Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest Discussion: Release

Published on October 25, 2012 by

I’ve mentioned the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest a few times.  Everyday Mormon Writer has just posted the first of the 22nd-Century finalists, “Release” by Wm Morris. I’ve been asked to host a discussion of the story. It’s short, so you can go read it there.

For the most part, I tend to be an optimist about the future of humanity and the gospel.  My story “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” posits a future in which Mormonism has literally spread to the stars in a high-tech society where people are basically free to worship as they please.  So it was an interesting contrast to read “Release,” set in an extreme totalitarian future society under which everything is well-organized and everyone is monitored via implants. Religion has apparently been banned, but the Church has found an imaginative way to continue its service below the threshold of detection.

Feel free to discuss the story below.

 

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36 comments on “Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest Discussion: Release”

  1. Th. says:

    .

    The first paragraph put me in mind of Bradbury’s pedestrian stories, but the story swiftly turned to a world more invasively dystopian. I’m not as well read in this stuff as you, Eric, so I’m curious what your opinion is, but I found this pheremonic gospel to be wildly new and also provocative in the way it redefined basic gospel functions like faith and ordinance.

    • Yes, I don’t recall seeing anything like it before. The oppressiveness of the society does remind me of something from the Book of Mormon (the book, not the musical): Mosiah 24, when Alma’s people are not even allowed to pray aloud, but the Lord knows what’s in their hearts and makes their burdens light to them. I see something similar at work in “Release,” where the Church must operate under the radar.

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    I struggled a little more with this story. Repeated outbreaks of inopportune literalism keep interfering with my appreciation of the metaphors.

    First, I’m not a fan of the (very popular) genre of oppressive dystopian futures. Accepting that it’s an exaggeration of excessive social/governmental control, there’s a line beyond which the minuteness of control is no longer pragmatically useful. For me, this story lives on the other side of that line.

    But more critically, it feels like pulling a Lucas and reducing faith (and works) to a biochemical condition rather than a spiritual/philosophical choice (midichlorians, anyone?). God is explained away as an engineered chemical illusion.

    Likewise, spreading the gospel (or at least comfort) like a virus via subconscious pheromone distribution seems to undercut everything I understand about individual choice as the foundation of faith. It’s never been enough to do good works; they have to be done with good intent, as well. We never see a hint of his conscious Mormonness except in that one brief, lucid interlude that is quickly lost.

    Perhaps I’m expected to see his ongoing compulsion as evidence of the Spirit continuing to work once the temporary goad was removed, but it still happens below the level of choice—in other words, he’s just an organic machine subconsciously seeding other organic machines. No intended act of service.

    All of which seems to so drastically undercut my ideas of faith and conversion as an act of individual will that I never found the hook to engage the metaphors—only a strong bout of inopportune literalism that keeps me from seeing what you were trying to accomplish.

    Nicely imagined and well written, but the story ultimately failed to reach me as an individual reader. The direct refactoring of a core belief made it very difficult for me to suspend my disbelief and engage.

    • Scott, that’s an interesting interpretation. Personally, I didn’t see God as “explained away as an engineered chemical illusion” in the story. I don’t know if you’ve read the Hominids trilogy by Robert Sawyer, but (SPOILER ALERT!) in the final book a believing religious character loses her faith after religious feelings are explained away as a physiological response to magnetic field changes. I found that to be somewhat weak, as the mere fact that religious feelings could be counterfeited by a strong magnetic field fluctuation does not rule out God producing religious feelings that can be sensed through physiological response. (Overall, I still thought the trilogy was excellent.) I didn’t interpret the Spirit using lymph nodes to influence someone as a reduction of God to a chemical illusion, but rather as God working through the physiological means available.

      Your point about individual choice and faith is a good one, because those are key elements of the gospel today. My personal interpretation of the story is that in a world where conscious adherence to the religion is apparently outlawed, members of the Church have found a way to carry on the work subconsciously. I don’t see it as them doing things against their will, but rather that their will is expressed subconsciously.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        Haven’t read the Sawyer trilogy, but I like the idea that while spiritual experience can be counterfeited, that not all such experience is, therefore, a counterfeit. Distance Haze by Jamil Nasir made a similar case a few years ago.

