Many thanks to Ferrett Steinmetz for being willing to write such an interesting post. It started off as a simple question relating to the world he created in his novels, Flex and The Flux, and turned into so much more than I hoped. Read on to see why.
So in the world of THE FLUX, if you love something deeply enough, your obsession with that will punch holes through the laws of physics. And because people obsess about weird damn things, THE FLUX features perhaps the oddest group of wizards ever set to page: paperwork-wielding bureaucromancers, crisply-folding origamimancers, bruised and battered Durdenmancers, blank-faced masqueromancers, and of course everyone’s favorite character, Valentine the pudgy goth videogamemancer. (That’s her on the cover, wielding an Xbox controller like a gun. If you were facing her down in an alleyway, you’d wish she had a gun instead of her controller.)
Yet the question’s been asked: if I were a ‘mancer, what kind of ‘mancer would I be?
Interestingly enough, I’m the perfect age to become a ‘mancer: middle-aged. Obsession isn’t a young man’s work – I mean, yeah, we all know some kid who got a yen for lockpicking in college, but those are often fleeting things. It’s easy to obsess when you’re in your early twenties and can chug a case of Red Bull with no aftereffects and the world is still fresh and new and awesome. You may think it’s obsession, and the universe thinks your adoration is cute, but really it’s that first blush of romance where you’re head-over-heels in love because you have nothing to compare it to.
To become a ‘mancer, you have to marry your obsession. And stick with it.
But the kind of obsession that is strong enough that the universe actually steps back and goes “…hey, maybe she’s right” and lets you fire a Portal gun to teleport between walls? That takes decades. You have to keep with it long enough that you’re still into long after the patina has clouded your vision. You have to still keep with it when your back starts to ache and your body protests after that third all-nighter. You have to keep re-falling in love with your obsession – okay, you’ve folded the same crane a thousand times, but you still look forward to that thousand-and-first challenge of getting a razor-sharp crease.
In the FLEX universe, Paul is about average. He blossomed into ‘mancy in his early forties. Valentine is highly unusual in that she opened up her ‘mancy in her late twenties. And I often hear happy college kids telling me, “Oh, I love Anime! I’d be an Animemancer!” And because I’m kind, I don’t correct them. But I think secretly that they can talk to me in a decade if they’re still speed-snorting torrents of Naruto.
The other thing that makes for a good ‘mancer is, well, something to escape from. Happy people generally don’t become ‘mancers: hell, as someone says in FLEX, the formula to create a ‘mancer is “Withdrawal. Obsession. ’Mancy.” And so the question is, am I dysfunctional enough to become a ‘mancer?
And as a guy who suffers from severe depression and social anxiety… yeah. Almost certainly. There are times when I look back on my day and see nothing but a crumbled set of ruined relationships, self-abnegation, and failure – and yet I look at all my manifest flaws and go, “But I can write.” Sometimes, writing is how I escape depression, where I think “Crap, I’m a wreck of a human being, I’ve got no redeeming qualities – so let’s posit a universe where obsession creates magic, what ramifications would that cause?” And I lose myself in fictional worlds.
Finally, the biggest question is: Am I obsessed enough to become a ‘mancer? Because like I said, this isn’t some superficial commitment. I mean, I like a lot of things – when I was a kid, I made my family take me to see Star Wars in the theater fifty-five-and-a-half times. Why “A half,” you ask? Because at one point, my grandparents misread the time the showing started, we got there an hour early, and so I made them take me into the theater to watch the last half of Star Wars,and then watched the whole movie again.
My grandparents were saints.
But even though I owe my life and my wife to Star Wars – we met in a Star Wars chat room – and I’m getting family Star Wars tattoos before the premier – but I don’t think about everything in terms of Star Wars. I just enjoy Star Wars. And to really have the universe stop and pay attention to you in the FLEXverse, you have to view everything through that warped lens. You have to get up, look in the mirror, and wish you were a Jedi when you’re brushing your teeth… And that’s a pretty rare trait. It’s established explicitly in the book that only about one out of every 50,000 people have that sort of devotion. (And most of them die to instant karmic backlash, so the number of surviving ‘mancers is closer to one in 250,000.) So I don’t know.
And then I think that I wrote for twenty-two years before I sold my first novel.
I think about how I wrote seven novels that didn’t sell and yet I never gave up, churning out well over a million words, never having sales, keeping at it no matter what.
I remember when I got into the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and thinking, “Six weeks is a lot of time to ask off from my job. I hope they give it to me – because if they don’t, I’ll quit.” And I’d worked at that place for a decade.
And I think yeah, there’s probably a reason I wrote a novel where obsession creates magic. Because I was obsessed, for so many years. I burned to tell stories people wanted to listen to. And I just – would not – stop.
Then finally, I wrote a book that was weirdly personal. It’s got, as noted, a man who made an art out of the DMV. It’s got gratuitous references to donuts. It’s got a chubby attractive woman who enjoys the hell out kinky sex and yet that’s not her defining trait. It’s got a close father-daughter bond.
I’m not sure if I’d be a ‘mancer. But I do know that THE FLUX is still magical for me. And I really hope it’ll be for you, if you read it.
Ferrett has a moderately popular blog, The Watchtower of Destruction, wherein he talks about bad puns, relationships, politics, videogames, and more bad puns. He’s written four computer books, including the still-popular-after-two-years Wicked Cool PHP.
He lives in Cleveland with his wife, who he couldn’t imagine living without.
Post-script from Ria: Reading these books is a wonderful trip, but both books have given me an interesting bittersweet feeling, because there’s a part of me that longs to be that devoted to something, even if the rest of the world thinks I’m spending too much time on it and ought to go live my life in some normal healthy way. I spent a good chunk of my youth trying to figure out who I was, mostly my trying to imitate the interests of others, and I’d fall in and out of love with various things. Nothing stuck. But there was, and still is, this burning ember in the back of my mind that tells me if I find that one thing, that shining obsession, then I’ll properly find myself, I’ll become myself, and whatever the rest of the world thinks won’t matter because I have my niche. I see characters like Mrs. Liu and her dozens of ‘mancy-created cats and my heart aches a little, because I both want to be her (I do love my cats, and take care of them better than I take care of myself most days) and to be the me that has carved out my own obsession-space in the world. I had the idea that if I could be defined by an obsession, I would finally have a definition.
I think these are the kinds of books that will resonate with anyone who’s even felt a touch of that mentality, and those who have felt at a loss to explain to the rest of the world just why something means so much to them when it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone else.