Category Archives: Academics

Savvy Saturday – A Sociologist’s Analysis of “Divergent”

BlogpostThe top movie in theaters this week was the film Divergent, based on the book of the same name by Veronica Roth. I can understand why this movie (and book trilogy) has made the headlines. Well-written, with deep, realistic characters, a thoughtful portrayal of loss, grief, sacrifice, and courage, and gripping action (told in the first person present tense to keep readers on the edge of their seats and inside the main characters’ heads), the Divergent series is an impressive series for anyone to have written, much less a college-aged novelist.


Like many fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian worlds created by people who haven’t studied sociology, the world of Divergent has a few severe flaws. To define terms, a severe flaw (in my dictionary) is one that portrays an importantly different and inconsistent reality than that which the author is purposefully trying to establish. Minor flaws are things like timeline believability problems – books where, for instance, a protagonist is supposed to go from being a clueless farm-boy to a daring knight in just a month. Those are the kinds of problems where readers can shrug their shoulders and say, “Yeah, whatever. It’s unbelievable, but not problematically so.” In contrast, severe flaws are unavoidable. They are problems so ingrained in the world that the author has built that they confront the reader throughout the book and undermine the author’s message. Unfortunately, this is a problem that the world of Divergent faces.


I’ll give the “first book only” version first, for those of you who want to remain relatively spoiler-free. (The end of the second book and the third book are supposed to “fix” the problems of book one, but in my opinion, raise more questions than they answer.) In Roth’s first book, Divergent, she reveals a society that has been built around five “factions.” These factions are created to be tightly knit social groups, almost castes, in which the members of the faction all revere a single moral virtue or ideal that shapes their actions and their beliefs. Different factions have different jobs in society, different lifestyles, and different value systems.  All well and good thus far. One can look at the ancient Hindu caste system and see that separating otherwise-identical people into utterly separate groups can work.

But then one key component is added that makes the whole system break down. Every person is allowed to choose his or her own faction when he or she comes of age, and this choosing is aided by a test that determines where an individual would best fit. Once an individual has chosen a faction, that faction becomes his or her new family – “faction before blood” is a key line from the book – and individuals must leave their old faction’s worldview and ties behind.

We then find out that this system has supposedly been working for over a hundred years. This is the severe flaw. The system cannot work the way it is supposed to, if Roth is trying to describe human beings as they truly are. (And if she is trying to describe humans who live in this city as being in some way very different from humans in our world, then it undermines the entire message of her third book, Allegiant.)

There are three major reasons that the faction system is severely flawed: 1) the virtue-driven nature of the factions conflicts with the nature of man, 2) the allowance of choice of factions undermines the integrity of the faction system, and 3) the creation of factions should lead to violence rather than lead away from violence.

First, basing factions on non-conflicting virtues presents a problem for any individual who is given a basic moral education. As the character Four expresses, why should you be forced to choose between being strong, selfless, intelligent, honest, and kind? Why can’t you pursue all of them? Given that the characters of Divergent do seem to have a typical human moral compass, the faction system cannot work as written. ALLEGIANT SPOILER (mouse-over): Given that Four actually isn’t Divergent, and is in fact “genetically flawed” as are most other people in the world of Divergent, this makes this argument even stronger. 

The nature of in-groups is to emphasize what makes people in your group good and special, while downplaying, minimizing, or shrugging off the strengths of other groups. This is relatively easy to do when the strengths of other groups cannot mutually coexist with your own. (For instance, a plumber can be glad that he isn’t an electrician or a university professor, because you can’t be all of them, and it isn’t expected that you be all of them.) It is practically impossible to do if the strengths of other groups can mutually coexist with yours, and – in fact – if universal morals in your world say that other groups’ strengths are, in fact, things to be emulated. No one in the world of Divergent says that honesty or bravery or kindness or even intelligence are inherently bad. In fact, the characters display a moral code that acknowledges the goodness and the strengths of the different factions. This is a sociological problem. If an individual is ever praised for being honest when he or she is in Abnegation, or ever praised for being brave when he or she is in Erudite, it will undermine the system that is so highly revered.

In short, a virtue-based faction system is not conducive to a stable society, and asking readers to believe that it has worked for hundreds of years is a severe flaw.

The only way it could work, in fact, is if there is no movement between factions. This brings us to our second point. Allowing individuals to choose their own faction is to say that every individual can choose one of five equally good worldviews to follow. However, this conflicts horribly with the entire idea of being raised in a faction that truly believes that its way is right.

Sociologically, individuals are raised by their parents to believe that a certain view of the world is correct and good. We are moral animals, as sociologist Christian Smith states. Every culture has a set of beliefs as to what is right and what is wrong, which form the rules that children internalize. In the world of Divergent, parents have one of two choices: tell their children that they must follow the rules of their faction and obey their faction’s worldview only as one choice among many that is no more good than any of the others until they come of age, or tell their children that their faction is right, that the others are wrong, and then have this view of the world challenged every year in the choosing ceremony. (This ceremony tells children that a test shows them what faction they truly belong in, and that faction may not be the one that their parents are from.)

If a child doesn’t want to obey his or her parents, then, a natural retort would be, “Well, maybe I don’t belong in this faction! Why should I follow your rules if I’m really ____ faction?” Parents in Divergent have no real grounding to answer this question – because their children would be right. If their child is actually meant to be in another faction, why should they be forced to follow the worldview and practices of their parents’ faction until they reach a certain age?

Now, if factions only governed one’s job, and if the society held a common moral grounding or set of common practices, the differences between factions wouldn’t be as large an issue. (This is where one might compare Divergent to Harry Potter and the houses of Hogwarts: all children at Hogwarts know that they’re all students at the same school, that they all take the same classes, follow the same rules, and answer to the same headmaster. They all know that they take the same tests and after they graduate, they will all be members of one wizarding society. This prevents the differences in beliefs and strengths of the houses from getting out of hand – though Rowling does show rivalries and conflicts between the houses that occur, as is believable.) In Divergent, however, there is no going beyond the factions. There is no deeper moral code or religious grounding that applies to everyone. No one is above or beyond the factions; there is no emperor with divine power who everyone obeys, or even a set of common rituals and beliefs that bind people in the society together. Instead, Divergent shows five different cultures, each of which believes that its way is the right way, and yet which allows its members to freely choose a different path if they are so led. It is internally inconsistent, and should not work.

Finally, and culminating from the above points, the existence of a faction system should increase, not decrease, violence in a society. Emphasizing differences between people, rather than similarities, always creates tension and keeps things from running smoothly. Every country, business, organization, and family knows that you have to emphasize what holds you together if you want to maintain peace among people who are different. Creating factions based on personality types and differing virtues is the ideal way to cause a war, not to prevent one. “Separate but equal” has always been a bad idea that leads to prejudice and violence. Integration and appreciation of differences through appreciation of deeper similarities, not segregation based on differences, is the way to keep the peace.

One would think that in the aftermath of war, the leaders of a city would recognize this.

On the other hand, it isn’t surprising that a college aged novelist wouldn’t. Again, Divergent is well-written, emotionally powerful, and speaks truths about psychology, morality, and the nature of man. But if Roth continues to write in new fantasy worlds, I hope she will take some time to learn more about the nature of societies as well as the nature of individuals. It will improve the quality of her work, and add to, rather than distract from, the points she wants to make in the stories she tells.