        On the other, I guess I struggle with the mechanical continuance of a work that doesn’t appear to have a direct, conscious expression. We never saw Gates as having a faith, belief, or conversion except in that brief interlude after the implants are deactivated. Rather than merely not practicing his faith, the text seemed to suggest that while the implants were active he was not biochemically capable of having (or knowing) it.

        Subconscious expression is interesting, but that idea was undercut for me by the entire medical procedure, which is where I got the idea of human-induced chemical counterfeit—whether induced by the state’s implants or by Dr. Stake President’s injection.

        Which leaves my core disconnect—without conscious (and ongoing) choice, the definition of will remains indistinct and (for me) the behavior seems undirected, and thus the efficacy of the work becomes questionable. Such work is as much for the worker as the recipient.

        Perhaps merely a nuance, but one that seems important to me. In either case, the story succeeds precisely because it generates this kind of discussion. Perhaps it will grow on me with further readings—much as Orson Scott Card’s short “Kingsmeat” did after I hated it the first ten times I read it.

      • Th. says:

        .

        I just noticed the Sawyer trilogy in the background of your photo. Are they there because you liked them?

        Those books—especially the third—drove me nuts because they seemed anxious to “prove” to religious people how silly their faith appears under scientific scrutiny.

        I really loved the first book, enjoyed the second but thought it was silly (1 and 2), and despised the third.

        • I do like them, but they’re there because at the time of the photo I had my autographed books organized in alphabetical order by author, and that’s where they ended up. That photo was used along with my Analog bio a few years back, and I pointed out to Brandon Sanderson that meant his books had appeared in Analog.

  3. Wm says:

    Mosiah 24 was definitely an influence.

  4. [...] Note: a discussion of Release is being hosted at the blog of Eric James Stone. [...]

  5. By the way, there’s been a bug in my WordPress installation for quite a while that puts all comments in the Trash, even if they should have been auto-approved. So it may take a little time for your comments to appear. I’m trying to track down the bug right now — I’ve deactivated 37 plugins and only have 10 left, to see if I can track down which plugin is causing the problem.

  6. Scott M. Roberts says:

    Ever had a story strike you so powerfully you have a hard time identifying why or how it reached you?

    I find myself incapable of defining what it is about Release that caused such a strong emotional reaction in me. I don’t think I’ve read anything so tragic in terms of Mormonism in a long time. From a critical standpoint can it be held that anyone who worships unknowingly actually worships at all?

    Then again, the moment of clarity and the recognition of fellowship with the saints was… sublime.

  7. Scott M. Roberts says:

    I disagree most lymphatically.

  8. Though the mechanics of agency in this world aren’t completely explained in the story, I find the possibilities interesting. As I understand it, God doesn’t need fully informed agency from us: he just needs a clear choice within whatever context we have.

    So say Bishop Gates feels a prompting to walk. Does he have to know it’s a prompting or a service in order to get some spiritual benefit from choosing to follow it? Does he have a choice to stand up for his lymph nodes and ask the doctor for permission to walk when he could just ignore that still, small physiological voice?

    What about touching the wall? Is that prompting a choice he can make and have spiritual growth from even without much awareness of what it means?

    Maybe imagining how choice might work in this story’s world might help us understand how choice works in our own–especially in difficult circumstances like severe mental illness. Does God have a way of offering profound moral choices to certain individuals in subtle ways that are invisible to most of us?

    • Scott Parkin says:

      What distinguishes OCD from profound spiritual prompting, then? Accepting that any act can be a sacrament for the thoughtful soul, is the act sacred if it has no known (or intended) meaning for the supplicant?

      If all acts are sacred, then where is agency and how are we different from any animal acting on instinct (a still, small physiological voice)? Where choice is possible and expression is not, there remains an offering in spirit if not in act. But for me, choice bereft of either context or intent is merely selection of convenience—no matter the nature of the veil drawn over previous choices.

