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When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro

Right now I'm (a) finishing a short story, (b) starting a novel, (c) rebuilding my office (which entails unloading, dismantling, moving, reassembling, and re-stacking six metres of full-height bookcases), and (d) about to head off to Novacon 37 at the weekend. So, apologies for the scarce posting. (By annoying coincidence, Novacon happens to be the same weekend as World Fantasy Con, which this year is somewhere in Long Island, and Utopiales in Nantes, both of which I wouldn't mind going to as well, but Novacon wins, for a reason that should be obvious if you look at their website.)

Meanwhile:

A question that comes up repeatedly in author interviews is, "what's with your sense of humour? Why are your books funny?" (Or whimsical, or just plain surreal.)

There seems to be a widespread belief that if literature is Serious, then it must be Humourless. (Serious has become a synonym for humourless in today's public discourse.) The division between the funny and the serious is pernicious. Usually when you see people mocking an institution or an idea, it implies there's something questionable about it; but people who derive power and status from their position (be it within an institution or for their endorsement of an idea) tend to dislike anything that undermines their platform — and so, they insist, it is Serious. Thus, there is an enforced split in many aspects of public life between the serious and the funny.

I suspect the literary canon has to some extent been pre-filtered for humourlessness by literary academics who are themselves humourless about their status. In the literature we are spoon-fed at school, "funny" isn't one of the selection criteria (unless you count Shakespeare's fart jokes and 16th century puns, which were doubtless thigh-slappers back in the day but require some translation for an audience of bored 15 year olds in the late 20th or early 21st century). And so, most readers are left with the educationally-installed belief that serious literature shouldn't be humorous or whimsical.

But the real world is contingent. The real world is weird. The real world is full of stuff that you couldn't get away with if you stuck it in a slapstick comedy. Case in point: this recent obituary from the Independent:

Sammy Duddy
Belfast paramilitary and drag artist
Published: 19 October 2007

Sammy Duddy, political activist, drag artist and poet: born Belfast 1945; twice married; died Belfast 17 October 2007.

Sammy Duddy was a colourful Belfast character who combined membership of one of the city's most lethal paramilitary groups with a career as "Samantha", a highly suggestive drag act.

In the 1970s, he was by day a propagandist for the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the extreme Protestant group which was responsible for the killings of hundreds of Catholics. By night, however, he appeared on Belfast's limited but vibrant cabaret circuit, presenting a ribald act in loyalist pubs and clubs dressed in fishnet tights, wig and heavy make-up.
...
Regarded as a moderate in UDA terms, he found himself on the opposite side of the argument to more extreme figures such as Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair. On one occasion, Duddy's home was attacked with a pipe bomb, while on another shots were fired into it. While he was uninjured, his pet chihuahua, Bambi, was hit by gunfire and died.

I mean, come on! If I stuck the late Mr Duddy in a novel, you'd think I was making him up. Right?

And then there's the more esoteric stuff. Case in point: for one of my humour/horror crossover spoof lovecraftian spy thrillers — a planned sequel to "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue" — I'd decided to do something really bugfuck, and have the Royal Air Force flying a squadron of black Concordes, one of which would be armed with nuclear missiles.

You might think that the idea of nuclear-armed converted Concordes was daft, but you would be wrong; indeed, Prototype 002 was built with internal attachment points for a munitions bay, and an internal space that could be converted into a weapons store, to an RAF requirement: at one point in the late 1960s they were considering turning it into this, a supersonic replacement for the RAF's Vulcan bombers. So all that neat thechnothriller plot idea boiled down to in the end was running a couple of extra airframes off a production line, painting them in British Airways livery, and describing their movements as "charter flights" ... at a time when HMG thought nothing of blowing a cool billion pounds (back when that was real money) on a black project to design a new warhead system for Britain's Polaris missiles. (And they didn't even bother to inform the cabinet.)

Every time I think I've gotten a handle on how weird the real world is, it throws another curveball at me. So there's no way to keep up with the inherent strangeness of the universe without pulling on a rubber nose and the big old floppy shoes and making my fictional universes almost half as weird as the stuff I read in the newspapers every day.

Toot! Toot!

101 Comments

1:

Not Long Island. Upstate New York.

2:

Whatever; they're both on the same continental plate, right?

3:

They told some of the cabinet - the ones who could be relied on to agree to it. As I recall, that meant that Tony Benn knew but Michael Foot didn't.

4:

Different accents though and distinct culturally as well.

5:

Re: Sammy Duddy

When I first got pointed to that obit, my first thought was 'The Crying Game had some real-life inspiration?!?' Yes, 'truth is stranger than fiction' - as I have heard quoted many times, along with the follow-up, 'that's because fiction has to make sense'.

6:

absolutely agree that "serious-humorous" is a false dichotomy...

it can be found outside of literature as well...
zappa not considered a "serious" musician, etc...

7:

Ah, so that is why the TSR2 was allowed to be canceled (I remember the Labour govt. making that decision as a 'we can pay for one or the other'). The RAF could use the Concord instead.

I suppoese it all depends on what one calls "serious literature". Heller's 'Catch-22' and Roth's 'Portnoy's Complaint', to name but two, are solid, mainstream literature that have received acclaim. Admittedly, they are not recent, but certainly more recent that Shakespeare or Swift.

Some alternative ideas about "serious" ;iterature is "humorless":

1. Humor is difficult to 'explain'. Imagine an eng. lit. prof. explaining Billy Connolly jokes to a student audience.

2. Humor may be embarrassing or awkward to explain. Hard to be taken seriously if you suggest Shakespearean "fart jokes" are funny and a student asks "why do you think that is funny". Imagine sexist jokes in today's society - you might lose your tenure in a hurry. Better to avoid the subject.

3. Horror or horrors, what if the academic doesn't get the the joke? How embarrassing after writing a treatise if your colleagues, ever ready to "stick in the knife", say, "but didn't you get that scene X was a joke. You took it as serious. Ha ha".

8:

"1. Humor is difficult to 'explain'. Imagine an eng. lit. prof. explaining Billy Connolly jokes to a student audience."

I'd take that class.

9:

I agree with Alex @6 - the main reason a lot of "serious" literature is the humourless stuff is because it's very hard to analyse humour successfully. Dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog - you don't do it if you want the thing to hop again.

The very core of humour is incongruity. This is why Mr Duddy's juxtaposition of paramilitary and drag artist seems somewhat humourous - the two of them do seem incongruous placed one next to the other. I doubt, however, that Mr Duddy found it at all funny (or maybe he did, and this may have been another reason he found himself on the opposite side of arguments from his more extreme colleagues - extremists of all stripes tend not to have the sense of proportion which can act as a precursor or substitute for a sense of humour).

The other thing about humour is that a lot of it is about things which, in a different context, would not be something to laugh at. The majority of humour is tragedy, very thinly disguised - and in certain professions, this sort of humour is the main variety they come across. Heck, anyone who has laughed because the only other option was either to go screaming mad or burst into tears has a wonderful understanding of the core of what laughter is. A lot of my laughter when I was working helpdesk was of this sort - the options were to laugh, to swear, or to scream, and laughing was the one which was least likely to get me sacked.

As for the way the universe appears to have a weird sense of humour, I figure this is related to the circumstances of its coming into being. My theory is the whole thing was kicked off by a committee of the Trickster gods, while everyone else's backs were turned. So far, none of the others appear to have noticed. Nobody pray - we might attract the wrong sort of attention!

10:

Nevermind all that!

A sequel to The Jennifer Morgue?

Yes, please.

Reading Halting State right now.

Fucking great!

11:

have the Royal Air Force flying a squadron of black Concordes, one of which would be armed with nuclear missiles.

Dare you to stick in a reference to these guys.

12:

I chalk up the reputed humorlessness of Serious Literature mostly to the reading incomprehension of bored students lazily skimming for HIGHLIGHTABLE SENTENCES.

That, and *maybe* bad translations of non-English literature.

Also, readers ignorant of crucial cultural assumptions implicitly referenced in the text. Like knowing Victoriana is essential for appreciating Thackeray or Trollope's humor. Knowing about immediate post-war Britain is *essential* for understanding 1984, a poster child for Literary Seriousness if there ever was one, which is a very funny book when you know about snoek, shortages, rationing, etc.

