Not long ago I was in a hardware store in a small town not far from our farm. I was with my son buying plumbing parts for a water project for the farm. Robert and I were at the register with our PVC valves, couplers, and adapters when the clerk, a friendly local fellow named Buck, started to ring up my order…
Buck: “So… when’s the next book come out?”
Me: “April 29th. Just a few more weeks.”
Buck: “Really? What’s it about?”
I looked at Buck through narrowed eyes. How to explain Brother, Frank to someone who sees me as an Amish(ish) farmer? To me, juxtaposing the Amish and advanced technology in my writing is not weird at all. Scifi has always been about examining the interface between humans and technology; about what technologies we accept and what we reject. Scifi has always been about the tension between what is comfortable and proven, and blindly accepting whatever the “next thing” is without deliberation or much consideration. So writing Scifi as a plain person to me is not at all odd. But I know that for many people their first reaction to the concept of “Amish Scifi” is to scrunch up their faces and laugh it off.
Me: “It’s the story of a scientist… He’s both a doctor and a robotics engineer for the government, and he is developing an advanced killer robot weapon for the government.”
Me: “Yes. And he also does pro-bono work as a medical doctor among the Amish. Anyway, in order to save the life of an autistic Amish boy, he implants the boy’s brain and heart into his killer robot.”
Buck: “No! Wow.”
Me: “Yep. Think of it as Robocop meets Frankenstein meets Witness.”
Buck: “Man! That’d make a great movie.”
Me: “Yeah, I agree. Maybe that’ll happen. A lot of people seem to be calling for it.”
So, I showed Buck the Brother, Frank book cover on my phone…
Buck: “Woah. I’d read that. Bring me a copy when you have them and I’ll buy it.”
Me: “I will.”
Brother, Frank, though it is scifi, is more techno-thriller than anything else, but calling it a techno-thriller doesn’t alleviate the tension – when people realize it was written by someone who lives off-grid. And not just “off-grid,” but beyond off-grid. And believe me, there is a difference.
Bill Gates lives off-grid. So do many of your neighbors. You may not see the solar panels on their roofs. In fact, manufacturers are making solar shingles now that you wouldn’t even know were solar panels unless you watched them being installed. People living in apartments in major cities are living off-grid. So it has hard for people to picture in their minds what I mean by “off-grid” when it comes to being a plain person.
The comment/question I hear the most often is always the same, though it takes many forms. We’ll call it THE PRIME QUERY. Delivery of the prime query can range on a scale from “pure assholery” to “innocent ignorance.” It is always ignorant (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way… ignorant just means the person making the comment or asking the question doesn’t know something,) but the ignorance is occasionally accompanied with either bitterness or some level of smug arrogance. Usually the motive behind The Prime Query (TPQ) is just innocent ignorance and I try my best to explain or answer in a kind and helpful way. Let’s see how many ways I’ve heard the comment or question:
“How can you be on Facebook (Twitter, Blog, email, etc.) if you are off-grid?” (Sometimes this is followed by the emphatic “HUH?” which is placed there to insinuate that the deeply intelligent and clever questioner has caught me in some deep untruth or fallacy. Of course, the answer is pretty simple. Like I said, Bill Gates lives off-grid. Some huge corporations and manufacturing facilities are considered “totally green,” meaning that they have established their own power system and they operate separately from the grid. An alternative power system can be anything from a tiny solar panel that charges a smart phone (which would allow someone to be on Facebook, write a blog, email, etc.) all the way up to a massive system powered by solar, wind generation, Tesla batteries, whatever.
