Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Step Toward a Taxonomy of Speculative Fiction

I got an email this week from a writer-friend of mine, Russ Colson.  He has started his own blog, “The Writer’s Corner.”  For his first entry he decided to write about the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy.  He recalled that I had written on the same topic in my blog and invited me to comment with a link to my own entry on the subject.  
Hate to say it, Russ, but I don’t recall writing such an entry.  It sounds like something I would do, something any speculative fiction writer might do, but I’ve looked and can’t find such posting.
So, I decided to create one.  Ta-Dah!  Here it is.  
In fact, since receiving Russ’s email, thinking about the question, I’ve decided to go a step farther.  As the title suggests, I want to see if I can come up with a means of classifying the different genres of Speculative Fiction.  I haven’t gotten the complete answer, by any means.  This is merely the beginning, the first step, in that direction.  
Here we go...
When the question, “What is Science Fiction?” is posed, I am reminded of the statement once made by a Supreme Court Judge when asked to rule on whether something was obscene or not.  The judge’s reply was something along the line of, “I may not be able to define ‘obscene,’ but I know it when I see it.”  
One of the earliest recollections of when I came face to face with Science Fiction was reading the story by Tom Godwin, “The Cold Equations,” first published in 1954.  
In the story, a “Emergency Dispatch Ship” pilot discovers that there is a stowaway on board his ship.  It turns out to be the sister of a man with the survey team the EDS pilot is taking medical supplies to because of the outbreak of a deadly disease.  What the young girl didn’t realize was that Emergency Dispatch Ships have only enough fuel to reach the destination with their cargo.  Any extra weight, such as the mass of a stowaway, is by law, jettisoned immediately.  
In its set-up, Cold Equations showed me the one essential aspect of Science Fiction that separates it from other forms of Speculative Fiction.  Science Fiction stories are set in a Universe which is vast and impersonal.  A Universe that works in accordance with principles that do not take into regard what we, minuscule components of that Universe, may want for ourselves or those things we care about.  These ‘cold equations’ do what they do, and we can only adapt to them.  
Or...!  We can learn what they are and use them for our benefit.  But I’ll get back to that point in a bit.  
Fantasy, on the other hand, is set in Universes that are more personable and aware.  Fantasy has its roots in the myths of religions long dead.  Hercules and his labors.  Thor fighting frost giants.  Fantasies are the evolved off-spring of the tales that were designed to teach us how to get to know and deal with the gods and goddesses that created and ran things.  Gods and goddesses that were intimately connected to the forces they embodied.  
In a Fantasy story, if the wind brushes your cheek, it could very well be because the Spirit of the West Wind wants you to look that way at something important.  In a Science Fiction story, it’s because a low pressure system miles away has moved to a point where it can tug on the air mass in your local environment.  
I don’t think this is, however, the complete definition of the difference between these genres.  
In Cold Equations, the EDS pilot has few options.  He can’t keep the young girl on board.  Doing so would cause the deaths of the party he has been sent to rescue.  But he can use his knowledge of these equations to adjust his trajectory.  He can conserve fuel until it is necessary to decelerate for planetfall.  This will allow them to get into radio range of the planet so she can say good-bye to her brother.  
It’s not a lot.  It is not enough to save her.  But it is appreciated by those involved.  
The pilot’s knowledge, based on science, gave him some measure of control.  It was insufficient to do what he wanted it to do, save the life of the young girl, but it was something.  The Universe continued to exist has it has and would for billions of years in the future.  For one brief moment, though, a human using the tool gained by studying the workings of this Universe was able to extract, or create, a moment of meaning.  He took a stand against the implacable cosmos and said, “We were here, for a time.”  
There is a power to effect change in Fantasy as well, but this is a power of the divine.  As someone raised Catholic, I remember the priest in catechism class explain to me that transmogrification of the host into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ was a real event.  Not symbolic.  Not metaphorical.  It was happening before us in Truth.  It was not a power we could ever understand.  It WAS one we could yield IF we had sufficient faith.  The faith of a mustard seed can move mountains, remember?  
