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April 19th, 2016

09:51 pm: Three Arguments Against Political Correctness

Before I start, an argument was made to me that Political Correctness is not the appropriate term for this issue. Having given it some thought, I think there is an argument both for and against this claim. I will discuss the matter in a different essay.

Now, to begin…

peanuts

1) In my recent discussions about political correctness, I ran into a number of people voicing some version of the following argument:

“When I am triggered, I react with anger. I shout and scream at people who I perceive as having said rude and hateful things.”

Now, am I wrong, or is the main argument against politically incorrect speech: it is rude and hurtful?

So…is rudeness acceptable?

Or is it not?

If rudeness is not acceptable in other people, shouldn’t we also not behave rudely ourselves?

If rudeness is acceptable in us, the triggered person—if it is okay for us to behave in an angry and emotional way toward the person who said the thing we perceived as offensive—then, must it not also be okay for other people to say offensive things?

For surely, we cannot have the standard: it is okay for me to be obnoxious, but not for you to be obnoxious.

That is hypocrisy.

 

2) A second argument I saw was: “People who complain about being attacked by political correctness are just babies who should be more thick-skinned.”

This answer delights me. 

I would love to see everyone be more thick-skinned.

But again, it has to be everyone or no one.

It is ridiculous to say: “Stop being a baby because you got attacked by five, or ten, or fifty, or two hundred people on the internet, who all screamed and shouted at you because they didn’t like something that you said that had not been considered offensive yesterday.

 And yet say: “It is okay for a person to take offense at a comment that was not meant as a slur.”

It wouldn’t be so bad if there were two or three offensive terms and we could all agree to avoid them unless we meant to insult. But it is not like that anymore. Now there are more and more ideas and words that are labeled offensive or hateful. And there is no authority. Anyone, at any time, can declare something hateful, and they will find no lack of folks eager to jump on their bandwagon.

So even a decent person cannot avoid being savaged by ravaging swarms angry PCers..

(If this were not the case, there would not be so many cases of strong supporters of Liberal causes—people who are known for really speaking up for them—being attacked by the ravaging hoards. )

Yes, our society would be benefited if more of us were courageous and thick-skinned. Both those who have been attacked by large groups of angry PCers, and those who have perceived something another person just said as a personal slur.

 

3) One of the problems with a society that encourages people to become outraged is: I know people who get really angry if you don’t use the latest politically correct term, and I know people who get really angry if you do use the latest politically correct term.

That must be horrible for companies trying to placate their customers.

Here is the argument I hear from the second group—those who hate politically correct speech:

It makes it harder for people to understand works written in the past. Whenever a new word is chosen as the “right “ word for any group or cause, the old word becomes a swearword. (You can’t get anyone to change to the new one, unless you insist that the old one is bad.)

Words that were perfectly polite at the time the book was written become rude. So books are banned for things that were not ever meant to be offensive.

Worse, once the new words take hold, the new generation doesn’t even get taught what the old terms meant. So, they cannot even understand the older works if they try.

(As an example: people in older generations know that Man often meant Mankind. Nowadays, children are taught that Man means male. With the result that they completely misinterpret many old works to have been written about males when they were actually addressing humans. )

For those of us writing now, this means that—no matter how polite or careful we are—the forces of political correctness might at any time take offense at some idea we included in our books, making them objectionable to future generations.

Also, it corrupts worlds. Because, in no time, the new word gains the same connotation the old word had.

This is why words keep changing: Negro, Colored, Black, Afro-American, African American; Crippled, Handicapped, Disabled, Special Needs—just to name a few.

If we insist people use a new word because we don’t like the connotation of the current word, all we do is ruin another word.

What is needed is to reclaim the current word. We need to help people change their image of the group of which, they currently have a negative image .

If we do this, we do them some real good. 

(End of section noting argument of political-correctness hating friends.)

 

Finally, in closing, the best thing I’ve seen to date on this topic was written by my Old School Liberal friend, Don, who said:

“Interesting semantic discussion — "political corrects" is what I would define as the silencing of people whose opinions might offend some one, yet the argument here seems to be that no one is fired for being politically incorrect, they're just fired for expressing opinions that offend someone.

Hmmmmm…..?”

 

Bonus:

And, for those who claimed no one ever lost a job due to political correctness:

https://handleshaus.wordpress.com/2013/12/26/bullied-and-badgered-pressured-and-purged/

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Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

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April 4th, 2016

11:14 pm: Political Correctness vs. The Search for Happiness

A debate broke out recently about political correctness between myself and some of my fellow SF fans. (You can read Matthew M. Foster’s response here.)

I am very fond of Mr. Foster, but I must respectfully disagree.

dbz-zendo

Once, many years ago, I spent a week at a Rensi Zen monastery. It was housed in a beautiful estate in the Catskill Mountains in New York. The estate had once belonged to Harriet Beecher Stowe, (who happens to be, I am told, a distant relative of mine. ) The entire week was spent in quiet meditation and contemplation.

I had a lot of time to pray and think.

dbz

I was young, just out of college. I spent the week delving into the heart of my personal life philosophy. By the end of the week, I had come to a realization:

We all want to be happy.

To be happy, we must be wise.

To be wise, we must be free to make mistakes

or we cannot find our way to wisdom.

Because of this, I am a strong supporter of the great dialogue that is civilization. Were it up to me, nothing would ever interfere with it.

Political correctness quenches this conversation. Here are some of the reasons I say that:

 

* It replaces discussion and debate with Puritan-style disapproval.

You don’t explain to someone why you disagree with them. You speak so as to shut them down as quickly as possible.

 

* It keeps people from sharing politically correct views in a way that might convince.

Because of this, if the person who favors the politically correct position has a good reason for their opinions, the other person will not know, because debate has been silenced.

 

*It keeps people from sharing any other view.

If the person who does not favor the politically correct position has a good reasons for supporting their position—the person favoring the politically correct reason will never hear it, because he shut down the debate before he had a chance to hear the reasons.

 

*Rude people are rude anyway.

Most people who really want to be rude don’t care about political correctness, and they are still rude and mean—this means it is the nice people, the people who really don’t want to hurt others feelings—who get attacked and squelched.

 

*It gives a false sense of consensus.

Because people stop voicing views that are not on the accepted list, people who support the politically correct view are left with a false sense of the general public agreeing with them.

 

*It creates backlash.

If you have an opinion and your friend has a different opinion, you can have a conversation.

If you have an opinion, perhaps a mild or moderate one, and every time you voice it, you get slammed for being evil—by people who refuse to even consider your point of view, because they have already labeled anything that doesn’t agree with them as blasphemy…

After a while, you get annoyed.

Some people really believe their position, and they stick to it.

But many people…when their moderate position isn’t accepted, their response is to go the other way. To go rabid, so to speak.

And that is what creates people like Donald Trump, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Vox Day.

People get so tired of being shut down that they find it tremendously refreshing to hear anyone, even someone far extreme of their position, speak openly about whatever it is that is bothering them.

 

* It hides facts.

Once political correctness moves into science—and a few people lose their position for not voicing the party line (which has happened in both the scientific and educational fields)—people stop wanting to publish the truth.

I am sure there are scientists who support the global climate ideas, for instant, but I have yet to meet one. But I keep hearing reports of scientists in the climate field who are keeping their head down, unwilling to publish their results until they either have inconclusive proof of what they have found or the political climate changes.

That means the rest of us are being robbed of honest scientific debate.

One should never be afraid of debate…it’s a good thing, even if you were right all along.

It is a very good thing, if you were wrong.

 

*It encourages rudeness.

People who favor political correctness say it is about politeness. But the same people, so often, also favor shouting down anyone who disagrees with them. They pick a handful of opinions that they declare to be rude, then they shout and scream at people who don’t agree with those opinions.

But they are perfectly willing to be rude themselves on any other topic.

 

*It encourages intolerance.

Any time we decide that anyone who disagrees with an idea is automatically wrong, that is intolerance.