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!

Savvy Saturday – How to be biased

Part of being a writer is exploring the human experience as it is truly lived. Even in a fantasy or science fiction setting, one’s characters need to feel real. We all know this. It’s a truism, a proverb, easier to say glibly than to actually carry out in one’s writing. Why? For one thing, human beings are complex. Part of this complexity is the fact that we aren’t always rational. We make biased choices based on feelings and heuristics – rules of thumb – that can lead us to make different decisions when presented with exactly the same data. Moreover, our brains work very differently than we often think they do. We plan one thing and do another. We’re swayed by emotion and situational characteristics and the way questions are worded. Even our memories are malleable.

Today’s post features just a few findings about the irrationality of the human brain that I’ve recently studied for my PhD classes. Whether you’re a writer or simply an interested reader, I hope you find them useful. Personally, I know I’m going to keep these facts in mind and use them to make my characters more complex and realistic.

Finding 1: People hate losing. (Prospect theory, endowment effect)


Which would you rather have? A one percent chance of winning a thousand dollars, or a $5 dollar bill handed to you right now? Most people would take the $5, even though statistically, the one percent chance of $1000 is “worth more.” The opposite, however, holds for losses. Human beings don’t like to lose. Most people would rather have an 80% chance of losing $4000 than a certainty of losing $3000, even though again, statistically, the first option is worse for your pocketbook (Kahneman and Tversky 1979).

This phenomenon is known as “loss aversion.” People really, really don’t like to give up what they have, far more than they want to gain something that they don’t have. This then translates into the “status quo bias,” where what you have right now is valued more than any change, even a change for the better. Similarly, once you own something, that thing suddenly “gains value” in your opinion beyond what it was worth moments before. People who are given a pen or a coffee mug in psychology experiments consistently refuse to sell it at the “market price” just a few minutes later, and instead set a much higher price on it than it is worth. Once an item is owned by you, you don’t want to give it up even for a “fair” amount of money that you could spend on something that you’d probably like more than the item you were given.

How does this transfer to the world of fiction writing? Easily. Threaten your character with the loss of something he/she values, and watch him move heaven and earth to keep that threat from being realized. Is your story set in a dystopian world? Instead of promising a character riches and luxury for doing some nefarious deed, simply have the rulers give the character a better life – new clothes, good food, etc. – then threaten to send him back to his former servitude unless he cooperates. Far more nefarious. Far more effective.

Finding 2: The way a choice is framed will influence what decision is made (Framing)

framingA company is giving bonuses to teams based on the number of working ideas they contributed to the company over the past year. One manager reads about a fantastic team that proposed 10 ideas, and 7 of them worked wonderfully, making significant profit for the company. Unsurprisingly, she approves a bonus for this team. A different manager reads about a team that also proposed 10 ideas, but 3 of them were abject failures, and resulted in significant loses for the company. Unsurprisingly, this team does not get a bonus.

Except…these teams are identical (Dunegan 1993).

Framing an issue in a positive or a negative light makes a huge difference in how people respond to it. Giving a city a vaccine that will save 60% of its population from a devastating plague (but not save the other 40% from certain death) is a much better option in people’s minds than giving a city an experimental drug that will kill 40% of its members but keep 60% safe from an impending doom. Having a dealer apologetically not give you a $10 discount on a $100 item because you aren’t a club member is much better than having a dealer apologetically charge you an additional $10 fee on a $90 item because you aren’t a club member.

If your character wants to manipulate someone, then, the easiest way to do it is to focus attention on the (true) negative or positive aspects of a choice. For instance, knowing that a magic sword can kill ogres, giants, and trolls is very different from knowing that it can’t kill dragons. This is also a way to have characters argue with each other very effectively. If one person sees only the benefits of making a certain choice, and the other sees only the negatives, they will be very unlikely to come to an agreement even if they have all the same facts.

Finding 3: Learning, memory, and experience aren’t all they’re cracked up to be (Experiential learning)

elephant“This ain’t my first rodeo,” an old Western hero says, giving the newcomer a withering glare. “I’ve done seen a fair share in my time, and I can tell you like it is.”

That’s all very well, but that old hero’s memories might be playing more tricks on him than he’d like to believe. We like to trust memories and our own experience more than what other people tell us – memory is vivid, supposedly objective, and engages all our senses, whereas learning from others is more distant and is possibly biased. Unfortunately, our own memories are just as fallible, and sometimes even more misleading, than what we learn from others.

Of course, we all know that we find what we expect to find. Humans are incredibly good at confirming things that may or may not be true. This is called the confirmation bias, and happens all the time. We come up with a hypothesis that something is true, then we look to see if the data support our hypothesis, rather than seeking to disconfirm it. In writing language, we see if the world makes sense given the story we’ve told ourselves, rather than looking to see if there are plot holes.

“I’m thinking of a rule for picking numbers,” we tell someone. “With this rule, I’ve picked the numbers 2, 4, 12, and 16, as well as others. You may ask me whether any particular number fits my rule, and when you’re certain about what the rule is, make your guess.” Our poor confirmation-bias target guesses 14, and is told yes. He guesses 20, and is told yes again. He guesses 110, and is told yes a third time. He confidently states that our rule is any number that can be divided by two. But he’s wrong. Our rule was any positive or negative whole number. Whoops.

With enough effort, people can be trained to avoid confirmation bias. It’s much harder to avoid the effects of faulty memory. Many of us have heard about the experiment where two sets of people see the same video of a car crash. One group then is asked to judge how fast the cars were going when they “bumped” one another, while another is asked how fast they were going when they “smashed into” one another. A while later, both groups are asked whether or not they saw broken glass in the video. (There was no broken glass shown.) The group that had been given the “smashed” language were far more likely to report having seen broken glass, and remember it just as certainly as the other group remembered not seeing broken glass.

Similarly, in the world of advertising, people who were given test orange juice – actually vinegar, water, and orange flavoring – obviously rated it as tasting horrible. Half of them, though, were then shown an advertisement that talked about how good, fresh, and wonderful (like drinking an orange through a straw!) that brand of juice tasted. A while later, the two groups were asked to again rate their juice experience. The ones who had seen the ad after drinking the vinegar-water rated it as tasting better, and in fact, tasting like drinking an orange through a straw (Braun 1999).

Thinking about your writing, what do your characters remember – for sure! – that just isn’t so? What decisions do your characters make where the facts seem to fit what they believe, but only because they didn’t look too hard to prove themselves wrong? When do your characters rely on their memories and their expertise because it’s just easier, even when they really shouldn’t?

(For that matter, when do you?)

Thinking through these questions and writing characters with realistic cognitive biases will not only make your story more gripping, it will make your characters, even the non-human ones, more realistic. For instance, an elephant’s memory – though vivid – could be completely inaccurate. And dragons, as we all know, have an extreme aversion to loss. So put your biases to work, and make your characters human.

Savvy Saturday – Branding for Novelists 101

What’s the hardest part about being a novelist?

For most people, at least according to the all-knowing Internet, the hardest part about being a writer isn’t coming up with good ideas, having the determination and patience to finish a book, going through the painstaking process of editing, or even finding a publisher. No, most novelists agree that the hardest part about being an author is…


Yep. In today’s world, even very successful authors with top publishing houses are expected to do a significant amount of work in marketing their books. You can find hundreds of articles and blog posts about how important it is to have an online platform and get the word out about your writing. Even the best book in the world, after all, won’t sell if no one knows it exists.

