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Nitocris, the Babylonian Queen Who Doesn’t Have Time for Your Nonsense

The Gate of Babylon

The Queen of Babylon was sharp of wit, full of sass, and had exactly zero patience for the follies of men in power. Upon Nitocris’s death, at her orders her body was placed in a tomb directly over the main gate of the city, with the consequence that many kings chose to go around the back way rather than risk the ill luck of passing in all their panoply beneath a corpse. On the outside of her tomb was an inscription telling the kings that would rule after her time that a great treasure was laid within her tomb: “If any king of Babylon is short of cash, let him open up my tomb and take what he likes, but only at the most dire need. The treasure will do him no good if taken under other circumstances.” For a long time the tomb of Nitocris went undisturbed. At last, Darius had it broken open; he was irritated that he always had to enter the city by the back way like a man of lesser station, and it galled him that there was a treasure there just waiting to be taken. So he violated Nitocris’s tomb. Inside, he found not so much as a single coin. Just a corpse. And an inscription beside it:

If you hadn’t been such a greedy jerk, willing to grab money by any despicable means, you would never have violated the rest of the dead. —Nitocris.

The tale is from Herodotus, so it may or may not have actually happened; it isn’t always easy to corroborate Herodotus, a fact that he himself freely acknowledges. The “father of historians,” he had a way of collecting stories, including contradictory ones, presenting them each to the reader, and inviting the reader to consider which were likely and which were not. The tale of Nitocris is among my many favorites.

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Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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What is a Comma Splice? (And Other Tales of Grammar and Cosmic Horror)

Comma splice - image of books lying open

What is a comma splice?

CW: Grammar and Gore

Like the mighty Dickens before me, I will use a comma splice if I judge the time right, if the stars are aligned and it is time to afflict grammarians with madness and woe as they gaze helplessly into the abyss of a cosmos that is uncaring of our punctuation and our futile attempts at order. However, I can never do so without also at that moment remembering the words of an English teacher who cautioned me and my fellow teaching assistants in an effort to prevent our venturing into such unwholesome magic.

This is what she said:

“I need to tell you what a comma splice is like. This is what it’s like. Picture a big ole snow slope and there’s a sled about to plummet down that slope like a greased piglet, and there’s this little child. The sled slips and the child reaches out and grabs hold of that sled and tries to stop it and you know what happens? I will TELL you what happens. That big ole sled just RIPS the child’s arm right off, and the sled careens on down the hill like a politician running from a scandal and the child’s arm is just flapping in the wind and spraying blood all over the snow, blood everywhere, just geysers of blood! Now imagine it had been a grown man on the hill instead and he reached out and grabbed hold of that ole sled and it stopped. It stopped because that man was strong enough to hold it, unlike the poor child bleeding out in the snow while his arm is off down the hill waving at the angels. See, that grown man is a semicolon and he could stop that independent clause dead in its tracks, but that poor child was just a comma. So every time you see a stray comma flapping in the breeze between two independent clauses where it has no earthly business being, you just remember that child’s arm spraying blood. That’s a comma splice. Now go teach your students that. They won’t forget it.”

Between the comma splice child, and the unclosed parenthesis just lurking around like a flasher in a trenchcoat bothering good people who just want to go about their sentences, and the sentence with passive voice that was like a lonely grad student who went camping and was expecting her boyfriend to meet her but a bear came first and ripped off half her face and took out one of her eyes and ate her, and after the mauling they found the body but not the bear, and nobody knew who or what had torn the poor grad student to pieces and cracked her bones for the marrow, because her sentence used the passive voice and only had a direct object and no subject, a body without any visible agent of its demise…

Well, between those things, I did not leave the assistantship unscathed. (My first published fiction was horror.)

The ways of punctuation proved dark and terrifying and fascinating and full of grim and grisly truth, like a Flannery O’Connor story, but for our teacher, proper punctuation was our line of defense, and our students’, against the otherwise inevitable predations of a lawless and hungry universe. I remain, as she predicted, both appalled and unforgetful.