There is also, as previously referenced, the chronic inability of readers to recognize Grim Humor, of the type deployed by, say, Solzhenitsyn or Boll or Grass or Primo Levi or Camus or Junger or R(oth, Joseph) or Steinbeck, etc...

Remember that part of Grapes of Wrath when Grandpa dies while the Joads are leaving Oklahoma - rich with Grim Humor and Wry Bitterness, but it's traditionally analyzed for its pathos and allusion and not its black humor and irony.

I'll even go into Harold Bloom's supposed Canon of Western Literature and draw some fiction authors from it:
Just British prose:

Nineteenth century: Austen, Scott, De Quincey, Lamb, Hogg, Dickens, Carlyle (Sartor Resartus is fucking hysterical), Trollope, Gissing, Chesterton, Bronte(s), Butler, Stevenson, Eliot? Humor everywhere!

Twentieth century: Hardy, Shaw, Conrad, Beerbohm, Maugham, Ford Madox Ford, Forster, Wolf, Joyce, Orwell, Huxley, Greene, Waugh, Burgess - Jeebus, humor and drollery and wry comedies of manners and dry wit all over the place.

And those are Harold freakin' Bloom's prose authors of literary note: one would expect somberness and not silliness.

But then, readers ought to be trusted to read without preconceptions, and if I'm judging the people who would complain about humor in books aright, they complain because they, as readers, without the crutches of safe and predictable convention, are too incompetent to tackle prose.

13:

D. Williams @9: yes, but not in print before 2009 at the earliest.

14:

This is where Coyu's aphorism that fannishness is an acquired learning deficiency gains special plangency.

There seems to be a widespread belief that if literature is Serious, then it must be Humourless. (Serious has become a synonym for humourless in today's public discourse.) The division between the funny and the serious is pernicious. Usually when you see people mocking an institution or an idea, it implies there's something questionable about it; but people who derive power and status from their position (be it within an institution or for their endorsement of an idea) tend to dislike anything that undermines their platform — and so, they insist, it is Serious. Thus, there is an enforced split in many aspects of public life between the serious and the funny.

I suspect the literary canon has to some extent been pre-filtered for humourlessness by literary academics who are themselves humourless about their status. In the literature we are spoon-fed at school, "funny" isn't one of the selection criteria (unless you count Shakespeare's fart jokes and 16th century puns, which were doubtless thigh-slappers back in the day but require some translation for an audience of bored 15 year olds in the late 20th or early 21st century). And so, most readers are left with the educationally-installed belief that serious literature shouldn't be humorous or whimsical.

If you switch the referents from "PRE-EMINENT LITERARY SCHOLARS OF NOTE DEFENDING THEIR ARBITRARY REIGN WITH GRIM MIEN" to "intellectually lazy, reading-challenged inhabitants of the Land of Nod^H^H I mean slans^H I mean that bitch gave me an F on my stupid essay about stupid Wolfram Eschenbach and stupid Marie de France" you get a remarkable sense of the projection implicit in Charlie's argument.

15:

TNYCHSMT @13: remember I'm an autodidact in literature -- I follow my nose: the education system I grew up with offered me a choice (sciences OR arts) at 16, and I picked the other branch. I will also confess to a tendency to bounce, hard, on almost every 19th century work I've tried to read -- it's a stylistic quirk, but I tend to find Victorian novels utterly impenetrable, and I'm as lazy as the next guy. And finally, I'm not a speed reader. (I blame my buggered retinas; before the good one came detached and needed surgery I could swallow a couple of light novels in a day, but since then ... not so much.) With only enough time to read 50-70 novels in a year, and maybe a dozen meaty non-fiction books (if I work hard to make time for them), what am I going to do?

16:

If you want another example of how the world turns out to be weirder than you might imagine, look at these guys:

Russian burn Harry Potter books

Check out the nifty hats!

17:

TNYCHSMT - are you blaming the students, the instructors, literati, the cultural milieu or saying Charlie doesn't know enough to comment?

18:

I had to read "One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest" at school. I defy anyone not to get at least a giggle out of that. Then again, that year my English teacher was a former psychologist, so he had a fairly good time with it.

"Lolita" is pretty funny too. Anyone who says different hasn't read it. And what do we think of satire, following that vein? Jonathan Swift was funny on the surface and deeply cynical on the inside...

The literati seem to lap up Iain Banks (but only sans M), and he's side-slitting on a good day.

19:

Whoops, side-splitting, not slitting. I must have been thinking of that barbarian in The Bridge.

20:

Trey -

I originally thought I was blaming lazy FAAANs. Because my point was that alert readers holistically engaged with a developing text ought to appreciate that text's subtleties of expression. Alert, competent readers query the text constantly, turning over implications and meanings and tones of language. Lazy readers do not query the text - they rely on convention to guide the successful decoding of a narrative. Narratives that don't decode within the bounds set by convention don't get appreciated, or even understood. I would argue that lazy readers aren't appreciating literature in any significant way, because lazy readers are blind to craft and nuance, and averse to challenge.

I mean, why write carefully for someone who wouldn't carefully read what one has written?

But your question has a point - who has responsibility for bad reading? Or how did I learn to read as critically and comprehensively as I do?

After long and considered thought, I have decided to blame the individual reader - ie you - not the reader as student, nor the instructor as trainer of readers, nor the literati as creators and keepers of the texts, nor the cultural milieu as shapers of reader souls (well, maybe a little, but in passing, and long after my verdict) and I'm not saying Charlie doesn't know enough to comment, although his admission of autodidacty earlier in the thread does lend *a little* to premature and hasty declarations of interlocutorial ignorance.

I'm saying *the reader* is responsible for engaging the text. When readers shirk that responsibility, they fuck themselves out of enjoying art.

Now, readers might find their shirking aided by hacks only too happy to crank out alternative pabulae, or reading instructors tacitly assenting to uncontentious episodically Kabuki imitations of learning, or our impious society too hypocritically mealy-mouthed in its assertions of the importance of the written word, but in the end it is the reader who must own up to the responsibility of reading. The reader must read for ideas and language and nuance and art, and not merely decode words toward some predetermined and tiresome ritual re-enaction of personal comfort.

Charlie:

remember I'm an autodidact in literature -- I follow my nose: the education system I grew up with offered me a choice (sciences OR arts) at 16, and I picked the other branch.

Fine. You're a literary autodidact. This really isn't a good excuse for me, anymore, because (surprise, surprise!) so am I. You're corresponding with me, a former arrogant solipsist who once owned every single book Jerry Pournelle ever wrote for the essential reason that they made my dick hard. Of course I was forced to read Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Conrad and Maugham and Dickens and Steinbeck and Melville in high school, but did I appreciate them? Hell, no! It took (call it empathy, call it heart, call it the questioning bereft fumbling of a boy without his Opa) an emotionally driven interest in the problem of the Germany of my grandparents to encourage, impel, force me into the habit of close analytical reading, for the first time in my life (age 22 or so), of texts wildly challenging on all levels, because it was important for me to expend the effort to understand. Would I have read The Radetsky March or Der Untertan or Der Zauberberg without that hunger to understand? Or Graves or Owen or Sassoon? Would I have ever read _Cancer Ward_ or _The First Circle_ or _A Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich_ without that driving need? Solzhenitsyn is *hard* to read, but rewarding!

So, autodidacty, where was I? Oh yes -- in Barnes and Noble, "fiction and literature" is a section separate from "science fiction and fantasy". In general, if you go in there and pick up a book whose author's name you recognize, and open it and read it, you will encounter something interesting and novel. I must be sounding like a complete asshole blowhard, but I am deadly earnest: if your problem is that your nose is leading you away from great texts and works of art, you ought to stop listening to your nose. Much of the genuinely educational part of autodidacty is humility combined with a venturesome impetuousness toward challenge and novelty. So read something new.

I will also confess to a tendency to bounce, hard, on almost every 19th century work I've tried to read -- it's a stylistic quirk, but I tend to find Victorian novels utterly impenetrable, and I'm as lazy as the next guy.

Not to be an asshole, but which Victorian novels have you read? I assume Wells and Butler and Verne and Buchan and Dickens?

And finally, I'm not a speed reader. (I blame my buggered retinas; before the good one came detached and needed surgery I could swallow a couple of light novels in a day, but since then ... not so much.) With only enough time to read 50-70 novels in a year, and maybe a dozen meaty non-fiction books (if I work hard to make time for them), what am I going to do?