      In other words, until Gates articulates a reason to choose and thus converts urge into intent, I find it hard to see the choice as a sacrament (and instead see the brief moment of lost context only as a horror). Unless Gates sees God in the choice, I won’t; resistance for its own sake is not particularly noble to me.

      But clearly I’m the outlier, here.

      • Mark Penny says:

        Somebody may have said this already, but I think the idea here is that the worshipers have to “pass” a very strict scrutiny, so their faith must be concealed even from those who hold it. As I mused in another comment, it’s a kind of spiritual hibernation. Impressions build to be experienced when they momentarily wake. They testify by announcing their presence in the faith. Morris reduces witness to its essence: acknowledgment of faith. Brilliant. If only more fast Sundays could follow this format!

  9. Mark Penny says:

    Testimony as pheromone. Believers as ants. Spirit as id. Body as ego. State as super-ego.

    Deep suppression of faith would be a logical ramification of membership in a psychologically intrusive, religiously repressive society. The Church is enduring a kind of hibernation. The members cannot talk of Christ, so they nourish each other in the good word by reminding each other of their presence in the body of Christ.

  10. Th. says:

    .

    I think this discussion demonstrates a value of science fiction—by forcing us into a new world with new metaphors, in order to engage we much view our priorities in a new light. No matter which side you come down on, isn’t there value in the debate?

  11. Jonathon says:

    Scott, I was piqued by the same thing, but explained it (perhaps because Wm left some pheromones on my desk when I wasn’t looking) not as a sub-conscious, but an unconscious mode of service, and one chosen consciously: at some point he accepted the calling, but since the calling would endanger himself and others, he also accepted that the nature and fulfillment of his ministry would be veiled even to himself.

    And I really like that notion.

    Of course, it also plays up the idea that unit leaders often serve until they are quite literally sick: sleep-deprived, carrying burdens of worry and sympathetic pain, etc, and that most of this is not conscious activity, but is a calling-specific phenomenon, and transformative of the person.

  12. Wm says:

    Thanks everybody for the comments and discussion. It’s very satisfying to see friends engage with your work in an interesting way.

    Generally, the only extra-textual commentary I like to provide is via the liner notes, which are my attempt to de-mystify a bit the writing process and reflect on the creation process and influences. While those express a bit of authorial intention, I try not to influence too much any certain readings of a creative work.

    I’m going to talk a bit more about how I read this story; however, because this is such a weird part of my bibliography and one that, as I have noted, relies heavily on its publishing context and a narrow intended audience.

    1. I don’t know that I could flesh out the world of the story more fully without stretching the metaphors even more beyond the breaking point of approachability and believability. As Scott Parkin’s reaction points out, there are some real problems with the worldbuilding here. There’s also some handwavium going on (although all the metaphors are grounded in real science).

    2. And yet, I would like to note that the OCD diagnosis is from the State. One way to resist the State is to mimic behaviors that the State is wiling to tolerate but encode them with hidden (or additional) meaning. This is what writers in Romania did under Ceaushescu.

    3. The issue of agency fascinates me. Scott’s objection takes a very brain-focused view of the mind in relation to agency. I wrote this with a different view of mind in mind. Not a solid, well thought out view, for sure, but with the speculation that our mind is made up of more than brain functions and extends to the rest of our body and even to the spaces we inhabit.

    4. In addition, this story was written from a traditional Mormon view of the human soul as being made up of a spirit enveloped in flesh. I don’t know if that is the correct way to view the operation of the spirit and the body, but it seems to be the most dominant one for modern Mormons (thus the use of the hand in glove object lesson). That view suggests to me that some of our agency resides in our spirit, that is, the choices we make both come from and impact the operation of our spirit in relation to our body. So when certain brain functions are taken away, the spirit still finds a way to cause the body to engage in behavior that strengthens and support its connection to the Holy Spirit. Both secreting and picking up on pheromones thus involves the choice of the spirit to do so.