People who favor political correctness often defend themselves by claiming that their opponents are motivated by hatred. But, people can have hour long debates on topics as frivolous at pie vs. cake. It stands to reason that they might have reasonable but differing views on such important subjects as: abortion, race, gay marriage, etc.

Reasons that have nothing to do with hatred.

To automatically assume that any contrary opinion is wrong, without giving it a hearing, is intolerance.

Tolerance means listening to views we disagree with—not merely supporting ideas we think someone else (i.e. Christians, the establishment, the previous generation etc) doesn’t like.

Tolerance is hard.

But it is worth it.

Especially when, as often happens, the tables turn and, suddenly, our particular group is not the one in the ascendant.

*

So, to review: We all want happiness. To get it, we need to be wise. To learn wisdom, we need the freedom to fail, to be stupid, to walk the wrong way, and, yes, even to think wrong thoughts.

Lake at the Zendo

Freedom, particularly, Freedom of Speech, is absolutely necessarily to happiness. How about we all stop shouting and go back to the days of:

I may disagree with what you say,

but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”

 

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March 17th, 2016

07:44 am: Iron Chamber of Memories

Once upon a time, my husband was an atheist. Then he had a heart attack, and was healed by prayer. He both converted and went to the hospital to find out what happen. They told him, his heart itself was healthy, but he needed a quintuple bipass.

When he came home from the hospital, he had a dream. He dragged himself out of bed to the office and wrote down, from the dream, an outline for an entire novel. Almost twelve years later, he wrote the entire novel in five weeks. (Normally writing a novel takes him six months at least.)

Today, that novel is now available: Iron Chamber of Memories.

Iron Chamber of Memories

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February 10th, 2016

09:36 am: Superversive Blog: Interview with Author Marina Fontain

Finally, a distopia by someone who has actually lived in one!

Chasing Freedom e-book cover3

Today, we have an interview with Marina Fontaine of Liberty Island, author of the new book, Chasing Freedom.

How did you come to write this book?

It all began with a flash fiction contest at Liberty Island, an online fiction magazine. A New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, had written a fictional piece sometime in late 2013 that had future U.S. over-run by zombies because the politicians defunded CDC (or something like that, anyway). Liberty Island challenged its members to “write better.” I had a good chuckle, wished my writer friends good luck and went to bed.

Overnight, I had a “vision,” if you will, of an American family packing up to move to Canada. Also, they would be transported by a horse-and-buggy arrangement. That was all I knew. Mind you, before this happened, I had never written fiction in my life, but I got curious as to how this setup might happen. Why are they leaving? Why Canada? Why horse and buggy and not a car or bus or plane?

You can probably tell where this is going. I wrote out the full flash fiction piece, and Liberty Island published it along with other entries. But I kept wanting to know more about the world. I started getting more characters, more stories, and it just kept growing until at some point I realized this could be a full novel. And so here I am, much to my surprise, being told I can no longer call myself an “aspiring” author because my book is actually out there.  

 

How did you pick the genre?

Dystopia is a natural fit for me as it happens to be a combination of writing “what you know” and “what you read.” Having grown up in the former Soviet Union, I know first hand how an oppressive society operates—what it does to people, how the system sustains itself, but also the potential weaknesses and cracks that are invisible to the outsiders. I have brought a lot of this understanding into my writing, and it helped make it more grounded and realistic.

I have also read many dystopian novels, both classics and the more recent offerings. There were themes that I have loved, but also points of disagreement with some of the visions out there. I have tried to address some of what I thought were the pitfalls of the genre and create something that was fresh and—hopefully—exciting, even to the readers who might have been over-saturated with the dystopian literature as a whole.

 

Can you tell us (without too many spoilers) a little about the characters and their journey?

In short, my heroes are ordinary people who rise to the occasion, and my villains are those who do not. A big theme in my novel is individual choices, and how anyone can end up either making the world better or being led into doing evil. Thus, none of the characters are over-the-top cartoons. They are all recognizable and easy to understand.

For example, the main protagonists of my novel start out simply as teenagers posting subversive information on the Internet and end up leading the country-wide Rebellion movement. It comes at a terrible cost, but they chose that path and paid the price even though most in their position would not. There are several other protagonists as well, who mostly just wanted to live their lives, but get forced into picking a side—again, at a price.

On the flip side, the villains are more or less regular people who for various reasons become trapped in positions where they either act in despicable ways or enable others in doing so. The true villain in my novel is the system that destroys people’s souls. It is one of the themes not often addressed when talking of totalitarian societies. We tend to focus on the obvious victims, who get jailed or tortured or killed. But what of the many more who die not in body, but in soul, little by little, and often by their own choice to simply “get along”? That’s a bit of a soapbox for me, and I tried to work it quite a bit into the novel.

 

What do you do when you are not writing?

Here’s where it gets awkward. I have the least creative day job in the world—an accountant for a real estate company (OK, I can get pretty creative with those expense classifications, but nevertheless…) Aside from that, I am a mother of three and a pet parent to four guinea pigs. In my copious spare time, I read and review books, blog and hang out with my friends on the Internet. And before you ask, shockingly enough, my wonderful husband puts up with all of this. I have been very blessed indeed.

 

Is this your first book? Do you have others planned?

Chasing Freedom is my first. It is self-contained, although I might over time write a few short stories set in the same world. There is an anthology in the works called (tentatively) Right Turn Only that has accepted my submission of a short story based on the background of one of the characters in the novel.

As for completely new material, I am currently working on an idea that might become a short story or a novelette, depending on how fleshed out it becomes. One thing I’m finding out is that once inspiration strikes, you as a writer have no choice but follow, and I’m excited to discover where it ends up.

 

Marinapose1x

 

Chasing Freedom:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B019KRCJL6/

Personal Blog: Marina's Musings

http://marinafontaine.blogspot.com/

LIberty Island Creator Forum:

https://www.libertyislandmag.com/creator/mafontaine/home.html

 

 

Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

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February 3rd, 2016

10:53 am: Superversive Blog: Guest Post by S. Dorman

Guest poster S. Dorman returns with another powerful essay:

 

My Hero, Lost On A Mountain In Maine

One of my heroes was lost on a mountain in Maine. Not on just any mountain, but The Greatest Mountain—Katahdin, it was named of the Abenaki. Highest mountain in the state and sharing with downeast coastal Quoddy Head first light each day in the continental U.S.. The mountain has a distinctive profile, standing lone and long. Its two often cloud-swathed peaks are connected by a narrow path of eroding stone called the Knife Edge, some places 2-3 ft. wide, some places dropping off almost sheer to the valley below. Below the summit of Baxter is a plateau where my hero spent part of his first day wandering in clouds, once dropping through krumholtz. Thoreau, one of the first to write about Katahdin, was guided partway by a native Abenaki and, going on from there, he may have taken the Abol Slide for his climb. We don’t think he made it to the top. The slide has been a well-known hazardous trail for generations. Abol is recently closed to hikers for its accident prone unstable debris, in most places solely an abrupt fall of talus, the unending eating away of rock in numberless pieces by frost-wedging — action begun by the glaciers. That glacial debris is in the Gulf of Maine an eon after these giants left us with nothing but rocks. Rocks.

364px-Katahdin_Knife_Edge.JPG

My hero was lost on this mountain, terminus of the Appalachian Trail, in 1939. How can someone be lost on a mountain, you say? There’s only one direction to go — down. After reaching the summit with his companion, he descended to wander through cloud on the plateau below the summit over rocks and stunted mountain trees called krumholtz. But the surrounding wilderness below Katahdin is where my hero was truly lost, while searchers refused to look anywhere but on the mountain itself. They did not come within ten miles of him afterward, believing him perhaps fallen into a crevice of rock. He had fallen so, in the krumholtz, but managed to climb up and out. Altogether he was lost nine days, and covered perhaps 75 erratic miles. Coming from the suburbs of New York City, he nonetheless had had some youthful training in Boy Scouts, and tried to follow what he had learned with them: follow streams down. He needed fresh water more than anything and thought this plan would keep him from thirst and bring him out to civilization. He was dressed as a day hiker on getting separated from his party in clouds at the summit.