In Fantasy stories, this tool or power is called Magic.  Magic has many different forms in Fantasy, with different potencies and different degrees of discernible results.  But what they share universally (which I KNOW is an opening for dozens upon dozens of comments with examples proving me wrong) is that they all depend on some innate quality, often emotion and/or psychological, of the practitioner.  
Anyone with sufficient training, discipline and education can be scientist.  But only a “destined few” can grow up to become wizards.  
To summarize, Science Fiction stories are set in Universes that are, in effect, unconscious, and where our power to impact change comes from our ability to learn the truths about how that Universe operates.  Fantasy stories are set in Universes that are aware of us, or where we, or beings like us, provide the awareness, and our power to affect change in such a Universe depends upon our relationship with that Universe.  
I said at the beginning of this blog entry that I wanted to at least start the process of creating a taxonomy of speculative fiction.  And to do that, I think I need to add a third point of comparison. 
An acquaintance of mine from years ago, someone who was a huge Call of Cthulhu fan, once told me that the bravest characters in fiction could be found in Horror stories.  His reasoning was that, the people standing up to the “great evil” in Horror stories often had no hope of success.  Any chance of victory they might have would be temporary at best, the evil is locked in its tomb for another millennia, for instance, and the cost to obtain even such a small respite, from the standpoint of the evil itself, was often huge.  And yet, these characters, for the sake of humanity, or a particular someone in humanity, they did it anyway.  
Horror stories, like Fantasy stories, are set in Universes that are personal.  They are embodied by the monsters, insane gods and demons the characters face.  And if there is such evil in the Universe, the logic goes, there must be an equal amount of good.  
Unlike Fantasy stories, though, the characters in Horror stories are, by and large, powerless.  They tend to be average people facing extraordinary forces.  At most, they have some arcane knowledge over which they have questionable control, and a faith that what they will sacrifice to stop the evil will be worth it.  
In my taxonomy, then, I’d have “Impersonal Universe” and “Personal Universe” across the top of the graph, with “Empowered” and “Powerless” along the left edge.  This would create four boxes, with Science Fiction in the upper left box, Fantasy in the upper right and Horror in the lower right.  
If anyone knows of a speculative fiction genre that features characters in a Impersonal Universe that are relatively powerless, let me know.  It sounds just like normal fiction to me.  
I’ve enjoyed reading, and writing, both Fantasy and Science Fiction throughout my life.  The discussion of their differences is interesting to me, and I’d love to join any number of my like minded friends in a bar to argue over the smallest detail.  They both exist, and mingle with each other, because they touch on different parts of what we feel when we face Existence.  The part of us that wonders at the incredible machine.  And the part of us that wonders what it would be like if we had the power to shape it. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Price of Admission

This is something that happened to me years ago that impacted my spirit of generosity.
It was when I was in High School.  My family was living on the western edge of the Inland Empire in the city of Ontario, near the airport that’s there.  
I didn’t spend a lot of time in Ontario itself.  I was going to a private Catholic school, Damien High School, in La Verne.  I took the bus for the first year I lived there and drove a car for every year after.  All my friends either went to school with me or lived in Diamond Bar, the town we’d moved from.  
I would occasionally walk up G street to Euclid Avenue, which was the “main drag” of the town, where all the shops, stores and banks were located.  
This one day, I was heading toward Euclid, and approaching this liquor store that was there.  I tried to find it using Google maps, but the area is drastically different from how I remember it.  The streets are wider, and it is far less tree-lined than when I was living there.  
Anyway, as I was passing this liquor store, I noticed this group of elementary aged girls hanging out near the entrance.  One of them approached and stopped me.  
“Excuse me...  I need to call my mom to pick me up, but I don’t have any money.  Can you help me?”  
I shrugged.  It seemed a reasonable request.  I reached into my pocket and dug out a quarter and handed it to her.  She thanked me and hurried off.  
She didn’t get ten feet away before one of the other girls came running up to me.  
“No!  No!  Don’t give her any money!  She’s a liar!”  She watched as her friend traipsed away.  “She’s gonna buy something to give to her boyfriend!”  
As if to prove the truth of her accusation, the girl I’d given the quarter to walked past the pay phone situated by the liquor store entrance and went inside.  
