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March 22, 2007

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Andreas Morlok

Future feudalism ?

Andreas

Noel Maurer

Have you seen the video? It's hilarious. I really hope everyone in the audience gets the reference. (That means you too, Pop.)

But bad ideas from science fiction novels? There are so many. Here are two quotes, for discussion:

"Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst."

... and ...

"Listen, son. Most women are damn fools and children. But they've got more range then we've got. The brave ones are braver, the good ones are better — and the vile ones are viler, for that matter."

The logic and sentiments behind both have produced some rather odd analyses of both domestic sociology and international relations.

Although to be fair the above author also said, "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity," which is something that I wish every conspiracy theorist (or observer of the Bush Administration) would think heavily about before forming conclusions.

Noel Maurer

Andreas: I know what you mean, but "future feudalism" is too vague. After all, many authors have issued very cogent warnings of future feudalism in the best tradition of the satiric novel. Consider Jack Womack's Dryco series, for example. (My admiration for Random Acts of Senseless Violence knows few bounds.) Even when presented straight, in the "if this goes on" vein --- Paul McAuley or one of Poul Anderson's last novels, Starfarers --- the depiction of future feudalism is far from ludicrous. Rather, it forms the basis of rather gripping dystopias.

The bad idea that I think you're talking about isn't the idea that a colder, harder, and scarier feudalism could emerge out of a frightening intersection between modern democracy and future technology. That idea is one that we should all probably think hard about in order to defend against, even if it is unlikely to occur.

Rather, the bad idea is:

(1) Future feudalism will adopt the tropes of past European feudalism;

(2) Feudalism is a product of hard frontier conditions;

... and most importantly of all ...

(3) Feudalism is good. Or at least has a good phase, when the nobility is "young and vigorous."

lalaloca

oh, oh, oh! oh! oh oh!! if you had asked me this in the world, I would have choked on whatever was in my mouth, with xxx-big eyes, waving my hands all around, and then spluttered, oh! oh!! well! we! gack! ok! did I tell you this? um! well!! !!!

so, trust me to lower the tone, but we knew people when we first got married, people Nero knew from college? this dirty, ren-faire crossover that his profession sometimes gets? right? so, they were all (not Nero, the people) part of this weird, hairy, sweaty, 1970s swingers kind of love triangle-cum-mobius strip thing? in a house? like a dirty, willy st kind of a sex cop type thing? I do not have to tell you that I was extremely intolerant of such hijinks. hijinks I can do, sure, ok, you may know a little something about that, but I mean, it is an incontrovertible truth that the people who want to run sex palaces are never really people anyone would like to fuck. hm?? ew.

anyhow. anyhow!! it was because they read stranger in a strange land and thought it was, yk, HOLY. like a, um, whatdoyoucallit? you know, like a Mandate for Living + Path to Enlightenment. ok, people! whatever! I had to read the book to be in on the joke. (every time I would say, "I can't read Heinlen! it will ruin my street cred!" Nero would say, "didn't you read atlas shrugged because you had a crush on a boy when you were 17??" and I would give him the finger and turn sullen, back to the book.)

there's more to this story, involving me holding the book out at arm's length to Nero, caterwauling and complaining about how my eyes were burning, etc, plus what they did to that sweet widow who was minding her business?? EGADS!

The New York City Math Teacher

I think la loca stole my thunder regarding unrealistic and/or inappropriate expectations of interpersonal amatory relationships as represented in most scientifictional belle-lettres.

But.

I think someone has to step forward and give a lusty shout out yo for all of the objectification and cardboardization of the XX gender. Where would the sweaty basement palm demographic be without Leo Frankowski, Jack Chalker, and Piers Anthony sketching out in rude lusty forms the exact and proper way in which your XY gets into the pants of your XX(noun number indeterminate)?
And never mind the age of the romantic partner(s), 'cuz in the future (or distant, hazy past) they transcended the need for simplenarrowminded "age-of-consent" laws.

So wholesome. So healthy. Yecchh.

James Bodi

The Singularity. Hands down. Were you the one who called it salvation through better office equipment?

The cult of the engineer is probably number two.

The contempt for due process, and democratic forms of government (ie, forms in which input from soldiers and engineers is offset by input from lawyers and shopkeepers and Joe Voters).

As someone upthread, the sex is often creepy, but I put much that down to the generation who wrote it - plenty of bad stuff in mainstream literature of the time too.

Luke

May I offer up the collected works of James P. Hogan? Thereby combining bad sex, crazy crap science theories, and worse political theories. I can't decide whether or not he's worse than Anderson in advocating Libertarianism.

SM Stirling, in general; not just the guns and blood fetish, but the repeated emphasis on "Sapphism is just two drinks away, and it's totally natural in women!! But Gays are weeeeaaaak!!!" Clarke on the latter...a little too much self-hatred, I'd suppose.

Or Ender's Game. Orson Scott Card as the enabler of all the worst ideas of political/military sci-fi in the context of enabling the worst bits of teenage alienation. That book is incredibly noxious by eliding the idea of manslaughter (Stetson, (sort of) Bonzo) into a character-building and ennobling act, and the concept of a righteous and necessary genocide. And the stuff in subsequent books about women, abortion, sex in marriage, Asians, Muslims, the Caliphate, and the Catholic Church. And Peter; it's apparently OK to be a sociopath if you're smart enough (Peter probably knew the difference between right and wrong in a moral sense, but that as a genius and a world-historical Hegelian figure, he had some sort of weird entitlement to ignore petty morals. Or Bean's black, self-righteous rage). It's the ur-text of the neo-cons; if you will it, reality will bend.

And lastly, Robert Charles Wilson. I wonder if he got divorced with great acrimony, because his women characters are always worse than Zelazny's. While Zelazny's could be wicked temptresses and villianessettes, the female leads in /Blind Lake/ and /The Chronoliths/ look cardboard compared to June Cleaver. For books written after 1990, they exude the idea that women are 1) weak-willed 2)indecisive and 3) need a man, all the time, because they can't have independent agency or identity.