To tell you why Donn is my hero would take a catalog of physical, mental, and spiritual difficulties. At the head of the physical list is weakness from hunger. Next, for me, would be biting bugs: relentless blackflies, deer flies, mosquitoes, and another category of blood eaters, leeches, a.k.a. bloodsuckers. Partial nakedness was a difficulty: Before his separation in the clouds he’d kept his jacket but given his sweatshirt to a companion. Donn also lost his dungarees to miscalculation in a leap over one of the numerous gaps caused by glacial erratics in a stream he was following. After slashing his sneakers on talus, he lost them and suffered embedded thorns, deep cuts and swollen feet, stiff toes, and the loss of part of his big toe. I don’t need to add wild animals to the list because these turned out to be a source of comfort to him, even the bears. I think this would not be so today because coyotes now roam in packs through the state, but add rainstorms, fierce sunburn, sickness and vomiting.

screen-shot-2016-01-27-at-9-13-27-am

A catalog of my hero’s difficulties would not be complete without acknowledgement of both psychic and spiritual sufferings. And this is where the real heroic harrowing comes in. He had punctuated the first day with prayer, and ended it with more. (Later he discovered that people across the USA had been praying for him.) On the second day, Donn was afflicted with images of delusion so strong that he was instantly convinced of their reality. He could not understand why people and mechanisms would not respond to him when he tried to communicate or confront them. It wasn’t until his knees, on trying to stand, appeared as metallic mechanisms that his prayers took on a strong character and were no longer simply a matter of habit. His prayers became a potent necessity.

Praying worked miracles in his ordeal, but always he felt God encouraging him to get up and keep walking. He had to make choices regarding his route that were beyond his ken. There was the time he decided to forsake an old tote road and telephone line tacked to trees in order to follow the water. Things of human make he came across in this wilderness were moldering and decrepit, camps, bedding, empty tin cans. Sometimes he was forced just to put one foot before the other. Sometimes he was unable to do so and had to crawl. Once he felt strong gentle hands lifting him by the shoulders, setting him on uncertain trembling legs, moving him along just a bit.

Sometimes it seemed Someone else was talking to me. They wanted me out of the woods, going home. They would keep me sane if I listened.

 Another time, near the end, he felt empty blackness come up into his head and mind. To me this blackness seems spiritual in nature but may have been caused by near starvation. Or perhaps it was simply incapacity of a body that could not follow on forever.

As noted, the book was first written and published in 1939 after the ordeal, but has since become iconic, and read in the Maine schools. The same first person narrative in other editions of print and audio have followed, with plans to dramatize.

The riveting audio book performance is by actor Amon Purinton. He portrayed the experience of Donn’s receiving a bowl of soup, after near starvation in the wilderness as though he were being given a chalice of shed blood just then turned into wine.

One thing to add to this catalog of heroic ordeal. My hero, Donn Fendler, was 12 years old when he was lost on Katahdin in Maine.

51hqdABftJL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

Donn Fendler,

Lost on a Mountain in Maine.

The riveting audio book performance is by child actor Amon Purinton. He made the experience of Donn’s seeing a bowl of soup miraculous.

And here is a connection to science fiction: http://thegreenandbluehouse.com/2016/01/18/lost-on-a-mountain-in-malacandra/

The Hunt Trail Donn climbed to reach the summit:

170px-Katahdin_assent.JPG

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December 10th, 2015

09:31 pm: A Supeversive Story: A Girl I knew

A Girl I Knew

A brief Superversive short story by our favorite teen, April Freeman!

April

I knew a girl, she was an angel. Her beauty, soft and innocent, was so pure it seemed untouched by the corruption of the world. It was a beauty I’d never known before. Her soft hair was like a waterfall floating down her back, her skin was ivory and smooth, and she had a smile to be sought after; for it made her glow with warmth, and joy sparkled in the crinkles by her eyes. Her sweetness and humor was intoxicating, her wit sharp and her mind clear.

Her beauty was subtle, not like the glaring magazine covers with their glossy, made-up girls. No man passing by would ogle her, as they would the film stars with their showy bodies. Not this girl, she was a different kind of beauty. Pure, angelic, it come from within her. No one could deserve such a grace, yet that was exactly why she came to me.

I cannot tell you how many cold night and isolated days I spent, stuck in my own destructive ways, before I met her. But I’ve long since forgotten those days. She has that kind of effect on you, you know? When it feels like forever since you last were happy, truly happy I mean; then here she comes, all wide-eyed at the world and dazzling, making you remember what joy is, how to wonder at things again like when you was a child, and suddenly you can’t stop smiling, all the dark nights fade, and all you see is her.

You’ve got it bad by then. Your whole world has got a new spin on it, and it’s her. Smiling, beautiful, amazing her! You do anything for her. She makes you into a gentleman, brings out the best in you and forgives you of your worst. You treat her right, buy her gifts, you learn to control yourself when that beauty sits close to you, for you know that pleases her. And she’s sweet and humble, never demanding, or at least not without reason. She lights up your world, and you do anything you can to return, even a small portion, the love she gives freely to you. She gives without restraint. But nothing is free. Everything comes with a price.

Many have sought after her hand, wishing to make her their wife. To have her as their own to love and cherish for the rest of their lives, for surely it would take that long to repay all she has given. But all such dreams futile. For an angel has wings, and wings are meant for flight. She can no more rest in a home on the land, then a bird can make its nest in the sea. It is, perhaps, her curse.

 Her only reward, when she seeks the lost and those drowned in despair who have forgotten how to love, is to heal them. An angel, a beauty, a fair maiden sent to show them how to live and love in a better way.  Yet there is often pain that accompanies such growth, and always another soul she must fly to.

 I thought my heart was broken all over again, but I found I had more strength then I thought. It was her last lesson to me, to not let myself fall, and if I did, to pick myself up again. And I found my past, the loneliness and depression that held me captive before, was just that. The past.

 It’s been years since I could call that beautiful angel mine, and many things have happened. Another girl, more suited for myself, and as lovely and noble as the day, has planted herself firmly next to me. A true woman such as her would’ve never put up with the ways of my past self. She’s an amazing catch, who has filed my life with many wonderful and terrible things, such as children.

Yes, many things have passed, and this miracle-worker of a girl had long since slipped to the back of my mind. But, as much of my life has moved on and time has passed, I realized another price I had not seen in my sorrow for my angel’s departure.

To heal a man fallen into darkness, such as I and many others were, she had to get close. You know, it wasn’t enough to simply tell us there was still love and beauty in the world. Stubborn as we were, she had to show us. And so with each broken heart healed, a piece of hers was given any. And though she can never run dry, for her heart is deeper and purer then any can imagine, it is no less painful when she draws away.

If you have looked into her eyes, those eyes the color of the sea, you’ll see and understand exactly what I say. For in her gaze holds both the merriment and playful innocence of the rolling waves, and the depth and knowledge of the ancient creatures of the deepest sea. For, to heal each broken heart, she has wrapped hers around it; and when two hearts are mixed together, it’s never easy to separate. She has carried a thousand loves and a thousand broken hearts, none less painful then the last. And this girl, this crusader for the broken and forgotten, has a thousand more to come before she’d done.

I knew a girl, she was an angel, never stopping, always searching, saving lives, and spirts of men. She was a hero, never realized ‘til the battle was done, and a healer, taking the price of the medicine upon herself. She was beauty, she was life, she was powerful, and she was hope. And for a time… she was my angel.

For more from April, visit her blog Lost In La La Land.

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November 29th, 2015

07:52 pm: Superversive Blog: Help the spin rack make a comeback

Superversive photo

 

Article by LOU ANTONELLI

 

Back in 2008, when Tor publishing launched Tor.com, they apparently decided to reach out to mainstream media – as opposed to genre outlets – and used an outside public relations company.