Ok...  Well...  I felt a bit duped, but I wasn’t going to try to get the money back.  So much for--
“Hey!”  The little girl that had given me the dope on her friend moved in front of me.  “If you’re gonna give her money, give me some too!”  He stuck her empty hand out at me.  
I shook my head and stepped around her.  It wasn’t even a situation of “fool me once...”  She was telling me flat out that she wanted money from me just because she wanted it.  
What I didn’t expect was the reaction that followed. 
“Please!”  She cried out to me, her voice as loud as it could be.  “Please!  You gave her some!”
“Yeah, because she tricked me,” I thought to myself.  I shook my head and kept walking.  
“Please...!  Please...!”  There was no a sob in her voice, which turned her plea into a painful shriek.  Then she said, “Fucker!”  
That got me to turn around.  She must have thought being called a fucker had changed my mind.  She stuck her hand back out at me.
“Please...!  Please...!”  
I turned away and starting walking again, must faster than before. 
She carried on like that.  I could still hear her when I reached the end of the block.  
“Please!  Please!  Fucker!”  
“Please!  Please!  Fucker!”  
This little girl, if she’s still alive, is probably in her forties now.  If she has kids, I wonder what’s she has taught them based on her experience with me.  
I’ve heard other stories since then, we all have, about the people begging for money on the street.  That they use the money for drugs or booze.  Or the one about some guy in college started a study to see how much money you could make panhandling and discovered that you could make so much that he dropped out of school and took up the practice full time.  
I remember seeing one news show, decades ago, that followed one such person.  He would wait in front of the transit station where he leaved and show passers-by a hand full of coins.  
“I’m fifty cents short of bus fare.  Can you help me?”  
People would put coins in his hand.  He’d pocket them and then show the incomplete fare to someone else.  In the interview, he talked about not overworking a spot, moving from one place to the other throughout the week, to keep from running into the same people.  
I think I would be more generous if I knew they really, really, REALLY needed the money.  AND were going to use it for the requested purpose.  
In this age of social media, instead of signs that have a variation of “will work for food,” they’d have their Facebook account floating over their head in a virtual overlay as proof of their situation.  But I guess such an account could be faked too.  
The most I ever gave someone was in downtown Los Angeles.  I was in my thirties then.  I went there to audition for a play.  After finding a spot, I asked this guy on the street for directions to the building I wanted.  He pointed it out to me.  I thanked him and hurried on.  
After the audition, I found him on the same street corner as I headed back to my car.  
“So, you’re an actor, huh?”  
After telling him I was, he started telling me a story about what happened when he first came to California, and all the famous people he’d met doing odd jobs and stuff.  One encounter weaved into another.  I listened, fascinated by all the stuff I was hearing.  Not quite sure it was true, but entertained nonetheless.  
“And because of that, just last night...” he said, winding down his story.  “I found myself stuck here, with no way to get home.  It’d be really appreciated if you could give me something to help get back home.”  He didn’t stick out his hand.  He did shrug his shoulders, like there was nothing else to be done.  
I felt like the tables had been turned on me, but it was a really engaging story.  I reached into my pocket and pulled out a five and gave it to him.  The price of admission was how I thought about it.  
Maybe I was wrong a moment ago.  Maybe I don’t need to know someone really needs the money in order to give it.  Maybe I need to find something in me that gets something out of giving it away.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Thunder Underground - Part 1

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about using an oracle to “randomize” my life and writing.  I mentioned that I was using a book entitled, “The I Ching Pack,” which includes a book written by Richard Gill entitled “I Ching - The Little Book that Tells the Truth” and a set of cards to use with the the book that were illustrated by Anthony Clark.  
This process has an something of an impact on me, the extent of which I’m still trying to figure out.  I think it’s helping me think through the things that happen in my life and see things in a different way.  
More on that later, though.  One more obvious thing that has happened is that I’ve reacquainted myself with the beautiful illustrations of Anthony Clark’s that adorn the cards in the I Ching Pack.  Each one is meant to represent one of the 64 hexagrams in the I Ching.  This week, I realized that I was weaving together a story in my head based on these illustrations.  
I’ve decided to start writing out and sharing this story.  It’s very much a work in progress.  Right now it’s really only a bunch of scenes in my head that I “Know” are somehow bound together in a single narrative.  I’m not big on sharing unfinished work, but I said I wanted to do things differently in 2014 and it looks like this is one of them.  