Doug M.

Luke, I agree with what you say, but I'm not sure it's what Carlos is looking for. The issue is not bad or stupid SF, but the most bad and stupid ideas people seem to have gleaned from SF.

I used to have a basketload of these. In my defense, most of them were bad physics or biology, not bad philosophy or sociology. So, I thought Niven knew more than I did when he told me that an Earthlike planet needed a large moon "to skim away the extra atmosphere". But I didn't buy into "evolution in action" -- i.e., that giving dumb and weak people the chance to kill themselves off will eventually make us all smarter and stronger.

In retrospect, I think I skipped a developmental stage. (As a reader of SF, I mean.) I think I went almost directly from age 10 -- gosh, wow, this is COOL -- to age, I don't know, 21? 30? 40? Whatever age it is when you start interrogating the text. "Damn, Simmons has his Sex and Death wires crossed, and he doesn't even realize it." I seem to have blown right past age 17, the stage where we take some of this stuff Way Too Seriously. ("Ayn Rand has PROVEN that I DESERVE to have a girlfriend because I am SUPERIOR," etc.)

I'm not sure when the jump happened, but it was sometime during my tenure in the islands. Thinking, it might have been during my first year as a political attorney. Two reasons: one, I was in an environment that was, shall we say, semiotically complex. Multiple ethnic groups, three languages, politics that were very intense and sometimes very sleazy, an environment where people lied a lot. I had to get good at digging below surfaces, fast, or I was out of there. Two, for the first time in my life, I had limited access to books. So I found myself rereading a lot, and reading more slowly and intently (to make the books last longer).

In terms of reading, I always read everything. But in terms of /response/, I sort of went straight from E.E. "Doc" Smith to Gene Wolfe.

Thinking back, I didn't realize this clearly at the time. (Carlos has described an epiphany he had with Wolfe. Nothing like that.) More like a vague realization that some stuff wasn't doing it for me any more, while other stuff -- which I'd read pro forma but hadn't really appreciated -- was suddenly more interesting. That happens often enough anyway, right? So I didn't realize that I was not just liking different texts, but drastically changing /why/ I liked them. Really, changing what "liked" meant.

Thinking about this, and more anon --


Doug M.

Jussi Jalonen

My brother had a (rather boring) habit of quoting both Robert A. Heinlein as well as Douglas Adams in every occasion possible.

When it comes to the first author, I have a recollection that my brother was fond of quoting that recurring joke about how male children should be raised in a barrel. From Douglas Adams, he quoted pretty much anything that could be construed as a support for his own, deeply inconsistent personal pseudo-anarchist agenda.

From what I was able to gather, he really looked on these as absolute dogmas. Interestingly, in the case of the first author, he decided to take the deliberately-constructed literary devices at their face value; and in the case of the second author, he apparently decided to remove the quotes from their original context and apply them to suit his own purposes.

But this is nothing new. For a comparable example, one can always mention the number of people who have an obsession on citing George Orwell's comments on pacifism without paying any real attention to the time or the situation - or to Orwell's further commentary on the same subject.


Cheers,
Jalonen

Carlos

I'm going to let this thread perk a little more. A clarification: the epiphany about Gene Wolfe was because it was a particularly bravura piece of fiction. No genre implications. (Goodness, you've seen my library. I've always read everything.)

Doug M.

Carlos, I think there are some genre implications -- the particular passage that inspired you could not have been found in anything but an SF novel. Yes, you could have pulled out some DeLillo or something, but would it have had quite the same effect?

Sense of double bind: it sounds like what you're saying is that SF readers crave a touch of the intellectual lash. I think that's true for a significant minority of fans, but I don't think it's valid for SF readers generally.

Note also that most SF readers are not "fans", even today.


Doug M.

Carlos

Actually, the tale of Loyal to the Group of Seventeen would fit rather nicely in the Oulipo group's stuff, which I knew about, and conceptually admired, years before I read any Wolfe, through Martin Gardner's column in Scientific American. (10 to the 14th power sonnets! dude.) And I'd read a fair amount of Calvino and Queneau's Exercises in Style before the Book of the New Sun.

I loved word games as a child. I'm pre-adapted to high modernism, I suppose.

In a weird way, my reading history has been a little like a person with a vitamin deficiency who eats all sorts of unusual things, trying to get what they need to survive.

As for the double bind intellectual lash, it may be only a not-quite-majority of fans (and not readers), but it's a core constituency. I should blog some of the highlights of the John Campbell letters, because what the Internet really needs are more randomly capitalized rants by racist crackpot engineers who seem to have head injuries. The rot goes deep.

Luke

Doug

I was semi-aware of that point, given prior comments, especially on the futurist feudalism.

I took up Wilson, Stirling, and Card because they propagate equally bad ideas fixe within the field. Those novels also include a fair amount of either bad or dubious science ideas--I'll return to this in another comment--but compound the cultural negatives native to field that make the readers so unappealing. The weird "women-are-children" and "all girls are secret lesbians" memes are important in reinforcing and propagating the self importance of fandom and its' soothing woman-hating for all those cat-piss guys.

The thing with the Ender books is that it feeds the other great nexus of fandom: self-righteous, self-congratulatory genius mixed with a bit of xenophobia. It embraces a sort of appalling interpretation of Nietzsche's superman and feeds the annoying preachy moral superiority that fans like to feel--pace your comment on Rand.

While this is not the same "idea" as you suggest Carlos flagged above, I think that these bad ideas serve as the springboard for the smrgsbord of faux intellectualism and bad ideas that the genre propagates. [Dodgy argument follows] If Sci-Fi is, in some way, quintessentially an American genre, it carries within it the thematic trends of American faith in science and domination of the world (universe) through the application thereof, plus America's traditional sense of fuzzy Messianism. The domination of weaker characters (women, aliens) is a further expression the control the universe theme. Mind, if the world or the universe is to be dominated and controlled, it has to be distilled and simplified into a model that can be commonly understood, hence Stirling's Wonder Twin Power Ring Virus in /Stone Dogs./

When we filter that all back through the fact that the readership is awkward and alienated from the general public, you get an inclination to treat the science of science fiction as the bauble of a mystery cult. "You may be a pizza-faced outcast with a black trench coat and a shotgun, but let me introduce you to the truths of the universe, that you can understand because you are special!!" sort of a thing.