50-70 novels + 12 nonfiction bricks a year? I assume you have about the same reading time each day as I do: three to five hours? I have a failing for food writing, which is functionally akin to addiction to science fiction, if less pernicious. So I read about the same amount of text as you, but I'm reading Babel' and Elizabeth David instead of David Eddings and S.M. Stirling.

That's a major step - major. There is no need to read crap. There are important books and there are books that are read in order to waste time between hours A and B.

Read Quixote and Fielding and Thackeray - damn, it's not like they have nothing to say. Just *try*.

I even suggest a diptych: _How we lived then_, by Norman Longmate, with a chaser of 1984 -- a triptych -- and Brideshead Revisited.

_Stalin and the Bomb_, _The First Circle_, _Survival in Auschwitz_.

So.

21:

The reader must read for ideas and language and nuance and art, and not merely decode words toward some predetermined and tiresome ritual re-enaction of personal comfort.

Actually, the reader must not, save as he or she has to pass a course. If you don't get pleasure out of what you read, you don't read for pleasure, and you wind up not reading at all.

Keep going as a teacher in trying to improve people's reading level and encouraging them to read quality, though. I'll just keep on as a librarian matching books to people and encouraging them to read, full stop.

22:

I have a copy of "British Secret Projects: Hypersonics, Ramjets and Missiles" which you may be interested in. Want to borrow it?

23:

It sounds like you're going to get deluged with book recommendations, Charlie, but if move fast, I can get in before the flood. There are a couple of late 20th / early 21st century writers who have or had a keen understanding of just how weird the world really is: the late Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon. Since you're low on time, I recommend reading some of Vonnegut's short stories, most especially "Harrison Bergeron" to get a feeling for him, if you haven't one already. Pynchon is harder, he writes really big novels, these days at least, but they're chock full of good stuff. His second novel, "V", is probably a good place to start.

24:

Bit from Solzhenitsyn: _zek_ is being processed into camp and answering questions:

Guard: Name

"Ivan Ivanovitch"

Guard: Sentence

"Twenty-five years."

Guard: Crime

"Nothing at all".

Guard leaps up and smashes zek in the face and barks: "You lie, dog! For nothing at all, they only give you fifteen years!"

25:

Charlie: "I will also confess to a tendency to bounce, hard, on almost every 19th century work I've tried to read -- it's a stylistic quirk, but I tend to find Victorian novels utterly impenetrable, and I'm as lazy as the next guy."

-- well, don't start with Hardy! 8-).

Try R.L. Stevenson for starters, or Dicken's short fiction, or early Conan Doyle. Kipling helps, too -- they're transitional figures, especially Kipling and especially in his later short fiction. He's a Victorian, but a mutant one and prefigures later developments in technique; and of course he's certainly among the top 10 short-story writers who've ever written in English.

It's a painless method of absorbing the right filters for approaching the period.

The reading protocols are a bit different from modern fiction -- the dividing line is in the 1920's and 30's -- but once you've got a mental translation system in place, they're just as much fun.

Of course, it helps to be exposed to that stuff at an early age. I grew up on ERB (who is essentially a Victorian/Edwardian novelist), Stevenson, Doyle, Haggard, Farnol and Kipling, et. al.

26:

TNYCHSMT": "Because my point was that alert readers holistically engaged with a developing text ought to appreciate that text's subtleties of expression."

-- well, whatever rings your chimes.

Me, I read Fielding and Trollope and Sassoon, or even, in small doses, Hardy (though I prefer his verse) because I enjoy them, not because there's going to be a short quiz at the end of the class.

I confess I started Sassoon because my grandfather was gassed on the Western Front, but continued because it satisfied me.

I read Burroughs or Haggard or Howard or Lovecraft for the same reasons. Or Charlie Stross, for that matter.

Part of the pleasure for me(since I'm a writer myself) is appreciating and noting their technique, but that's a secondary and additional gratification.

The purpose of technique is to produce an effect, not to proclaim LOOK AT ME JUMP THROUGH THIS HOOP!

It's a professional deformation of academic literary critics and their epigoni to mistake the means (style, technique) for the end (effect on the reader).

For the most part, if your everyday reader of a book is conscious of the style, something has gone wrong or it's a very odd book. Ideally he or she shouldn't be aware of the printed words on the page at all.

Think of it as the difference between reading musical notation and just listening to the goddamned music.

This is one reason why a writer should pay only a limited amount of attention to the critics.

I'd argue that someone who reads Clive Cussler (to take a particularly ripe example of a really, really bad writer) with immersive joy is 'reading well' in a sense that someone who painfully wades through Dostoevsky because of some vague conviction that it will improve his soul, is not.

It's still worse if the Dostoevsky is consumed out of a desire to acquire the prestige markers of an in-group.

I happen to have enjoyed "Crime and Punishment", myself. This is not any sign of virtue in me; it's just a matter of taste.

To digress a bit, it _is_ a sign that Dostoevsky (who wrote the book fast because he was up to his ears in debt, by the way) really knew his stuff, particularly as I have to read it in translation, which means that the structure has to bear a heavier part of the work.

(I didn't appreciate how true this was until I tried reading Proust in the original and in translation. The latter is well worth it, but the experience is entirely different when you read the French text. Unfortunately French is the only other language I can read fiction in, and even then _In Search of Lost Time" was at the very limit of my capacities, given lots of time and a good dictionary.)

"Narratives that don't decode within the bounds set by convention don't get appreciated, or even understood. I would argue that lazy readers aren't appreciating literature in any significant way, because lazy readers are blind to craft and nuance, and averse to challenge."

-- this seems to translate as: "If it's accessible, it's bad"?

Furthermore, you're making an implicit assumption that "convention" = "bad".

This is so not so; it's equivalent to arguing that sonnets are necessarily inferior to free verse because they abide by strict conventions.

Grammar is a set of conventions, one necessary for communication; genre conventions are another.

Even bending or transgressing the conventions depends on their existence.

Which is why stylistic innovation is like irony, best employed like scotch bonnet peppers. Which is to say, as a spice and not a vegetable. If you destroy the conventions completely, you're left "without form" and you no longer have anything to push against. That's why Joyce's innovations were a dead end.

"I'm saying *the reader* is responsible for engaging the text. When readers shirk that responsibility, they fuck themselves out of enjoying art."

-- since they're willing to sacrifice part of their beer money for the books, presumably they're enjoying them.

As the poet said: "There are nine and ninety ways/Of construing tribal lays/And every single one of them is right."

"a former arrogant solipsist

-- former? 8-).

"Would I have ever read _Cancer Ward_ or _The First Circle_ or _A Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich_ without that driving need? Solzhenitsyn is *hard* to read, but rewarding!"

-- Actually, the notion that Great Literature Must Be Painful is... ah... not so.

I've read all of Solzhenitsyn for the simple reason that I found his work enjoyable (in several senses of the term) and without feeling that I was going to rupture myself and be in need of a mental truss thereafter.

Incidentally, Jerry Pournelle has also read all of Solzhenitsyn's work.

"It ain't what you don't know that'll kill you. It's what you think you know that just ain't so."

27:

Note also that many of the works we regard as difficult classics were enormously popular best-sellers in their day, and often regarded as disreputable by the guardians of literary respectability.

28:

Yet another potentially useful thread ruined in infancy by a loathsome genocidal fatso. See, in the real world, brave men get thrown in brigs and cashiered for trying to *prevent* war crimes.

Nice editing, BTW - totally fucks with the flow of my thought. Which is lovingly obscured beneath your malevolently meandering Wilhelmine annotative camouflage. Now I'm some lit-crit fag mincing toward Gehenna, prating about sty-LE and STRUC-cha.

Fuck you, Stirling.

In a paraphrase of the 1st King David: Words are not potato chips; a novel, not a can of Pringles. What ails thee, oh Scribe, that thou dost obfuscate? That thou must obscure? That you lard the fisherman's platter with deep-fried lesbians, hard man fritters, salt-petrified Kiplings in abundant honky sauce leaves the repast no less repellently greasy.

I once owned all of your books. Bought 'em all new. Thought the world of you as an author! Thought your ideas were edgy, and your plots exciting! Can you imagine the slobbering fanboy I once was, Stirling? Can you? I so wanted to worship the very wellspring of your manhood, you were such the man - such a Colossus of Rhodesia. Remember the picture you had of yourself in the back of, what was it, Island in the Sea of Time? Horn-rims, mullet-tail, crossed arms and an obi? Inventor of worse white supremacists than the Nazis, and you made them kinky, too! Oh, such insights into coercion you had, O perceptor of sexuality. What an *excellent* crafter of stories you are!