Stant Litore

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Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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A First Read for the New Year

Cover: No Lasting Burial
Hi readers! If you loved Lives of Unforgetting, I’d like to suggest No Lasting Burial for your first read in the new year. It is my best book. It features a dying city. A lake where the fish have disappeared and the dead lurk underwater. A one-armed woodcarver in search of love. An outcast rebel with a cause, a battle-horn, and a scar for each of the dead he’s sent home. A widow fighting for the lives of her sons, who gave birth in a tomb so soldiers wouldn’t find her and the child. A disgraced priest, tormented by the night his people were attacked and he ran away. A fisherman-poet who dreams of the night he heard angels calling to each other across the hills. A homeless migrant who needs her voice back, if anyone will listen. And a traveling miracle-worker with dirt on his face and ears that hear every cry of pain and grief in every century, and who starts stirring everything that’s dead and unburied…
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8 Years of Storytelling!

October 5 will be here soon: the eighth anniversary of the publication of my first novel, Death Has Come Up into Our Windows. It is a very raw, emotional, visceral book about grief and justice, love and loss and endurance. I remain moved by it, many years later. Its thematic concerns are still the same questions that drive me. It was the first installment in The Zombie Bible, a retelling of the tale of Jeremiah.

Last year, I reflected on it while writing Lives of Unforgetting:

I have always found myself moved and troubled by Jeremiah’s story. Like Cassandra of Troy, cursed by the god Apollo to see the future but be believed by no one, Jeremiah walks the streets of ancient Jerusalem before its fall, pleading with the economically well-to-do, the religiously content, and the politically complacent. Look at our city, he demands. One child is sacrificed to the flames on the hill, while another starves in the street while just indoors, on the other side of a wall, an affluent woman with well-fed children bakes cakes to Astarte, and sings so that she will not hear the screams of another woman’s child.

“I set Jeremiah’s complaints against injustice and idolatry (which he saw as a root cause of injustice) to fiction in my novel Death has Come up into Our Windows. I wanted to try and put that prophet’s heart and his words of fire on the page for a modern reader.”

And in a note at the beginning of Death Has Come Up into Our Windows, I said this about the story’s genre and its thematic concerns:

“The crisis created by an outbreak of the walking dead offers a telling diagnostic of those flaws in the human condition that resurface, century upon century: our tendency to let problems fester untended until they become crises, our frequent inability to work together for a common good, our quickness to forget the lessons our grandparents learned at the cost of much sweat and blood, and the extent to which our privileged classes ignore and deny responsibility for the plight of the impoverished and the disinherited. Our ancestors often described the attacks of the hungry dead as acts of either divine retribution for human sins or divine abandonment in utter grief at human evil, and in at least one sense they may have been correct: the rapid rise of an outbreak is nearly always a consequence of our own failings.”

I think the story may be all the more timely and desperate now, even more than in 2011. Certainly when I wrote it, starting in the summer of 2009, I was thinking as much of our America as I was of Jeremiah’s ancient and dying city.

If you’ve never read the book, I hope you might. It is part nightmare, part cry of defiance in the dark, part love letter from me as a young writer with a heart on fire. It is here:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B012R7PFU8

In October, the book will be 8 years old. It has been a vigorous, exhausting, hopeful, exhilarating eight years. And it is still only the beginning. So many stories yet to tell.

Stant Litore

DHCW

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A Little Bit of Celebration for the Day

Look who is growing!

Diana1

It’s my Great Pyrenees puppy, Diana of Themyscira. She is known affectionately around the house, though, as Thunderfloof. She has been an enormous help to me in weathering the winter depression I get; with her, I managed to sail my raft over the surface of depression’s gray sea without sinking fully in, this winter.

She is beautiful and good-hearted:

Diana2

Look who else has been growing! Even more exciting – It’s my son, Círdan Leto, named for the Shipwright in The Lord of the Rings and for the Duke and the God Emperor in the Dune series. He is exploring. He is two now – how swiftly Lady Time leaps when children dance with her!

CirdanCirdan1

My daughters are also thriving. River is excelling at math and science, and Inara is now trying to learn to run – she’ll run a few steps, stumble, and try again, a few times a week. That is how much she thinks of the prediction she was once given that she would never stand or walk…

Thank you all for following my work! Whether you’re doing it on this blog, on Facebook, or on Patreon – where you can get the behind-the-scenes look at everything that’s getting created and help fund more of it. It means so much to me.