What many writers aren’t aware of, however, is something that I’ve learned as a Ph.D. student in – you guessed it – marketing. And that’s the importance of, and how to create, a personal brand. That is, a brand for you as a writer.

For those of you who haven’t taken a marketing class in a long time (yes – “never” is a long time), a brand is far more than a label on a soup-can. According to the textbook that I’m currently teaching from, a brand is “a name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of these, that identifies the products or services of one seller or group of sellers and differentiates them from those of competitors” (Armstrong and Kotler 2013).


The two key points here are that the brand identifies what you’re selling, and that it differentiates what you’re selling. If you have a brand that does this, it will have what’s known as brand equity, or value. For a writer, brand equity means that your readers will understand what your books are typically like, how they’re different from other people’s books, and – most importantly – they’ll be more likely to purchase your book if they know that you wrote it, and they’ll pay more for your book than they would for a book with an equivalent title, plot, and cover design if it were written by someone else.

So how do you get a powerful brand with lots of brand equity? Well, we can start with the easy part. For any author, just like for any public figure or celebrity, your brand is going to be your name/pseudonym. Unless you happen to have a very common name, or share a name with a famous author, it won’t be hard to use that brand to identify what you’re selling. There aren’t any other A.L. Phillips’s out there who write books. (There is, unfortunately, an “Al Phillips” who runs a cleaning business, and eats up my Google results. However, people are unlikely to confuse our services.)

The more difficult part of branding is getting your name – and thus people’s perceptions of your writing – to be seen as different from what your competitors offer.

So many brands! How does your set itself apart?


But how do you do it?

This is where having a bit of marketing knowledge comes in. The fundamental thing your brand needs to communicate is what unique value or benefit your customers (your readers) will gain from the goods/services you offer. For writers, this means that you have to consider who your target market is, and what common threads tie over across your books that will appeal to this market.

For instance, do you appeal to the hard sci-fi crowd who want books that are technically accurate and plausible? Are your books targeted at Anglophiles who love the grandeur and culture of Regency England? Do you target middle grade readers who need a fast-paced story, readers who want a “clean” book without cursing or adult material, or lovers of historical romance? Is your writing funny, gritty, beautiful, fast-paced, well-researched, honest, down-to-earth, or something else yet? The most successful brands are those that carry value across specific products – in a writer’s case, across specific books that he/she has written.

In my case, I write clean fantasy and science fiction stories that stem from a love of culture and sociology. There’s a lot besides those elements that goes into successful writing, of course. Round characters, technical accuracy, gripping plots, etc. are all necessary, but those wouldn’t distinguish my books from any other good books on the market. When I advertise my writing, I say that it’s important to me that my worlds, no matter how fantastical, have to be well thought out and feel real. I also say that it’s important that advanced pre-teen readers (or adults who prefer clean books) should be able to read good, rich stories written at a high reading level, yet still without inappropriate content. Knowing those things about my books helps potential readers know more about what they’re getting into, and gives them an assurance that future books I write will also follow this mold.

The classic way to formalize this unique value that you offer, and to wrap your own head around it better, is to create a brand position statement, or a value proposition statement. This generally follows the format of, “For [my target market], [my brand name] is a [product category] that [unique point of difference].” In my case, restating the paragraph above, “For young and adult readers alike, A.L. Phillips offers entertaining, clean adventures set in culturally rich, realistic fantasy and science fiction worlds.” Writing a brand position statement will help you tell other people what you do, and will also help you focus on what you do best.

The next part of developing your personal brand – and marketing it – is to conduct a SWOT analysis. Standing for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, a SWOT analysis is a classic business approach for understanding what a company/brand/individual does well, struggles with, what external factors are helping it/him/her, and what external factors the company/brand/individual needs to carefully monitor and be aware of. While a brand position statement is for everyone to see, your SWOT analysis is a way of helping you better understand who you are and how you fit into the larger market of writers. By understanding what you do well (and can focus on), what you do poorly (and should make allowances for, try to improve, or subcontract out), what opportunities you can take advantage of (for instance, local community events that you can be a part of, a market trend toward self-publishing or small-press publishing, or increased interest in young adult books), and what potential outside threats loom (for instance, increased competition, a bad market, decreased interest in vampire/werewolf books), you can plan for your brand’s future and maximize your chances of success.

A more detailed brand analysis would include identifying all of the common attributes that successful products in your area share that you need to have (e.g. strong characters, a good plot, good editing), describing your competitors’ brands, identifying what they’re uniquely good at and how they’re positioned, talking about how you’re distinct from these major players in the market, and so forth. But this is enough to get you started on creating a brand that is identifiable and differentiates you to your audience as the unique provider of value that you are. Good luck, and happy marketing!

If you’ve created a brand position statement that you’d like to share, or if you have questions or comments, leave a note below!

Savvy Saturday – Character Sketches

Every good writer needs good, strong characters, right? Of course right! (Kudos for those of you who get that character reference.) The best, strongest characters in books are the ones that carry with them a semblance of reality. Even if the story is set on another planet or in a realm of dragons, even if the character is a mage or a serial killer, these are the characters you can interact with emotionally – because they reflect the way reality could be (at least, if reality worked the way the author says it does).

The best way to create “real” characters, then, is to understand people in this reality. Only then can you create characters who will be believable in a different setting. To help with that, this week’s post will give a few snapshots of real people and real encounters that I’ve had recently – sort of a “Humans of New York” style post, designed to give a look into the characters that inhabit the real world. I hope you find them interesting, and perhaps even inspiring for your own work!


First character: a girl from China in her mid-twenties. She has a round face and a quiet demeanor, wears an unobtrusive light brown sweater and dark pants, and her black hair is cut simple and straight at the shoulders. As she listens to the conversation, she nods and says “mm-hmm” every few seconds to show that she understands what is being said.

The topic of conversation is customer service in different cultures. “I have a funny story,” she says in accented English. With several starts, stops, and seconds spent searching for the right words, she manages to convey the following: a few years before, she had booked a flight on an American airline company that regularly flew between Chicago and Beijing. After she had scheduled her flight, another company also began flying that route. In response, the company with which this girl had booked her flight changed not just the time, but the day on which the plane in question was going to fly.

“Because my English is not so good, I called the Chinese help line to reschedule my flight, because I could not fly out another day,” she said. “They told me that it was my fault for not making plans, even though I could not know ahead of time that another company would start making flights from Beijing to Chicago. They said they would not change my flight, and if I wanted to change, I would have to pay a large fee and buy a new ticket.

“Eventually, I decided to call the American help line in English. When I talked with them, they said the scheduling was all their fault! And they told me they were so sorry for the inconvenience! It took just one hour, and they gave me a new flight on the right day, and I did not have to pay anything, and they were so nice. So I learned to always call the English language help line.”


Second character: a friendly, wide-eyed gentleman from India. With a short stature, a vivid teal polo shirt, thinning black-gray hair, and a wide smile, he is quick to jump into any conversation with enthusiastic comments.

Upon hearing that it is common practice for American stores to accept returned merchandise, he looks at me askance. “Is it?” he asks incredulously. “That is something I do not understand.”

“You can’t return anything in India?” I ask him.