And the sad, sad, sad truth is that you could have been a great writer if you skipped out on being the Tin God of Warboys and the creature of Pournellian neofascism - the kernel of that possibility is there, in utero in Under the Yoke, as well as the tragic evidence that you were too coward and too simperingly truckling to the coarse demands for titillating pornography ever to permit that kernel to sprout.

The gasoline that carried me away from the Permanent Basement, towards happiness, toward mission, and to sound, certified and objectively Good Taste - paid for with the flogging off of your crap on Joe Wetmore's scabrous paperback exchange.

29:

TNYCHSMT: "prating about sty-LE and STRUC-cha."

-- Actually, _I_ was talking about style and structure, responding to your post with a little civil disagreement.

For example, I noted that books read in translation have to rely more on their structure, since there's necessarily a loss of the tonal effects, the sheer word-magic.

I also noted that style -- the conscious use of craft -- is a means, not an end, in the writing of fiction.

Narrative drive, what you might call the "oomph" factor, comes from quite distinct sources. Of the two, it's the more difficult to find. Technique can be learned, but a powerful drive has to spring from the subconscious.

This is why most 'teachers' of 'creative writing' can't write for beans, or at least not anything anyone else will pay to read.

A combination of both is the ideal, of course.

For example, take the way Dickens uses "like an elephant in a state of melancholy madness" to describe the action of a steam engine in the factories of "Coketown" in his novel "Hard Times".

You can parse the phrase to see why it's effective: the 'elephant' gives a sense of huge power and massiveness, the 'state of melancholy madness' evokes the endless repetitive motion of madmen and of caged animals in the zoos of the time, and of course 'melancholy' is directly suggestive of the dark, sooty environment described immediately before.

It's also strikingly evocative of the slow action of a real walking-beam engine, with which many of the readers would have been familiar.

And those images play off the concept of "Coketown" as unnatural and deranged, a horrible distortion of human life where natural sensibilities are suppressed, where human beings are trapped in "melancholy madness".

But I'll give you any odds that the phrase actually occurred spontaneously to Dickens on his flying visit to Birmingham, or when recalling the place as he was writing; he really knew very little about the industrial districts and had no instinctive sense for them as he did for London and its surroundings.

(Orwell commented perceptively that Dickens was a "Cockney" writer to the core.)

The 'elephant' image is far more effective than the direct intervention of Dickens' explicit authorial voice in the surrounding text, too.

It conveys far more of what Dickens wanted to say about "Coketown" than when he actually spells it out; that actually distracts from the impact by diffusing it and engaging the forebrain, while the 'elephant' slips right through and hits the emotional gut by triggering cascades of association.

In other words, the image wells up on its own, as it were. The cutting, fitting and polishing comes later -- and unfortunate authorial interventions, too. The powerful images and effective characters are from a different source.

>And the sad, sad, sad truth is that you could have been a great writer

-- I've always preferred to think of myself as a solidly competent craftsman, but then, I don't go in for the High Romantic concept of the authorial function, the 'unacknowledged legislators of mankind' hooey.

Thanks anyway, though.

"Inventor of worse white supremacists than the Nazis"

-- oh, my, you're not one of those people who don't get the concept embodied in the word "dystopia", are you?

Or "unreliable narrator"?

That one's really tricky.

"and the creature of Pournellian neofascism"

-- the really amusing thing here is that I can't talk politics with Jerry because we always end up yelling at each other. It's one reason we stopped collaborating -- that and the fact that I was making enough money on my own to cut back.

(I've been a registered Democrat for a long time and am a Hillary Clinton backer for '08.)

Jerry's no more a "fascist" than Hillary is a Communist, of course.

"towards happiness, toward mission, and to sound, certified and objectively Good Taste"

-- That sentence would have been more punchy if it had read: "towards happiness, towards mission, and to sound, objectively certified Good Taste". It would still be -wrong-, of course... 8-).

We apparently like a lot of the same books; Solzhenitsyn, for example. (Mann, too, I suppose?)

You've chosen to limit yourself rather than enjoy a broad range of literary satisfactions; that's your privilege, of course.

But you've got an extremely naive view of literature if you think that Good Taste (in capitals, yet) can be "certified" (by who?) or that a judgement so intensely personal can be in any reasonable sense of the word "objective".

"Books one likes" =/= "objectively good books"; and, of course, the converse is true.

For example, I don't particularly enjoy Jane Austen; a bit occasionally, but in big doses she bores me, as opposed, to say, Marryatt.

That doesn't mean she's a bad writer; on the contrary, she's a consumately good one, and has great (if subtle) energy and nobody's better at deadpan irony. She's just not my cup of tea.

The most we can say is that many generations have considered a work "very good".

Certainly no living author can be considered cannonical; there just hasn't been enough time to distinguish real merit from mere ability to hit the exposed nerves of fashion.

Or as two visitors from the future put it:

"Nobody understands you in this century unless you swear every other word. You'll find it in all the literature of the era: Jacklyn Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins."

"Ah, the giants."

(Glyph of satyric intent.)

30:

WARNING: If various parties start flaming each other in here, I'm going to suspend comments on this thread. (And as I'm about to go away for six days, it's gonna die.)

Bruce: Already done Vonnegut and Pynchon. (Except Mason & Dixon, which is sitting on my to-read pile, and Gravity's Rainbow, which is truly brilliant but which defeated me on my last attempt at around the 60% mark.)

Solzhenityin ... depresses me. (Style, not content.) Mind you, I haven't tried reading him for upwards of twenty years.

Wells: not Victorian. Edwardian, I'll grant you, but his sensibilities (as opposed to his prose style) are anything but.

I have, of course, ploughed through Conan Doyle, Haggard, etcetera. Wallpaper of my youth. Ditto chunks of Kipling.

Verne ... either I hit bad translations, or I hit him too early, but "meh" springs to mind.

Dickens ... I bounce hard within the first three pages of everything of his I try to read.

31:

Humorless critics/intellectuals are one thing... but humorless readers worry me most, because they're not going to get the jokes.

I totally agree that the world IS weird and funny. It can be very frustrating when the daily newspapers produce real-life items that are too outrageous to write as fiction!

I also get the impression that humor and general silliness sometimes clash with grim seriousness in blog comments...
:-P

32:

Charlie,

I had the same problem with Gravity's Rainbow, aggravated by being harangued just about the time I stalled out by a "writer" who beat me about the head and shoulders for not being able to simply inhale its essence, as it was one of the greatest books ever written, so clearly I was a clod. Said writer has never (and it's been 35 years now) published outside literary journals, and some day I'm going to wash the taste of his words out of my mouth and read the book despite him. There really is such a thing as reader's block, though.

33:

Gravity's Rainbow was fun, don't get me wrong -- but I felt as if I was swimming upstream against a very strong current; in the end, I decided that I'd get more out of the same time deployed elsewhere.

Time is the one commodity none of us have enough of.

34:

"Why are they funny?" is either a comment so stupid it doesn't deserve and answer, or the plaintive lament of someone who doesn't get the joke. Now, the surrealism - I do admit sometimes when reading such things to throwing up my hands and saying "I can't make head or tails of this, and just gong along for the ride and enjoying the scenery doesn't seem to be possible for me."

But the comment about needing to understand the background of something to get the humor is dead on. The further you get from the culture ---

So why is Roman farce still funny enough to give Zero Mostel a fat paycheck for playing Pseudolus? Partly because a lot of it's slapstick and vaudeville, but partly because - well, imagine Miles Gloriousus in camo, a beret, and mirror shades. (Sorry, Charlie, the UK is Athens, not Rome. Us yanks are the latter-day Romans. Now if we can only get Pompey and Crassus out of office without getting Big Julie and Li'l Augie).

Okay - anyone know why the last sentence is funny here in the States?

35:

The UDA were an eccentric bunch; as well as the memorable Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, they also included Jim Gray, the permatanned, peroxided Brigadier of Bling with a fondness for gold jewellery and pastel sweaters, also known as "Doris Gray"...