I was contacted as the managing editor of an Associated Press daily newspaper, and offered an opportunity to do a phone interview with Tom Doherty. At this point, I had already been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction and Jim Baen’s Universe, among others, so I obviously knew who Tom Doherty was, and I jumped at the opportunity.

My far ranging interview ultimately became a newspaper article which I ran in a weekend edition, as well as another story I sold to the SFWA Bulletin. The Bulletin article focused on Doherty’s role in the genre, and his observations on the changes and turmoil in the publishing industry he’d seen in his long career.

The newspaper article focused on the role Tor envisioned for the web site. In talking about publishing original fiction, Doherty mentioned that those paperback spin racks we used to see in stores and pharmacies were often a point of entry for people to the s-f and fantasy genres.

They used to be ubiquitous – those tall, vertical wire racks that you could spin around to see all four sides loaded up with mass market paperbacks. Doherty noted how the consolidation of book distribution had all but eliminated them. He said he hoped the fiction published by Tor.com would serve the same function as a point of entry for new readers in the digital age.

A few months later, I was reminded of how common those spin racks used to be – and how often you could find science fiction and fantasy titles in them – when in the course of rummaging through some boxes of books I found a paperback copy of Diana Wynne Jones' "A Tough Guide to Fantasyland" which I bought in the only convenience store in Ovilla, Texas, in 1998.

Back then I owned and operated a small community weekly paper – so small I brought the papers to stores and vending machines myself. One day, as I dropped off copies of The Ovilla Vanguard at the store, I saw the “Tough Guide”, and I was so tickled that I bought if off the spin rack.

Picking it up again in 2009, I recalled what Doherty had said, and how true it was – the spin racks had really pretty much disappeared.

Now, fast forward two and half years, to the summer of 2011. I was scheduled as a panelist at ArmadilloCon in Austin, and one of the panels was on “Secret History”. The Thursday before the convention I stopped at a local Dollar General in Mount Pleasant to pick up some groceries on the way home from work, and while standing in line, I caught sight of a spin rack.

Yes, Dollar General still believes in the spin rack. I walked over and saw that among the books was a copy of Steven Brust's "The Paths of the Dead". While I don't read high fantasy, I bought the book because Brust was on the panel with me.

The following Sunday afternoon, as the panel on Secret History broke up, I stopped and pulled the book out. I told Steve "you know you are a best-selling author when you're on the spin rack in the Dollar General in Mount Pleasant, Texas! That means your books are sold EVERYWHERE!"

He really got a kick out of that! I asked him to sign the book, too, and he did, with a big smile.

The next time I visited the store, I checked out the spin rack again. This time, it looked like there were a few more s-f books. I found a copy of Kristine Katherine Rusch's "Paloma”, and then I remembered something Doherty said back in 2008 when I interviewed him.

Not only did spin racks make cheap paperbacks available to the masses, he said, but the men and women who ran the distribution routes made note of what genres sold, and they would restock accordingly.

So I decided to test a theory. If the same principle applied, every time I bought a paperback the person stocking the spin rack should notice.

Bear in mind, these paperback books are only selling for a dollar or three dollars – they have been discounted. I felt it would be a small investment – whether I planned to read the books or not –to support those last lonely spin racks.

I’ve been doing that for four years now.   I’ve found plenty of excellent titles, such as the Martin and Dozois “Warriors 3” anthology, “Fugitives of Chaos” by John C. Wright, “The Last Days of Krypton” by Kevin J. Anderson, “Rebel Moon” by Bruce Bethke and Vox Day, and the “Fellowship Fantastic” anthology by Greenberg and Hughes, among many others.

I’ve donated most of them to free book giveaways, a local book store, and, best of all, a group called Books for Soldiers. If you join the group, you can review requests and make up boxes for soldiers who specifically ask for s-f.

Has my plan to boost s-f paperback sales worked? Hah!

Over the past four years whoever was in charge of stocking that spin rack loaded it up with so much s-f and fantasy books that they finally moved all of them to a separate shelf nearby. Now the spin rack has the westerns and romances and thrillers, while s-f and fantasy has shelf space!

This is just one store, but I’d like to suggest that if you do the same, who knows what good may come of it? How can you go wrong?

Earlier this week, I stopped by that Dollar General store again, and as usual looked over the spin rack. Now I have an enormous selection of books to choose from. I saw an anthology I never heard of, another Greenberg/Hughes compilation:

“Zombie Raccoons & Killer Bunnies”.

And yes, once again, I plunked down a dollar and took it home.

I feel somewhat bad for the authors – I know they will get essentially nothing from my purchase at that price, and I know some of them in that anthology personally, such as Jody Lynn Nye and Steven Silver. But in the long run, just getting more and more of these books out to the public has to have a positive effect.

I know many fans and authors who are so broke that spending even a dollar or three dollars hurts, but I would suggest that if you can, these little occasional investments may pay off and help bring back a greater distribution of fantasy and science fiction mass market paperbacks.

My local grocery store recently did an extensive remodeling, and in the process added a shelf for mass market paperbacks. I assume they must have some market information to indicate that, after the slump caused by the advent of digital media, the cheaper, durable and disposable paperback format is making somewhat of a comeback.

Let’s encourage that.

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Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

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November 11th, 2015

07:51 pm: Culture War Post 4: The War Over Archetypes!

Subversive Literary Movement

Forth in our series of articles of Speculative Fiction meets Jung as viewed through the work of Ruth Johnston in her new book: Re-modeling the Mind: Personality in Balance.

 

remodelingcover

 

SF Culture Posts 

 

Part One: What Forces Drive the SF Culture War?

Part Two: Optimistic in the Night Land

Part Three: If You Had Introverted Intuition, My Love

 

Part Four: The War of Archetypes

Q: We've talked about how an individual personality sees the world and how this influences stories, which reflect how we see the world. However, it's a big jump from individuals to groups large enough to sway the votes in a competition like the Hugos. Are you suggesting that everyone who sided one way or the other has the same personality?

A: No, it's tempting but I can't go as far as saying that. If the connection between personality and belief framework was as simple as that, we'd have figured it out long ago. I think what happens is that some leaders and influencers in thought and culture do have a particular cast of personality, and the belief framework they create really does reflect just how they see the world. But other people have many different reasons to subscribe to the belief framework. Certainly, when their own personality also sees the world that way, they're very likely to feel like the framework is just plain true, and that finding it is like coming home. But they can also have different ways of processing the world, and yet be nudged toward this belief framework by their own experiences and fears. And then the sense of group membership takes over; we identify with a group of people and adopt their belief framework, and after that, it just seems right. I think this is true for any split of factions, and I'd say it's true of myself and the people who agree with me—I don't mean it as a hostile way of talking about some "other."

 

Q:  Belief framework is an interesting concept. Can you give more specifics in this case?

A: There's a very strident battle in the wider American culture right now over the basic meaning of being human: does the archetypal image of "man" or "woman" have any real meaning? Is it biological and factual truth, or is it a cultural belief that is limiting our options and making many people unhappy to the point of killing themselves?

The culture war over "gender" has been especially bad in the last two years. You know it started out as about job equality for women, then it shifted to ending exclusion and discrimination against gay people, but lately it is going much farther. If marriage is the same whether a man marries a woman or another man, then in a sense, being a man or a woman is just an external accident, like having a birthmark or blonde hair. What really counts is who you are inside, not how you look on the outside. The next logical step is transgender, the idea that you can shift from man to woman at will, regardless of what you were born. As we write this piece, there are news stories about the federal government ruling that any man who identifies as a woman must be given unrestricted access to women's locker rooms and bathrooms, and a few days ago, voters in Houston rejected a proposed city law to that same effect. I've read any number of opinion pieces that say "gender is a construct," and that you are a man or woman only to the extent that you believe it inside.

I see this battle as a war over the importance or reality of archetypes. As I laid out in previous conversations, Introverted Sensing (part of the A combination) sees the world in terms of visual archetypes, while Introverted Intuition (part of the B combination) suspects that visual appearances may be false fronts or masks. Introverted Intuition is searching for some truer truth that's hidden behind appearances. So at heart, I think the culture war going on around us is a battle for which archetype is better. I call it the Battle of the Archetypes in my own mind. Which is more important, the appearance of being a man or a woman, or the idea that your identity can be different from your appearance?