“No, of course not!” he says, emphasizing his words with sharp, vehement hand gestures. “Not anything. You buy it, it is yours. You cannot let people return things. If you let one person return something, then everyone will return everything! It would be bad business.”


Third character: a trim, middle-aged Caucasian professor who wears striped polo shirts and khaki shorts in the middle of winter, has a well-groomed gray beard and short hair, and bounces into class at 9am to teach statistics and research design to undergraduate and graduate students. He grins constantly, talks in a half-shout, and peppers his lectures with stories of adventure in South America and a large smattering of four-letter words.

“If you’re interested in three-way factorial designs,” he says, his eyes lighting up, “I’m teaching a unit on it this summer. It’s seriously cool s**t. It covers all the ways you could possibly want to set up and run one of these little darlings and not f*** it up. Which you will if you aren’t careful. It’s my absolute favorite class to teach.” He pauses with a sheepish grin. “I say that about all my classes,” he admits. “Whichever one I’m teaching at the time is my favorite. They’re just all my darlings. Anyway! We were talking about two by two factorial designs…”


Do you know anyone like these characters? Have you ever experienced a similar situation to the ones above? Post about it in the comments!

Savvy Saturday – Thinking Across Cultures (4)

In this series, I’ve been demonstrating how individuals from collectivist and individualist cultures react differently to similar stimuli. It’s been a fun writing prompt for me, and I hope it’s been fun for you to read as well. Today’s individualist/collectivist difference is attitude toward authority, and what kind of actions get rewarded by the narrative.

As a reminder, you can check out my first Thinking Across Cultures post for the writers’ guide to how these two types of cultures are different, then check out the second and third posts for the beginning of Kiwa and Tika’s adventures.


The mountains were cold and terrible and so far from home. Kiwa shivered, as she had so often for the past three months, as Commander Shoto led them in single file along yet another steep twisting path that looked like it hadn’t been used for years by anyone but goats. They had yet to find any sign of the cursed raised or their cursed camp, but Shoto was confident that they would, and soon. “We are the Emperor’s Riders,” he reminded them every day. “We cannot fail.”

In spite of her exhaustion and half-frozen limbs, Kiwa believed him. What else could she do? Without faith in the Emperor, without faith in their commander and in each other, she and her comrades would have nothing. Would be nothing. No, they would find the raiders. Kiwa just hoped it would be soon, while they still had strength left to fight.

Suddenly, an arrow buzzed through the air in front of her and buried itself in a nearby bush. Kiwa yelled an alarm, drawing her bow and looking to Shoto.

“Mano, Woti, Doto, with me!” the young commander ordered, his voice thunder-strong with authority. “We’ll find them. Kiwa, Jani, Sano, stay here and draw their fire!”

Another two arrows hissed down from a gap in the cliff face. Kiwa saw and pointed; Jani and Sano followed her finger. “In the name of the Emperor, surrender yourselves!” Jani shouted up the mountain. An enraged cry in a foreign tongue came in response, along with three more arrows fired in quick succession. As the archers exchanged fire, Shoto and his three bladesmen disappeared up the trail.

“How many do you think?” Kiwa asked, firing an arrow of her own up toward the gap. Her aim was true, and cries of alarm came in return.

“Three, perhaps?” Sano guessed.

“Enough to tell us where their camp is,” Jani said. She cursed as another arrow zinged past her head. “Assuming that Shoto finds them before they shoot us all.”

“Raiders can’t shoot a yak at ten paces,” Sano assured her. “Three of them against three of us? They don’t stand a chance.”

“To the right!” Kiwa shouted, a sudden movement catching her eye. Sano spun and let loose an arrow – a man in rough skins plunged forward from his hiding place among the rocks above them. A moment later, a horn sounded, followed by a hail of arrows from two directions. They hit the rocks and dirt before and behind and all around them. One buzzed past Kiwa, and she felt a sudden pain in her ear. Next to her, Jani gasped in pain as one hit her in the leg.

“Six on the ridge there!” Sano shouted. “Fall back! Take cover!”

“No!” Kiwa shouted back. Now that Sano pointed the raiders out, Kiwa could see them. She ran forward, toward the mountain, zig-zagging as she had been taught as she closed distance. She fired up, toward the raiders raiders, which prompted a new storm of arrows. “Shoto told us to draw their fire!”

“Shoto didn’t know there were so many!”

“Less talking, more shooting!” Jani snapped. Blood ran down her leg, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Do your duty, Sano!” As she spoke, she snapped arrow after arrow from her bow. One of the raiders fell, then another. That left three that Kiwa could see.

Her mouth tight and her heart pounding in her ears, Kiwa fired again and again. She shot toward the crevice in the rock to their left, toward the ledge on their right, always moving, always making noise and drawing the attention of the raiders and trying not to think about the very real possibility that the next breath might be her last. To her left, she saw Sano yelling and firing, his voice quaking with fear but filled with passion nonetheless. The sight filled Kiwa with new bravery. If they died, they would die doing their duty.

And then the familiar battle-cry sounded on the wind: “For the Emperor!”

A new sound joined it, the clash of blades and the cries of death, and Kiwa cheered with her comrades. With renewed vigor, they fired toward the ridge and the last raiders standing there, leaving those in the cliff to Shoto and his deadly bladesmen.

The battle was over in just a few more minutes. Archers were no match for bladesmen, and raiders were no match for the riders of the Emperor. Kiwa’s heart swelled with pride as she, Sano, and a limping Jani joined Shoto up on the hidden ledge from which the raiders had attacked.

“Well done,” Shoto said, nodding to the three of them. “The archers were so fixed on you, they didn’t see us coming. Your devotion in the face of danger honors your families, your clan, and the Emperor.”

Though Kiwa carefully didn’t look at Sano, she could feel his discomfort. “We are all honored to serve you and the Emperor,” she said, bowing. Shoto nodded, and turned away.

Sano caught Kiwa’s eye, gratitude in his expression. She nodded back to him. There was no reason for the commander to know that Sano had questioned his orders on the field. They had done their duty, the battle was won, and that was all that mattered.



The mountains of Ares V were cold and terrible, and a long way from Space Station Kronos. With every step along this miserable planet’s deserted peaks, Tika cursed her aching feet, her half-frozen limbs, and especially the blasted arms-smugglers who had picked this forsaken snowy peak as their base. Her mission was unfortunately clear: find and destroy the smugglers’ base of operations before they could find and destroy her ship. This was the third such mission she’d been sent on in as many months, and the first in which she’d been assigned a partner.

“Come on, Sanno,” Tika called over her shoulder, beckoning to the large-muscled munitions expert with her blaster. “I want to be out of here by dark.”

“Then you can haul the fireworks factory on your back,” Sanno retorted, picking his way through the mounds of snow that drifted around them in the wind. “I’m coming as fast as I can.”

Tika rolled her eyes. “Then make as fast as you can faster.” She glanced at her watch and picked up the pace. “I’m guessing we have four hours before their instruments notice our ship’s signal, and maybe fifteen minutes after that before they shut down operations. We need to get there before that.”

“Wait.” Sanno stopped and crossed his arms. “We’re going in by daylight?

“I’m certainly not creeping around these icy ravines at night!”

“But our orders – ”

Tika told Sanno what he could do their orders. “The brass only care that we get the job done. And I don’t like sneaking around at night. Too many ways to fall down a rat-hole and die, and that’s in addition to getting slagged by friendly fire, or unfriendly fire. I prefer to see who I’m shooting at, thanks.”