36:

FAO foreigners who haven't had the pleasure of encountering the UDA at close quarters: In addition to their charming adventures in transvetism, they also like(d) to engage in extortion, drug dealing and sectarian murder. Some things are only funny if you're viewing them from an appropriate distance.

37:

Charlie, have you tried The Pickwick Papers? Most Dickens I know only from trailers for TV adaptations, which don't sound like much fun, but Pickwick is fun. (I should try some of the others sometime, but So Many Books, So Little Time.
)

38:

WARNING: If various parties start flaming each other in here, I'm going to suspend comments on this thread.

Mmmm - TNYCHSMT calling Stirling a "fatso" was probably uncalled for...

(Pity - this thread is interesting)

39:

Charlie: Gravity's Rainbow was fun, don't get me wrong -- but I felt as if I was swimming upstream against a very strong current; in the end, I decided that I'd get more out of the same time deployed elsewhere."

-- yeah, agreed. Delany is an example of a very fine talent destroyed by 'theory', IMHO.

Also by letting his obsessions rule him. Of course, we all have obsessions -- they're part of the gasoline that powers the engines of literature -- but it's something you've got to watch, or you end up writing the same book over and over.

His autobiography is extremely interesting, though.

40:

Oooops! Mental stutter -- mind transcribed "Pynchon" for "Delany". For some reason, I've always associated "Gravity's Rainbow" with "Dhalgren"... 8-).

41:

As Chesterton pithily put it: "Funny is not the opposite of serious. It is the opposite of not funny, and nothing else."

42:

Charlie - I think it's the sense of humour that particularly distinguishes your work. I'm not sure when you started to do that, but I caught up with it around `Dechlorinating The Moderator.' Or maybe `Something Sweet,' I can't remember which one I read first.

I've read Gravity's Rainbow two or three times and never had any particular trouble with it, but I couldn't get on with Mason & Dixon at all. I gave up about a hundred pages in and never went back to it.

43:

Re Verne: apparently the original translations were extremely poor, because his politics weren't acceptable to English readers and got culled. I hear tell there's a new translation out that's more faithful to the original, so it should be a better read.

44:

43: Re Verne: apparently the original translations were extremely poor, because his politics weren't acceptable to English readers and got culled. I hear tell there's a new translation out that's more faithful to the original, so it should be a better read.

-- ah, that's interesting! What was the problem with his politics?

45:

He was some form of socialist, I think ;)

46:

There's humor, and there's humor (sorry, not "humour" -- we've got a shortage of U's in the states). The SF humor I most enjoy is that which is audacious -- the idea beyond reason, beyond rational exploitation of the present. My favorite of those is Bruce Sterling's "Heavy Weather" with transgenic goats that produce plastique in their milk... of course you have to make a *cheese* out of it.

Satire is subtler, and takes an understanding of what's being satirized. Cynicism and sarcasm are easier: Len Deighton, Elmore Leonard... and none of these are strictly funny books.

If I can't laugh, and laugh soon into a book, I'm likely to drop it.

47:

-- oh, my, you're not one of those people who don't get the concept embodied in the word "dystopia", are you?

You can stick labels on things all you like, but there's a sort of...I dunno, loving quality to the descriptions that seems to have seduced a couple of your less irony-equipped readers into thinking that you really would enjoy seeing things like that happen on some level.

This may just be a testament to your craft as a writer, of course.

48:

I think for a dystopia to be believable and engaging to a reader it has to be a sort of perverse labor of love for the author. It takes talent to take something unpleasant and give it a life of it's own.

49:

but there's a sort of...I dunno, loving quality to the descriptions that seems to have seduced a couple of your less irony-equipped readers into thinking that you really would enjoy seeing things like that happen on some level.

Well, that, and the fact that, on the Internet, he advocated the mass murder of people whose politics he disagreed with for the crime of, oh, winning elections.

I used to think that that made him a genocidal asshole. Judging by what's happened in America of late, he's just ahead of his time.

50:

Joel Finkle,

True, satire is subtler, but sometimes burlesque applied with a broad brush is what's wanted. I know exactly what imprinted me with Charlie's writing: the spork factory in "Singularity Sky". I laughed so hard my face hurt, and I've read everything he's written that I could get my hand on, looking for more. Found a lot of other kinds of good stuff, too, but every once in awhile, I strike sporks again ...

51:

I think for a dystopia to be believable and engaging to a reader it has to be a sort of perverse labor of love for the author.

"S-M" Stirling, you say? Surely not, it's a case of unreliable narrators.

It takes talent to take something unpleasant and give it a life of it's own.

Or perhaps just...sincerity.

Well, that, and the fact that, on the Internet, he advocated the mass murder of people whose politics he disagreed with for the crime of, oh, winning elections.

I thought it was pirating ebooks, must have been another thread. But Hillary wouldn't be down with that, would she? Even though she was a Goldwater Girl.

I used to think that that made him a genocidal asshole.

Pro-genocidal, innit.

52:


Adrian@47: What gives life to the suspicion that Stirling likes the Draka rather more than he admits in public are a) he wrote three of the books, and b) he made the filthy buggers win. (Oh, and then he wrote a fourth, in which just one of them takes on the whole world and merely loses round one.)

If he'd written just one book, his parries about dystopia would be wholly believable. Ditto if he had made the Draka lose. But he didn't.

53:

Adrian @ 51:
"Or perhaps just...sincerity."

So you really think that authors like George Orwell, China Mieville, Richard K. Morgan, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and John Brunner -- just to name a few -- all secretly desired the dystopian settings of their books to be come real? Or is it something in Stirling's Draka novels -- which isn't his only dystopia -- that hits too close to home for the reader's true feelings?

Johan @ 52:
"If he'd written just one book, his parries about dystopia would be wholly believable. Ditto if he had made the Draka lose. But he didn't."

So because the bad guys won in 1984, George Orwell desired a totalitarian dictaorship? Or because China Mieville has written a series of books set in New Crobuzon where the good guys usually lose he really desires a society run by corrupt oligarchs that oppresses workers? If you make that your standard, then you're placing authors in a straightjacket where they can only explore certain ideas that meet the approval of the self appointed protectors of public morals, lest they harm an ignorant reader. That's the same sort of thinking that has books like Tom Sawyer banned because of the inclusion of the word "nigger" in the text.

54:

"If he'd written just one book, his parries about dystopia would be wholly believable. Ditto if he had made the Draka lose. But he didn't."

Or possibly he had more than one book's worth of story to write. Maybe he didn't have the Draka lose because he has enough integrity not to slap on a cheap "happy ending" when the world he created wouldn't justify or support it. Making your claim in the absense of other evidence is like claiming P. K. Dick was pro-Nazi because he wrote "The Man in the High Castle".

If you have real evidence, please share it. Otherwise, if you don't like his writing, just don't read his work. But don't cast baseless aspersions.

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of S. M. Stirling, nor have I ever read his "Draka" novels. I am only vaguely aware of his writings. However, trying to condemn someone of "neofascism" on the basis of a work of fiction is simply ridiculous.

55:

The Draka novels are an interesting look at a dark undercurrent of the United States culture that was mostly stamped out following the US Civil War. In way, the entire series is a look at those rival forces, by creating an enemy for the US that springs from the same source.

It's also a good counter to the argument that sometimes crops up that slavery would have died out with the industrial revolution for economic reasons on it's own -- I've seen that used quite a lot in the US. While the books did require a series of rather unlikely changes to create the setting, the do good job of show an example of a viable alternate industrial revolution.

And, character-wise, it does a good job of exploring the actions of what are basically good people raise and ingrained with an evil culture.

My main complaint with the series is that I don't think there's any remote possibility that a state like the Domination of the Draka could have developed as fast as it did in reality. It expanded across Africa way too fast, and with too little objection from the European powers. Nor can I see the British Empire basically giving them all of Africa without any real oversight...

56:

I thought it was pirating ebooks

Nah, that's vaguely understandable - I might get a teeny bit upset at people burning libraries.

This was in relation to communists winning elections fair and square(ish).

And let's not forget the wonderful comments about killing all Muslims - if they're male.

57:

So you really think that authors like George Orwell, China Mieville, Richard K. Morgan, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and John Brunner -- just to name a few -- all secretly desired the dystopian settings of their books to be come real?

Er...no, but from none of them did I get that hard-to-pin-down loving quality that I and one or two of his other readers seem to have detected in his work, and which we find is not dispelled by browsing his Usenet oeuvre.