I hope you’ve been enjoying the books! The next up – working vigorously on it now – will be Ansible: Season Three.

Stant Litore

Books

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Reminder to Self

Reminder to Self: I am not writing for everyone.

That reader over there, in tears and a little overwhelmed with life, who tonight could really use the adrenaline rush of riding a tyrannosaur across an orbital space station, that’s who I’m writing for.

That reader over there who has just been bricked up behind an authoritarian wall of out-of-context biblical verses and can’t draw a good breath of air and who would really appreciate having that house-of-cards wall shattered and spun into a life-affirming, take-you-over-the-rainbow, blow-the-roof-off-the-church-and-come-to-Jesus whirlwind, that’s who I’m writing for.

And that boy in me, fighting giant invisible birds with a stick in the forest behind his farm, that’s who I’m writing for.

Can’t write for everyone. But I can write for them.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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Here in the American West

Uranium

There is so much to love about this story. First, the couple involved have such great names for characters in a story: Stephen Jennings and Rachel Rivera. Second, the uranium and the rattlesnake were both legal in Oklahoma (the open bottle of Kentucky Deluxe, not so much). Third, the vehicle was stolen. Fourth, Rachel Rivera was a felon. Fifth, Jennings told the cops (jokingly, one assumes, but let’s not assume, because we’ve got us a story to tell) that with his pet snek and the jar of uranium, he figured he might make a super snake. Sixth, the poor guy got pulled over for … having expired tags. So there’s Jennings, backcountry rebel in his stolen ride with his felon Rachel in the passenger seat with her firearm ready, his deathkillsnake in the back, his jar of uranium, his bottle of Kentucky’s not-quite-finest firewater, all ready to rev it up and head straight across the American West to spread a trail of mayhem, carnage, and slithery wonder … and then he gets pulled over because the tags got too old. The best laid plans of snakes and men go oft awry, and bureaucracy is the grim reaper who comes for us all in the end.

And if that isn’t a quintessential American story, I don’t know what is.

Stant Litore

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I’m Not Here to Write You a Small World

Bookshelf of Stant Litore's fiction

tl;dr: Whether we’re comfortable or uncomfortable with “diverse characters” in fiction has everything to do with how we’ve defined our communities. I’m not adding anyone to the fictional world or “forcing” them into the story. I’m just refusing to subtract people who are already in the world we share together.

Let’s talk about “diverse characters” for a moment.

Every once in a while, a reader will object, with a tone of moral indignation, that they don’t like “PC” fiction (I think they mean “politically correct”; I don’t think they’re objecting to thriller novels about desktop computers) or that they don’t think I should be “forcing diversity” or writing “political fiction” or “ramming a message down their throat” or “rubbing a message in their face.” (About nonconsensual throat-ramming: It’s always weird to me when a reader describes a fictional story that contains elements they dislike using metaphors for bodily invasion or assault, but that’s a topic for another time.)

What I have been thinking about is why there is a seemingly fundamental disconnect between these particular readers and other readers (including myself) who I write for. I think it has to do with how we have defined our communities – in religious terms, with who we recognize as our neighbors.

When I tell a science fiction story with Muslim characters, or characters with various ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, levels of physical ability, etc., these objecting readers think I am “forcing” these elements on them because what they have defined as their community does not include or welcome people who are different from them in these ways, and the presence of people different from them is seen as an invasion or violation.

But I don’t write the characters I write because I have a “message.” Or to be “PC.” Or to ram a character “down someone’s throat.” I write the characters I write because people in my community, people I love, my family and friends and colleagues – they inspire and are reflected in the characters I write. My characters are influenced by people I’ve known.

There is a 150-year-old Chinese gunslinger in a wheelchair in my current work in progress not because I want to rub diversity in a reader’s face, but because my daughter is in a wheelchair and she is as fierce as a gunslinger, and because several of my dearest college friends were from China (Yi and I used to stay up all night playing Starcraft; I usually lost), and because I think in a future scifi novel, people might live to 150.