“That’s not the way Commander Monson said we should approach –”

Tika sighed. “Is Commander Monson here? Did he have any idea when he gave us our briefing that the base was located on top of a blasted mountain? No. Because we just found that out when we scanned this miserable planet two hours ago. Do you know who sneaks around mountains at night? People with a death wish. Now let’s go. My blaster’s getting itchy for some action.”

Tika turned and shuffled onward through the snow. She listened hard and smiled to herself as she heard Sanno’s booted feet tramping along behind her. He wasn’t a bad guy, just a tad rigid. Tika pulled her binoculars from her fur-lined pocket – according to the ship’s computer, the base was located just south of their position, about another mile away.

Zap! The unmistakable sound of blaster fire made Tika drop her binoculars and shoulder her gun. “Sanno! Get down!”

The large man had already shrugged off his highly explosive pack and was fumbling for his sidearm.

Zap! Tika followed the shot with her eyes – the shooter was above them, in a narrow mountain crevice. Along with…Her eyes widened.

“New plan, Sanno,” she shouted. “Get ready to run!” She fired three shots in quick succession. The first hit the shooter in the chest. The second hit the equipment he had evidently been using. The third hit a pile of ice and snow just above them. The mountainside began to rumble, then shift.

“Did you just–”

“Less talking, more running!” Tika yelled, already moving. “We have an avalanche to worry about.”

Sanno ran. That didn’t stop him from sputtering his protests. “Why in blazes–”

“He was recording, blockhead! His friends are going to come check it out, and the less evidence we give them, the better. If they think he got hit by a freak avalanche, they won’t be expecting us. If we left him there, nice and neat for them to find, with shot-up or disabled transmission equipment, we’d be dead meat.”

Behind them, a roar of snow poured over the path that they had just taken.

“You know,” Sanno said, slowing down, “that’s actually pretty clever.”

Tika gave him a lopsided smile. “That’s why the brass recruited me for this job.” She patted her gun. “Well, that, and my eye with a blaster.”

“And your gentle spirit and humility,” Sanno noted wryly.

“Shut up,” Tika said. She shouldered her gun and pointed toward the camp. “We still have a base to take out. You ready?”

“As ready as you are.”

“Then let’s go blow up some guns.”

Savvy Saturday – Thinking Across Cultures (3)

The story of Kiwa and Tika continues, giving examples of how collectivists and individualists can be written in different situations. Today’s relevant collectivist/individualist difference: group goal/duty oriented versus personal goal/happiness oriented.

To remind yourself of what’s going on, you can check out the list and explanation of traits of collectivist and individualist cultures in Part 1 of my Thinking Across Cultures series, and read the beginning of Kiwa and Tika’s stories in Part 2.


Kiwa entered the wooden house of Commander Dasho, was shown to his private study by his young son, and bowed before the great warrior. He nodded back, dark eyes keen beneath bushy gray eyebrows, and gave her a rolled-up scroll. “You are the youngest of your cohort?” he asked after they exchanged a traditional greeting.

It wasn’t a question, but she nodded.

“You have been offered a chance at great honor,” he said. “The Emperor has grown weary of reports of raider attacks on Trader Clan’s caravans. He has tasked me with the duty of forming a new cohort, a sixteenth cohort, that will search out and destroy the mountain nest of the raider vermin. I need young warriors who are well-disciplined and not burdened with husband or children to ride into the mountains and fulfill the Emperor’s command. I have chosen you as one of six who will serve under the command of Shoto, son of Shoko. If you accept this honor, you will leave at dawn. What say you?”

Kiwa kept her face blank, but her mind reeled. Assigned to a new cohort? To leave Commander Tomo and the brothers and sisters she had fought with for three years, to be sent away from her parents, to be forced to ride into unknown territory where the raiders lurked in the snow with their curved blades and their unholy blood-rituals… She wanted to say no. She wasn’t like Nima, the loudmouthed girl who served in the fifth cohort and chattered away like a bird with talk of adventure and glory and proving herself.

And yet, this would not just be an honor for her, it would be an honor for her family. Kiwa could only imagine her parents’ pride as they watched her ride into the mountains under the command of the son of the most honorable and well-respected family in the village, willing to sacrifice her life in service to the Emperor. And when she came back – ah, that would be sweeter yet. The entire sixth warrior cohort would share in her success and be esteemed by every clan. Jolo and his family would bow in respect before her father in the marketplace. And the Rider Clan as a whole would be lifted up in the sight of the People of the Wind.

“I am unworthy to be chosen for such an honor,” Kiwa murmured, as formula required. “But if all other worthy candidates have turned aside, I am willing to do my duty.”

Commander Dasho nodded. “Very well,” he said, approval in his eyes and in his tone. “You are so assigned. May you bring honor to your family and the sixteenth cohort.”


“Lieutenant Tika,” Doshin said by means of greeting.

Tika snapped to attention. “Sir.”

“Your record was brought to my attention today,” the commander said, tapping a thick file on his desk. “Please, have a seat.”

Tika sat, still unsure of why she was here. The commander looked troubled, but that didn’t necessarily indicate that she had reason for concern. There was a war on; the commander always looked troubled.

“Commander Tohmo tells me that you’re the best sharp-shooter he’s seen in fifteen years,” Doshin said. “And from him, that’s saying something.”

Tika sat up straighter, and couldn’t keep a grin from coming to her face. “Thank you, sir.”

“He also says that you’ve been to the infirmary ten times in the past month for injuries not sustained under training procedures.”

Tika’s grin faded.

Doshin shook his head and tapped the folder. “I can’t have loose cannons running around my station, Tika. Not even with scores like yours.” He opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a single sheet of paper. He pushed it toward her. “This is a mission I’d like you to volunteer for,” he said. “Classified, I’m afraid, but I can guarantee your ranged weapon skills will be put to good use. It shouldn’t last more than six months.”

Tika’s breath caught in her throat. “Six months?” she blurted out. “Can Noto come?”

“I’m sorry,” Doshin said, shaking his head. “Just you.”

“Then no. Not interested.”

Doshin pursed his lips. “If you don’t volunteer,” he said, “I’ll be forced to transfer you off-station.”

Tika’s mind reeled. This couldn’t be happening. She was supposed to be here for another three years at least, and Noto’s service time wouldn’t be up for another five. She couldn’t be transferred off-station! It wasn’t fair!

“If it’s any consolation,” Doshin said, “if you succeed on this mission, I’m sure you’ll have your pick of next post – and enough clout to ask for your own team.”

Tika’s eyebrows shot up. “What kind of assignment are we talking about?”

Doshin just smiled and pushed the paper further toward her. “Dangerous. But worth it. I promise.”

Tika gritted her teeth. Six months of dangerous was better than permanently transferred. And then she’d be back with Noto, and nothing would keep them apart. “All right. I’ll do it. Sir.”

“Excellent.” Commander Doshin’s smile grew wider. “Thank you for your cooperation, Lieutenant. And good luck.”

