My favorite part
Drafting, meet Substack
I have been putting all of my energy into drafting this novel, and now I’m here at the end of a Monday about to make dinner and I realized I didn’t have anything for y’all, so I thought I’d share the opening scene of my new novel, tentatively titled How the Light Gets In.
As I’ve talked about before, my advice to writers is to never solicit any feedback during the drafting process other than, “What’s your favorite part?” and I’m sticking to that. If you read the scene and you’d like to comment, please do, but the only feedback you’re allowed to give me at this point is your favorite part.
Thank you, and I hope you enjoy it!
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Excerpt from How The Light Gets In, by Lani Diane Rich:
Like most systems of etiquette, there is a time and a place in which to reveal the nature of the universe to young minds, and it is never and nowhere. I get it. In my defense, I didn’t consciously intend to tell my History of Magic and Witchcraft undergraduate class how the universe works. It just kind of slipped out, and due to the self-protective coding in the game—that I coded by the way—all they heard was me babbling nonsense.
I blame Nguyen.
“But witches were never real,” Nguyen said, speaking at the same time as she put her hand up in the air, without waiting for me to call on her.
I loved Olivia Nguyen. Barely 21, and already no fucks to give.
Still. All of it? Her fault.
“Well, it depends upon what you think of as real,” I said. “If you change perspective a little—”
Hand up. No pause. “But the very idea of witches comes from a misogynistic impulse to keep women terrified and subservient, to block their power.”
“A lot of that is true, but sometimes, a person—not necessarily a woman, although in my particular case, it was—”
That was when the babbling started, but it took me a moment to understand their generally confused expressions as a result of me not speaking any discernible language rather than them being hung over.
“—possible for a person to recode some elements of reality from inside the…” I stopped myself before I said game, not that it mattered. They couldn't understand anything I was saying anyway.
“I mean, magic isn’t real, it’s just coding that temporarily violates the laws of nature set up in the base code, and some people… the occasional person”—me, for example—“might have the skills and the determination to rip a hole in the world, and that might have sparked the idea of witches which was then used to separate women from their power by a misogynistic society but… Are you all okay? Oh. Shit.”
It was then that I realized what had happened, and I was both impressed and annoyed that the safety code kicked in upon me just thinking of saying what I was saying, before I even said it, and the Players in the room were hearing gibberish peppered with the occasional expletives and harmless out of context phrases. That was one of the first pieces of not-technically-approved code I had snuck in, and I’m not gonna lie; I was proud of it.
I looked up from the textbook on my podium from which I had been quoting passages before responding to Nguyen. It felt so good to speak the entire breadth of my knowledge that I just kept going, even though I knew if I went on too long, an alarm would get tripped at Base and I’d be getting a visit. But I gotta be honest, the freaked-out looks on their faces was kinda worth it. “So, Nguyen, you’re right, much of this is just standard grade misogyny and fear mongering in the relentless pursuit of power, as if power is the most important thing in the universe. Which it isn’t. Meaning is the entire fucking game, if you can believe that.”
The Players in the class, like Nguyen and a lacrosse player named Cal Booker, shot worried glances at each other, then at me, and I noticed that the Extras followed along flawlessly. The Extras heard and understood everything, for as far as Extras ever really understood anything, but they were programmed to mimic the responses of Players whenever a situation presented itself that they weren’t specifically coded to handle, which was an admittedly rare scenario.
I kept going. Fuck it.
“Some of these people were actually mucking with the code from inside the game. That’s what magic is, but usually, the most anyone can do is make themselves appear a little younger or influence someone else to plant extra tomatoes one year. Sometimes love spells work a little. But magic is a lot of work for very little reward; there are much, much easier ways to get what you want. Most of these poor schlubs weren’t doing anything. Most of them were just people who’d pissed off some dung-eating asshole chasing the tiniest bit of power, people who knew that a more efficient way to power is simply having no empathy or boundaries.” I ran my fingers over the textbook woodcut depicting a line of dead women hanging from a scaffold in a neat little row while a jeering crowd watches. “Not one of these victims did anything close to what I did. Most of them didn’t do anything at all. They were just trying to do what I’d done. And the irony is, my magic didn’t even work.”