Because archetypal ideas are part of our animal instinct, our sense of what makes the world right and safe, the war over gender issues always has a layer of fear to it. When I read things about why we should accept whatever gender someone feels they are, there's usually an argument about how people will die if we don't. They will commit suicide, or they will be beaten up by gangs. It's not just an argument, there are news stories linked to show that this very thing has already been happening. The argument goes that we need to make these changes so that people won't die tragically. If you resist and oppose change, then either you don't realize that people are dying, or you don't care, or in your own small way, you're participating in killing them. And if you aren't actually killing them, then you're helping keep them vulnerable by denying their reality a full place at society's table. So it's not an academic dispute, it's felt to be about life and death, good and evil. There's a call to action: which side are you going to take, the side of hate and death, or our side?

On the other side, there's a numerical majority of people in all places and times who feel that Man and Woman are very deep concepts that can't be wished away, nor should they be. If we became interchangeable Humans, there would be dangers that we can't quite imagine now. Retooling obvious reality is like burning your house down just to see what happens. Men and Women have key roles in maintaining the generations of mankind and they each have ways to guard against various evils. It's okay for individuals to be "different," but we must hold onto the archetypal ideas of who we are. Anyone who wants to blur or erase the boundaries between archetypal roles is actively dangerous, perhaps as an individual, but certainly as a force against stable human society.

 

Q: So the group that is interested in exploring gender roles and seeing them as less restrictive probably loves books like Ancillary Justice or Left Hand of Darkness, which do just that. In fact, it was probably a major factor in Ancillary Justice winning the Hugo in 2014.

A: If there's one thing the two sides in the Hugo controversy agree on, it's that the most important thing about Ancillary Justice is not the story itself but the way it used pronouns to obscure gender. Everyone is "she" until the narrator has a reason to identify male or female. It's explained in the story as just part of the narrator's native language which, like Chinese and Turkish, doesn't specify gender in a normal sentence. The narrator, writing in English, is forced to make gender choices in every sentence, so instead just uses "she" for everyone. But I had to read some of the story to understand the thing about language, because when people talk about Ancillary Justice, they elevate the single pronoun to such importance that it's like the story was really just about obscuring gender. If they liked the story, it's because at last we're disrupting mental assumptions that gender will always be visible. If they didn't like the story, it's because obscuring gender became more important than whatever was happening.

So that's a great example of the wider culture battle interfering in science fiction and crowning a winner in what might otherwise just be a dispute about literary taste. Once it's connected to the wider question of how we, in real life, see men and women, then it's about life and death, good and evil. It's like they're saying, "If you don't like this story, maybe it's because you want to suppress the "'other'." Those who didn't like the story respond in defensiveness: "well maybe if you like the story, it's because you care more about message! You just want to disrupt society." Now it's no longer about literary taste, it's about hurting people or destroying the culture, and things "just got real," as they say. There are pre-existing political sides to take, and these sides are ready to swing into action even if they don't care about science fiction or fantasy.

 

Q: One thing I've been wondering a lot is why the Sad Puppies are always being called "straight white males" or even "white supremacists." If you look at the works they promoted, and at the people who were doing the promoting, you'll see women as well as men, and plenty of people who aren't of Anglo-Saxon descent. But every time the Sad Puppies said "this is really about stories," the mainstream antagonists said "you're just saying that to cover up that you're actually suppressing non-white, women, or gay people."

A: That's the very point that started me thinking about archetypes and personality. As we've said, I'm an outsider to fandom. But watching this from a distance, I noticed the vehement insistence among the mainstream publishers that it was about race and gender identity. Not just insistence, but vehement, at times highly emotional, insistence. A core idea in my personality theory is that parts of our minds are organized around inborn ideas of what a safe world looks like. When I see such vehemence, I suspect that at least some of the people actually feel, deep in their minds, that safety is being challenged. It's not just "politics" to them, and if you use that word, they'll get mad. Because it's really about whether we'll live in a world that allows us to define who we are, or one that does the defining for us. The people who feel most strongly about transgender and same-sex marriage have their own reasons to fear a world that defines us.

When you already have a strong fear, it's very hard to believe that something isn't connected to it. And with this particular set of fears, Introverted Intuition is a driving force. It is always suspicious that someone is trying to cover things up so that we can't see what's really going on. It easily falls into believing conspiracy theories (though on the other side, someone with that kind of Intuition could be just as hotly against conspiracy theories). All you need is for someone to suggest that "Gamergate and straight white men are trying to hold onto power" and anyone with this belief framework will instantly feel the truth of it. From that point on, any protestations to the contrary are just so much rubbish and self-deception.

When I look at the Sad Puppies, I don't see straight white men, but I do see leaders who have personalities that value human role archetypes. Their books don't try to confuse roles like hero and villain or man and woman. They have what I've been calling the A combination, in which Intuition is willing to believe anything, but Sensing is deeply tied to roles. When they attack "message fiction," they are not attacking fiction with any message, but rather the fiction that has the anti-archetypal message.

 

Q: These ideas are fascinating. I think, for the first time, I an put into words some of the differences between the A and B, at least in our SF field, that even I, who have sympathy for both points of view, had not seen before.

To the A's, who believe that, say gender roles, may be flexible, but that they have a certain amount of objective truth to them, the concept that they are fluid seems, both unpleasant and–more importantly–uninteresting. So when they see a story about this issue, to them it is as if the author picked that subject so as to stick a finger into their eye, to flaunt a message that the As have already rejected.

But to the B's, to whom the subject of how flexible these roles may be is fascinating, a story exploring these roles is science fiction, i.e. it is the exploration of unknowns, an investigation of what if's, just like other science fiction.

 My big question, however, is: Is there any way to solve this mess? If we look at it as based in personality, as you're suggesting, what do we gain? Can this approach help us build bridges between the A’s and the B’s?

A: The first step has to be gaining some understanding of how the other side sees itself, as you just pointed out. What makes the 2015 Hugo antagonism so interesting is that nobody even agrees on what is at stake. How can you solve a problem that isn't definable?

So as you pointed out, you can now see that people who value Ancillary Justice's gender-obscuring language really believe that it's probing a fascinating idea. They want to find ways to downplay and exclude simple appearances, whether it's male/female or just not being a T. Rex. This becomes a proposition you can debate: is appearance and identity a valid part of science fiction, or is it an avenue of speculation that's heading in some new genre direction? That's a problem that can be solved, where hating Larry Correia isn't.

One of the cultural problems we're up against is that the outside culture has already made some decisions about what's good or bad: "if you don't think Caitlin Jenner is a woman, you're bad. You're clinging to the old archetype of Male and that harms a person. Your precious archetype is harmful." Much would be gained if the archetype-busting viewpoint could grudgingly admit that human role archetypes are not always oppressive or harmful. When I claim that some personalities have archetypes built in as instinctive knowledge, and that this is morally neutral, I am flying in the face of what's generally called PC culture. It may be that many people just can't go that far. Their own instinctive fear of archetypes (masks! false fronts!) may block the generosity required to say "okay, you have a different way of being virtuous or kind, one that doesn't require ditching archetypal roles. You're not harmful."

Another huge cultural problem I see is that the word "fear" has been turned into something we're ashamed of. We're generally okay with saying we're afraid of cancer or severe snowstorms, but the idea of an internal fear has been converted into an accusation. Someone who beats up a gay man is a homophobe: he fears alternative sexuality. In this way fear became a code word for something bad, especially if I say that it's a fear you're not fully conscious of. It feels like I'm calling you a stupid noob.

But that idea has to be thrown out completely. The way I talk about personality in Re-Modeling the Mind, every personality is organized around innate fears; we all have inborn templates we can't do without. The "fear" I'm talking about is an existential fear that if you do or permit certain things, bad stuff will happen. If the center doesn't hold, we'll have chaos. If you don't have fears like that, then you don't have a conscience, and nothing personal but I'll lock my doors when you're around.

