Minute of 08/03/23

Nethergate Writers
Fortnightly Meeting: Wednesday 8 March 2023
at St Andrews Brewing Co. and on Zoom

Chaired by Rhoda; Minutes by Mike

Present: Colm, David C., George, Mike, Rhoda, Tess,
and Zusana (via Zoom)
Apologies: David F., Richard, Roddie, Sandra

Work Presented

Enjoy Your Bacon – by Mike (short story)
Mike thanked members who had given him feedback (Rhoda, Zusana and Roddie by in-line comments in Word, and David and Tess by email).
The story is set in Hell, where the devils slaughter the humans who arrive, then butcher and cook them. The devils enjoy eating meat. The slaughter methods are generally painful and the pre-death treatment of the humans cruel.
Various problems internal to the story were identified and discussed. 1) How could some devils think the humans didn’t feel pain, given their screams when prodded with red-hot pokers? 2) Why did Lucifer, as president of Hell, not want to pursue traditional Hellish infliction of pain for its own sake? 3) The scene about using a less distressing gas to kill the humans was over-long and (some thought) diluted the impact of the story. 4) In Hell, where many human cultural givens are reversed (e.g. devils want to avoid having a “white mark” noted against them), would bad-tasting human meat be enjoyed, rather than good-tasting meat?
George pointed out that if we accept that devils eat, then we can also accept that they like meat that tastes good. But what does “good” mean? But here we’re entering philosophical puzzle territory, and abandon hope all ye who enter there.
Tess enjoyed the tension between the various devils. Rhoda pointed out that the namby-pamby liberal minded devil was perhaps inappropriately named Abaddon, as that name is associated with destruction and doom. Not such a minor devil at all.
Members enjoyed the story and found it funny. Ouch! Okay, I admit it, I found bits funny too. Zusana suggested including more reaction from the other devils to Lucifer becoming less punitive. Finally, as David rightly said, the story’s basically an allegory and an invitation to consider how we slaughter animals.

The Sun on Willow Knowe – by Zusana (first part of a novella)
This short extract from a novella was universally admired as a brilliant piece of writing. It hinted at a past (failed) relationship between the male narrator and a woman (Madeline) he’d met when they were university students. In the present, the man remembers, and is haunted by, the passion and excitement he’d felt, which contrasts so much with his bland life now, curtailed in favour of the needs of others.
The sunlight striking the hill (a marvellous image) reminds him intensely of this past relationship, which he always thinks of, but especially on the hills, where he first met Madeline. The novella will follow him as he journeys from where he is on the hillside towards the knoll, which he eventually reaches.
Tess compared Zusana’s writing in this story to looking at a very bright canvas, not at all conventional, and skipping about from scene to scene, set in various times.
George highlighted two sentences whose meaning wasn’t at all clear. These briefly halted his enjoyment of the story: several members felt the same. Zusana explained how those difficult sentences came about, and how she would deal with them. George pointed out that apart from these two sentences, Zusana’s writing was of the highest quality.
Zusana said one of the themes she wants to explore is the lives of middle-aged people between 40 to 50 who, in some ways, might be considered boring compared with those who came before (baby boomers who perhaps did exciting things as well as damaging the planet) and those coming after, who are more colourful and eccentric. She thanked all those who gave her feedback – she’d received lots of comments.
Members looked forward to another helping of novella. David loved Zusana’s imagination and found the characters very interesting and the setting great. Genuine Scottish culture and characters.

The Goldilocks – by Rhoda (short story)
Rhoda’s short story combined elements of hard science-fiction (how humans are kept alive during thousands of years of interstellar travel) with moral and psychological considerations.
Zusanna: the AI was very well done, and the story one of the best sci-fi she’s read in a very long time. For her, the AI was one of the major hooks in the story. It has learned to have a soul, self-deprecation, humility, and demonstrates, paradoxically perhaps, the better side of humanity. She found the story uplifting. George: despite the AI’s intelligence, it’s the human who makes the big decision. Mike: the AI was programmed to let the human make the final decision.
Rhoda mentioned the Three Laws of Robotic (devised by Isaac Asimov):
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Mike asked a question about the function of the mirror that the AI causes to have built (by one of the drone machines). There was a discussion, with comments by Zusana, of the psychology of the AI having a visual presence, and thereby a sense of apartness, companionship, and a developing soul. Zusana saw the creation of the mirror as an important symbolic act, and enables the AI to become really human, because it can see itself and can be aware of itself in a new way.
Tess brought up how the mirror connects to fairytales, of which perhaps Sleeping Beauty is the best known. If anyone is interested, there’s a site that lists a “top ten” of magic mirrors in literature and fable: https://www.silverpetticoatreview.com/top-10-magic-mirrors/
David enjoyed the way the relationship between the AI and the captain progressed. He felt the final decision by the captain was made too quickly, and would have liked more verbal interchange between these two characters.

Explanandum – by Colm (first chapter of a novel)
Colm explained that this chapter features the first of the three main characters in the novel, and is an introduction to the nature of this character, whose name is 7-1. Tess found there is a strong sense of religion in the chapter. Colm described it as a mix of politics and religion. 7-1 is a Chief Overseer of the region called Brineswood. The other two main characters, still to be introduced, are two of the people inhabiting Brineswood, and as such are of a status (social, political, economic, spiritual?) below that of 7-1.
In reply to a question from Mike, Colm explained that he didn’t want to give everything away in the first chapter, so some relations between characters and entities remains unclear.
However, Colm did explain to the members present that the “High Empress 0” is the leader of the Chosen. Different governments run the different regions, but the High Empress is the one above them all, and communes with the “Mother”. There are seven different regions that are governed, and then there is the Motherland, where the Chosen reside. It all sounds complicated, but Colm assured everyone that these matters do become clear as the novel progresses.
George said he was able to follow the writing in this chapter more readily than in the case of the Prologue, and noted that the quality of the writing is excellent.
Zusana said that the writing is really accomplished and excellent, and that Colm has created a wonderful scenario with very good images and ambience. She found the text very rich, and that each sentence could be savoured. In fact: perhaps too rich, and suggested including more action, which would take the pressure off the text. She talked of striking a balance between the richness of a book’s text, and not leaving the reader too tired after reading one chapter and not ready to read the next chapter.
Rhoda suggested leaving exposition to later chapters (Colm said he had already done this), and to hook the readers in at the start with action. Mike noted that the setting of the temple on the side of a cliff was very vivid.
There was a discussion about the type of vocabulary used in the fantasy genre.

Matters Arising / Other Business
George, as webmaster, brought up the subject of publishing stories on the website. Given that many publishers will not accept work that has previously been published elsewhere, it was agreed by all present that the webmaster would only put a story etc. on the website (i.e. publish that story) under two conditions: 1) if requested to do so by the author, or 2) if the webmaster had requested, and been granted, permission of an author to publish a story that had attracted the webmaster’s attention as a story that would benefit the website. There was an extended discussion of this and related matters.
The next regular meeting is scheduled for Thursday 23 March.
At the last meeting it was said that even with the new conference microphone/speaker equipment, hearing problems were still being experienced with Zoom. However, no such problems were noticed during this meeting, and Zoom was used very successfully.

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