weather has been, shall we say, challenging. It has been an endless parade of storms, sometimes with wind in excess of 50 mph, frigid temperatures (-10F), and blowing snow. There have been times when I haven’t been able to see more than a few feet in front of me. One must be particularly vigilant for large vehicles (as in bulldozers and forklifts) and blowing debris in conditions like those.

It is here that I have just finished reading my signed copy of “Earth,” by David Brin. As I have come to expect from Mr. Brin, the novel is imaginative, thought-provoking, thrilling, and exceptionally well written. And frightening, because it invokes a future world that is all too possible. In fact, in some respects, I would say inevitable. It is perhaps because I read it in Antarctica that I have been pondering the future–both the fictional one as well as the impending real one–in rather stark terms. One cannot spend as much time as I have here in the bitter cold and desolation without coming to appreciate the generally life-friendly environment found elsewhere on our little planet. One also comes to an understanding, on a very fundamental level, that the rest of the planet could look like Antarctica–if not in frigidity, then certainly in desolation and lifelessness–if we’re not careful.

And we are not careful.

I have to wonder about us humans. Individually, we are rather smart. As a species, not so much. Oh, we are certainly clever. We invent all kinds of new technologies and modify our environment on a scale that has only happened once before in Earth’s history, when cyanobacteria changed the atmosphere from neutral to oxidative. But that took eons. We’ve made our changes in, literally, the blink of an eye. And the changes have not been good.

As a biologist, I understand the basic imperatives that motivate all living things: pass on DNA to the next generation; gather resources to facilitate this activity. The more resources, the better, in most cases. When humans take this to the extreme (which, frankly, most humans would do, given the opportunity), it’s called greed. But other animals are greedy too, when they have the option. I’ve had dogs who are never satisfied with the toys they have, they want all the toys in your hand or hidden in your pockets. Some animals, when given access to all the food they can imagine, will eat themselves sick. “More, more, and more” seems to be the default position.

I had hoped, once upon a time in my youthful optimism, that we humans would see the bigger picture and moderate that destructive influence. We certainly have the capacity to do so. We have the brain power. But we seem unable to harness that brain power to see the bigger picture and make decisions that will ensure our survival. Just the opposite, in fact.

Look at how fishermen have historically mismanaged the resources that provide their livelihoods. They will notice how a fish stock is diminishing, but instead of getting together and coming to an agreement designed to ensure the fish stock remains robust and sustainable, they try to outcompete each other to grab the last little bits, to get as much money as possible out of it before it’s gone. And then when it’s gone, they blame the seals, or the whales, or sport fishermen, or the government. The only reason some fish stocks still exist is because that government stepped in and imposed much-hated regulations. It is only because of those regulations that any fish are left at all! In some cases, the regulations came too late and certain fish stocks became economically extinct.

And now we have well-moneyed and powerful oil and coal barons who fight tooth and nail to maintain their lucrative industries, vociferously denying the negative impacts of their industries even as those negative impacts become more and more obvious. They have used their money and power to purchase politicians–purchase our republic, actually–essentially removing the only impediment to oligarchic control: a functioning, democratic government. They are not the only ones, of course. Pharmaceutical industries, agritech industries (like Monsanto), “healthcare” giants, and others have done the same, and their damage to our political and physical health should not be underestimated. But no other industry has the long-term, potentially devastating influence of the fossil fuel industry.

Sure, we are all guilty to an extent. Most of us drive cars, purchase consumer goods manufactured far away and shipped across oceans, and burn fuel to stay warm. But in many cases, we have little choice. Decisions made by industry and government limit our choices, even though we decry those limits and press for more reasonable alternatives. There are those who have sounded the alarm for decades. Thirty years ago I wrote an essay (published in the San Diego Union-Tribune) in which I offered this analogy: If you place a culture of bacteria in a petri dish and leave it to its own devices, one of two things will happen–the bacteria will multiply until all the food is used up, then they will all die, or, if they are of a particular sort, they will poison themselves with their own waste products, and they all die. Sometimes both things happen at once.

So how are humans different?

Clearly, we are not. That is glaringly obvious. Any living creature will multiply to the greatest extent possible, and it is only external factors (such as predators) that keep the population under control. We no longer have any predators, other than ourselves. But populations freed of predation will succumb to the bacteria scenario, or their populations will be brought under control by the two last-ditch methods the ecosystem has: mass starvation and density-dependent disease. It is the height of hubris to not understand, despite all our technology, that we are subject to the same controls. The current Ebola crisis is just the latest that mother nature has sent our way. It won’t be the last. (Unless, of course, the Ebola virus evolves the ability to transmit itself in the air while retaining its virulence.) And starvation, well, that’s where this conversation is now headed.