When we don't recognize our own existential fears, then we assume that our viewpoint is identical to objective fact. (I think my saying this is going to sound to some people like I'm saying "morality is relative." I don't mean that. If you want a fuller explanation, please read my book!) It's basic common sense to sort out misunderstandings before accepting a declaration of war. Then at least the battles and debates can be meaningful.

So, Jagi, let me ask you a question now…

Ruth Q: Do you think that the 2015 Hugos will prompt some debate about the nature of science fiction? One science fiction fan pointed out to me that the Golden Age stories were written in the shadow of the nuclear threat and the race to the moon, so they tended to explore how technology can save us or turn on us. Our time is posing different questions, such as "what is the meaning of civilization?" Will the meaning of science fiction change with the times?

Jagi A: This is an ever-ongoing debate in our field. People have many interesting takes and what one person will allow is science fiction, another person distinguishes as fantasy, magical-realism, or some other genre. Though, often, nowadays, when we say Science Fiction, we really mean science fiction and fantasy. The two genres used to be in different sections of the bookstore, back when I worked at the now-defunct Walden Books, years ago. But there was so much confusion about where to put certain books—and therefore, for customers, where to look for them to buy them—due to the overlap, that, basically, they are the same genre today.

But it is true that when science fiction was young, technology was new and there was a sense that science could do anything, that it could solve any problem. Therefore, science fiction was by its basic nature a hope-filled fields. Not that all stories were hopeful. Many were cautionary tales about science going awry, but the underpinnings of hope were there—both in the field and, more importantly in our culture.

Nowadays, very few people still believe that science is the answer to all problems. So, hope is now not an intrinsic part of the field. Thus, we have a larger disconnect between those who came to it for the hope and those who came for the exploration of “what if”, but not necessarily a hopeful “what if”.

I hope that answers your questions, Ruth.

***

In closing, thank you all for reading. Ruth and I urge our readers to send us their questions, comments, major dilemmas, as well as objections to any part of this series you think is half-baked, as my father would have said. If we get enough responses, we can do a 5th post highlighting readers’ thoughts about the series.

 

Comments

For more of Ruth’s work:

Re-modeling the Mind: Personality in Balance

Ruth’s extremely interesting site on the Middle Ages: All Things Medieval

Ruth’s excellent book on Beowulf

Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

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October 27th, 2015

08:50 am: Superversive Blog: Life, Carbon, and the Tao — Part Two!

Subversive Literary Movement

Today we have Part Two of our Superversive Literary Movement Anniversary essay by Mr. Superversive himself, essayist extraordinaire, Tom Simon!

Tom simon -dcac

Snarky essays on the art of writing fantasy

 

Life, Carbon, and the Tao

by

Tom Simon

 

Part One is available here.

And now, to the second question: What’s so special about the Tao?

Here I am using the term Tao the way C. S. Lewis used it in The Abolition of Man: meaning the basic principles of morality on which all civilized peoples have generally agreed. Here are some of the perennials: Don’t murder your neighbour, don’t steal from your neighbour, don’t mess around with your neighbour’s wife, don’t perjure yourself. Men have differed on the definition of neighbour, and some of the wide variation in human cultures is accounted for by that difference. Some peoples apply the Tao only to members of one’s own tribe, or one’s own nation. Some try to apply it to every human being without exception. And of course there are differences of detail, such as whether a man should marry one wife or four. But every culture that survives is based on the Tao, just as every life form is based on carbon; and the reasons, at bottom, are similar.

What the Tao does is to establish a minimum basis for safe dealings between human beings. If, every time you went into Starbucks, you had to seriously question whether the barrista would sell you a cup of coffee or shoot you on sight, I fancy that Starbucks, as a business, would not have lasted long. Fortunately, both you and the barrista subscribe to the Tao. Even if you don’t understand the reasons for the rules, you obey the rules, at least most of the time, because that is the only way that you can get along and do business together. Even to live together in a community requires the Tao. My neighbours lock their doors when they go out, it is true. But if I did not accept the Tao, locks would do them no good; I would smash the doors with an axe and help myself to their belongings. And if they did not accept the Tao, they would have no grounds to complain. No human being can live as a solo army, at war with the whole world. We are born weak and helpless, and most of us are weak and helpless again before we die; and we all have to sleep in between. The Tao literally keeps us alive when we cannot defend ourselves.

The basis of the Tao, in one word, is reciprocity. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Or if that is too strong for you, take the formula of Confucius: ‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ Over tens of thousands of years, in the laboratory of daily life, in tribes and villages, cities and nations, we have boiled down the art of reciprocity; we have codified the things that none of us (when sane and healthy) wish done to us, and we agree not to do them to others. In almost every culture, this code is reinforced by the prevailing religion; but it is quite possible to accept the Tao without any religion at all. It is the common moral currency of humanity, and with the caveat noted above, it passes everywhere. Societies that reject the Tao do not hang together; and individuals who reject the Tao soon find themselves without any society.

Tom Simon -teoeas

A tale of quests, strange magics, and ancient wars!

 

When I turn from real life to fiction, I find a curious difference. In the stories of the past – in nearly all fiction before, say, the late nineteenth century, and all popular fiction until a much later date – the Tao is taken for granted; only there is a class of people who do not observe the Tao. These people are called criminals, or outlaws, or villains. In the older kind of fiction, the villain upsets the Tao to take advantage of a weaker party, and the hero restores the Tao by avenging the victim.

Consider the Odyssey. Odysseus was a sharp operator, maybe, but still a hero; he restored the Tao. Old Polyphemus, the Cyclops, violated the Tao in a pretty straightforward way: he ate his house guests. The Greeks set great store by the laws of xenia, or hospitality; and even we degenerate moderns, when our friends invite us to dinner, do not expect to be the dinner. Later, he restored the Tao in the matter of adultery, dealing with his wife’s suitors in a brusque but exemplary manner. (No, he could not have called the police. Odysseus was the King of Ithaca; he was the police.)

It is only we moderns, for the most part, who try to write fiction without the Tao. This may be partly because of our exceptionally urbanized life. For the first time in history, the majority of human beings now live in cities. It is easier to reject the Tao in a city. In a small village, a psychopath will soon make himself odious to his neighbours. They will drive him out with sticks and stones, or tar and feather him; at the very least, they will not do business with him anymore. In a large city, where everybody does not know everybody else, a psychopath can always look for fresh victims – until he reaches the point of actually being infamous. At that point, his reputation precedes him, and people who have never even met him know that he is not a man to deal with. About that time, or a little after, they generally kick him out of town, or throw him into prison. This means that even a psychopath has to be careful where and how often he breaks the Tao, so that he does not make too many enemies at once.

But there is a kind of fiction in which breaking the Tao is a rule in itself. This was considered brave and bold and groundbreaking among the Decadents a century ago; it was a good way to shock the bourgeoisie and annoy one’s parents. For it is always cheaper to talk trash against the Tao than actually to break it oneself. Most of the people who read this kind of fiction have not got the guts, or perhaps the opportunity, to do any serious lawbreaking themselves. The stories are harmful in a more subtle way. By degrees, they create a habit of thought – a habit of regarding the Tao as optional; and if this habit is fed and encouraged, it becomes a habit of regarding the Tao as a stupid tribal taboo, and those who obey it as superstitious fools. People can really come to believe this, and act accordingly (when not afraid of being caught); it is a sort of psychopathic infection, and the patients degenerate by degrees. The first thrill of being ‘transgressive’ – cheering for the robbers instead of the cops – does not last; the addict returns for stronger and stronger doses. And our own generation has raised a bumper crop of such addicts.

