Monks and Code and Cats

The essay below appears at the end of the newly released edition Our Algorithm Who Art Perfection. The novella was originally published as a one-of-a-kind edition in 2016. It was available as a PDF for some time in 2016 and 2017 before I stopped using PDF distribution mechanisms. It first appeared in print in 2019 as part of the first edition of the collection Transmutations. For the 2020 editions of my work, Our Algorithm is now a standalone paperback separate from Transmutations. It’s been a long journey, but the novella finally stands on its own with a gorgeous new cover by Zhivko Zhelev.

Ideas can come to writers anywhere and anytime. It is famous for those places to be incredibly inconvenient for the preservation and development of said ideas—places such as the shower—but, in my case, a compelling character or idea has a tendency to nag at me at least long enough for me to get access to a notepad or a computer. In the case of Our Algorithm, I was walking on the shore of Cannon Beach, Oregon near Haystack Rock with my husband. For whatever reason, Grisha and Zhenya and the Order of the Seventh Recursion came at me all at once and didn’t let go. They were still with me when we got back to our hotel room. I grabbed up my computer and started writing straight away.

This novella was not the first time I had used a monastic setting in my writing, nor would it be the last. The short story Temple of the Setting Sun is set in a monastery in an Earth-like fantasy world. Earlier this year, I wrote and published the novella Beati Qui Inveniunt Feles, set in my new future-Earth history. And a yet-to-be published short story, One’s Own Medicine is told from the perspective of a monk on an alien Earth-like planet at their medieval stage of history.

I think that monasticism recurs in my work because the setting provides me a way to give my characters an environment where they must learn how to focus, to solve mysteries, to pay attention to the right details, to enact ‘believing’ in right and healthy ways as opposed to bad and unhealthy ones. If there is any common thread running through these four works, it is that of focus and attention to detail (critical skills for a software engineer, such as myself). I am not particularly enamored of rigid religious belief systems. However, I do find much of what I know of monastic life appealing, particularly the idea of structuring one’s time to allow for the maximum application of focused attention against life’s work.

And so I bend the rules of religion, something my chosen genres let me get away with. Temple of the Setting Sun’s invented religion is a Far East-inspired Zen-like fixation on color and shape. The monks of Our Algorithm worship a holy computer program, while those of Beati Qui worship pre-twenty-first century literature. So dedicated are they in protecting their library from infidels, that they genetically engineered a race of cyborg cats to serve as its protectors. The monks in One’s Own Medicine are medical experts first and foremost; the details of their theological beliefs weren’t necessary for the story. I’m pretty sure that by this point there remains not a real-life monastic order that would even consider me for membership (not that I’m particularly interested). Despite that, in a world that increasingly drives us to distraction every waking moment of our lives, that core idea of solitude and focus becomes more appealing for me year over year, which is why I think the monastic motif continues to pop up in my writing.

Our Algorithm is also interesting from the perspective of its role as a delineator in my development as a writer. I wrote this novella during October 2016, finishing its first draft a week before the United States presidential election of Donald Trump. Throughout 2016, I had been letting my publishing company, Fuzzy Hedgehog Press, limp along on life support. My business partner and I had gone separate ways in 2015, and I was left to manage everything alone. The election reshaped my understanding of the society I live in, and caused me to rethink my priorities; I chose to get my finances in order before dumping any more money into publishing. I shut down Fuzzy Hedgehog early in 2017 and spent a number of months figuring out the logistics of how I wanted to do publishing on the cheap while maintaining a minimum quality bar. I also discovered a love of Ancient Greek and Roman literature, which I explored for most of 2017 and 2018 before finally returning properly to writing.

This left a large gap in my writing output. By the time I returned to writing in 2019, I was a completely different person from the guy who penned Our Algorithm in 2016. The novella remains amongst my favorite works during that period, even more elegant in some ways than Schrödinger’s City, although the scale and scope of its world building is necessarily more limited. It is also a very personal story, in many ways a kind of love letter to my husband in the form of fiction, a way of thanking him for introducing me to so many of the beautiful works of Russian culture that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise.

I have no doubt that monastic orders will continue cropping up in my fiction for years to come. The details of what my monks pay attention to will undoubtedly continue to vary—colors, code, cats, cholera—but that fact of paying attention, of engaging deeply, of dedication, both intellectual and emotional, is likely to remain constant. This world will continue to pull me in many directions at once. What good would a genre be if it couldn’t help me to imagine something different?

Categories: Writing

Tags: Our Algorithm Who Art Perfection Temple of the Setting Sun Beati Qui Inveniunt Feles One's Own Medicine