And I wrote into Ansible: Season Three a love story between two bi women not because I have a “political” message in mind but because some people very dear to me are bi. And they have love stories. When I write science fiction stories about people marooned in alien bodies in which they never felt at home … I know people who live that experience, though their bodies are not literally extraterrestrial. (That’s the scifi part.)

To me, the presence of these fictional characters is not an invasion of the reader or an authorial intrusion that I have jammed into the story; their presence is just a given. These are people. Readers who object often think that I am “adding” people into the fictional world that they don’t want there, and who they think I shouldn’t want there. Unwelcome people. But I’m not adding anyone to the fictional world. I’m just refusing to subtract people who are already in the world we share together.

If I write a hijabi bi superheroine, I didn’t write her because I want us to be “PC.” I wrote her because I wanted to tell her story. It would be utterly exhausting to censor my fiction and shrink my imagined worlds and their casts of characters merely in order to accommodate the bigotries or discomfort of some readers.

If your own world is small, then good stories might make you feel uncomfortable. And maybe they need to. Because good stories make our world bigger.

But if it is truly too uncomfortable, there are so many stories out there that are written with smaller worlds inside them. Readers can go read those stories and inhabit those smaller worlds if that is truly what they want. But I don’t have any obligation to my readers to write them a smaller world. That is not what I do.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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For writers: Want to write characters who are very different from you? Find affordable books, resources, and classes on Writing the Other here.

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Something I Want to Say

I have been told a few times recently that I cannot love God or serve God faithfully without condemning my LGBTQ+ neighbors, or without supporting policies and actions that threaten their rights, their lives, or their wellbeing. A few of my siblings in the faith believe that.

And I answer, “I think you are confusing me with someone who worships a small god. My God is not a small god. My God does not care about outward appearances; my God cares about the heart. My God is less interested in whether you squat or stand when you pee than with whether you love. I say ‘my God’ but he is not ‘my’ anything; I am trying to be his. I would be ashamed of owning a god, especially a small one. The God I love never told me to sit in judgment over my neighbor. He told me to love my neighbor, recklessly and deeply and without conditions, as he does.”

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Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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New From Stant Litore: Colosseums for Dinosaurs

Look what’s here!

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No photo description available.

Colosseums for Dinosaurs is an omnibus edition of all the dinosaur stories. It includes The Running of the Tyrannosaurs, Nyota’s Tyrannosaur, and The Screaming of the Tyrannosaur.

Once each year on orbital space stations, nano-engineered young women compete on the backs of dinosaurs in races as brutal and bloody as any witnessed in the Roman Circus 3,000 years before. Highly skilled and capable of superhuman feats, these gladiators live isolated lives—except for the resurrected beasts with whom they form their deepest bonds. Tonight, on the red sands of the arena and inside the hollow asteroid where the dinosaurs are grown, the secrets these gladiators discover will shake their entire world.

Join Livia Tenning (Egret), Nyota Madaki (Jaguar), and Mai Changying (Timberwolf) in Colosseums for Dinosaurs.

“This is a pulse-pounding story, a triumph of world-building – a story of gladiatorial combat and of bonds strange and transcendent. Without a doubt, one of the most enthralling stories I’ve come across.” – Samuel Peralta, The Future Chronicles

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To Understand is to Stand Among

Etymology of understanding - Photo of a woman gazing out

I love the word “understand.”

It’s a very, very old English word, dating back to a time when the word “under” did not mean “beneath” but meant “in the middle of” or “among.” To understand a place, you must stand in the midst of it, looking around at everything there and being a part of it. To understand a people, you must stand among them, not outside looking in. It’s a beautiful word.

Our word “comprehend” is from the Latin. The verb, back when the Romans had hold of it, literally meant to seize or take something completely, to grasp hold of it and pull it to you. Prehendere is the same verb used for seizing criminals; it also becomes our English word “apprehend.” Over time, by metaphor, comprehendere came to mean seizing knowledge, approaching something that’s outside of you and taking it by force, taking ownership of it, taking it into your mind. A very Roman idea. To comprehend someone or something that’s outside of us, we approach them, take them, capture them, and own them in our mind. They are now a known quantity. In this way, the empire desires to “comprehend” the world.