Epic fantasy, a century ago, began with cautionary tales, dealing with the negative parts of the Tao. The grandfathers of the genre were authors like Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, and Robert E. Howard, whose heroes were often ambivalent and never spotless; there are no Sir Galahads in their work. But they were never mistaken about their villains. Conan’s morals were pretty loose, but the wicked kings and sorcerers that he slew generally needed slaying. This has sometimes been called ‘Grey vs. Black’ morality. The feeling – it is no more than that – is that the White Hats, if there are any, are too clean to beat the Black Hats in a straight fight. You need to bring in a specialist, a Conan, or four Lords of Witchland, or Seven Samurai, who are on the ragged edge of the Tao themselves, and have often been in trouble, and are experts at getting out of it. The ‘rules of engagement’ for a Conan are very simple: No holds barred, and Crom favours the strongest.

In the next generation, the Inklings and their immediate heirs raised the moral tone. Tolkien is often criticized for his ‘simplistic’ approach to morality; but it is his critics who are simplistic. Frodo does not destroy the One Ring because his purity gives him the strength of ten. He, in fact, does not destroy it at all, but actually succumbs to its temptation. But because he stays within the Tao, and serves it faithfully as long as his strength and sanity last, the Tao serves him also. He has the help of all peoples of good will, Elves, Men and Dwarves, Wizards and Hobbits: not just the other members of the Company, but Galadriel and Faramir, and the whole armed strength of Rohan and Gondor. Even Gollum helps him, for a while; and in the end it is Gollum who fulfils the Quest. The really simplistic morality belongs to Sauron, who only counts his enemies by spear-points, and takes no notice of the Tao. Sauron would have been genuinely afraid if Conan had come after him with the Ring; he thought Aragorn was going to do exactly that. He simply overlooked the damage that many small hands could do in co-operation, because co-operation was not in his moral vocabulary; and that damage turned out to be fatal.

Nowadays, in epic fantasy above all, but to a lesser extent in the other imaginative genres, we are faced with a full-throated reaction against the Tao. Even Conan is too moral for the modern epic writer. The new standard, if we may call it that, is exemplified by A Game of Thrones. There are still good characters and evil ones, and to that extent the Tao is recognized; but the evil ones always win. The quickest way to get yourself killed, if you are a nobleman in Westeros, is to do a good turn for somebody else. In George R. R. Martin’s invented world, the Tao really is a tribal superstition, and those who follow it are chumps – and then they are dead. The mortal sin of the Starks is to be too good for the world they are living in, and they pay for it in blood.

Now, Martin is careful, when speaking of this matter outside of his fiction, to point at all the historical examples of evil rulers, and claim that he is only portraying the world as it is. But he is not; he is portraying a ‘Crapsack World’ in which all the evils are pooled together, without any of the good that enabled them to survive in reality.

One model for Westeros is England during the Wars of the Roses; but those wars, it happens, were exceptionally bloodless even by the standards of mediaeval Europe. There were no more than about twenty battles all told, spread over a period of about thirty years. Even in those battles, casualties were light, seldom more than ten percent of the relatively small forces engaged. And the contending armies took considerable care not to kill civilians, destroy crops, or sack towns, because those things were precisely what they were fighting to control. Moreover, both the Lancastrians and the Yorkists were devout Catholics. True, they each believed that their respective contender for the throne had a divine mandate to rule; but they also believed that a king could forfeit that mandate by evil-doing, and in fact, each side believed that the other side’s contender had done just that. Richard III lost the battle of Bosworth Field because many of his own supporters believed he had lost the right to rule, and deserted to Henry Tudor.

Again, Martin can point to the web of intrigues and assassinations in Renaissance Italy. The Lannisters bear strong points of resemblance to the Borgias. But the Borgias were a disease, a passing phenomenon. They had no genuine power base of their own; they were a Spanish family that became powerful in Italian politics when one of them manoeuvred his way into the Papacy. Control of the Church gave him almost unlimited funds with which to buy temporal power over the Italian cities, and he tried to set up his illegitimate son as ruler of the whole country. But the Borgia power was parasitic; it had no roots in the country; it depended on foreign money, and when the Pope died, the family’s power faded away in just a few years. We are supposed to believe that the Lannisters have been a power for generations, when they routinely exercise that power in ways that would destroy its very basis in a short time.

In fact, no ruler can stay in power for long without substantially accepting the Tao. Consider the ‘Red Wedding’. One noble family proposes an alliance by marriage with another: well and good. But the bride’s family, which proposed the alliance, massacres the groom and his whole family at the wedding itself. This is not a violation of Christian morals only, but of the core of the Tao as recognized by all civilizations. The pagan Greeks would have been outraged by the violation of xenia. The pagan Romans would have been outraged by the abuse of amicitia, and would never have married into that family again. A Confucian would decry the breach of familial impiety, and say that the offenders had lost the Mandate of Heaven. It is not just that the act would have been swiftly and thoroughly punished. It could never have been organized on such a scale in any society where the Tao was taken seriously. The troops who carried out the butchery would have refused to obey their orders; or else (being outside the Tao themselves) they would have turned their swords against their own masters, and massacred both sides for their own profit.

In fact, we do see factions and cabals that wield power in something like the way that Martin describes. We see it in organized crime; but as Ben Kingsley said to Robert Redford in Sneakers, ‘Don’t kid yourself. It’s not that organized.’ In Martin’s view, those who follow the Tao are sheep, those who don’t are wolves; and the wolves, always and everywhere, prey upon the sheep. The evil preferentially destroy the good, and evil always wins. But this is not what we observe in life. Organized crime employs hit men, but nearly always to kill other criminals. Crime families and syndicates go to war against one another; they cannot go to war against society, just as a parasite cannot afford to kill its host. And society, being under the Tao, has resources that the criminals cannot draw upon. For there are not only sheep and wolves; there are also sheepdogs. The wolves may try to corrupt the sheepdogs, and sometimes they succeed. But they have neither the numbers nor the unity to attack them directly.

In effect, the ruling classes of Westeros, and many others like them in recent fantasy, are crime syndicates in a world without law. But it is the law that makes the crime possible. The vast majority of the people need the Tao to do business with one another, and to make the whole society function. Part of that function is enforcing the Tao through laws, and resolving disputes between people when reciprocity breaks down. This is not a function that we ever see the epic gangsters performing. They are too busy planning murders and rebellions. Real criminal gangs are only able to function because someone else does the hard work of holding society together. They never exist as a ruling class; and when they do temporarily become rulers, as with the Barbary pirates of the eighteenth century, or the Somali warlords of our own time, the society breaks down, the people perish, and the profits of crime disappear. Without the Tao, there is no trust between people; without trust, nobody can work and create wealth; and without wealth, there is nobody for the criminals to rob.

Why, then, does this kind of fiction remain popular? I believe it is significant that A Game of Thrones was adapted for television by HBO – that is, by the same network that brought the world a series called Cathouse. It is the pornography of violence and illegality, combined with some relatively mild pornography of the plain old sexual kind; and it caters to a thoroughly jaded and desensitized audience. At bottom, it is a kind of adolescent power-fantasy: the fantasy of the teenaged Viking, turned loose on a metropolis full of easy loot and nubile women, from which all the forces of law have magically disappeared. We see a pretty straightforward version in the Sin City comics. Of course this can only ever be a fantasy, because the forces of law never do disappear. The alternative to policemen and prisons is not anarchy, but vigilante justice, which is a good deal more dangerous to the would-be Viking.

But there are no vigilantes in the fantasy; the adolescent fancy can glut itself on imaginary killing and looting and rape. It can do so all the more readily when it has no experience of these things in real life: the smells, the blood, the screams, the cries for vengeance – the victims who fight back. Even a sheep has teeth and hooves; even a wolf has a breakable skull. At bottom, this is a fantasy for people who have never lived; whose lives have been so soft that mere hardness, in any form, has the appeal of the exotic. To borrow George Orwell’s phrase, it is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.

So what can we, as writers, do about all this? The best we can do, I believe, is to quietly teach the Tao in our stories; to show the complexity of human life, as an organic chemist shows the complexity of biological life. But people want stories about violence and criminality? Very well; let us tell them. But let us tell the whole story, with the post-mortems and the blood feuds and the vengeance. And let us contrast it with some instances of actual heroism. Critics and publishers, no doubt, will sneer at our ‘bourgeois morality’, and call us ‘simplistic’; for they – it is an occupational hazard – are the most jaded audience of all. No matter; now we can pass them by. We can go over their heads and deliver our stories directly to our readers; and that may be the decisive weapon in this fight.