Probably just our imagination, of course.

Or is it something in Stirling's Draka novels -- which isn't his only dystopia -- that hits too close to home for the reader's true feelings?

So *I'm* the one who secretly wants to see these things happen?

However, trying to condemn someone of "neofascism" on the basis of a work of fiction is simply ridiculous.

That was our friend TNYCHSMT, who I think needed to go and lie down for a while, talking quite unjustifiedly about Jerry Pournelle, who is a conservative and fairly sound on Iraq, unlike some people. Eric Flint says SMS is just an authoritarian, in fact.

58:

Getting back a bit towards Charlie's original post.

There is no work of fiction (in English) that is so well written, for any value of well, that the experience of reading it cannot be ruined by a sufficiently perverse and determined English teacher. And there are a lot of teachers like that out there.

This is how once-popular works turn into elitist totems. They start out good, and popular, then someone notices that they are good, and rules that "they shall be taught" and the teaching destroys them for most readers.

Yes I know there are better teachers out there. Not, alas, enough of them.

JHomes.

59:

HG Wells' grandson hit on me once.

(I was eighteen, he looked at least sixty...I guess hope springs eternal, or something.
I should have said, "does your younger self have a TIME MACHINE, then?" but I didn't.
Thus it is that the Empire was lost. Probably.)

I think humour mostly dates so fast that genuinely funny novels tend to find themselves driftwrack under a red dying sun.

60:

There are novels/writers that one has to be ready for. Me, I bounced hard off Iain (M.) Banks first time round, many moons ago. He's now up there in my top echelon of writers.

With the passage of time, the text remains the same, but the reader doesn't - it's a different reading experience.

Unfortunately, were I to re-read every book I ever bounced off in the hopes that I am now 'ready' to appreciate them, I'd not have time to read the new stuff. If it's not fun the first time round, I might be persuaded to give it a second go if trusted friends push for it, but two strikes is my max. Life's too short.

61:

This is how once-popular works turn into elitist totems. They start out good, and popular, then someone notices that they are good, and rules that "they shall be taught" and the teaching destroys them for most readers.

Yeah, but how many works is the average student going to have thus ruined? I can remember only three of the books I had to study for my UK O-level, back in the day - Hardy's The Woodlanders, Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, and Henry IV part 1. Some damage was probably done, but it's hardly a major slice of the Western canon forever lost to my appreciation.

62:

Call me odd, but I actually enjoyed everything we were required to read in school, classics included. I even read some that other schools or classes had but we didn't. The only book I couldn't stand was "Catcher in the Rye".

63:

Jane @59: I don't know that humor fades that fast:

Welcome to the Monkey House -- forty years on, there's no more orange-tile-roofed HoJos, but it's still funny.

Three Men and a Boat - Knock-down, drag-out century-old fun I'd never have read if it weren't for Connie Willis' "To Say Nothing of the Dog", although Bellwether, only 10 years old feels dated.

Huckleberry Finn - 133 years and still goin' strong.

And don't get me started on Shakespeare, although Greek comedy doesn't work so well for me.

64:

42: "Charlie - I think it's the sense of humour that particularly distinguishes your work."

-- I agree that Charlie has a nice sense of humor, but if there's a single standout characteristic of his work, I'd say it's the ability to milk the tensions of people working within bureaucracies.

The SF field tends to exalt the lone wolf; which is OK, but Charlie's stuff occasionally produces good 'in the belly of the meetings and allocations committee beast' stuff, which is very unusual.

The horror stories are excellent examples.

65:

47: "I dunno, loving quality to the descriptions"

-- a society which nobody loved would not last a decade... which is why the USSR fell apart, essentially; not enough people loved it enough to work, fight, kill or die for it any more.

You have to walk a fine line in constructing and depicting a dystopia.

The weakness of "1984" (and it's a weakness in a magnificent book) is that the society in question doesn't provide much satisfaction for _anyone_.

Even the microscopically tiny elite of the Inner Party don't live particularly well; they get their jollies by knowing how miserable they're making everyone else, which seems to be insufficient motivation for all that hard work.

They don't even get much social status/deference, because most people are unaware of their existence.

Really everyone-sweats-with-fear-all-the-time nasty places, like High Stalinism, tend to be unstable.

Eg., the first thing the Soviet nomenklatura did after Stalin fell -- well, the second thing, after shooting Beira -- was to agree that they wouldn't kill each other any more. From then on, political losers were demoted or (comfortably) exiled for the most part, not tortured into confessions and then shot.

Likewise, they dismantled most of the Gulag; and they steadily reinforced the hereditary element in their system of privilege, so they could pass on their status to their descendants. Some former-Stalinst countries even became hereditary monarchies; Rumania, North Korea.

Eventually it occurred to a lot of them that they'd be better off if they could convert their power to private property in a capitalist system -- which they attempted and which their Chinese equivalents seem to be succeeding in doing.

66:

47: "that seems to have seduced a couple of your less irony-equipped readers into thinking that you really would enjoy seeing things like that happen on some level.

This may just be a testament to your craft as a writer, of course."

-- pretty much.

These days I get complaints that I'm prejudiced against Christians and trying to convert the world to Wicca because there are sympathetic neo-pagan P.O.V. characters in my latest series.

I suspect that after the next one comes out, it'll be accusations that I'm an agent of Pope Benedict _and_ trying to convert the world to Wicca.

(I'm actually a complete atheist and have been since I was about 11 years old -- possibly earlier.)

Steve Brust once had a fan complement him on how "Jhereg" really "stuck it to the Jews".

There is no narrative so clear that a fughead cannot come up with a weird interpretation.

67:

52: Oh, and then he wrote a fourth, in which just one of them takes on the whole world and merely loses round one.

-- well, getting blasted into one's component atoms is a bit more than "loses round one".

68:

53: "That's the same sort of thinking that has books like Tom Sawyer banned because of the inclusion of the word "nigger" in the text."

-- yup.

Not to mention Charlie has Communist bugs destroy the human race multiple times... 8-).

69:

"Eric Flint says SMS is just an authoritarian, in fact."

-- well, Eric's a Trot... 8-).

Where Eric and I tangle is that he believes that political action, specifically revolutionary action, can produce Utopian results; which is to say, he believes human beings are very malleable and potentially perfectible, more or less.

I'm much more Burkean; I think conscious, Utopian political programs aimed at restructuring everything are a recipie for disaster, and I think history bears me out. If you try to turn human beings into angels, they're much more likely to become devils.

Or to boil it down, he doesn't believe in Original Sin, and I do -- it's the only religious dogma for which there's objective evidence.

V. Havel, one of my personal heroes, remarked during the Velvet Revolution that his was a revolution _against_ Utopia, in favor of a moderate, limited, rational happiness. That human beings, if they're very smart and lucky, have some prospect of achieving.

I'm a "robust democrat". That is, I think a democratic political system, with its inevitable companion of a capitalist economy(*), is the best on the whole. However, I don't think just anyone can get to, or maintain, this result -- it requires a specific set of cultural norms, a certain worldview, to function well.

(*) you can have capitalism without democracy, but you can't have democracy without capitalism. As even Lenin admitted a couple of times, representative universal-suffrage democracy is the natural political form for a mature capitalist economy.

And that's enough about politics, I think. Back to literature!

70:

I'm a "robust democrat".

In the same sense, perhaps, that the Communist party of the USSR were "robust democrats". They also went along with elections - if the results went their way. And if not, they also advocated breaking a few heads to get the "correct" result.

71:

Larry Niven just did an interesting job of fitting a prequel to Ringworld into his Known Space history with
Fleet of Worlds...

I was prepared to be disappointed but he pulled it off rather well.

Are you really tired of the Eschaton universe Charlie?

-- Andrew

72:

70: "In the same sense, perhaps, that the Communist party of the USSR were "robust democrats".

-- Glyph of patience. No, in exactly the sense I meant it; liberal democracy as a fighting faith. And I might further add that Charlie is probably not pleased to have you throwing hand-grenades which gum up his blog.

To answer your question: "One man, one vote, once", is not democracy.

Nor is democracy a suicide pact.

You cannot let would-be totalitarians game the system to overthrow democracy itself -- or rather, you can, but to do so is both wicked and stupid.

We can afford to ignore Nazis and Communists in the US and give them all the usual rights because they have no prospect of actually winning power. In places where they do have mass followings, more... ah, robust... measures may be needed.