But the Anglo-Saxon verb understandan meant … to stand in the middle of things and look around and see what’s there, which you can do because you’re in it and a part of it.

I really love the word “understand.”

We need more understanding in the world.

Stant Litore

(A shameless plug: If you would like more language nerding from me, please get the book Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible, because you will really enjoy it.

You can find it here.

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Photo credit: Marina Vitale on Unsplash; @marina_mv88

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Things I’m Excited For

It’s stunningly expensive (and probably should be, as it represents twenty years of work), but it’s also exciting; Robert Alter’s new translation of the Hebrew Bible into English is scholarly and brings a lot more accuracy to the table than many existing translations: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BN5HWWX

What I am eager for that has not happened just yet is a full Hebrew Bible translation from a translator who is a woman or from a committee of women. As we saw when Marcia Falk translated the Song of Songs, when Anne Carson translated Sappho, and when Emily Wilson translated the Odyssey, centuries of male or majority-male translation committees can miss some pretty big things. (I am sure the notion that men sometimes miss “obvious” things will come as no surprise to any woman reading this post.) So I eagerly await the day when the number of biblical translators who are women grows.

Meanwhile, I am excited to dig into Alter’s translation as soon as I can afford a copy or secure one from the library. (Fortunately, many individual books or sets of books like the Torah or the Psalms are already available as individual volumes.) I want to see especially his treatment of the poetic texts.

For those who share either my interest in the Bible or my interest in language nerdery, I just wanted to share the news that this is out!

Stant Litore

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Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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Triceratops Traveling in Vast Herds, Vast

Things I learned in the past year:

1. Triceratops traveled across the continent in majestic herds of hundreds of thousands, like wildebeest or bison, a flowing ocean of hide and horn;

2. There was once a species of crocodile that could gallop 40mph, and they snacked on dinosaurs.

3. In Finnish, poronkusema is a unit of distance referred to in some rural areas. It literally means “reindeer piss” and it describes the distance a reindeer can travel without urinating in the snow. The space between blotches of yellow snow is roughly six miles.

There. These are things you know now.

Also, come learn from my books. For dinosaurs, go for Nyota’s Tyrannosaur; for language nerdiness, go for Lives of Unforgetting.

(Get the books. Get the books. Get the books.)

Oh yeah, and:

4. Pumpkin toadlets (a species of tiny frog in Brazil) have a glow-in-the-dark skeleton. That is also a thing you know now.

Stant Litore

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Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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About that Gorgeous Cover

People have been curious about the gorgeous cover of Lives of Unforgetting, the new book. The cover design is by Roberto Calas, and the art is by The Rustic Vegan, used with his permission; his photograph makes me think of being welcomed to a lovely meal with people who have stories to share that may not be the stories I expect. Thank you for joining me at the table! Make sure to check out the artist’s work on Instagram: www.instagram.com/rustic.vegan – it will make you both delighted and (I think) hungry.

And please get a copy of my book. I will be delighted if you read it and share word of it with others who would be interested. Lives of Unforgetting is here:

Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07NTRT4DP

Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1732086931

Book Cover - Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible by Stant Litore

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New Book from Stant Litore: Lives of Unforgetting

I am delighted to announce the release of a new book: Lives of Unforgetting, subtitled “What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible, And A Way of Reading the Bible as a Call to Adventure.”

Book Cover - Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible by Stant Litore

The ancient Greek word for “truth” means unconcealing or unforgetting. Yet today many ideas and stories that were once critical to how early Christians understood, practiced, and defended their faith often remain “hidden in plain sight” in our Bibles. These ideas are concealed from us by the distance between languages, between eras, and between cultures—yet they are so worth unconcealing and unforgetting.