Savvy Saturday – Thinking Across Cultures (2)

Continuing last week’s discussion of individualist and collectivist cultures, here are two beginnings of a story that take place in alternate universes. Kiwa is from a collectivist society, whereas Tika approaches life from an individualist viewpoint. Both face similar situations and make similar choices, but their motivations and worldviews show just how important culture is to the way a story unfolds…

Kiwa was not having a good day. First, her younger sister Ika – twelve years old, certainly old enough to know better – actually cried when she fell off her horse, and then refused to get back on and continue practicing with her cohort. Kiwa’s warrior cohort would never say anything to her face, but she saw the embarrassment in Miko’s eyes, heard the formality in Commander Tomo’s voice, felt the discomfort radiating from Shala and Ona and Nato as they drilled with her, and knew that they all shared her shame. Her parents, of course, would be completely mortified. Do you even care about your family? Kiwa could almost hear her mother asking. What if Commander Shoko had heard you? He would never allow a man in his cohort to marry Kiwa if he thought her sister was disrespectable and disobedient.

 Fortunately, one incident wouldn’t be enough to make Jolo and his family back out of the betrothal. Too many gifts had been given, too many stanzas of poetry read aloud beneath Kiwa’s window for passers-by to hear and smile at, for Jolo to want to declare that he had made a mistake in his choice of bride. Nonetheless, given Jolo’s family’s wealth – second only to Commander Shoko’s in the Stone Forest region – his proposed match with a girl whose family still ate only rice for many of their meals had raised more than a few pairs of eyebrows. Kiwa was well aware that she had only been honored with his proposal because of her father’s exemplary record in the third warrior cohort, as well as her own three years of obedient service in the sixth warrior cohort of the Rider Clan. If Ika didn’t learn to control herself, Jolo’s commanding officer might indeed counsel him to back out of his engagement.

Even worse, Kiwa had just received news that Commander Dasho – head over all fifteen warrior cohorts in the Stone Forest – had summoned her by name to report to him immediately. That was where she was headed now. She moved quickly and smoothly down the dirt road, her inner turmoil hidden behind a face as calm as the cloudless sky above. She ignored the chickens pecking for seed around her, and the loud cries of the Trader Clan and Farmer Clan selling their wares from makeshift stalls on both sides of the road. What could she have done to have attracted his attention? She couldn’t think of anything, but no one was called before the commander unless they had performed unusually poorly or unusually well in their duties. The former brought shame to one’s family and cohort and was unbearable to consider. The latter brought honor to one’s family, but caused disharmony in the cohort, and thus was equally problematic. No one liked to drill and fight with someone who had a big head. As Kiwa had been taught from the time she was young, members of a cohort were equal in every way, trained to fight together like finely crafted pieces in a machine. If a piece started thinking more highly of himself than he ought, it ruined the unity of the machine and led to death at the hands of the barbarian raiders from the mountains, and dishonor for the rest of the Rider Clan. No, it was better not to attract attention from one’s superiors, positive or negative. Kiwa swallowed, and forced herself to keep walking. The only thing worse than attracting attention was neglecting one’s duty, and that would be the last thing she would do.


Tika was not having a good day. Why had opened her blasted mouth again? She promised herself every day that she would learn self-control, and every day she made some smart-nosed response to Jitli’s snide comments that ended with her lying on the metal floor of the station with a new set of bruises. And today, Noto had seen it. That made everything worse – because of course, he couldn’t let her fight her own battles like the liberated female of the twenty-third century that she was. No, he had to be noble and chivalrous and punch Jitli in the face for attacking his girlfriend.

Which, of course, was why Tika loved him. That, and the fact that he could quote Shakespeare while kicking the snot out of a hundred rabid space-dogs. They complemented each other well, she and Noto did. With her expertise in range weapons and his hand-to-hand skills, with her flute sonatas and his sonnets, they were a match made in heaven. Now if only this war would end so they could have the time to actually get married and settle down, everything would be perfect.

Tika sighed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen any time soon. She looked down at the orders in her hand for the fifth time. They still told her to report to Commander Doshin, head of Space Station Kronos immediately, so she rubbed her aching legs, groaned, and slowly propelled herself out of the infirmary and down the curving steel halls of the station. She didn’t know what precisely had brought her to Commander Doshin’s attention, but it was likely either the fights, or her recent perfect score on the new blaster certification test. Given her dislike of permanent records placed in her file, she hoped it was the latter.


The adventures of Kiwa and Tika continue next week! Check back for more. Whose story do you empathize with more? What do you think will happen? Post below – I’d love to hear from you!

Savvy Saturday – Thinking Across Cultures

How would you describe yourself?

I am (a) _______, ________, and ________

 The answer you give to that question will immediately give a cross-cultural psychologist a huge insight into your entire conception of yourself and how you view life.

How, you ask? It’s simple. Did the three words you picked revolve around personal attributes (e.g. “I am a writer, I am artistic, I am tall”) or did they revolve around group memberships (e.g. “I am a daughter, I am a UNL PhD student, I am a church member”)? If you’re like most Westerners, your answers were mostly in the former category. This is because, if you’re from the US, England, or other European countries, you were raised in an “individualist” culture.

However, that’s not the way everyone in the world thinks. It isn’t even how most people think. And it matters. The alternative to an individualist culture is a collectivist culture. Individualist cultures tend to focus on individuals and their achievements, while collectivist cultures (think China) tend to focus on groups and maintaining harmony within them.

Unsurprisingly, books written by Western authors (e.g. American, English, Australian, and most European authors) typically approach characters, plots, and motivations from an individualist setting. As the world globalizes, however, and as we interact with, befriend, and write about other cultures, it becomes ever more important for authors to be able to accurately portray people not only from individualist societies, but from collectivist societies.

This week’s and next week’s post, then, will discuss and illustrate the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures, especially with regard to how individuals from these cultures might act and think in the setting of a novel. This week will discuss five basic questions that illustrate the basic framework as developed by Triandis (1989), and next week will give some examples of how an author might use this framework in their writing.

The rest of this post summarizes and discusses: Triandis, Harry C. (1989), “Cross-Cultural Studies of Individualism and Collectivism,” in John Berman (Ed.),  Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 41-133. Note that the following is a set of generalizations and universal statements that are actually far more complex than the summaries allow to be stated. Not all individuals from individualistic or collectivist cultures will follow these patterns.

Difference 1: What motivates individuals to act?

–          Individualist cultures: People’s personal goals shape their motivations. When an individual’s goals are out of line with a group’s goals, the individual is allowed (and even expected) to follow their own goals. Example: classic myths follow the exploits of individuals, who often disobey those in authority because of their own callings and desires, and are rewarded for it.

–          Collectivist cultures: A group’s goals shape individual motivations. If an individual’s goals are out of line with a group’s goals, the individual needs to change his/her goals and do his/her duty to the group. Example: a hero is tempted to neglect his duty to his family/the emperor, but resists temptation and is rewarded for it.


Difference 2: How is the “self” defined?

–          Individualist cultures: An individual’s public self and private self should be the same. Great value is placed on being honest and authentic with others – being oneself is seen as inherently good. Saying what you think, albeit with tact, is a character trait that is valued rather than looked down on. Example: A protagonist from an individualist culture might be brash, speak before he thinks, and get himself in trouble by what he says, but still be loved by readers for his honesty and good heart.

–          Collectivist cultures: An individual’s self is defined by how one’s in-group expects one to behave. Great value is placed on doing and saying what is expected, no matter what one actually thinks. Harmony within one’s in-group (such as one’s family) is paramount, and one does not wish to do, say, or be anything that would bring shame to other members of that in-group. Example: A protagonist from a collectivist culture might “do the right thing” by telling everyone that he is in favor of his daughter marrying a person he doesn’t like, and either try to change his own mind, or work secretly to keep the wedding from happening.