I make no promises about the quality of the story, or even that I’ll eventually reach an ending.  I’m taking this journey along with you.  I have no idea where it will end up.  
With that, here is the opening scene.  I hope you enjoy it.  
Part One
Zho Chu was crossing a swaying rope bridge near the Cha-Tzun falls when the earthquake struck.  The bridge’s gentle swaying turned into a madman’s dance, with Zho Chu holding on to the guide ropes even as they felt like they would saw through his hands.  
Zho Chu heard something go “Bang!”  He looked to his left to see that the treasure box Master Zhing had entrusted him to deliver the the magistrate of Boshuun Province had fallen from the top of his cart where he had placed it.  
“No!”  Zho Chu feared for his life, but he feared the ire of Master Zhing even more.  He released his hold on the guide ropes and scrambled on his hands and knees, the swaying bridge threatening to pitch him into the frigid waters of the Soo-Han river, to reach the box before the bridge did the same to it.  
The box sat there, dancing on the planks bound together with knotted ropes, as if waiting for him to save it.  Then, when it was a little more than an arm’s length away, the box skittered across the plank, just under the guide ropes and fell into the river.  
“No...!  No, no, no!”  Zho Chu slapped his hands on the wood planks, in the same spot where the treasure box had been.  It had teased him, no doubt.  That cursed box that had turned this into a cursed trip!  May the Spirt of the Water drown that thing!  May the Spirit of the Earth crush it with falling rocks!  May the Spirit of Thunder shatter it with a bolt--
His pony screamed and reared up.  His hooves nearly crushed Zho Chu’s head.  Zho Chu fought the swinging bridge to get to his feet and grab the pony’s bridle to calm it down.  
The earthquake subsided.  The swaying stopped.  Zho Chu whispered sweat, incomprehensible sounds into the pony’s ear.  Just like his wife at home might do when he did the same with her, the pony nuzzled him and snorted into his ear.  About as attractive, the two of them were.  And about as sturdy and pleasant a ride, the two of them were, though a comparison would would tell to his shadow-self only and no other.
The pony calm, Zho Chu looked out over the river.  
There it was.  It looked like a turtle, floating in the water.  A turtle with a shell the color of jade and sides of gold.  A turtle that had nothing better to do that float toward the edge of the falls, not more that fifty spans away.  
If the Spirit of the Wind has finished cursing me, Zho Chu thought, it will get hooked up on those rocks.  It will get lodged there, and then I can jump from that big rock there to those smaller ones and haul it out of the river.  Heavy as it is, it will be trial, but at least--
The treasure box changed course.  It spun in the water and glanced off the rocks it was heading toward.  It bobbed along until it reached the falls edge, where it dove over the edge, its gold sides winking in the winter sun like the eye of a woman teasing you with her beauty.  
Zho Chu took a deep breath and let it free.  No.  The Spirit of the Wind, who oversaw travels and travelers, was not done tormenting him.  Or maybe it was Master Zhing that was cursing him.  For some unnoticed slight he had done the sorcerer.  
“It will attract attention, Master Zhing,” Zho Chu had complained when the red robed sorcerer had told him to place the treasure box on top of the other items he was carrying.  “Thieves and bandits and the like.  Better to put it on the bottom, and cover it with--”  
“No.”  Master Zhing shook his head, once, then nodded toward the top of the pile of goods Zho Chu was transporting.  “It will perch on top.”  
“I can put it under the tarp though, yes?”
“May I tie it down, at least secure--”
“But, Master Zhing...”  Zho looked down at the treasure box, sitting on the ground between them.  It had taken two strong looking boys to carry it from Master Zhing’s front gate to Zho’s cart.  Though only a distance of two spans, they looked exhausted from the effort.  “If I’m to ensure that it reaches its destination...”
“It will get to where it needs to go, my good Chu.”  Master Zhing nodded at him and almost, though not quite, smiled.  “As long as you continue to head toward the magistrate in Boshuun, it will get to where it needs to be, I promise you.”  