I saw a hand fly into the air in my peripheral vision and didn’t even have to look up; I knew who it was. Still, when there was a polite pause after the hand went up, it got my attention.
Nguyen’s dark hair was pulled into a haphazard ponytail and I was pretty sure I could smell last night’s off-campus house party on her, even from my position in the front of the room, a good ten feet away. Still, this kid was looking at me like I was the one in trouble.
“Professor Strand… are you all right?”
“Call me Eleanor,” I said, testing the gibberish filter. Nguyen heard me, because she flipped through to the first page of her class notebook and said, “But on the first day of class, you said to call you Professor—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said, dismissing her question with a wave of my hand. This was where I should have pulled out of my nosedive and started talking about the misappropriation of the concept of witch hunts up to the current political climate, but for fuck’s sake. You can only do the same thing, over and over, so many times before you need to change things up a bit. And it’s not like it mattered; while I talked, they would only hear gibberish, and once the Players touched Base in their sleep that night, the memory would be assigned to an accelerated fade. In the end, none of this would matter much. The program was designed to protect itself, and I knew that. I’d written that code. Although when I was writing it, I had no way of knowing that someday I’d be imprisoned inside its awkward, uncomfortable corners. Even as one of the original designers, I’d never anticipated my crime, nor my sentence.
And it was because of me that original coders were no longer allowed to play. That made me very popular back on Base. Not that I was there much, anyway.
The witches on the scaffold had gotten off easy. They got to reset and come back into the game without any memories. A fresh start. A new life.
For me… well.
My punishment was endless.
“Thank you, Nguyen, I’m fine.” I slammed the textbook shut and stepped out from behind the podium. “I’m just so goddamn bored.”
Booker shifted in his seat, a small smile betraying his amusement that the professor found old dead people as boring as he did. Although it wasn’t really the history I was bored with; I was bored with me, the game, my existence, the nature of the universe. You know. Just everything. And finally talking about it felt so goddamn good I couldn’t stop.
“They keep me here, endlessly doing the same shit over and over and over. They won’t let me Play. I can’t come in with a clean slate like the rest of you. I remember everything. And I can’t talk to anyone about it because I’ll just sound like I’m having a stroke.”
Seventeen sets of young eyes stared at me with varying levels of concern. Honestly, it was the most I’d been able to universally hold attention in that space since the beginning of the semester, and they had no idea what the fuck I was even saying. They didn’t understand their life as a game; no one really did while inside. It was just their one wild and precious life to them.
Nguyen shot a worried glance at Booker. In the back of the room, an Extra named Abigail Jones—my teaching assistant in the class—mirrored their worried expressions.
“Should we call emergency services?” Nguyen whispered to Booker.
Booker shrugged and looked at me with a mix of pity and concern, which did not lessen my annoyance. I’d once seen Booker get his thumb stuck in a textbook; he had no right to judge me.
Nguyen picked up her phone and punched in four numbers.
“I’m fine,” I said. “You’re fine. It’s all just a simulation. How do y’all not know this? For fuck’s sake, the language of the universe is math. DNA is code. Light is both a wave and a particle until it interacts with consciousness, and only then does it render. You all play online role-playing games for fuck’s sake. How is it possible that we go another thousand years before we figure it out?”
A room full of college kids blinked at me and I thought, Okay, fair enough. These were mostly humanities majors at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. But Einstein? Hawking? No goddamn excuse. Of course, once the scientists figure it out about a thousand years out from when we were, everyone just gets sent back to Base and they reboot the servers and start over at the beginning of civilization and honestly, I wasn’t in a big rush to start over. I really liked computers and phones and vibrators and Starbucks. It’s just that once you understand the nature of the universe, it’s really hard not to see it and fully judge anyone else who doesn’t.
“History… it’s just a script. We had one original run and we’ve been re-running it all ever since. Over and over and over, the same shit, because when you achieve immortality and fix all the problems, humans get bored. We come back in here to generate meaning because it turns out that’s the thing we can’t live without.”