Difference 3: Who matters to the individual?

–          Individualist cultures: An individual belongs to many groups, and can pick and choose which to be attached to. Most often, individuals choose to remain closest to their immediate family. In addition, in the immediate family, the spousal tie tends to be the strongest, and trumps the tie of parents and children. However, there are a myriad of clubs, organizations, friend groups, religious groups, fandoms, etc. which individuals can join. Individuals choose which of these groups they want to invest their time and loyalty in, so as to maximize their personal happiness. Example: Our Hero joins a caravan that’s headed over the mountains. He may enjoy playing the lute with the musicians, gambling around the fire with the men, and fighting alongside the warriors to protect the caravan from raiders, but he is perfectly happy to move on and leave them behind when he gets to the next town.

  • A consequence of this: An individual is defined in terms of his own self, not in terms of the groups he belongs to. If a group dissolves, the individual is unlikely to change his/her core beliefs and allegiances. Example: Our Hero’s caravan is attacked, everyone in it is killed, and Our Hero is taken captive by the wild men of the mountains. Our Hero will maintain his moral identity and sense of self until he can escape.

–          Collectivist cultures: An individual is emotionally attached to a few groups, which deserve his/her utmost dedication. One’s family, one’s work-group, and one’s neighborhood might all be vital parts of a collectivist’s life. Within the family, hierarchical relationships between parents and children are vitally important – even more important than between spouses. In addition, a collectivist may be callous, rude, or even brutal to people outside his/her in-groups – they are potential enemies, and are certainly not deserving of one’s time and effort. Example: Our Hero had looked forward to spending an evening writing poetry. However, his neighbor needs someone to escort her son to a neighboring town – a journey of several hours. It is Our Hero’s duty to do so, and he willingly obliges. On their way, Our Hero passes by a stranger whose cart has broken. He feels no need to stop and help; he would actually be neglecting his duty to his neighbor, her son, and thereby the entire neighborhood group, if he does so.

  • A consequence of this: An individual is defined in terms of the groups he belongs to, which means that if his group dissolves, he is likely to be shaken to the core of his very being, and will need to find another group to become a part of. Example: In World War II, Japanese prisoners of war volunteered in good faith to become spies for the Allies, and did a very good job of it. They switched allegiances because they had saved their own lives against orders, and no longer were able to view themselves as Japanese.


Difference 4: What matters to the individual?

–          Individualistic cultures: An individual values freedom, achievement, enjoying life, ambition, and other similar values. Example: “I just want to get out of here and make my own way in the world!”

–          Collectivist cultures: An individual values equality, obedience, harmony/security, and other similar values. Example: “I just want to do what is expected of me, to increase the wellbeing of my family.”


Difference 5: How are members of other groups viewed?

–          Individualistic cultures: An individual is responsible for his/her own behavior, not for anyone else’s. Even if a person belongs to a group, that group isn’t responsible for his actions, and the individual isn’t responsible for the group’s actions. Acting otherwise is likely seen as prejudicial and nonsensical. Example: a civilian tourist doesn’t expect to be confronted about the policies of his/her government when he/she is out purchasing souvenirs. “Give me a break!” he says. “I didn’t vote for that bill. I’m just here on vacation!”

–          Collectivist cultures: An individual is responsible for the behavior of the entire group, and the group is responsible for its members’ behavior. At all times, individuals know that they represent the groups to which they belong. Even if they do not privately agree with the actions of their leaders, it is imperative that in public they act as if they do. Similarly, it is up to the leadership of a group to discipline and control the behavior of all of its members, or everyone will be shamed. Example: a civilian tourist knows that he is representing his country, so he takes care to dress and speak in an appropriate manner at all times lest he shame his people by giving a bad impression.



Again, these five questions and the answers to them are broad, sweeping claims based on experimental studies and psychological scholarship as found in Triandis (1989). They aren’t gospel truth, but as a writer, I believe they’re worth considering when we create and write about cultures that are different from our own.

How do your experiences match up with the framework above? Do you have favorite books or characters that come from a collectivist worldview? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

A Sampling of Sadistics (Part 1 of 4)

Greetings, all! Happy December! In honor of the holiday season (i.e. Finals Season for those of you who are students), I’m going to give you all a treat for the next few weeks. That is, an opportunity to suffer through not only a punny story that I wrote, but a punny story about STATISTICS. Yes, friends, this is the meeting of my worlds. Read at your own risk. I dare you.

A Sampling of Sadistics (Part 1)

by A.L. Phillips

Copyright 2013

Naturally, the worst snowstorm of the season arrived during finals week. I shivered against the malevolent wind as it howled its way right through my winter coat. “Wind-resistant,” I noted bitterly as I put one freezing foot in front of the other, was clearly the coat-manufacturer’s devious way of not saying “wind-proof.” Nevertheless, my statistics final wouldn’t wait until the storm was over. Sighing heavily, I shoved my hands deeper into my coat’s giant pockets and shuffled through the ever-shifting mounds of snow that obscured the paths, bushes, and grassy fields of the campus landscape.

There should have been a sidewalk somewhere. Given that I’d taken it to class nearly every day for the past five semesters, I should have been able to find it with my eyes closed. Which was more or less necessary at the moment – the snow was currently flying horizontally at my eyes and glasses, shrouding the world in a thick white blur. The color reminded me unpleasantly of the blank white sheets of paper that would currently be sitting on each desk in my statistics classroom.

My stomach went queasy at the image. In just a few hours, I knew, those papers would be covered with equations, graphs, and seemingly-cultish symbols, hopefully arranged in a meaningful-enough pattern to convince the professor that I’d been paying attention in class all semester. In just a few hours, I’d be done with statistics forever. In just a few hours, I’d never have to worry about –

– The sheet of ice on the ground had been hidden by a thin layer of snow. My boots slipped forward. I tried to catch myself, and realized too late that my warm deep pockets weren’t always an unmitigated blessing. Both my hands were still enveloped in fabric when my head hit something very cold and very hard.

So there was the sidewalk, I realized ironically, before the blinding white of the snowstorm was replaced by a velvety darkness.

“Doc! We’ve got another one!” I blinked my eyes against the brilliant lights that were assaulting my optic nerves. For some reason, their cheery yellow color did nothing to brighten my mood.

“What happened?” I murmured to myself, in part just to hear my own voice and to assure myself that I was awake. At that stimulus, my memories came back in a rush and I sat up with a start. “My final!” I gasped, adrenaline and dread hitting my system as if I’d downed a triple-espresso in one swallow.

“It’s okay, you’re fine. Your final will still be there when you get back.” The voice belonged to a young man, and it reminded me that I had quite inexplicably changed locations. While my last memory had been of a blizzard at college, I was now in a warm brightly-lit room, seated on an old, springy couch. The air felt heavy, and tasted faintly of perfume. I looked down and blinked: for some reason, the couch was upholstered in a print of Greek letters.

As I took in my surroundings, I soon realized that the couch’s patterning wasn’t the only strange thing about this room. To my right, a large number of unfamiliar machines were aligned in neat, gleaming rows, and to my left, a large number of empty picture frames were hanging on the wall in columns. The walls themselves were painted with a multitude of geometric designs: lines, symmetrical curves, and sets of patterned dots. For some reason, it reminded me of my high-school algebra and geometry classes.