Note that Germany and Austria still make it illegal to try to organize Nazi parties, or to make apologetics for the Fascist period -- which is why a certain British 'historian' is in jail in Austria. Once bitten, twice shy.

In the Cold War communist parties in France and Italy were always complaining that the rules were bent (or outright broken) at times to keep them out of government despite their having substantial popular followings. IIRC and working from memory, at one point the Italian communist party was the largest single party, or somewhere close behind the largest.

It couldn't be admitted at the time, of course, but they were being perfectly truthful about that, if nothing else: the system _was_ being rigged against them.

Bribes were paid, blackmail was administered, intrigues were launched, intelligence services involved (the American intelligence services in Italy in the late 40's, the domestic ones later). And quite rightly so, too

That's how Hitler came to power, you know -- legally (or quasi-legally, at least), playing the game of democratic parliamentary politics while all along announcing quite frankly that he aimed at a dictatorship based on the 'leadership principle'.

It would have been much better for democracy if the German Army had staged a coup against him, shot him and all his closer associates, persecuted his party with merciless rigor, and then gradually restored something more palatable. A constitutional monarchy, perhaps.

And Communists _sensu strictu_ (Leninists, short form, and their Maoist and other offspring) aren't significantly different from Nazis in that respect. Their terminology is somewhat different, but the basic contempt for democracy is similar, their tactics (total disregard for truth and total lack of scruple as a matter of principle) and so is their universal refusal (up until the general collapse) to vacate power once they had it.

We've still got extremely nasty examples of Leninism/Stalinism around in Cuba and North Korea.

Western liberal democracy pretends to be content-neutral towards all political beliefs sometimes, but it actually isn't. It requires an ideological consensus on the basics of the system, and by its nature cannot tolerate major players who deviate much from that consensus.

Only those who accept democracy, and as a principle rather than a tactice, have democratic rights. In practice this also means there are fairly close limits to what an elected government can do, particularly without a very broad degree of support.

With those outside the democratic consensus, you play by _their_ chosen rules; rule by the quickest and sharpest knife. They don't really have any grounds for complaint -- it's like whining that your opponents aren't playing by cricket rules when you yourself are a proponent of all-in wrestling.

(Germany in the Weimar period had the additional problem that substantial elements had never accepted the basic democratic premises, and of course the 1930's were just a lousy period in every respect.)

73:

And I might further add that Charlie is probably not pleased to have you throwing hand-grenades which gum up his blog.

I think we can rely on Charlie to step in if things get too gummed up for his liking. I mean, "Fuck you, Stirling" was clearly out of order, but this is a milder business altogether. I doubt Tony's ever killed anybody, at any rate.

Western liberal democracy pretends to be content-neutral towards all political beliefs sometimes, but it actually isn't. It requires an ideological consensus on the basics of the system, and by its nature cannot tolerate major players who deviate much from that consensus.

Now if you were talking about capitalism rather than democracy here, I might go along some way.

We've still got extremely nasty examples of Leninism/Stalinism around in Cuba and North Korea.

Both largely sustained in their nastiness by US intransigence IMO.

With those outside the democratic consensus, you play by _their_ chosen rules; rule by the quickest and sharpest knife. They don't really have any grounds for complaint -- it's like whining that your opponents aren't playing by cricket rules when you yourself are a proponent of all-in wrestling.

So the Iron Suppository of Democracy needs to be rammed robustly into the reluctant recta of the Axis of Recidivism lest...what? I suppose you think having a woman supervising the proceedings is going to help the medicine go down, or up. Good luck with that, is all I can say.

74:

As much as I would like to wipe out all of the dictatorships in the world, and bring democracy and capitalism to everyone, I no longer think it can be done that way. History would seem to show that you can't impose democracy, that it needs to develop organically and will once a certain level of economic freedom and prosperity has been reached.

People like to point to the Axis powers of WWII as an example of imposing democracy on formerly totalitarian regimes, but that's not exactly the case. Both Italy and Germany had some prior experience with democracy, as well as well developed economies that needed to be rebuilt. And Japan was for a long time a democracy in name only -- more of an oligarchy. But they had the framework for democracy and grew into it as their economy grew post-war.

That's why I think attempts to replaced 3rd world dictatorships with viable democracies are doomed to fail...

75:

Adrian @ 73:

I think you're likely right about Cuba. The Embargo has been a bad idea for a long time, it just allows Castro to keep a stronger grip on power. Without it, Castro may still be in power, but Cubans would be better off economically and more in touch with the rest of the world. Once Castro kicks the bucket, we would likely see a sort of Velvet Revolution there...

North Korea, I'm not sure I can agree on. They haven't exactly been very helpful themselves. Maybe if the regime was a little more sane... but they make even Burma look sensible.

76:

So the Iron Suppository of Democracy needs to be rammed robustly into the reluctant recta of the Axis of Recidivism lest...what?

Lest, well, communist parties get a place in a Parliamentary system - and then their participation rises or falls when they demonstrate competance or screw up and get voted out. that a movement has cabinet ministers, three million members and organises a fifth of the population shouldn't be allowed to impede the will of democratic institutions such as, oh, the Army.

Just look at the example of the Communist Party of Brazil, the Communist Party of Bulgaria, the Communist Refoundation Party, the South African Communist Party, the Syrian Communist Party, or the Communist Party of Uruguay. All of which, sadly, have yet to be exterminated despite having some measure of political power.

Presumably, in Stirling-world, it's much, much better to have a military dictatorship slaughtering people and abrogating elections in the Sacred Name of Democracy. And, indeed, the subsequent Democratic Regime was a clear demonstration of the superiority of Freedom and Justice.

Next up, Stirling will set forth how to go about clearing out ant infestations using only a flamethrower and a tank of napalm, and how to avoid sexual harassment on college campuses by banning women from learning.

77:

And Japan was for a long time a democracy in name only -- more of an oligarchy. But they had the framework for democracy and grew into it as their economy grew post-war.

Don't get me started on Japanese democracy. They did have some experience with it prewar (the "Taisho democracy" - not a universal franchise, but then most countries started that way. Since the war it's been one-party rule all the way, except for a few months when they *really* screwed up and dropped the reins for a bit. A lot of the decisions that matter here are still taken by fat old guys conferring with each other behind the scenes. Snide and negative people say there was a chance of Japan getting a real democratic structure for a while, but then the Americans decided fighting Communism was a higher priority, and a bunch of the old wartime bureaucrats were wheeled back into their old jobs, whereupon they put together something with a lot of continuity with the old system under a democratic veneer.

North Korea, I'm not sure I can agree on. They haven't exactly been very helpful themselves.

Well, I'm just going by conversations I've had with South Koreans (Korean-Americans probably won't give you this stuff). Many of them seem to think that the status quo suits the American government quite nicely, and they have plenty of ways of frustrating attempts to change it.

78:

Andrew @7: Oh, apparently space opera's a tired paradigm. Iain Banks must be kicking himself for wasting so much time and pissing off so many readers with his Culture books.

79:

NelC @78: Oh, that was a petty comment. Can I take it back?

80:

Tony @ 76:

I don't think those communist parties are the sort that Steve is concerned about. In the case of Brazil, Bulgaria, Italy, and Uruguay they're part of a much larger coalition, not much on their own. And South Africa and Syria are hardly shining examples of success that any political party should want to admit being a factor in..

Now, if it looked like a communist part was poised to take over a country on it's own, then it would be prudent to stop them.

81:

I don't think those communist parties are the sort that Steve is concerned about. In the case of Brazil, Bulgaria, Italy, and Uruguay they're part of a much larger coalition, not much on their own.

Bingo. Cf the PKI in Indonesia, which is the massacre Stirling is defending in the name of "democracy". By which he actually means a military regime which held power for three decades, invaded its neighbours, engaged in racial scapegoating, and killed hundreds of thousands.

Now, if it looked like a communist part was poised to take over a country on it's own, then it would be prudent to stop them.

Pardon me, but if (which was not the case here) a communist party was going to take over a country by a parliamentary process - the people of the country electing it in - then the only thing to do is to let them make that decision. You cannot preserve a democracy by taking away the people's right to choose their own government, even if you disagree with that choice.

The simple facts are that Communist parties can and do work as part of Parliamentary coalitions, this was where the PKI was at, they were massacred and a military regime installed - and Stirling is applauding this in the name of "democracy".