And Master Zhing’s word had been as good as his word over the many days of travel.  Every morning, heaving and huffing, he’d set it on the top of his goods.  Every night, certain a thief in the night might rob him of it, he would take it down and sleep with his arm around it.  Despite the steepness of the road, or sudden wind gusts or the one time coming out of Cha-Tzun pass when a motley group of peasants turned bandits tried to rob him and his pony had shown some of her hidden mettle, it had stayed there, like some potentate in a procession.  
Until now.  Zho Chu sighed.  It would be too much to hope it had shattered itself into a million splinters, he supposed.  And he’d have to bring back proof of its destruction to avert Master Zhing’s ire, no doubt.  
Stroking his pony‘s muzzle, Zho Chu realized he had a decision to make.  To go back the way he came would bring him to the bottom of the falls faster, but he’d be losing time, and money, with the goods he was carrying.  To go forward meant winding his way through the mountains until the road finally exhausted itself and slid down the slope into Boshuun.  It would take two extra days of travel to reach the bottom of the falls on this side, giving someone else that much more time to find and recover it for his own.  
Once more, Master Zhing provided him with his answer.  
“As long as you continue to head toward the magistrate in Boshuun, it will get to where it needs to be.”
So be it.  As you command, Master Zhing.  Taking another breath, he gave his pony a kiss on her muzzle, halfway between eyes and mouth, then urged her forward with a tug on her bridle.  They made their way across the bridge and started the first of two hands worth of tight switchbacks down.  
It was when Zho was on the fourth turn from the top when his memory pointed out how easily the box had floated in the river.  As if it were as light as cork.  Had its contents tumbled out when it went over the bridge?  Since Zho Chu had no idea what was inside, he had no way to answer that.  He would just have to wait until he found the box to find that out.  

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Secret Life of Erick Melton

I daydream.  A lot.  
I have a number of reoccurring daydreams.  
One that happens fairly often, usually after someone in an SUV or monster truck cuts me off on the freeway, for instance, is what I’ll title the “Having Secret Training despite Not Practicing Scenario.”  
There’s a confrontation, see?  After we get to a parking lot.  This other guy, younger, stronger, handsomer, a complete asshole, starts threatening me because I got in HIS way.  The altercation draws an audience.  
I ask the younger, stronger, handsomer asshole I’m facing, very politely and with great courtesy, to agree to mutually end our dispute and for each of us to go our separate ways.  
A smirk twists its way across Asshole’s face.  I know what his answer is going to be.  
“And what if I don’t?”  He extends his index finger and starts poking me in the chest.  “Huh?  What if I don’t just ‘walk away,’ huh?  What are you going to do about it?”  
I sigh.  He has left me no choice.  I open my mouth and say...
“This.”  I reach up and grab the hand boring his finger into a spot on my chest just below the shoulder blade.  Before he can react, I twist the hand and bend it back, with the palm of his hand facing his wrist.  This is an Aikido move I learned back in college when I was taking martial arts classes, kick-boxing and Escrima.  
The sudden shock of pain makes Assholes knees buckle.  He goes down to the floor.  
I use a triangle step to bring myself behind Asshole.  Grabbing the back of his head, I drive the tip of his nose into the nearest chair, table-edge, counter-top that my imagination has placed there for me to use for that purpose, based on the environment it has created for me.  
I hear Asshole’s nose crunch against this handy, nose-breaking surface.  I let go of Asshole’s head and take a couple of steps back.  
“Do you have any other questions you need me to answer?”  Asshole is holding his nose.  Blood is streaming between his fingers, down the back of his hand.  
“I asked you a question!”  I take an aggressive step forward.  Asshole starts shaking his head.  
“Then we’re done here.  Have a nice day!”  I step aside to give Asshole a way out.  He scrambles past me, his feet going ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa across the floor.  
I know such a scene is pure fantasy.  If I were confronted by such a person today, someone bigger and stronger and angrier than me, I would do such a song and dance to get out of that situation that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley would applaud if still alive to witness it.  
Even if I had the ability, I wouldn’t do something like that.  It would be cool IF I COULD do it.  But, I can’t.  