About 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian, there took place the worst of several mass extinction events in Earth’s history. About 90% of all life, on land and in the ocean, perished. The event, which took a thousand years or so, was apparently caused by massive volcanic activity in the area now called Siberia. Volcanoes spewed huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, which warmed the globe by a process that any five-year-old can understand, but that which deliberately escapes the comprehension of certain rich and powerful (some would say stupid) people. Warming reached a point at the end of the Permian where pent-up methane was released from permafrost and from the deep ocean and polar seas. At that point, the feedback loop went into overdrive. The globe warmed as much as 10-12 degrees Celsius, drought ravaged the land, acidification ravaged the seas, and pretty much everything died.

That same process, which took place because of natural events over the course of thousands of years, is happening again. Only this time it is happening with a rapidity that ought to boggle anyone’s mind. It is a rapidity that is absolutely unprecedented in Earth’s history. It takes a broader perspective to see this, and humans seem generally limited in their ability to see beyond the next day, or the next quarterly report. But if you understand biology and ecology, if you understand geological processes, if you understand the grand reach of time that characterizes our planet’s history and development, it become very clear indeed. In the geological equivalent of a nanosecond, we are irrevocably altering our environment in a way that is making it incapable of supporting human life.

Brin’s book paints this kind of picture, but in that fictional account there is still hope. I am not so sanguine. I know what happens when a massive system is pushed out of balance. It seeks a new balance, and it reaches it sooner or later, but in most cases that new balance is dramatically different than the starting point.

Earth’s climate is just such a massive system, and massive systems have a lot of inertia. Like a huge freight train, it take a lot to get it moving, but once it’s in motion, it is not stopping anytime soon. We have put Earth’s climate into motion. The train has left the station. We might have been able to moderate the effects and stave off the worst of it a few decades ago, when wise and prescient people first sounded the alarm. That opportunity is lost. Researchers have already measured methane seeping out of permafrost, and people have seen methane bubbling up from the Artic ocean. Even knowing this, we continue to make the situation worse. Carbon emissions are predicted to increase by 2.3% worldwide next year and beyond.

At some point, they will begin to decrease, not because we have suddenly wised up, but because the effects of our foolishness and profligacy will finally start to be felt, in diminished economic activity, diminished food production, and diminished population. That point is coming sooner than anyone wants to believe.

People may decry what I am saying as “doomsday hysteria.” It is nothing of the sort. As a scientist and philosopher, I can look at what is scathingly obvious with a certain amount of professional objectivity. Earth has gone through this before, and she always recovers. After the devastating Permian extinction, it only took her a few million years to repopulate the globe with a whole new diversity of plant and animal life. She will do that again after we are gone.

And we will be gone far sooner than anyone wants to believe. It doesn’t take much to destroy a civilization, even an advanced technological one like ours. It has happened many times just in the brief span of human history. Take away food, and everything falls apart. I think human beings will be extinct in less than 300 years. Maybe a lot less. The victim of our own greedy, selfish stupidity, and mainly the greedy selfish stupidity of a relatively few people. All their money and power will do them no good at all when there is simply no food to buy. It is a shame that they cannot see that.

Still, it is sad, and I am profoundly disappointed. We humans held such promise. I think of the sublime miracle of consciousness, the very fact that we can be self-aware and can also look out upon the universe and be amazed and humbled and filled with wonder. I think of the miracle of love, which I have to believe goes far beyond the simple facts of procreation and hormonal influence. There is a spiritual component to love that far surpasses those biological imperatives.

I think of the sublime beauty of this planet, with its stunning diversity of life. There is certainly nothing like it in our solar system. And even though there are almost certainly other planets with life, there may be nothing quite like the Earth in the entire galaxy. What a shame to despoil such a place.

I also think of all the beauty we have created, and the noble and courageous things we have done. Art, music, individual acts of love and heroism. What other creature demonstrates these things? What other creature looks out upon a beautiful sunset with wonder and then feels compelled to paint it, or write about it, or compose a song to it?

I think of all the amazing things we could have done. We could have traveled to the stars! There is a whole universe to explore! Think of what we might have discovered! Think of what grand artistic and scientific and technological things we might have accomplished, if only we could have seen a little clearer.

Of course, people do and have done some terrible things, too, to each other and to the planet. There is no excuse for any of it. But the most terrible thing of all has been to kill our mother.

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It’s what every writer wants. We spend months or even years crafting a novel, laboring in solitude, immersed in our fictional worlds. When we finally emerge and release our work to the world, we all want some indication that it was worth the effort. Nothing provides that better than a letter from a satisfied reader, a letter like this one:

Corbin letter

(I redacted the writer’s name to protect the student’s privacy.) According to the teacher who forwarded it, this student had never read science fiction before but now was hooked. Better still! I have opened a student’s eyes to the mind-expanding possibilities of speculative fiction.

This letter made my day. No, it made my week!

And that’s all I have to say about that.