    5. That being said, I agree that this metaphor is problematic, and if I were to look at it too closely with my critical hat on, I’d probably tear it to pieces, which is why I have to be very careful when I write fiction to get it out and get it out quickly and then be an editor more than a critic as I revise. Really, what it came down to was my desire to show that even if a highly-technologically advanced dystopia were to occur, faithful members of the church in concert with God would find a way to survive and connect. Plus I just liked the idea of the spirit being able to make some slight adjustments to the body when forced into a corner.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Please don’t take any of this as trying to punk you—that’s not my intent.

      You raise a critical point here. As Mormons we believe that mind (spirit) and body are inextricably connected and master of one requires mastery of both. Biochemical impulse is real and massively affects both perception and urge.

      I just wanted to see Gates choose a noble path (other than in the brief moment of lucidity). For me, the text offered little evidence of either his intentional Mormonness, his undergroundness, or his act of noble defiance (the doctor’s act of noble defiance, yes; Gates’ act was completely off-stage and logistically unexplained).

      The technology took all of that away, in my view. Gates seems mystified by the impulses, not comforted by them. Which makes him tragic, not noble. IMO.

      • Wm says:

        I don’t take your comments as that at all, Scott.

        Plus I like being challenged. And I enjoy reading different reactions to the story. And I think you are pointing out some real weaknesses in the story (for some readers). And part of me wants to rewrite it (but just a small part).

        I find it interesting, though, that you place such an emphasis on the mind as conscious thought. I don’t know how to not think of it in that way so on the one hand I get it.

        On the other hand, with this story I was attempting to move beyond that model and suggesting that the Mormon understanding of spirit in relation to body and the physicality of spirit (even though we don’t understand that beyond the notion of “matter more refined”) provides an intriguing way of thinking about the concept of mind already. This whole story started with the notion of “folded consciousness”, after all. Which, of course, isn’t quite where it ended up and is completely metaphorical anyway so not necessarily useful in scientific or philosophical terms

        Thus I would say that the discomfort Davvid experiences is Davvid (the spirit) in relationship with and at war with Davvid (the brain under control of the State). And the choices he makes operate in a way that’s hidden from portions of his brain (those regions that are most easily trackable — and, of course, that’s where the science gets a bit sticky, but that’s always the case when extrapolating from current science and technology). It’s those portions that we are most comfortable with at the moment. And so I get the reaction. But what if those were taken away? Could God help us (and the Church) make it through such a situation?

        • Scott Parkin says:

          I’m not sure there’s a useful discussion to be had. You meant what you meant, and I’m not convinced. I wasn’t kidding when I said I’m an inopportune literalist.

          It’s a fairly basic metaphysical question that we appear to disagree in principle on. The idea that spirit (super-ego) and mind (ego) are somehow separate, and thus that the spirit can perform useful work independent of the mind doesn’t make sense to me—or at least it doesn’t seem relevant to acts of personal salvation.

          Until the mind (integrated spirit) knows and decides at a conscious level and chooses to express in acts of righteousness, saving work is not being done. Prompts without knowledge or context are just urges; until understood and chosen, those acts may be generically useful, but they are neither saving nor transformative.

          Thus, ordaining a man as bishop who is not able (through artificial organic incapacity) to make an informed choice on matters of the spirit seems odd, and possibly cruel. That his spirit might drive him like an animal to (useful) acts of physical impulse do not ennoble those acts until they are understood and chosen in the front of the mind.

          And so that idea did not engage me. Not because I don’t understand it, but because I don’t resonate with it. It went one level of abstraction too far, and lost its value for me as an individual reader. If the church is so far underground that even its own members don’t know that it either exists or that they’re members, then how is it relevant in ennobling (or sanctifying) their choices?

          Historically, the Lord waits it out then initiates a restoration.

          Which has nothing to do with mind/body integration beyond the organic limitation on the ability of the spirit to express as conscious (aka, saving) acts.