“Well obviously if he is selling e-books on Amazon, he is not really living off-grid.” Again… huge logic fallacy. It is simple to live off-grid and publish e-books on Amazon. In fact, I’ve been doing it for years. But even if I was living without an office on my property that is minimally powered by some solar panels that allow me to run a laptop and have access the internet, I could sell e-books on Amazon. For centuries authors wrote books freehand, or typed them on non-electric typewriters and sent them to others to be edited, formatted, and processed into books. Making the assumption about someone’s lifestyle based solely on them selling e-books is just purely ignorant. My first big selling book, the non-fiction Surviving Off Off-Grid was written in chapters, and published for free in my blog. I would write the chapters out freehand and then type them into the laptop when we were at a motel. Sometimes I would drive up to my neighbors place (with his permission) and park near enough to use his wifi to send the chapters up to my blog. Other times I would do the same thing at the library. A friend of mine who lived in Michigan at the time did all the work in making SOOG into a book. I assure you, we lived COMPLETELY off-grid at the time, and we loved it.
“The Amish/Plain People eschew all technology, so if he is posting pictures of his wheat field on Facebook, he’s really not ‘plain.’ Woah. The Amish/Plain People have never “eschewed all technology.” All plain people use technology. A frying pan is technology. So is a screwdriver. The Amish are actually quite adept at using technology. They are a very clever people. They are just very deliberate about what technology they use and when. And there is no monolithic “Amish” definition that defines all of the Amish when it comes to technology. Every community and every district is different. Some allow automobiles and some do not. Some allow tractors with rubber wheels, some require steel wheels, and some do not allow tractors at all. There are very good and valid reasons for all of these decisions. Just as your family may allow certain things and other families may not – each has deliberate reasons for making rules for the family. With the plain people, the technology is not “evil,” and it is not avoided because of any intrinsic negative moral value or worth in the technology itself. Decisions are made based on what is best for the community, the family, and the individuals who make them up. So an Amish man or woman may feel no tension at all in using a phone out at a booth up on the road to call for a driver to come pick him up to take him to the hardware store. That may sound strange to you, but not to the Amish man. He just doesn’t want the phone in his home. Doesn’t want the distraction and is wary of the slippery slope involved and how such a thing would affect his family life and the relationships he has with his children. He is not “anti-automobile” either. He just doesn’t want the expense, the disruption, the insurance, the trouble of owning a vehicle. Why not let someone else take on all the heartaches and troubles, and just pay that person for a ride? Makes perfect sense. This is no different from a person in Manhattan using a payphone to call for a taxi, but no one accuses the New Yorker of hypocrisy. There are reasons behind the decisions plain families and communities make, and those decisions work for them… and frankly, that is what freedom is all about.
Our small cottage (where my family of 6 lives) and the rest of our farm is completely off-grid. We use the phrase “beyond off-grid” or “off off-grid,” meaning that we do not even use alternative energy or grid power, utilities, or services in our farm and life. We use some technologies as intermediate steps as we continue to build our infrastructure – for example, right now we do run a gasoline pump from a small tank (pond) on our land up to our gardens. Eventually, as we complete our long-term water projects, harvesting and storing water higher up on our land (including in water towers, etc.) will allow us to use more sustainable means of getting water to our gardens, crops, and animals. We don’t have a moral problem with gasoline water pumps, we just choose in the long run not to rely on them.
Like in the tension that exists within little Frank in Brother, Frank, the conflict and tension between my plain life and the technology I use in order to publish books in the modern economy is a constant issue. Living deliberately is not easy, but I think it absolutely improves the quality of our lives. There is satisfaction in doing things the old ways, in finding the old paths. And there is satisfaction in finding a harmony in what technologies we use and when. There is also great satisfaction in raising children who are thinkers; who don’t blindly accept whatever comes along as good and right without thinking and praying about it first. Seeing my children consider their family and their community, and think about sustainability, health, happiness, etc. when they make decisions, is pleasing to me, and makes this lifestyle worthwhile for us.
All of these issues inform what goes into my books, and I’m always happy and thankful when I receive reviews, emails, and other communications from readers wherein they tell me that my books (and the ideas in them) have made them think. A rousing tale that makes the reader think. What can be wrong with that?