Mind, this isn't universally true of the genre, and I'm not sure how much water this holds on further scrutiny. If something /like/ this is true, it is a feature, rather than a bug.

Accordingly, the glad-handing of genocide by Card is at parity with Stirling's FTL Drive.

More in a bit.

Luke S.

Carlos

Luke, you've just re-invented Slan theory. Sixty-five years of advocacy and denial.

Doug M.

Carlos, take a step back. What SF does /not/ produce the sort of double bind you're describing?

Luke, I don't think I agree. You're drifting close to Charlie Stross's "technocracy was the original sin of SF", which I think is a deeply silly notion. (Yes, early SF was infested with it, but that was 70 years ago.)

American faith in science and domination of the world through the application thereof... um. A lot of assumptions there. And why these traits and not, say, American religiosity, rationalism, meliorism or optimism?

More generally, I think looking at SF as a purely "American" genre is tricky. There's always been a huge amount of give-and-take with the rest of the Anglosphere, especially Britain. Modern SF would be unrecognizable without the New Wave, and the New Wave got started in Britain. By way of (fairly close) analogy, it's like pop music and the British Invasion.

Carlos, I can tell you're having a lot of fun with the Campbell letters, and that's good. Blog them indeed, yes please. But I'd hesitate to draw conclusions too quickly. While Campbell was a huge figure, there were always large portions of the field that were out of his reach... Galaxy, F&SF, Heinlein. And then the New Wave, which seems to have left him utterly baffled. Also, his influence waned as his crankiness got crankier -- although, freely granted, there was a long period in which he was both cranky and still influential.


Doug M.

Andrew R.

And speaking of the Slan, what I believe James Nicoll called "Next step-ism" represents a particularly poor understanding of how evolution works.

On an unrelated note, Luke, for all of Card's flaws, the Ender books (at least the first few), *didn't* portray the Xenocide as anything but horrible. Having (mostly) wiped out an entire race left Ender scarred for life.

Carlos

Quite a bit of science fiction does not fit this pattern. Like I said, you need intense didactic engagement, a forceful counterintuitive, anti-realistic argument, and no possibility of narrative disagreement.

So the ambiguous, the open-ended, the footloose, but also, the realistic and the 'mundane'.

It's not a Campbell/New Wave split: Harlan Ellison and Norman Spinrad fit firmly within the pattern, while early Niven (bad science and all) does not. LeGuin has done both. Some of the hardest science fiction writers of them all, like Hal Clement or Robert Forward, never came close to it.

The narrowing of choices in this pattern is like Aeschylean tragedy, but instead of catharsis, the intent is conversion. The mental crisis generated by the tension of the situation is being used to force the reader to discard their old conceptions.

Now, Heinlein picked this technique up from Shaw and his problem plays. Campbell picked it up from crank conmen and cultists.

Doug M.

Luke, Andrew is right. There are enough reasons to dislike Card's stuff anyway. (Let's engage the reader's gut by hurting or threatening children!)

Carlos, I never suggested it was a Campbell/New Wave split. I /was/ thinking that most SF didn't fit. And almost no fantasy.

Of course, it's much harder to do this sort of thing in fantasy, because fantasy is "made up" in a fundamentally different way. Rather than going into the endless sterile discussion about which is which, let's bring it down to specifics: you can't have a didactic Heinlein-type character in a Tolkein-type fantasy world.

More generally, it's very hard to have "intense didactic engagement, a forceful counterintuitive, anti-realistic argument, and no possibility of narrative disagreement" in a fantasy world. Most likely because, in a fantasy world, "anti-realistic" becomes slippery and unmanageable. In Hyboria, violence /is/ the only way to solve anything.

But then: if a lot of fandom is looking for the intellectual equivalent of an evening at the Leather Cellar, why do these same people love fantasy so? Why is there little overlap between Heinlein fans and Spinrad fans, if the two are peddling the same sort of induced schizoid experience? (Which, BTW, I agree that at some level they are.)

Which is to say, I think you have a piece of something, but I'm not sure it's a rope.


Doug M.

Carlos

Doug, I'm much less dogmatic about the double bind theory than you seem to think I am. Multiple working hypotheses. But we both agree there's something there, and I think it's related to why science fiction is so prone to cultish beliefs, and other genres aren't. (Counterexample: The Mists of Avalon.)

I think the fantasy demographic differs significantly from the schizoid SF demographic. They're the ones who complain the loudest about any deviation from The Good Old Stuff. I think Luke may have hit on something: they feel like they're initiates in a mystery religion, and everything the mundanes know is wrong.

(I've been meaning to read Three Christs of Ypsilanti for a while. A nonfiction case study: three schizophrenics who each believe they're Jesus are brought together for treatment at a hospital in Michigan. YpsilantiCon '64!)

Doug M.

Tentative working hypothesis.

There's a subset of fandom characterized by mild autism, or by weak socialization that gives symptoms superficially pretty similar.

Oliver Sacks tells the story of an intelligent autistic who describes herself as "like an anthropologist on Mars". Unable to intuitively figure out how the rest of us tick, she's been able to compensate somewhat by paying close attention and working out empirical rules of behavior and response -- a sort of prosthetic empathy.

It's clear she's an unusual case... but anyway: the idea is that these guys are looking for not one thing, but two: (1) escape, and (2) an instruction manual.

SF is capable of scratching both itches at once. This sort of fan is likely to fall violently in love with Heinlein; he provides, at the same time, fascinating new worlds and a road map to human behavior. cf. la loca's love nest, above. (Which I guess would be falling violently in love /by/ Heinlein. Ahem.) _Mists of Avalon_ would fit this pattern too. Note that the "instruction manual" need not be as obviously didactic as Heinlein usually is; presentation of (seemingly) plausible models of human behavior can work too, though overt explanation is usually required at some point. ("You see, Bob, what women really want is...")