          • Th. says:

            .

            What if he made a conscious choice when he was called, only to have his conscious memory removed? That seems to me much like the bargain we make when we come to Earth in the first place. We agree to do things yet have no memory of so agreeing. And so we go by faith. This isn’t an identical situation of course, but it strikes me as rather parallel.

  13. Scott Parkin says:

    This comes a bit late (I was writing it offline as Wm posted his own thoughts, so it does not reflect them in any way). Sorry for the time; it got away from me a bit.

    A couple of thoughts, then I will cease to be the statistical outlier and concede that I got it completely wrong.

    I hesitated to comment because I know I tend not to see moments of grace that seem evident to others. I don’t dispute the beauty you all see; it just doesn’t quite resonate *for me* for the reasons offered here.

    I like the story (and the author) or I wouldn’t spend either the time or the effort to be on the wrong side of the argument. My attempt to deconstruct and parse the bits suggest that it works at a fundamental level as a spur to contemplation—one of the fun core assumptions of science fiction. In my case, the value for me is in how I appear to disagree with some implications of the fundamental premise.

    I’ve had similar thoughts about other stories in the contest, but have kept them to myself precisely because I don’t know the authors and feared my comments would be taken as critical (condemning) rather than critical (analyzing/deconstructing). This is the fun part of reading for me—the discussion with others of what the story did (or didn’t) do for me as an individual reader.

    I am not generally a fan of short-shorts, precisely because they rely on (as opposed to allow for) the reader to provide so much of the story. That the story I came up with from this short prompt seems to be very different from the majority opinion seems inherent in the form.

    Finally, my disconnect remains with what level of grace attends subconscious (or unconscious) action, and how much credit Gates deserves for acting out an actively baffling physical dance driven by biochemical impulse rather than conscious decision.

    Yes, instinctive reaction evidences inner mind and the priorities it holds. When my father reached out an arm to shield my mother at the moment of impact in a car accident, his reflexive action reflected a deep inner concern for her safety. But it was also a complement to conscious choices made for known reasons. It’s the evidence that those conscious decisions are honest.

    That Gates is driven by such instinct is evidence of a kind and honest spirit—one who serves with pure intent. But while the actions may reflect that inner commitment, they are done with no conscious complement. Gates seems distressed at the compulsions, not comforted by them.

    *He* doesn’t see them as reflective of his own good nature, but rather as uncontextualized physical urges that act despite his conscious intent rather than in concert with it. (“These walks troubled Davvid. He didn’t know why he engaged in them.”)

    By removing any active, conscious decision to perform complementary acts of service, these unconscious acts (for me) become reflective of the chemical driver, not the underlying mind (or soul). There is neither grace nor nobility in a sneeze; it’s a bacterium’s way of perpetuating itself by irritating the mucous membranes, not an act of compassion (or intended service) by the host.

    In other words he is not nobly suffering in service of a knowable choice; the suffering is imposed on him as a consequence of external events. That an earlier version of him made that choice does not imbue the current version of him with nobility, because *he* didn’t (and still doesn’t) make it again.

    Even the centipede chooses to move again and again and again, even if it doesn’t overthink the technique of walking. It was not a choice made once in a previous life, then lost to conscious intent. The choice to move remains dynamic and immediate even if the mechanism is unconscious. They’re directly and causally connected.

    I didn’t see the Gates of this story make such a choice, and so the mechanistic fulfillment seems too abstracted. I accept this as the time-shifted reflection of an earlier choice (never mind the logistics of how someone unable to make a choice somehow made a choice).

    But where he doesn’t hold in remembrance the choice he made, the acts become autonomic, not noble, and the grace is abstracted one step too far to appeal *to me* at more than an intellectual level.

    Otherwise, the choice to come to this earth was all we actually needed; the rest of our earthly experience is just noise and of no import or relevance if we cannot choose again. The proof of an earlier premise, but not useful (or developmental) in and of itself.

    • Mark Penny says:

      I’m okay. You’re okay.