“Where am I?” I asked, my voice a touch shrill. “This doesn’t look like a hospital.”

“It’s not,” came the young man’s voice again, finally drawing my eyes to the doorway where he was standing. As I looked at him, I felt some of the tension ease from my shoulders. Whoever the man was, he seemed relatively normal. He was probably about twenty-five or twenty-six years old, dressed in a blue buttoned top and white slacks, with slightly unkempt brown hair and intelligent eyes that matched his shirt. Shooting me a grin, he leaned out the doorway.

“Doc?” he called again, then shrugged and relaxed against the wall. “Sorry,” he said with an apologetic smile, “but you’ve come at a bit of a busy time for us. Normally the doc would have been here and sent you back by now, but he’s trying to deal with Tant’s crew. We’ve got them locked up in the basement, but they aren’t talking yet.”

“What?” I stared at the man, repeating to myself what he’d just said. It still didn’t make sense. “You have people locked up in the basement? What’s going on? Where on earth am I?”

“That’s a good question,” the young man replied frankly, maintaining his cheerful expression. “In fact, it’s a fascinating subject that requires a bit more depth to do justice to than I can spare at the moment. However, I’d love to discuss it with you at a time that’s convenient for both of us.”

I didn’t know quite how to respond. For some reason, this young man reminded me strongly of my history professor. Every college has one, I’m sure: the kind who tends to go off on tangents in class, and is always inviting students to come by his office to discuss deep issues. But in this situation, I needed answers, not office hours. “Can you give me the one sentence version?” I asked through clenched teeth. “I was in a snowstorm, and now I’m here, wherever this is, and I want to know what happened to me!”

“I know,” the young man said with a sympathetic expression. “I understand, really.” He looked out the doorway again, and exhaled in relief. “Finally,” he said. “Doc! We’ve got another one, and she’s asking questions.”

“Good, good,” I heard an older voice echoing from beyond the room. Strangely, it again reminded me of school – my stats professor always used that expression when someone gave a correct answer. Was I dreaming?

I pinched myself. It hurt. Okay, not dreaming. For some reason, that realization didn’t make me feel better.

I heard heavy footsteps approaching, and stood up to meet “Doc.” A moment later, an older man entered the room. Instead of the white coat I’d expected, the doctor was wearing a business suit.

“Hi,” I said hesitantly. “Um…” I trailed off, trying to figure out what to say. For some reason, I was finding it hard to think. Maybe it was the air, with its odd perfume and heavy taste. Or maybe it was Doc’s intimidating face: his pursed lips, heavy gray eyebrows, trimmed mustache and beard, and green eyes that seemed to be calculating my intelligence based on my demeanor, appearance, and apparent lack of communication skills. I automatically stood up straighter, trying to appear more confident than I felt.

But then the doctor spoke, and even the best posture in the world wouldn’t have helped me impress him. I had no idea what he had just said. The man had obviously been addressing me, since he was still holding me under his intimidating green gaze, but I couldn’t make out the words. “I’m sorry?” I squeaked.

I listened carefully, straining my ears as he repeated the question, but it was no use. He wasn’t speaking English. Sighing, the doctor beckoned with a long finger to the young man behind him – the panicked look in my eyes must have been pretty obvious.

With a smile of pity, the younger man stepped forward. “He asked if you’re a student,” he said.

“Oh,” I replied. Of all the questions I had anticipated, that was one of the furthest from my mind. “Yeah, of course I am. Can he tell me what’s going on?”

The older man said something else in his strange not-quite-English dialect, accompanying it with a stern look in my direction. I glanced in helpless confusion at his assistant.

“He understands English,” he said apologetically, “and would appreciate it if you’d address him.”

“Oh.” I turned back to the doctor. “Yes, then. I mean, yes, sir,” I added, since it seemed appropriate.

His eyebrow twitched, and he launched into another sentence. Listening to him was aggravating. I felt like I should be able to understand what he was saying, but somehow the sounds that entered my brain just didn’t turn into words. Fortunately, the young man kept translating. “He says you may call him Doc, and he hypothesizes that this is your first visit to these fair fields. Is that correct?”

“I…don’t know,” I answered, trying to both keep my eyes on the doctor, and also look around the room to get my bearings. There weren’t any windows, so I couldn’t tell where I was, but I’d never heard anyone describe the suburban town in which my college was located as “fair fields.”

The doctor’s eyebrows twitched at my response. He said something else in a dry tone, to at which his assistant hid a smile before translating. “By your response, Doc says, it appears that his hypothesis is not able to be rejected. On the basis of this, we both welcome you, student, to the Realm of Academia. More specifically, we’d like to welcome you to the main office of the Fields of Sadistics.”

Maybe I was dreaming after all. Then the last word of Doc’s welcome registered, and my stomach tightened. “Sadistics? You don’t mean statistics, do you?”

Doc interjected something in a dismissive tone, making a brushing motion with his hand. “No, that’s only what perts call it,” his translator said. “He would normally send you back immediately,” he continued as Doc kept talking, “but he says that if you’re willing to assist us first in a matter of grave importance, he can assure you that the whole kingdom will be eternally grateful.”

The doctor raised his eyebrows, his green eyes glittering as he waited for an answer. I, on the other hand, was still finding it hard to think. “Perts?” I asked. Then the rest of Doc’s message sank into my brain. My eyes widened, and I met the doctor’s gaze for a moment, then looked down at my fingernails. “Oh. I’d love to, but I don’t think I can. I have a final in forty minutes. Sorry.” I felt my cheeks turning red as I spoke. For some reason, I didn’t want to disappoint these people, strange as they were.

Doc’s response, however, was the opposite of what I anticipated. He started chuckling, then spoke a few decisive sentences. “Oh, don’t worry about your final. We’ll get you back in plenty of time,” his assistant translated. “Time in Academia is an elastic substance. Everything takes the same amount of time here.” Doc’s tone indicated that I should have already known this.

I glanced over at his assistant, hoping for explanation. He gave me a helpful smile. “No matter how much time any task is supposed to take in Academia, it gets done half an hour before it’s due.”

Doc nodded in agreement, then began to speak again in a breezy tone.

“So since your final isn’t for forty minutes, you’ll be fine,” the translator said.

For some reason that made sense, though a part of my brain told me that I had clearly hit my head too hard. Even more surprising to that part of my brain, I found myself agreeing to help.

“Good, good!” Doc said with another sharp head-nod. I wondered if that was only real English he could speak. Doc then turned back to his assistant, ticked off some items on his fingers, and left the room. Though his speech was still incomprehensible, I thought I caught one word.

“Did he call you Timothy?” I asked once the sound of footfalls had receded down the hall.

“Yes, short for Timothy Allen,” the man said. “Sorry, I should have introduced myself earlier. You can call me T.A.”

For some reason, that name rang a bell, but my head was spinning too much by now to put the pieces together. “Nice to meet you,” I said, half-hoping that the use of well-worn pleasantries could counteract the strangeness that this place exuded. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

“Likewise,” T.A. responded, his blue eyes sparkling as if he understood exactly where I was coming from. It was annoying, actually, how cheerful he was. “Follow me down to the kitchen: Doc told me to explain everything to you on the way, then meet him and the others in the basement.”

(To be continued)



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