But since the two needs are not easily satisfied in a single text, usually they have to settle for one or the other -- Rand or Tolkien, as it were.


Doug M.

Bernard Guerrero

Hmmnn. "I think Luke may have hit on something: they feel like they're initiates in a mystery religion, and everything the mundanes know is wrong" seems plausible on its face.

But let's pause for a moment, Carlos. I was thinking about this on the drive home, but ultimately the question seemed too ill-defined to be able to analyze it in any meaningful way and the comments didn't help much. Your claim is?:

A) That...

1) Scifi readers in general....
2) Some major fraction of scifi readers....
3) The small fraction of scifi readers we have come to know and love as "fen" or "cat-piss folk"....
4) Some other subset of scifi fandom....

B)

1) ...are borderline autistic (or, as Doug put it, indistinguishable from same due to poor socialization) and are seeking a model of human behavior.
2) ...are desperate for escape from their actual lives.
3) ...are mildly schizophrenic.
4) ...are alienated from society and seek, in scientific-messianic fashion, to pretend that they can control and modify it to something more congenial. (the "mystery cult", as per Luke)
5) ...are subject to a sort of forced schizophrenia through your "double bind" mechanism.
6) ...are subject to some combo of B1-B5, as above.

Don't let my occasional expression of approval for some of Heinlein's work hold you back. :^)

Gareth Wilson

There was a story published recently where almost the entire human race were autistic savants. They could see the number of leaves on a tree in a glance, but needed to carry out painstaking mental calculations to read facial expressions. It appeared in Analog. Pause for obvious jokes here.
As for silly ideas, thirty years ago I'd be writing an annoyed letter to a fanzine about how common telepathy in unmodified humans is in SF, to the point where getting hold of a telepath is about as hard as finding a notary public, and about as awe-inspiring. But that particular trope is very unfashionable in current written SF. Next-Stepism seems to be going the same way. So maybe there's hope that the other silly ideas will gradually wither away.

Carlos

Hey Bernard. I'd like to analyze B5 by itself further. The forced schizoid state and its addicts. The classic text here really has to be "The Cold Equations".

Incidentally, not that I've ever seen the show, but:

Heroes : save the cheerleader :: The Cold Equations : kill the stowaway.

hm. Loraux's book, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman, comes to mind, for the obvious reason.

Carlos

Gareth, thirty years ago was 1977. Analog was printing "The Screwfly Solution" and "Particle Theory". If you were bitching about something to a fanzine, it would be about those long-haired hippie freaks. (Of course, you do that now...)

Doug M.

Thinking about this a bit more.

Carlos, the sort of double bind you describe is found in a certain sort of SF, but (1) it's not universal or even all that common in the field, and (2) it's found in plenty of other places outside the field. We've already mentioned both Shaw and Rand. I happened to be flipping through some Howard Fast the other day (don't ask) and he fits, too. There's a whole corpus of 20th century didactic literature that strives to induce just this sort of double bind. So why blame poor old SF?

Further. The double bind only affects a certain sort of reader. The progression I gave upthread, while somewhat arbitrary, is actually quite useful here.

The '10-year-old' reader reads "The Cold Equations" and just cries. (I know, because that's what I did.)

The '30 year old' reader reads it and picks it apart. "Sad, okay, but you can see how it's rigged. This society couldn't afford warning labels? The author was going for maximum bathetic punch, and you can see the wires and rigging, here and here."

So, it's only the '17 year old' reader who's going to get hit by the double bind.

Similarly, the 10 year old -- maybe we should call him the 'child' reader' -- will just roll past Colonel DuBois' lecture. Yeah yeah, violence rules, whatever. Bring on the monster bugs, please. And the 'adult' -- no, I don't like that -- the 'interrogative' reader will escape the double bind by going meta... like getting out of a two-dimensional trap by a vertical leap. The reader may say, "Oh, here's the bit where Heinlein delivers some philosophy. Been expecting this. Hm, usually he's a bit more subtle." Or the reader may simply roll eyes, say "Stuff!" and move on. Either way, the bind is dodged.

Now, it may be that one encounters more 'adolescent' readers among SF fans. But that's a statement about fandom, not SF-as-literature. Even granting that the two have been incestuously intertwined for a long time, I think you need to narrow your focus here.


Doug M.

Carlos

So why blame poor old SF?

Well, because even Al Gore has picked up on it. (Google the title of this post.) But I'm more than happy to include Fast and Rand in the discussion.

From a writer's perspective, it's an interesting narrative technique. (I am a little tempted to rewrite Dubois's monologue with other "factors", say "cooperation" or "language". Starship Troopers is really one of the first evo psych novels.) For someone interested in mental models and structuralism, it's interesting since the form of the double bind is independent of the content it tries to inculcate. It's also interesting from a learning and development viewpoint, and from a phenomenology of reading as well.

Finally, there's the "that's alls I can stands, and I can't stands no more," factor. Gah.

Bernard Guerrero

Well, because even Al Gore has picked up on it.

Minor disagreement; I believe Gore was talking about Crichton's book, and Crichton hardly fits the model we're talking about here.

Noel Maurer

Bernard: why not? Crichton is uber-didactic in his book, and always tries to set up his policy recommendations as nothing more than the obvious acceptance of ineluctable reality.

Noel Maurer

Bernard: Why doesn't Crichton fit the model? He is uber-didactic in his books --- astoundingly so, really --- and always tries to set up his policy recommendations as nothing more than the obvious acceptance of an ineluctable reality.

And he certainly writes science fiction, even if he denies it.