In Lives of Unforgetting, discover:

  • The forgotten women who co-founded Christianity
  • Whether the first-century church thought there was a hell
  • What happens when you realize that in Greek, faith is a verb
  • Why gender in the Bible is more complicated than we think
  • Which concepts our modern tradition often takes for granted that would have been alien to the original readers (like homophobia)

We have also forgotten that to read the Bible is to receive an invitation to adventure—to encounter the impossible, to move mountains, to walk on water. Instead, we have been taught to read the Bible tamely, to make no choices, to risk no questioning of our tradition. What would happen if we took the adventure? If we readers walked out into the wilderness toward God, leaving home far behind? If we stepped out of the boat of our received tradition, out onto the crashing waves?

Let’s find out.

Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07NTRT4DP
Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1732086931

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Keeping Momentum in a Troubled Time

On my mind:

Makes me sad: The global extinction crisis.
Makes me mad: The senseless cruelty of our border crisis.
Makes me glad: Cirdan learning words. Learn, little guy, learn! Learn all the things.
Makes me rad: Gladiators riding T-Rexes.
Makes me hope a tad: Kindness. Like when your kid is in the hospital and a friend is planning to bring dinner and they show up with like a carload of food. Just … kindness.

If I can hold all five in my hands, sad/mad/glad/rad/tad, I can keep moving. I can take action, neither spending my energy in passive outrage nor hoarding my energy in passive apathy.

If I can hold all five in my hands, if I can be both angry and kind, then I can keep moving.

Stant Litore

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Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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“The Excellence of the Ladies”

In ancient days women were able to do
extraordinary things to impress the world
by their excellence in arms (to name but two,
I offer Camilla and Harpalyce, who hurled
spears and wielded swords). And not a few
were followers of the Muses and uncurled
their scrolls as Sappho did with uneven lines,
and Corinna, and their light forever shines.

Women have achieved in every art
and craft the highest distinction, and their fame
is great indeed. They’re strong and they are smart.
Without them history couldn’t have been the same.
I rather think it is envy on men’s part
that keeps concealed the honor and acclaim
they have deserved. If their work is not taught in schools,
it is because men are jealous–or fools.

In our own age, fair women of talent and
worth are everywhere and deserve that pen
and paper record their prowess and their grand
achievements, so that in the future, when
people study our times they will understand
the excellence of the ladies.

– Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso Canto XX,
Published in Ferrara, Italy in 1516.

502 years ago.

The lines above are translated by David R. Slavitt.

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The Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

Old engraving of Nero fiddling while Rome burns

The Roman emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, desiring the worship, adoration, and awe of millions, had to have the biggest, gaudiest, flashiest everything. He had big plans. One time, Nero proposed to the Senate and People of Rome that they make Rome even greater than it had ever been by tearing down a third of the city and building a series of magnificent palaces on top of the newly cleared land. The conjoined palaces would be called Nero City (Neropolis).

The Roman congress was adamantly against the proposal of building Nero City, no matter how Nero Claudius Caesar raged and tantrummed and insisted that he’d simply shut down the whole Roman government if they didn’t build what he wanted. Curiously, shortly after the Senate rejected their executive leader’s plans for Nero City, a devastating fire burned down the senators’ ancestral family homes on the Palatine Hill and much of the rest of the city, too. It was rumored that the fire was started by arsons employed by Nero.

In the place of those lost homes, Nero built a Golden House (Domus Aurea), the biggest and most golden house in all the world. It covered the Palatine Hill and the slopes of several other adjacent hills in Rome. The palace covered more than 100 acres and may have covered more than 300 acres; we don’t know the size for sure, because we haven’t dug up the entire grounds. We know that the Golden House had 300 rooms covered in polished white marble, as well as vast halls coded by theme and color. There was a massive revolving dining room where guests at dinner could be showered with flower petals and perfumes while the room slowly, slowly turned. There were parks and woods inside the palace, and a vast artificial lake where Nero had fleets of gladiators perform re-enactments of Rome’s naval combats, showing in the storm of swords and the crash of timber and the cries of battle just how much Rome was the greatest and had always been the greatest. Nero also had a 100-foot statue of himself carved and parked inside the lobby of the Golden House. The statue of Nero may have been even bigger; it depends on which ancient source you’re reading. Nero paid for a 120-foot statue, but he may have only gotten a 99-foot statue in the end. And judging by the differing reports from his contemporaries, there may have been some public contention over what the actual size of his finished statue was. It was, regardless, the hugest statue in Rome, the city in the Empire that had all the statues, all the best statues.