      My enjoyment of the story came mostly after having read the whole thing and begun contemplating the premise. A stronger sense in the story of Davvid’s punctuated lucid commitment would have been nice, but the notion of sleeper testimonies is definitely intriguing.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Which was part of my own response. The challenge of sifting spiritual prompting from random synapse (flash of imagination/creativity) from biochemical urge is hard.

      The idea of unconscious choice to act according to an unarticulated (but deeply internalized) ethos is way cool.

      The idea of pheremone as subconscious spiritual comfort is interesting to me.

      Lots of cool ideas. I wish the story had chosen one.

      Since I’m clearly in the minority I’ll (finally…) let it go. As the fictional Salieri might have said, there were too many notes. For me. In a short-short.

      To each his own.

    • Th. says:

      .

      Ftr, Scott, if you ever have issue with something I’ve written I hope you will actively take it.

  14. Scott Parkin says:

    Honestly and truly my last comment. I don’t care if anyone agrees with me, but I do want to make an effort to have my arguments understood.

    Th., on the pre-existence parallel, that’s part of how I got sideways to the story, and is reflected in the final paragraph of an earlier post.

    To me, the story draws a significant veil analogy—what if choices I made in another frame carried forward to my current frame and created urges, hopes, or desires that I have no context for understanding, because a veil has been drawn across that previous frame and it is now inaccessible to me (my consciousness has been folded against itself)?

    Cool idea, and the story that usually emerges from it is to solve that mystery and discover the reason for the disconnect—which this story does (the Inception conceit to find the top context).

    As a Mormon, my mind goes immediately to pre-existence and the underlying purposes for this life, which is lived with no direct memory of that prior existence or choices made there.

    So in this life I have two key tasks: to decide who I choose to be right now, and to put that choice in a context of some sort (to decide my reasons). I have to remake those decisions again in this frame with whatever tools and knowledge I have. Because I can’t know the prior contexts, I have to walk in faith that there was a relevant prior context, and that I now choose to continue along that (hoped for, but unknowable) path. It doesn’t matter what prior choices I made; my current context requires me to choose them again and prove who I really am at an inner, spiritual level. Confirmation of basic nature.

    For me this story did the second (context) without doing the first (active re-dedication). We see no choice of who Gates decides to be in the now, only his distress at the carry-over from previous decisions of who he chose to be then.

    Thus, his uncontextualized actions (while useful) are not counted as righteousness for him precisely because he did not re-make the choice (in this new frame) to be a man who actively tries to perform acts of service. I have no expectation that he see his compulsions as service; I do expect other acts to reinforce that nature toward service if the veil/pre-existence idea is to resonate.

    Had be been called as a missionary to bring comfort to the world peers, I would easily have overcome all other reserves. But because he was called as a bishop—a very particular role as judge against an explicitly known standard—I expect him to act from a standpoint of foreground personal knowledge, not just passive impulse.

    And so my suspension of disbelief was dealt a serious blow. That one plot element overwhelmed all others for me, because it has a particular meaning. A bishop is not just a servant over a flock; he is a judge endowed with authority to discern righteousness, which requires some sort of conscious standard to discern against—something that is notably and specifically absent for now-Gates (though present in the doctor). Gates is fundamentally unequipped to function in that role as judge and witness.

    The more basic existential question is overwhelmed by the implications of a bishop judging with authority, but without either knowledge or context—something I can’t imagine happening in a church that places so much emphasis on authority and individual responsibility to act according to the law each of has individually received.

    And so the core tragedy became not just muddled, but thoroughly buried under the weight of those troubling implications. For me.

    None of which is a lobby for or against this story winning the contest; just one reader’s reaction to the tale as told and my reasons for it.

  15. [...] Mixo” by Mark Penny at Mormon Midrashim Thu. Oct. 25: “Release” by Wm Morris at EricJamesStone.com Fri. Oct. 26: “Avek, Who Is Distributed” by Steven Peck at A Motley Vision Sat. Oct. [...]