Randy McDonald

Luke: Which Clarke books are the ones? The protagonist of The Sands of Mars strikes me as fairly obviously closeted: verging on middle age, unattached, with a nervous breakdown in his early adulthood and a son produced by an early fling. He goes to the opposite extreme in The Songs of Distant Earth, describing a human future where male bisexuality is quite common, both among the colonial Thalassans and among the visiting Earthers (a passage wherein a crewman described a gay beach orgy, enacted in order to test his mostly-hetero Kinsey rating, comes to mind). Was I simply reading the right Clarke?

Might this phenomenon simply be a function of American science fiction? Judging by the hardcover books shipped into the bookstore where I work, military SF by authors like David Drake and John Ringo is quite popular, despite Ringo's apparent Naziphilia and his authoring of the Kildar series where the heros are bisexual nymphets who gleefully murder bad people (usually Muslims) in order to collect the bad people's souls for service in the afterlife. ("Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est?") The underlying argument of this military SF taken as a genre seems to be something along the lines of the military virtues providing the mores necessary for a society to survive. The corrupting influence of empire, perhaps, added on top of SF as a form of socialization?

Carlos

Randy, current American military science fiction is the pulp arm of the neo-conservative movement. The connections are explicit. Go to Bakka and pick up the set of Pournelle's There Will Be War and Imperial Stars anthologies from the 1980s. They'll be in the bargain bin. You'll spot names like David Horowitz and Edward Luttwak [1] in the tables of contents. They're not writing science fiction. Read, closely, Pournelle's introductions. It's all there in embryo.

(In fairness, I should note that Pournelle broke with the neo-conservatives over Iraq, Pournelle being an energy crank. Pournelle also believes The Bell Curve is scientifically valid.)

But Baen Books, the primary producer of this... incredibly dorky subgenre, is only about 3% of the science fiction print market, which in turn is only about 6% of the US book market. (Cf. Russia, where it's 9% and growing quickly.) We're talking one book in five hundred from that publisher, and not even all of them.

(Yes, the books with Obersturmführer Michael Dukakis in the tank on the cover are distressing; they're meant to be distressing to you. It's the politics of ressentiment. They want to stick it to you, good -- and now you know why they're homophobic, too.)

But this is a little tangential to what I want to talk about.

[1] Luttwak was against the current war by 2005, but in 1999, he was saying things like, "Too many wars nowadays become endemic conflicts that never end because the transformative effects of both decisive victory and exhaustion are blocked by outside intervention." (From "Give War a Chance", July/August 1999, Foreign Affairs.)

Doug M.

Noel, it's different because, while Crichton does write SF, the book in question isn't really -- it's a political thriller. It may have an SFnal McGuffin, but so do most James Bond movies.

Gore's comment is really a subtle put-down of the book and of people who buy into it. "I read a novel..." wouldn't have the same sting.


Doug M.

Carlos

I'd strongly argue that the mainstream view of science fiction readers is that they're overly credulous. (Substituting "mystery novel" or "romance novel" or even "graphic novel" wouldn't carry additional impact.) I'd also argue that the mainstream view is correct.

Yes, there's a class thing going on too. The politics of ressentiment cut both ways. But given Gore's label by the mainstream press as a nerd... well, it's the geek hierarchy at work. "I may have become a single-issue wonk, but those people in the Starfleet uniforms are even lower than I am."

As for Crichton as a science fiction author, there's not much difference in presentation between Lucifer's Hammer or Olympos and his books. It's a marketing issue.

And you never know: Gore might have had Fallen Angels in mind.

Noel Maurer

Doug: keeping in mind that definitions are never right or wrong, merely useful or unuseful, I can't give you State of Fear as non-SF. The main twist is weather modification technology. It's not a goofy aside, the way most (not all, of course) of the super-tech is in a James Bond movie. Rather, it's integral to the plot.

(Yes, that means that Moonraker and Die Another Day are science fiction --- which is why, in fact, Bond purists hate both flicks. You could add The Man with the Golden Gun, but c'mon, you could switch the solextron or whatever-it-was for "one million dollars!" and have the same damn bad movie. Ditto Goldeneye.)

As Carlos points out, Crichton writes science fiction and is identified as a science fiction writer by everyone but his publishers and true SF fans.

In addition, I'd like to clarify that my main point (and, I think, Bernard's) is that Crichton's work, including State of Fear, fits the rhetorical model that Carlos described. That's why I tossed in the fact that he also happens to be an SF author as an aside.

Randy McDonald

Carlos:

(Yes, the books with Obersturmführer Michael Dukakis in the tank on the cover are distressing; they're meant to be distressing to you. It's the politics of ressentiment. They want to stick it to you, good -- and now you know why they're homophobic, too.)

That wasn't any surprise. What text idealizing the values of the military in opposition to the corrupt culture of the plebes isn't homophobic at some level? (I'm still not sure what to think about the recent Tom of Sparta, though I'm leaning towards that movie's inclusion in the latter group.)

Randy McDonald

Carlos:

(Yes, the books with Obersturmführer Michael Dukakis in the tank on the cover are distressing; they're meant to be distressing to you. It's the politics of ressentiment. They want to stick it to you, good -- and now you know why they're homophobic, too.)

That wasn't any surprise. What text idealizing the values of the military in opposition to the corrupt culture of the plebes isn't homophobic at some level? I'm still not sure what to think about the recent Tom of Sparta, though I'm leaning towards that movie's inclusion in that standard unsurprising group. (Of course the Emperor of Persia is a three-metre-tall Brazilian drag queen.)

Jussi Jalonen

Randy, literature (or cinema, or whatever) that idealizes the military culture and its values in opposition to the "corrupt" culture of [whomever] may inevitably be homophobic "at some level", but I'd argue that it's equally inevitably also _homoerotic_... at, well, so many levels.

Which is pretty realistic, in fact. Having done service in a conscript army, I'd like to claim that I know what I'm talking about here.