I notice that they’ve remade “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”  The original movie was made back in 1947 with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo.  It was one of my favorite movies as a kid.  It’s the story of a guy dissatisfied with his life and day-dreams all the time about what he would do if he were the bigger, stronger, more handsome guy in the scenarios he dreams up.  Looking at the trailer for the new version, with Ben Stiller playing the role of the day-dreamer, it appears that they went for a similar storyline as in the one from the 40’s.  The day-dreamer becomes involved in real-life adventures and starts to live.  With Danny Kaye it dealt with gangsters and the like.  With Ben Stiller, it appears that he needs to get a missing negative for the phone that will be used for the the cover of the last issue of Life Magazine.  
The story, though, is different.  James Thurber’s story doesn’t have the main character engage in some real-life drama, where his day-dreams help him realize a better life for himself.  I noticed that when I read the story in High School, years after I first saw Danny Kaye’s movie.  In Danny Kaye’s movie, where Danny works for a magazine publisher, all the interesting adventures he reads while putting together the magazine feed his efforts to overcome the gangsters and win Virginia Mayo.  
In James Thurber’s story, though, Walter never learns to live his life.  It’s a day spent shopping with his hen-pecking wife.  The Walter Mitty in the story doesn’t even know the right terminology to use when he’s imagining himself as a doctor or bomber pilot.  He can’t even image the sounds the devices he uses in his dreams make.  That’s where the “Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” comes from.  It’s the sound everything makes in Walter Mitty’s dreams, from the engine of the “SN202” he flies in the worst storm in history to the “new anaesthetizer” that is giving way while operating on the the wealthiest billionaire in the world.  This is where a measure of the the story’s humor comes from.  
I read the story again the other day, while thinking about going to the new movie, and reacquainted myself with its differences.  It was funny, but the story spoke to me more than it did when I was fifteen years old.  A middle-aged man, dissatisfied with the reality that his left is set within, day-dreaming as a means of escaping that continuum.  
What I hadn't recalled clearly from the reading way back in Fr. Doherty's English 101 class was how the story ended.  Walter Mitty is day-dreaming again, waiting for his wife in a hotel lobby, when she finds him and cuffs him on the shoulder.  She begins to berate him for not putting on the overshoes she told him to buy for himself.  
“Couldn’t you have put them on in the store?” 
“I was thinking,” said Walter Mitty.  “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?”
She looked at him.  “I’m going to take your temperature when I get you home,” she said.
That is it.  Walter Mitty’s single effort to make space for his dreams in his realty.  After she leaves him to wait for her as she goes into a drugstore, Walter Mitty imagines himself standing before a firing squad.  
“To hell with the handkerchief,” said Walter Mitty scornfully.  
He exhibits more bravery in his dreams than he exhibits in trying to bring them to life.  
All in all, I prefer the movie version of the story.  And I think I’ll like the new version, too.  I may not try to outwit gangsters or jump from a helicopter in shark infested waters, but I do try to use my dream-stuff to shape the world around me, through the stories I write at least.  Every time I sit down at the computer.  
My fingers tapping out the words, going ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.  

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Randomizing Life with Oracles

They say that the surest sign of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  
From that standpoint I think I’ve had a bit too much insanity in my life in 2013.  I want to change that for 2014.  I want to do things a bit differently.  
So, today, I consulted the I Ching on what I should write about.  
That’s different, isn’t it?  For me, anyway.  
I need to let you know, though, for those of you who don’t know already, that I’m a big skeptic when it comes to things like horoscopes or fortune-telling.  I don’t believe that things like the position of the stars at the time of your birth, or the number the letters in your name represent, have much to do with how successful you’ll be in life, career or romance.  If it were true, verifiable and repeatable, then we’d all have sure-proof manuals for our life provided to us at birth.  
Oracles, though, are something different.  I think oracles are more like mirrors, showing more of what is going on within the person consulting them than they might realize.  
It is said that at one time, Alexander the Great went to Delphi to consult the oracle there, to hear whether or not he would become a great conqueror.  When the priestess, Pythia, refused to answer his question that day, Alexander stormed into her chamber, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her out of her chambers.  
“Let me go, let me go!” Pythia is said to have screamed.  “You’re unbeatable!”  
“There!”  Alexander released her hair.  “I have my answer.”  He then rode off to conquer the known world.  