The very least he can do is own up to it.

82:

Stirling = Sven Hassel.

83:

Tony @ 81:

The problem with Indonesia is that it was hardly a shining beacon of democracy before Suharto took power in the coup. Sukarno was well on his way to becoming a dictator, if he wasn't already, and the PKI was in the process of militarizing, and they had already begun nationalizing a number of companies and were in the process of wrecking the country. So the coup by Suharto was in some sense justified.

And the coup was hardly a top-down suppressing of the communists, multiple other groups besides the army took place in the massacre, which is probably why it was as bloody as it was.

It would have been nice if the whole thing could have been avoided from the start, the creation of Indonesia was chaotic, and the seeds of this were there all along.

84:

Alex @ 82:

I'm not sure how you're comparing Steve to Hassel. They both write military novels, true, but Steve has never claimed any of his really happened, to him or anyone else.

Unless you're saying Steve is really a Nazi hiding his past under the glamorous cover story of being a former Canadian lawyer who now lives in New Mexico....

85:

Attention: I am filling a guest of honour slot at an SF convention this weekend and not home until Wednesday. I am not following this in any detail, but PLAY NICE or I will make with the delete key when I get home. OK?

86:

Actually, I have some sympathy for what I see as being Steve's core position, which is that liberal values need defending from those who would use them where convenient while campaigning for their destruction.

However, I think there's a big gap between theory and practice, into which any number of wedges may slide. I don't see democracy as being intrinsically good; it's just not prone to the failure modes of autocracy or oligarchy (single point of failure, or, ruling class whose interests may be at odds with those of their supporting society). It may decay into autocracy or oligarchy -- and indeed, a case may be made that the USA (where a large proportion of congress are second generation legislators, and something like 94% of them are lawyers by training) is well on the way to becoming an oligarchy. Most damning, when we hear talk of defending liberal/democratic values with the big stick, there's usually a hidden agenda at work and it's essential to ask, cui bono?

Defending liberal values: good. Attacking illiberal values ... let's just stop for a moment first, and ask, "why are we doing this, what can possibly go wrong, and who stands to benefit?"

87:

Actually, I have some sympathy for what I see as being Steve's core position, which is that liberal values need defending from those who would use them where convenient while campaigning for their destruction.

That's fair enough, but I reckon his position extends a little further than that, to the extent that the fundamental (and for too many Americans, *personal*) insult of 11/9 (THEY FLEW PLANES INTO OUR BUILDINGS OMIGOD!!!) means that America is now justified in intervening how and where it likes in pursuit of (what it thinks are) its national interests, the best defense being a good offense.

Perhaps he will indicate how this is mistaken.

88:

Eh. I originally thought this thread was about reading comprehension, and the development of this thread since the Stevar's arrival has been about competitive reading incomprehension - dueling displays of solecisms, as it were...

My point was that irresolute, undisciplined, lazy readers rarely take the time or effort to tackle challenging prose. I also made the point that culturally-transmitted and cognitively-internalised selection bias, the "fannish acquired learning deficiency", does not serve the curious reader, but only the insecure reader - the reader who reads sentences not for their content, but for ideological, emotional, or religious self-validation.

Now, certain pulp writers interpreted me as evangelizing the adoration of, for want of a better phrase, "the meat of poorly taught literature analysis college courses."
I evangelize the comprehension of written language. I want to learn when I read - learn new words, new imagery, new rhythms, new complex and abstract ideas, and comprehend and assimilate foreign viewpoints and experiences.

Why isn't the self-annointed literature of the strange and fantastic doing this anymore?

For the same reason this thread degenerated into a discussion of politics and historical and anticipated genocides: because the readers and writers invested in SF ontology are incredibly uncomfortable with the possibility that they have bought into a bankrupt, dead, and sterile genre.

89:

I want to learn when I read - learn new words, new imagery, new rhythms, new complex and abstract ideas, and comprehend and assimilate foreign viewpoints and experiences.

Limited market, that. Have you read Richard Mitchell's essays? They might be to your taste.

Why isn't the self-annointed literature of the strange and fantastic doing this anymore?

They have mortgages? Anyway, it's about strange and fantastic *ideas*, not usually prose. Though SMS did slip "smaragdine" into one of his IOTSOT series, I was forced to resort to Google, it was most untoward, especially after having had to put up with a gratuitous definition of "autodidact".

For the same reason this thread degenerated into a discussion of politics and historical and anticipated genocides:

No one was talking about loathsome genocidal fatsos till you pitched in.

90:

"for one of my humour/horror crossover spoof lovecraftian spy thrillers — a planned sequel to "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue" — I'd decided to..."

Specifically "for... a planned sequel... I'd decided to"

Does this phrasing imply that there will be no more Laundry stories? If so, I am very sad to hear it.

91:

You may want to peruse this Usenet posting from 2002.

And then you may judge my condemnation of Stevar.

92:

RaygunGothic: no, you got hold of the wrong end of the stick entirely. (I've got two books to write first, but I'm hoping to do at least two more Laundry novels thereafter.)

93:

And then you may judge my condemnation of Stevar.

We are pretty familiar with this aspect of SMS's output, AAMOF. But Charlie likes a civilised tone.

94:

Charlie: Great, I'm very glad to hear it. And thanks for the answer!

95:

Charlie; I certainly agree with on the problems with a democratic system. There's nobody to cut the gordian knot of red tape either - you can hide things like the Laundry in it, to use something from your own novels. And it's entirely too prone to influence from large companies.

But anyway;

Andrew@71: I like everything in the Known Space universe *except* the Ringworld novels.

96:

I do believe SM Stirling has a point in that it is a difference between parties with a radical programme that will accept being voted out in the next election, and parties with a radical programme who have the goal of winning democratic elections once, and then abolishing elections as such. The Germans do demand that all parties should have a democratic base and have specifically banned National Socialist imagery etc. (Even in my country, Norway, the collaborationist party Nasjonal Samling was specifically banned in 1945, and the ban is, I believe, still in force. I do not know what would happen if somebody tried to revive it, though.) Of course, this might be said to violate free speech principles, which are also important to uphold.

It's also a bit unclear to me whether New York City Math Teacher wants experimental prose or grand ideas, or for that matter, both. I agree that Solzhenitsyn can be hard to read (I studied Russian literature at university), but that is content, rather than style. I agree that a lot of SF isn't that great on content either, but as Adrian Smith noted earlier, it has after all usually been about ideas, not style.

97:

re post 44: Verne's politics question by S.M. Stirling

Verne wasn't Socialist (more a French Radical). The reason why he may have been unpopular in UK was that he happened to write in a period where France and UK were not quite friends (see Fashoda, frex), and he supported French politics, like the alliance with Russia (Mikhail Strogoff), or portratyed British policies in a bad light (Captain Nemo was a former Indian prince whose family has been butchered by the Brits, after all). One could even argue that the characters of the Mysterious Island were Union escaped POWs while the UK government was willing to support the CSA... anyway, none of this is a reason for bad translations

Marino

98:

This post sort of makes me think of Jasper Fforde. If you haven't read any, Charlie, I think you really would like him. I can't really describe his writing beyond "Monty Python + James Bond + Some Random University Eng. Lit. Department."


RE: The wackiness of real life:

"Like me, you've probably stayed awake countless nights wondering, 'Did the Brits ever make plans for a nuclear landmine, powered by chickens?'

Well, dear reader, I'm here to tell you that the answer is yes."

(via PNH, of course)

-c

99:

Chris C: I am familiar with Jasper Fforde's work (although I don't get on with his writing style).

The chicken-powered nuclear landmine will doubtless be familiar to long-term readers of this blog ...

100:

(although I don't get on with his writing style)

That's too bad, because his books are an aweful* lot of fun to read. But I know just what you mean :)

The chicken-powered nuclear landmine will doubtless be familiar to long-term readers of this blog

Oh, fooey; I was hoping to add something original to the conversation.

-c

*should be a word, but isn't. Where is Slang 2.0?

101:

People like to point to the Axis powers of WWII as an example of imposing democracy on formerly totalitarian regimes, but that's not exactly the case. Both Italy and Germany had some prior experience with democracy, as well as well developed economies that needed to be rebuilt.

Not to forget also that they needed the Americans to protect them from the great big Soviet ogre looming over them...

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on October 30, 2007 10:30 AM.

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