Cheers,
Jalonen

Bernard Guerrero

Why doesn't Crichton fit the model? He is uber-didactic in his books

My experience of Crichton being limited to having read Jurrasic Park and Sphere and watched the nearly unwatchable Congo, I will confess to not being an expert. That said, I don't think he fits the specific model Carlos is talking about. He is didactic (I'd say preachy, really), but I don't recall the "double bind" Carlos is talking about. As I believe Doug pointed out, you can find didactic literature everywhere, not just SF. I think Carlos is talking about a very specific setup wherein the Wise Character expounds on something that appears counter-intuitive and yet couches the argument in such a way as to make agreement inevitable. It's supposed to be obvious and yet not at exactly the same time.

Crichton's charaters, OTOH, make a claim like "complex systems break down in dangerous and unexpected ways" and then Crichton proceeds to prove them correct by having the frog DNA switch the dinosaurs' sexes or what have you. And even the Wise Character can end up dead, which I don't think fits Carlos' bill either.

Noel Maurer

Crichton's characters, OTOH, make a claim like "complex systems break down in dangerous and unexpected ways" and then Crichton proceeds to prove them correct by having the frog DNA switch the dinosaurs' sexes or what have you.

Bernard, that's exactly right! You've described perfectly how Crichton fits the rhetorical model to a T.

In the model, the author sets up a statement that doesn't correspond with your everyday experience, and then rigs the story to prove that statement correct.

In Jurassic Park, the statement is, as you said, "complex systems inevitably break down in dangerous and unexpected ways." As a general rule, this runs against all of our everyday experience. To take an extreme example, modern American capitalism has broken down in a "dangerous and unexpected way" precisely once in modern history, but there are many others. For example, airplanes don't routinely fall out of the sky, internal combustion engines don't routinely explode, and my fiancee's complex medical interventions in the emergency room don't routinely fail. So the statement contradicts one's own experience and intuition.

Crichton then goes on to rig things to prove his counterintuition. The frog DNA switches the sex or whatever. It's a fluke, a series of unluckly sixes rolled in a row, but Crichton sets it up to be the ineluctable working out of natural law.

It's Carlos's model, exactly.

Carlos

If Crichton doesn't fit the model, it's because he doesn't engage the reader authoritatively enough. Subjectively, his narrative authority is weaker than (say) Heinlein's, probably because he's a sloppier writer. But the punitive element is strong, as strong as those old slasher movies where the teenagers who have sex will quickly be murdered.

On reflection, the double bind seems closely related to the fallacy of the excluded middle. The most infamous example that comes to mind would be C.S. Lewis's argument that (paraphrasing) "Either Jesus was the Son of God, or he was a deluded madman, and there is no in-between, because I say so." Thanks, Jack.

I do think that a certain chunk of the readership of this sort of didactic narrative grooves on that feeling of being made to decide. Maybe it's not craving the "intellectual lash," as Doug put it. Perhaps they've associated this feeling with thinking they've learned something important. (I wonder if there's a way to use this method to teach comparative advantage.)

The full double bind, incidentally, would involve no option that precluded punishment. You can see why Bateson linked its use in parenting with mental illness.

Bernard Guerrero

Crichton then goes on to rig things to prove his counterintuition.

The simple rigging of the story doesn't seem like much of a mechanism to me, though. If that's all we're talking about, I'd say that a) nearly all authors rig the story to prove whatever point they have in mind about human nature and b) It's trivial to construct a counter-factual in your head for 99.9% of the points they are making. If the story approached the complexity of reality, it would be impossible to read. So we're talking about SF-nal types who, on reading that "violence solves most problems", cannot imagine a situation where it doesn't?

My reply is that fiction is rhetorical in nature, and polemics make for interesting rhetoric.

Bernard Guerrero

But the punitive element is strong, as strong as those old slasher movies where the teenagers who have sex will quickly be murdered.

Speaking specifically of Jurrasic Park, I seem to recall that the mathematician who is making the point about complex systems falling apart actually ends up dead in the book, though only badly injured in the movie version (played by Jeff Goldbum). Cat-pee Guy may dream of being Correct, but does he dream of Dying Nonetheless?

Randy McDonald

Jussi:

Randy, literature (or cinema, or whatever) that idealizes the military culture and its values in opposition to the "corrupt" culture of [whomever] may inevitably be homophobic "at some level", but I'd argue that it's equally inevitably also _homoerotic_... at, well, so many levels.

Oh, no question about that. It's just, um, an interesting sort of repression going on there.


Carlos:

But Baen Books, the primary producer of this... incredibly dorky subgenre, is only about 3% of the science fiction print market, which in turn is only about 6% of the US book market. (Cf. Russia, where it's 9% and growing quickly.) We're talking one book in five hundred from that publisher, and not even all of them.

Today at work, I decided to take a look to see what SF was around. Downstairs on the wall displays and octagons at the front of store, the only vaguely SF book I saw was Weber's latest installment of the co-authored alternate universes-at-war. Upstairs in the science fiction/fantasy section, fantasy predominated, most of the science-fiction novels on the table being both paperback and media tie-ins. On the science fiction shelves, a rather disproportionate number were Baen milSF. They might not sell disproportionately, but they are visible.

This may not be the case at Bakka, but Bakka is much more the hidden-away outpost than a portal for interested fans. The owners couldn't afford the rising rents at their conveniently located location at Yonge and Wellesley and moved out, about a year and a half ago, to the pleasantly corporatizing bohemian neighbourhood of Queen Street West. That street used to be on my regular commute before the move, but no longer has, and I haven't been able to spare the time to head down there for six or seven months.

Curiously enough, Glad Day--a GLBT bookstore which rents the second floor of the building where Bakka used to be located--has remained in its current location despite legal troubles with Canada Customs. I'm tempted to argue that there is a coherent and self-supporting GLBT literary ghetto in Toronto, at least a more self-supporting ghetto than anything that might exist for fans of science fiction. (The gaybourhood is located just a block to the east, as is another GLBT bookstore, and a writing group that I sadly haven't attended in a year.)

I'm familiar with several literary ghettos: a GLBT literature ghetto, and a Canadian literature ghetto, and a SF literature ghetto. One factor common to all three is a shared belief, by authors and by committed readers, that these ghettos play a critical role in promoting group identities, that the literary and other works associated with these ghettos communicate truths which have to be accepted uncritically by the flock else the flock will lose cohesion altogether. This might be a necessary stage of an emergent body of literature, but it's also quite boring for all but the most committed of readers. Things become much more readable when people are able to relax.