There does, I believe, come a revulsion; a point where people are no longer content to be fifteen-year-old rebels even in their fantasies, but want more sustaining food for their imaginations. Let us be there to give it to them. We can produce better effects – better conflicts – with chiaroscuro, with darkness and light, than the nihilists can ever produce by layering darkness upon darkness.

Beyond that, it is a question of access; and that is largely a matter of publicity. If a work of superversive fiction were as well known to the public as A Game of Thrones, it would sell as well or better. We have seen it before: it happened with The Lord of the Rings; it happened with Harry Potter. We have not got the media machinery, or the advertising budgets, to crown a Martin; we cannot conquer Sauron with the Ring. But we have that element that Sauron never took into account; we can co-operate. We can speak up for each other. Those of us who are worst at promoting our own work, it often turns out, are the best at promoting the work of others, because our own egos are not involved. When a man praises his own work, we say, ‘Of course he would do that,’ and ignore nine-tenths of what he says. It is when he praises other people that we take notice.

This, too, is part of the Tao; and it will serve us well, if we consent to serve it. The co-operation of many small hands, or as people say nowadays, crowdsourcing, can move mountains that the old mass media had to let strictly alone. I believe that millions of readers, movie-goers, and TV-watchers are athirst for heroes as well as villains, but at present they are only hearing about the villains, because the big media are braying about villains in unison. Let us raise a chorus of small voices. In the end, I believe we shall drown the villains out. It’s time to speak up for the Tao. For, like carbon, that is where the life is.

 

Thank you, Tom. That was brilliant!  

For more of Mr. Simon's work, you can read his works, which are showcased between the two posts, or visit his blog.

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October 15th, 2015

10:00 am: Superversive Literary Movement Anniversary Essay!

Subversive Literary Movement

Those of you who have joined us in the last year may not be aware that before the Superversive Literary Movement, there was still Superversiveness. It existed in the form of Mr. Superversive himself, the astute and witty essayist, Tom Simon. 

When John and I conceived of the idea of the Superversive Literary Movement, we inquired of Mr. Simon as to whether he would be willing to allow us to use his LiveJournal handle for our new flegling lit movement. Not only did he kindly agree, but he graced this blog with our very first article, back in October of 2014.

Now, a year later, Mr. Simon strikes again with another excellent article. The first part of it, the scientific analogy, appears today. The second portion, the meat (or Tao) of the essay, will appear next week.

 

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A collection of Mr. Simons excellent essays on Tolkien and our craft.

 

Life, Carbon, and the Tao

by

Tom Simon

A year has gone by since the Superversive blog officially kicked off, and during that time, as they say, life has happened. As writers, we always need to go back to that. Part of the deep malaise that afflicts our art form (and many others) is that it is too easy to be influenced. It becomes fatally easy to reuse tropes and characters and ideas from other stories, or other art forms; it takes an effort of will to go back to reality and look at it with fresh eyes. There is, I suspect, no such thing as strict realism in fiction – reality is too complex, too big, too un-story-like – but every story needs to be rooted in reality at some point. Not reality as we would like it to be – that is part of the flight of fancy on which the story takes us – but just as it is.

Today, as I look at reality, I find myself thinking of two questions, which, if answered badly, can lead our field up a blind alley. The first one arose in Golden Age science fiction, and led a lot of writers astray on a technical point. The second one arises in every form of fiction, and leads whole cultures astray. But there is a curious resemblance between them, and the answer to the first question, I find, sheds light on the second.

Lord Talon

Mr. Simon also produces high quality fiction.

 

The first question:

What's so special about carbon?

There used to be a recurring trope in science fiction about ‘carbon-based life forms’, as distinguished from all the other kinds of life forms based on other elements. Silicon was the most popular, for good and plausible reasons; plausible, but alas, not sufficient.

Life requires complexity. The simplest microbe is a pullulating chemical factory in which thousands of types of complex molecules interact and collaborate to produce the delicate balance of stability and change that we refer to as ‘being alive’. There are good reasons, grounded in information theory, to suppose that life cannot be supported by a system much simpler than that.

There are three ways of joining atoms together, and two of them are not helpful for our purpose. Ionic bonds only form simple molecules. Metallic bonds don’t really form molecules at all, but masses of solid metal, with the same simple pattern repeated over and over. Covalent bonds are where the action is. Some elements don’t form covalent bonds at all, and we can scratch them off our list. Others form anywhere from one to four bonds per atom, and clearly, the more bonds an atom has, the more complex structures it can participate in. We could build molecules as complex as we liked out of atoms with a valency of 3; but the real winners are the carbon group elements, the only ones with a valency of 4. If we form a chain or ring of carbon-group atoms, we have plenty of free bonds left over, on which we can hang any number of other atoms; and this gives us the complexity that we require.

There are six elements in the carbon group: carbon, silicon, germanium, tin, lead, and flerovium. Tin and lead behave as metals, and germanium as a semi-metal: that is, they normally combine by metallic bonds. An atom of lead, tin, or germanium may form covalent bonds with other elements, but not, as a general thing, with other atoms of the same element; so we can cross those three off the list. Flerovium is an artificial element, never found in nature, with a half-life of a few seconds, and only a few dozen atoms of it have ever been observed. Scratch flerovium.

That leaves carbon and silicon; and to SF writers of the Golden Age and thereabouts, silicon looked like a good candidate for the formation of life. It is abundant, it readily forms covalent bonds, it has a valency of 4. In theory, every kind of carbon-based atom has a silicon-based analogue, and we could readily imagine a whole biology built up with silico-proteins and silico-nucleic acids. But in practice, those analogues never form. Silicon bonds with silicon easily enough, but much more readily with either hydrogen or oxygen. In nature, we never see one silicon atom bonded to another. Even the silicone compounds have oxygen atoms alternating with the silicon: Si–O–Si–O, never Si–Si. The Earth’s crust contains an enormous amount of silicon, but all of it is combined with oxygen, usually in the form of silica.

Carbon, too, combines more readily with oxygen or hydrogen than it does with carbon, but the difference of bonding energies is much smaller. So a plant, for instance, can invest the energy it receives from the sun to break apart carbon-oxygen bonds in CO2, and get most of that energy back by linking the carbon atoms together to form the backbone of carbohydrates or proteins. It would take much more energy to break up SiO2 and link the silicon atoms together, and even then, the silicon chains would be very unstable, and would go poof in the presence of either oxygen or hydrogen. Since hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, and oxygen is the most common element in rocky bodies like the Earth, it’s safe to say that silicon-based life is a non-starter. One still hears of it occasionally in ‘soft’ science fiction, but it has no place in hard SF, any more than the canals of Mars, the oceans of Venus, or for that matter, H. G. Wells’ gravity-proof mineral, Cavorite.

We speak of organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry, as if it were an equal division; but this is not so. We call a compound organic if it contains carbon, and inorganic if it does not. Even though carbon is only one element out of a hundred-odd, inorganic compounds are vastly outnumbered by organic ones, and all new discoveries in chemistry can only increase the odds still further. If you look at the molecules that are complex enough to serve as the building blocks of life, whether Earth life uses them or not, they all contain carbon – every single one. One day, we may discover a kind of life that does not depend on chemical bonds at all; a life form, perhaps, that relies entirely on the direct interactions of high-energy fields in a plasma medium, to which it would not matter what kind of atoms the plasma itself is made of. We cannot say that such a thing is impossible; but we can say that silicon-based life is impossible. On Earth, or in any kind of planetary or deep-space environment, carbon is where the life is.

Next week: Question Two: What is the Tao?

Sci Phi issue #2

Tom's essays also appear in Sci Phi Journal 

(This one with a story by John as well.)

 

For other writings by Tom Simon, visit his blog.

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