With that in mind, I used a copy of the "I Ching, The Little Book That Tells The Truth," I bought years ago to answer this question today: 
“What should I write about to further my professional writing career?”  
The book comes with a deck of cards that you draw from to build the trigrams and hexagrams that provide the answer to your question.  Keeping this question in mind, I came up with this hexagram: 

Which means, Water Above, Wood Below.  It refers to things that change, like the town you are living in, compared with things that don’t change, like the well the town draws its water from.  If the rope or pole used to pull the bucket from the well isn’t long enough, then there is thirst.  

But three of the lines had dynamic motion to them, meaning that this hexagram was in the process of transforming into another: 
This one means Thunder Above, Water Below.  It’s basic meaning is Deliverance or Liberation.  If all the obstacles are dealt with, returning home bring goods fortune.  If obstacles are before you, then hurrying to meet them brings good fortune.  
Based on the book I have, I came up with the following reading: 
“At a present time of Thirst at the Well you are especially advised that they started to dig but never reached the water.  Sad, for we know it is there and we could all have used it if our ruler had only dug deeper.  This well needs repair but you are right to believe it will yield water.  Cool and clean, the water in this well is excellent to drink.”
“The likelihood is that the situation is changing to a time of Liberation in  which the probably result and appropriate course of action will be, if liberation is to be achieved, to take action at once.  When liberation comes, restoring forever, familiar conditions, brings good fortune.”
Sounds fancy and fortune-telly, huh?  But what does it tell me about what I should be writing about?  
First, there are several places where I see what the reading is talking about.  Certainly, in the current state of my writing career, I am thirsting for greater success.  I have been for some time.  I know that I have the capacity to write well.  I’ve had a sip or two of success.  I’ve been told by colleagues in the field, and the occasional editor, that I have what it takes.  This jives when what I see as the truth already.  
The question of “digging deeper,” is not completely clear to me.  Does this mean I need to dig deeper within myself?  I have sometimes wondered if I’m trying to be merely cleaver with my stories, picking thinks to write that are “good ideas,” rather than things that really move me emotionally.  
I remember a story J. Michael Straczynski used to tell at conventions, when he was working on a TV show and they received a script from someone that had never written a script before.  The story was about alcoholism, and though there were issues in the telling of the story, Straczynski found it moving and powerful.  When they interviewed the writer, they discovered that his father had been an alcoholic, and the story was drawn from the man’s experiences growing up.  They ended up buying the script from him.  
And what does it mean about the well needing to be fixed?  I guess that depends on what “the well,” is.  The first answer could mean simply my writing technique.  I need to just write better.  It could be that I’m tacking story ideas that I don’t yet have the technical means to write yet.  If so, then I need to do something about that.  Take a writing class.  Join a writing workshop.  Go to a writers’ conference where I need to submit my stuff for critique and speak with fellow writers about what they are doing.  
It could mean something different, though.  If the water is the story, then the means of getting it out of the well is the bucket.  The bucket, then, would be my craft.  The story would be shaped by my craft in the same way water takes the shape of the bucket bringing it up.  
If that analogy holds, then the well would be my means of finding what is important to me.  The way I decide what is important enough to write about.  It could mean that I’m holding myself back from writing about personal things, out of fear perhaps, or embarrassment.  I need to find a way to make myself more whole, from a psychological, emotional or perhaps even spiritual standpoint.  Once that is done, I may find that the stories I’ve always wanted to write start gushing out.  
I think oracles are very much like the old fortune-teller’s scam, where they make an open statement and wait for a response.  
“I see a ticket in your future,” the fortune-teller might say.  
“Oh!  Do I win?”  This response would take the fortune-teller down a much different path than, “Damn!  Do I go go court?”  
In my writing, and in my life, I think I’ve been asking myself the same questions again and again.  Things are changing, though.  I can feel them.  I’m more aware of time scraping past me, reducing some things to dust, polishing others to a fine sheen.  I want to find a way to ask myself different questions, in the hopes that different answers will present themselves and that different solutions might be found.  
And if the oracle doesn’t give me what I want, then I might just take Alexander’s method to heart, and drag the answer I want, kicking and screaming, from its reply.