Hmm. The existence of a Canadian state lends obvious credence to the need for a body of Canadian literature, perhaps facilitating a certain amount of relaxation. GLBT identities are more unstable and shallowly rooted, hence the uneven pantheon (Michael Cunningham, yay; Felice Picano, I can take him or leave him). What identity justifies science fiction literature, or is consolidated by SF?

Carlos

Randy, I'm including fantasy within my science fiction stats for the US, but the breakdown is at least two to one in favor of fantasy, and in terms of page count is doubtless higher, since most US SF publishers now have a page limit for science fiction novels. (I wonder how badly burned they got with those godawful Alistair Reynolds and Peter Hamilton doorstops?)

The Russian figures made it into the International Herald Tribune last year, and from the tone of the article, it does sound as though it's mainly science fiction proper.

It also looks as though your store's buyer -- an independent, right? -- has a preference for Baen. I do spot checks at the chains in NYC. It's about 10% hardcovers for Baen, rather less than 5% for paperbacks. (You can go shelf after shelf without a Baen title.) I gather they make a good chunk of change from online subscriptions, using basically the Internet porn business model. But they're minor in terms of print.

What identity justifies science fiction literature, or is consolidated by SF?

As far as I can tell, it's strongly a nostalgia market.

Anyway. Tangential.

Noel Maurer

Bernard, it seems as though you are now employing the rhetorical style that Carlos and I are criticizing. By writing, "So we're talking about SF-nal types who, on reading that 'violence solves most problems,' cannot imagine a situation where it doesn't?" you are engaging in the fallacy of the excluded middle. Obviously, we are not talking about that. Neither is Carlos, and I hope you realize that you are attacking the basis for his arguments as well as my own.

Similarly, you engaged the same rhetoric when you wrote, "nearly all authors rig the story to prove whatever point they have in mind about human nature." That contradicts one's everyday experience. Many, probably most, fiction authors have no particular point about human nature that contradicts common intuition. (After all, if a statement doesn't contradict everyday experience or common intuition, then Carlos's rhetorical model does not apply.)

Other authors (Aldous Huxley and George Orwell immediately come to mind, for some reason, but there are myriads) have points about human nature which are non-obvious because they are contingent, complex, and morally ambiguous, not because they are counter-intuitive.

In other words, you seem to be using the fallacy of the excluded middle to imply that all authors utilize Heinlein's rhetorical model.

I'll admit to being at a loss as to why the death of the man who presented Crichton's thesis in the novel negates Crichton's use of the rhetorical model. The fact that the mathematician's fears proved correct, and resulted in his death, only strengthens the rhetoric. It wasn't as if the mathematician took his own advice and then died anyway.

You end by saying that you find that form of argumentation entertaining. The apparent fact that you use it certainly implies so. But that is simply your taste. We, on the other hand, were not discussing whether you enjoyed the use of that peculiar form of didacticism in literature, but whether Crichton employs it. Therefore, it seems to be a non-sequitur; a way of saying, "Noel, you'll never get me to agree to anything you say, you jerk."

Please forgive me for taking your "reply" as intended to be hostile; I'm trying not to respond in kind. It seems as though you have simply decided to disagree with me regardless of the situation. I can understand why, of course, given our political differences, but it is quite ... apologies for the apparent pun ... disagreeable.

Bernard Guerrero

Noel,

Please forgive me for taking your "reply" as intended to be hostile

To be honest, it wasn't. As to your mention that I'm attacking Carlos' thesis as well as your own, well, yeah. More specifically, if your claim as to what Carlos' was saying was correct, I saw less to it than I thought there was at first blush. That's no function of your politics or my feelings about same, you might be perfectly correct about what Carlos meant. It just seems too broad to be something really shocking to me, unlike the narrower interpretation I first gave it. I'll leave it to Carlos to comment further if he so chooses.

"So we're talking about SF-nal types who, on reading that 'violence solves most problems,' cannot imagine a situation where it doesn't?" you are engaging in the fallacy of the excluded middle. Obviously, we are not talking about that. Neither is Carlos

This, however, is not clear to me. If you're correct, I'd say Carlos was talking about something I don't think exists (or, rather, is so common that I doubt it can have the effect he claims for it.) Either there's a subtle psychological trick (the "double bind") or there isn't, in which case it looks like a run-of-the-mill rhetorical device. I'm not trying to exclude the middle, this looks like a very narrow question with a binary answer to me.

I'll admit to being at a loss as to why the death of the man who presented Crichton's thesis in the novel negates Crichton's use of the rhetorical model.

No, no, it negates (as I see it) Carlos' point about the punitive element being strong. You'll recall the example he made about slasher movies and the kids who had sex; punishment follows transgression. In the case of Crichton's mathematician, that formula doesn't hold. The mathematician is one of the earliest nay-sayers about the project, the didactic Wise Man, but (IIRC) ends up getting killed anyway. This doesn't strike me as being very appealing to Cat-piss Man. He doesn't even die heroically advancing the cause (which would square with mil-SF), but rather dies despite being 100% correct in Crichton's constructed world. His death advances nothing, the system still breaks down and its breakdown would have been obvious even if he hadn't been in the story.

You end by saying that you find that form of argumentation entertaining.

In this case I'm making a broader claim, myself. It appears to me that the simple "my point is X so my world will be constructed to prove X" method is as common as dirt in literature. You refer to Orwell, for instance. You may see mostly moral ambiguity or contingency in 1984 or Animal Farm, but I think they both have huge doses of what I'm describing above. For instance, I can think of tons of ways in which the (apparent) world Orwell sets up in 1984 might be unstable and prone to quick self-destruction. Orwell, however, sets it up as being (or appearing) very stable so as to heighten the reader's sense of despair. Boots stamping on human faces forever and all that.