Nero also had to be the best and greatest at everything. He wanted to be the best athlete and the best boxer, and he competed in the Olympic Games. He wanted to be the best musician and actor and entertainer, and he composed songs and would sometimes hold a concert for an entire night that no one attending was permitted to leave, though there were reports of guests going into labor during Nero’s concert, or feigning death in order to get out. The safer option, of course, was to wait until the end and give Nero Claudius Caesar your fullest applause. He believed that he was the best architect, the best shipbuilder, the best engineer, that he knew more about each of those subjects than those Romans who had spent their lives in those professions. On one occasion, in an elaborate (but so very Nero) plot to assassinate his mother, Nero designed an ornate pleasure boat that would collapse and sink, and then sailed his mom off in it. It did collapse and sink, but too quickly, so she swam ashore. Another time, he built her a collapsible house.

Nero was incredibly popular with the masses. He would put on vast gladiatorial games for them, he built baths and gymnasiums that anyone could use, he bragged incessantly about the greatness and glory of the Roman military and the Roman people, and he always found someone to blame for all of the problems that hardworking Romans had to face. Their gods were being besmirched and their jobs were being taken by immigrants from the Middle East. And when the great fire of AD 64 burned much of the city, it was clearly the immigrants’ fault. They had come here, sneaky-like, with their alien religion and their violent Middle Eastern ways, and they hated Rome and Romans, and they had started the fire. They were terrifying arsonists and violent people and they needed to be dealt with. Thrown to the lions, burned alive, executed in very showy ways so that the Roman people could see the retribution for their lost jobs and lost homes and lost family, and so that Rome could be rebuilt and be made great again.

Epictetus, a Roman philosopher of the day, criticized Nero Claudius Caesar for his need for adoration. Epictetus said that Nero was a childish, unhappy man who did everything he did in order to get as much praise as possible. If anyone else was getting praise from the Roman masses, Nero would fly into a rage and smear and attack that other person. Or even have them done away with. Suetonius, a historian, said that Nero was possessed by an “unreasonable craving for immortal fame.”

Nero talked a lot about the Roman economy. He talked about closing loopholes in the Roman tax laws and making taxation fair. He talked about spending only on things that mattered and made Rome great … like Nero City. And, curiously, he bankrupted the empire’s treasury and sent Rome into a deep abyss of debt to foreign banks. And though Nero talked all the time about the greatness of Rome’s military, he wasn’t actually very interested in military plans or details. He announced that he intended to abandon the empire’s campaigns across the sea in Britain, he consistently ignored the advice of Rome’s military commanders, and in the end, his military leaders rebelled. Reportedly, Nero’s last words were “Qualis artifex pereo! (What an artist the world is losing!)”

All this, naturally, has nothing to do with current events or persons in today’s world.

Stant Litore

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Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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3 A.M. Thoughts

Dreamscape: Clouds

3 a.m. thoughts, in sequence, upon waking:

1. Life is most likely not as bleak and drear and futile as it briefly appears when you wake at 3 a.m. with a headache and an overabundance of snot.

2. That cyborg ceratosaur that you just fled in your dream for an hour while firing a ray gun over your shoulder and yelling at your crewmates to run faster, dammit…that ravenous robotic dinosaur did not actually eat your friend Jorge. No matter how choked up you just got at the memorial service, where his casket held only his favorite helmet because the rest of him was inside that ceratosaur’s half-mechanical belly, Jorge is not really dead in real life. You didn’t lose him. You don’t have to feel like you abandoned him on that world, down there in the belly of the beast. It’s ok. Sometimes you fight the cyborg ceratosaur and overcome, sometimes you fight the cyborg ceratosaur and you’re breakfast. That’s life in the fleet. It’s ok. You did all you could. Also, that was a dream, silly, and Jorge is just fine. His memorial service can wait a few decades yet. You can tell him about the dream tomorrow after sunup and laugh about it together.

3. You do not actually know anyone named Jorge.

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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Image Credit: Kyle Smith on Unsplash.