Looking Back at THE QUIET POOLS

(Originally published in Volume 14, No. 1 of The Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 1991. Editor Paul Levison very kindly invited me–challenged me?–to dig a little deeper into both the process and the themes which produced The Quiet Pools. It begins painfully, marred by a self-conscious need to find a suitably earnest voice for the pages of a journal–my best horse for just one more draft! But Paul published it nonetheless, so perhaps there’s something of value hiding among the rocks. –K-Mac, 26 March 2015)


I confess that–in my writing life, at least–I am not given by nature to a great deal of self-analysis. Mindful of the poor fellow who loses the ability to walk gracefully after being quizzed at length about the mechanics of perambulation, I superstitiously dread disturbing what until now has been a more or less seamless synergistic process. The fear, of course, is that excessive introspection might throw grit in the gears.

But that’s not to say that my writing is purposeless, or that I’m unconscious of my own passions and themes. And the themes of The Quiet Pools, which was an eight-year project, are particularly vivid to me. In a letter to Beth Fleisher, then my editor at The Berkley Publishing Group, I wrote of my intention to tell “the story of the struggle between those who are fighting to end the starship project and those who are struggling to complete it — of a few men and women caught between a dimly understood destiny and a dimly apprehended horror — and of the interface between the conscious and the unconscious, the free will of the mind and the determinism of the body.”

The last is a theme I’m likely to return to again, in other novels. To explain why, and to share my perspective on The Quiet Pools, I must ask you to forgive what will seem like a long digression, which begins directly.

I am of the opinion, perhaps naively so, that the meaningful investigation of fiction is not an overly complicated matter, and that it ought to produce statements of reasonable simplicity and clarity. Avoid infinite regressions of subjectivism, leave the knives of textual analysis and deconstructionism in the cabinet, and at the heart of every narrative worthy of the label you will find — not surprisingly, at least not to most — a story, a fable, a myth, a moral tale, a fiction.

I’m further of the opinion that functionally, at its most fundamental level, all fiction explores two basic questions: What is the nature of the universe we inhabit? And, why do people do what they do? Sometimes the formulation of the questions is extremely narrow, and sometimes the answers are contradictory. But I find that every work of fiction expresses an opinion on at least one of those questions (and usually both, for the answers to them are ordinarily interrelated).

There’s no guarantee, of course, that the answers offered by a given writer in a given work will be profound, or even particularly thoughtful. Nor can you be confident that the author personally believes or endorses the answers presented — they may be simply explorations or illustrations of alternative perspectives. Indeed, a writer may not be consciously aware of his or her philosophical or thematic “supertext”1 at all. But, save for the most rule-breaking experimental fiction, a supertext will nonetheless be present. 2

For instance, a detective novel, distilled down to fundamentals, may propose that people murder, steal, and destroy because they are greedy, and that excessive greed is eventually punished — or perhaps is not, if the writer takes a more cynical turn. A romance novel may propose that people are driven to both recklessness and nobility by love, and that true love ultimately conquers all obstacles — or, perhaps, ends in tragedy. A horror novel may propose that the universe is populated by warring supernatural forces, and that humans are merely the infantry in a surrogate war. A political novel may propose that power rests in the hands of the privileged few, and that deception and ruthlessness are survival skills rather than character flaws.

In a sense, the supertexts just noted are merely superficial reinforcements of general cultural theorems about life and behavior. The “formula” to which formulaic fiction conforms is not so much one of standard plots and predictable characterization as it is the shape of our shaky cultural consensus on these two very old and very difficult questions: What is the nature of things? Why do we do what we do?

The more ambitious works of fiction will confront these questions in greater depth and complexity. They may ask Theodore Sturgeon’s “next question” — why do we love, or seek power, or resist evil, or fight to survive? The more demanding works may risk challenging the received cultural wisdom by offering a skewed or even disturbing perspective. Such a supertext might present a “sympathetic” portrait of a genocidal despot, or “argue” that rapists are not significantly different from other men, or “suggest” that some people’s lives are worthless and miserable.

A fiction which does this must necessarily call into question the preconceptions of many of its readers. The risk of alienating them is balanced against the hope of spurring them to further thought, and perhaps even having some lasting effect on their outlook.

What is the nature of things? Why do we do what we do? These are live questions of continuing interest, driving not only scientific but mystical inquiry, and firmly linked to the pains, frustrations, and joys of being alive. None of us is in possession of final and ultimate answers. (In my experience, those who believe they are prove to have simply cut off their inquiry too soon, ignoring any contradictions that later come along.) We’re playing the blindfold-and-elephant game, and each of us has a different piece of the elephant — a unique set of inherited and experiential clues.

Consequently, I’ve come to consider a fiction writer’s personal theories of causality and motivation to be the most important factor in shaping his unique and idiosyncratic perspective. One way or another, these personal theories inform and animate her tales. They are, therefore, one of the fiction writer’s most precious assets (a notion I give all possible emphasis when teaching a writing seminar).