It appears to me that a moral or "point" in literature has to have at least some counter-intuitive element. (i.e. Winston's world is both horrible and unlikely to get better. Beware!) If it's really intuitive, it's probably going to make for a dull story (except perhaps to Doug's autistics looking for a model of human behavior that they don't start out with.) Why say what goes without saying?

Just to repeat, I do not intend to be hostile nor am I disagreeing with you (or Carlos) simply to disagree or to snub you because of your politics. I simply think that the broader version of Carlos' claim that you describe is a commonplace in literature rather than a mechanism specific to certain forms of SF.

I'll suggest something. If you've gotten this far and you find yourself feeling a bit angry, you and I actually have something left in common. I read your reply and started getting the feeling you were being hostile. Since this is a somewhat silly topic to begin with, it probably doesn't justify any emotional attachment at all. Either we are set up to rub each other the wrong way automatically at this point or we're both trying to see aggression where there isn't any. If you think it's the latter, feel free to continue; I'm not bothered by forceful counter-arguments. If you think it's the former, let's just call it quits. Don't respond, I won't, either, and we'll avoid responding to each other in the future. No hard feelings, such is life.

Noel Maurer

Nope, not angry at all. A bit frustrated, yes, but that's a different issue. And as you say, not worth the time.

Carlos

Gentlemen, please feel free to disagree about this. I'm speculating about an admittedly very subjective phenomenon. There are much more rigorous examples of regular mental structures out there: sound changes in linguistics, or the slope of the demand curve in economics.

I will ask Bernard, why is didactic fiction so different from other forms of learning? Not in terms of mimesis, but in terms of effect. It might take a thousand problems to teach a student calculus, but it might take a single passage to convince someone that violence is the prime mover in human affairs.

Doug M.

"It might take a thousand problems to teach a student calculus, but it might take a single passage to convince someone that violence is the prime mover in human affairs."

Possibly related, possibly not: roleplaying games.

One way to be a good DM is to give the players illusory choices. You want them to take the left-hand corridor because that's where the dragon is. But you don't want them to feel railroaded, forced to go that way... they'll either rebel, or feel frustrated at being pushed around.

So you give them a choice, but stack the deck. First you set up a false dichotomy -- "you can go left, or right". Of course the characters can also turn around and go home, lie down and go to sleep, try to dig through the ceiling, or a hundred other things, but you set up the choice and usually they'll buy right in. Choices are interesting, after all.

Next, you subtly cast one choice -- the "right-hand corridor" -- as boring. After all, it's a game, and nobody wants to be bored.

Finally -- and this is the tricky bit -- you cast the other choice as interesting, but threatening, and put it in a way that at least some players will have reservations.

For instance, I know that Bob the dwarf hates water, while Alex the bard is fastidious and doesn't like dirt or mud. So I say, "The right-hand corridor stretches into the darkness as far as you can see. Its floor is dry and dusty. It looks like nobody has been this way for a long time.

"The left hand corridor goes down a short flight of stairs. After the stairs, you can see that the corridor continues, but it's covered with six or eight inches of muddy, stagnant-looking water. Pausing to listen, you can hear a faint drip... drip... drip in the distance.

"If you go that way, you'll be wading up to your shins. This will slow you down, and it will also be quite difficult to move quietly."

So, we promptly get a fierce inter-party debate. Bob's player says his dwarf hates water, while Alex says it's all muddy and icky. But the other players are intrigued, and after some discussion they agree to go down the stairs.

Now, this opens them up to an ambush attack by the dragon (who is aquatic, of course). But that's okay. If they win, they'll be extra happy for having overcome the challenge. If they die, they'll be upset, but not at the DM -- they'll feel that they made a wrong group choice. Either way, they'll get real entertainment value from the subsequent debate. ("We should have turned the other way" is a big part of the fun, believe it or not.)

Now, this maps to a double bind if _the dragon is going to be there anyway_. If they turn right, they'll end up at the same place by a different route. The dragon is the boss monster, and all roads lead to him. The choice may make a difference in terms of whether the dragon can ambush them or not... but maybe not; it's trivially easy for me to set things up so that it doesn't.

What matters is that they /think/ it does. It's their choice, bought and paid for.

DMing is all about maximizing player enjoyment. (Enjoyment, at the meta level, includes disappointment. No game is fun if you always win, right?) The best way to maximize is to get buy-in, and one of the strongest tools for buy-in is choice. Whether it's real or not.

Rambling a bit, but I suspect there's an underlying connection here.


Doug M.

Bernard Guerrero

A bit frustrated, yes, but that's a different issue. And as you say, not worth the time. You put it better than I could. Hasta la vista, and good luck with the nuptials.

Randy McDonald

Carlos:

It also looks as though your store's buyer -- an independent, right? -- has a preference for Baen.

Nope, not an independent. It's part of the same meta-chain that owns all of Canada's various major niche-targeted chains (megabookstores, smaller book stores, et cetera). So far as I can tell, these stores--at least in Toronto--all share the same basic treatment of science fiction.

What identity justifies science fiction literature, or is consolidated by SF?

As far as I can tell, it's strongly a nostalgia market.

Which might, in large part, explain part of the genre's apparent presentation in Canada, especially if it is a specifically American nostalgia.

Bernard:

Welcome to Noel's club.

Noel Maurer

Randy, must you? No need, really.

Randy McDonald

Noel:

Randy, must you? No need, really.

Whatever your intentions may have been towards me, there were failures in translation in our communications--some mine and things I'm trying to learn from, some yours and demonstrably repeated elsewhere--which left me feeling bullied and needlessly belittled. (I should have learned when the swearing began; my fault.) J'en ai marre, and no, I'm not talking about the Smiths' famous guitarist. Why not commiserate with others?

I'd like to wish you the best for your nuptials but believe me, I've no interest in carrying on discussions with you if they end the way that they have in the future. Shall we politely ignore each other? I'm up to carrying this unilaterally, fear not.

Best wishes,
Randy

Noel Maurer

Randy ... oh, never mind. Good luck to you.

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