At that moment, there was a knock on the door and the campus paramedics came in and dismissed the class. Nguyen shot me a worried glance on her way out, but the rest of them just rushed out, happy to not have to deal with the certainly imminent death of their fifty-two-year-old professor, even though fifty-two wasn’t that old in the twenty first century. They should have seen fifty-two in the thirteenth century if they wanted old.
I was younger than fucking springtime.
The emergency team made me sit down while they flicked a flashlight over my eyes and checked my vitals. The Extra Abigail Jones stayed behind to watch over the proceedings with a concerned look on her face. Once they decided that I wasn’t in danger, they extracted a promise that I would make an appointment to see my doctor and left me alone with Jones in the classroom, at which point I felt a sudden release of tension. Extras weren’t typically a barrel of laughs, but when I was alone with them, I could at least stop pretending.
“A violation has been recorded,” Jones said as soon as we were alone, her empty focus locked on me.
“Acknowledged,” I said.
“A visit with your Supervisor has been scheduled. Please avoid any unnecessary contact with Players until your Supervisor has assessed the situation and approved a return to unsupervised activity.”
“Right.” I got up and started stuffing my texts into my old, beat up and beloved brown denim messenger bag.
“Please acknowledge,” Jones said.
I pulled my external drive out of the computer’s USB port and ignored the immediate warning bubble that popped up on the screen. “No offense, Jones, but you are some lazy damn programming.”
“Please acknowledge,” Jones said.
I closed the laptop and slid it into my bag. “Who wrote you, anyway? Did they entirely forget about personality?”
“Please acknowledge,” Jones said. Her posture was ramrod straight and her expression completely blank of anything other than a computer’s dogged loyalty to its programming. I tried to remember who had batched the Extras from twenty first century upstate New York, but who the fuck could remember? It was in a database somewhere, but I didn’t have access to any of that, which was part of the intent of locking me in the game. Apparently, I couldn’t be trusted outside of the game’s restrictions.
Which… okay, fair enough, but still. I reserved my right to be a bit shirty about it.
“I bet it was Theo who designed you,” I said to Jones. “By the book and unimaginative. My Extras had senses of humor and personality. Theo said it was a waste of time, but—”
I stopped assembling my various and sundries and looked at Jones. Yeah, she was an Extra and there was no need to be nice to them because they were just non-sentient clusters of code, but then my sister’s voice popped into my head.
Kind isn’t about them. It’s about you.
It was simultaneously comforting and painful to hear Penny’s voice. Despite generating from memories so old I couldn’t even begin to calculate how long ago I’d first experienced them, my sister’s voice was bright and immediate in my mind, as though she was right there in the room with me. Her tone was firm and yet somehow humorous, as it had been when she was alive. That was the thing with Penny; she was always funny, whether she was trying to be or not.
“Please acknowledge,” Jones repeated, and I knew she would repeat it until either I acknowledged or a Player consciousness interacted with the space.
Kind isn’t about them.
“Acknowledged,” I said on a sigh. “Thank you.”
Jones blinked twice; acknowledgement acknowledged. “You are instructed to stay away from Players until your Supervisor arrives.”
“Ugh. Fine. Tell him to hurry up, though. I’ll skip coming in for office hours tomorrow, but my next class is Thursday, and I’m coming in for that.”
“Shall I walk you to your car, Professor Strand?”
“That’s Prisoner Strand to you,” I said. I could hear the petulance in my own voice, but I didn’t care. What did it matter anyway? It wasn’t a huge violation. It would be a quick visit from Theo, a few stern looks of disappointment and some finger wagging, and then back to business. I mean, what were they gonna do? Lock me up more?
Jones smiled blankly, and I saw a mixed micro expression of kindness and mild affection flash over the Extra’s face.
“Okay, I take it back,” I said as I tossed my messenger bag over my shoulder. “Your programming isn’t that lazy. Unimaginative, but not lazy.”
“Thank you,” Jones said. “Shall we go?”
“It’s rude to act like I have a choice when I don’t have a choice,” I said.
Abigail blinked twice. “Acknowledged. Let’s go.”
“Okay,” I said, and held the door open for the cluster of non-sentient code existing in the shape of a college undergrad who would now be annoying me until Theo arrived.
Hurry your ass up, Theo, I thought, letting the door shut on its own behind us.