As might be expected from the preceding, I’ve been consciously at work on my own pet theory in these areas for a number of years now. My friends have come to know it as “the model,” and regularly bring me both supporting evidence and challenges: “Say, how does this fit the model?” My model is a synthesis of intuition, speculation, anecdote, subjective personal experience, and a hodgepodge of scientific evidence drawn from several disciplines. Despite the fact that it’s incomplete and will likely always be so, I find it to be quite powerful, offering valuable insights into not only others’ behavior, but my own.

Since, based on past experience, it takes me a minimum of three hours of one-on-one discussion to effectively outline my model for someone new to it, I won’t attempt to sketch it in full here. However, an important element in my synthesis, and the one most relevant to The Quiet Pools, is the contribution biology makes to setting the rules of the game of life.

The nature-nurture, biology-culture debate is an emotionally loaded one, and the learned advocates at either extreme appear to view the world through such disparate paradigms that dialogue is impossible. But while experts clash, ordinary people seem to have settled on an answer. Our present cultural consensus, which favors a mind-body (or soul-body) duality and a powerful free-will ethic, assigns a low value to the role of biology.

Too low a value, it seems to me, and too arbitrarily restricted to matters of appearance and physique. I am persuaded that within each individual there’s an elegant and complex dialogue between the gene-based biological program and the programmable “interface” provided by the human consciousness. I am convinced it is impossible to understand human behavior without taking account of the motives which appear to me to be part of our heritage as organisms, as chordates, as primates — including but not limited to reproduction, survival, tribal identity, and status. I find that sexual drives, broadly defined, are intimately linked with our personal agendas. And I believe that some of the most agonizing conflicts humans experience come when the conscious mind and the insistent genes are at war.

I wrote The Quiet Pools in the hope not of preaching a sermon on biological determinism, but of prodding at least some readers into a reconsideration of the question. We are only beginning to have the tools to look inside ourselves and parse the sequences of the genome and the biochemistry of the brain. What will it mean to us if the discoveries we make there paint us more and more as the clockwork automata that sociobiology supposedly claims we are? How will that change our self-conception, and in turn our behavior? Will we dance any differently if we learn that Nature calls the tune?

We have already begun to rewrite our definition of mental health, turning from psychology to neuropharmacology for solutions to problems once blamed on demons or dismissed as “the vapors.” Within one generation, women have begun to identify the “biological clock” as a force of compulsion arising not from the nagging of relatives but from the nagging of their genes, and to recognize that the emotional swings associated with PMS and menopause are the “fault” of hormonal biochemistry. The prospect for more such shifts of perspective is quite strong. If and when they reach a critical conceptual mass, how will we respond?

The Quiet Pools is intended to engage these questions on both macrocosmic and microcosmic levels.

On the macrocosmic level, there is the issue of the arrow of evolution, of human expansionism, and of the passions inspired by the prospect of leaving the nest and moving into space. The answer offered, the Chi Sequence, is more a metaphor than a hypothesis. It represents all the invisible masters which may reside in the great majority of the human genome still unexplored. But it’s also a declaration of our fellowship with the four billion years of life which preceded humanity on this planet, and of our a bond to all existence — a declaration which ought to be made with a mixture of pride and awe.

The Chi Sequence, then, is a flight of speculation — but one which is consistent with the broadest strokes of my model, and which cannot, as yet, be ruled out. And to the degree that it’s emblematic of the genetic gifts and burdens which have been passed forward to humanity along the unbroken chain of life, the Chi Sequence can already be said to exist.

Individuals experience their own behavior with less immediacy than they experience their emotions. So on the microcosmic level, the question “Why do we do what we do?” is appropriately recast as “Why do I want what I want?” In The Quiet Pools, that question most vividly afflicts Christopher McCutcheon, as he wrestles with his sexual jealousies, his creative ambitions, his attitudes toward parenthood, his ambivalence toward his parents, and his own yearning for immortality and a life which has meaning.

Christopher finds himself in the crucible called the human condition, groping toward answers in much the same way we all must. The difference is that Christopher has available to him a class of answers which at present we largely deny ourselves or disdain. His response to that option, and the decisions he makes in the light of it, are a preview of a decision I believe our culture will face, in many forms and arenas, in the coming decades.

Why do we do what we do? Why do we want what we want? It’s less important to me that the reader agree with Christopher’s decisions than that the reader finds the questions worth asking and his answers worth considering. Because ultimately, from my perspective, The Quiet Pools isn’t “about” the plot, or the characters, or the setting, or the deconstructed analysis of its literary entrails, or even its theme and supertext.

Rather, it’s about a place I found to stand, and what I saw from there, and the feelings and thoughts that experience evoked in me. In its totality, The Quiet Pools is nothing more or less than a carefully worded invitation to come and stand where I stood, and experience it for yourself.

Do I know why I wrote it? A fair question, considering. Yes, I do know why — as explicitly as I care to. Which is something of an unfair answer, but also, I think, a telling one.

— November 4, 1990, Lansing, Michigan

1 If no school of literary criticism has yet coined this term, I claim the credit and assign to it the meaning implicit from the context. If someone else got there first, please allow “supertext” to mean what I mean by it for at least the duration of this essay.
2 Of course, it could be argued that a defiance of causality, an emptiness of purpose, or even a complete absence of plot or story in experimental fiction is nothing more than a commentary on the nature of things — an aggressively radical supertext.