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Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

Originally, I'd intended this to be kind of a fluffy week because I was concerned about messing things up horribly. (I still am, mind you, but I'm less frightened about it now.*) This community likes the thinky stuff, obviously. (I love that about y'all. A lot.) Anyway, several questions from yesterday got me thinking about a new topic. (An excellent sign, if you ask me.) And it's related to a subject I'd blithered about on my own blog a few days ago. It's also a private conversation I've had with a few other authors, and a concept that I think is worth exploring more thoroughly. Forgive me if y'all have discussed this before. (I wouldn't be shocked to hear that you had.) So, here goes. Oh, by the way, feel free to ask me questions in return. I'll get back to you as soon as I can.

Is there such thing as an off-limits topic for SF/F writers?

After considerable thought, my personal stance on this is: there isn't. HOWEVER, the author is responsible for handling the topic in a thoughtful manner. They owe this to their readers and to the sensitive topic in general. (Primarily, the people associated with the sensitive topic.) As I said before, I believe that talking about the tough stuff is SF/F's purpose in literature. Mind you, others read SF/F for different reasons and escapism is valid. The beautiful thing about our genre is that there's something for everyone--or should be. Anyway, my favorite SF/F deals with the psychological/ethical/philosophical problems humanity faces. (I suspect that this is because I read so much Ray Bradbury and Stephen King early in life.) While I like technology** I don't read SF for the gadgets.*** 

SF/F (the good stuff version) often deals with the concept of oppression in one form or another. There's a reason for that. It's one of humanity's biggest, most horrific problems. That's why I read non-fiction books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown as part of my research. My goal is not simply to entertain (although, that's part of it) but also to spur the reader into thinking about how one resolves this complex problem. Mind you, I don't propose an answer. That's not my job as a SF/F writer. If it were, my job title would be 'propagandist.' That's a totally different critter. My duty (as I see it) is to help the reader to come up with their own answers. The way I look at it, you all are far more intelligent than I am. I'm optimistic that you all will come up with the answer one day. Frankly, the answers are beyond my skills. I'm just here to make it okay to think about the sensitive stuff beyond the surface level and from different directions. Ultimately, I believe we're on this planet to learn how to heal, and I have no idea how one heals this kind of... evil. There isn't another word for it. It seems to me that it's human nature to take advantage of those that are deemed 'lesser.' (And that's not a good thing.) It doesn't matter the group. Looking at history, oppression is a system that is employed in consistent ways. The groups in question don't really make a difference. The steps employed are the same. Depending upon how long it goes unchecked the result is the same as well. Religion obviously isn't the answer. It gets used as an excuse to oppress every bit as often as racism and sexism. Being a member of an oppressed community doesn't make you exempt either. Righteous anger gets turned into oppression every bit as often as religion does. We've mindlessly repeated this pattern so many times it's just... awful. Maybe with communication and technology being what they are now we'll finally learn? I have my hope. But I have my doubts too. As I've learned in a university perception class -- we're hardwired to fear Other. On the other hand, I don't believe that destroying that part of us is the right answer. That instinct protects us from danger. That's the issue. Oppression is deeply connected to our need to protect.

Oppression isn't a simple problem, folks. It doesn't have a simple solution.

----------------------------------

* That's a sure sign of doom ahead, isn't it? 

** Oh, my gods, do I ever get gadget envy-not that I use all the functions of the gadgets I do own, but that's another story.

*** Although, I did watch James Bond films almost entirely for the gadgets. As a straight female, it was just about the only aspect of enjoyment available to me. Bond is a male power fantasy. For the record, there's nothing wrong with male power fantasies. And hey, Aston Martin. Mmmmm. Shiny. Oh, and thank you, GB, for The Avengers. Seriously. Yay, Dianna Rigg! She didn't just stand there and look pretty. She did stuff!

122 Comments

1:

"Is there such thing as an off-limits topic for SF/F writers?"

No. BUT if you piss off too many people, or the wrong people the penalties range from alienating almost all potential readers, through not being able to find a publisher right down to having a fatal fatwa issued against you and needing lifelong police protection.

2:

Oppression in the West is vastly better than it used to be even 50 years ago. Of course, one might argue that it's just got more subtle and covert, but that in itself is a huge improvement on vigilante hangings and shoving people into gas chambers. Things can improve because they HAVE improved.

3:

I'll second what Dirk said. Publishing or dealing with a particularly controversial social topic (such as race) in a socially inappropriate way can make your book unpublishable.

As for "fearing the Other", I think the key evolution in politics has been to deal with that fear and conflict through negotiation instead of violence, at least for many countries.

4:

TRUE. But that isn't anything new for writers and artists, is it? Many have braved oppression. Some have even died. That's the courageous part of being an artist. (And I view writers as artists.)

5:

I'm going to say something negative, and then hopefully something positive.

"Maybe with communication and technology being what they are now we'll finally learn?" -- I do not think improved communications technology is the answer on its own. I've often heard talk of how the Internet allows us to see how alike we are, no matter what corner of the world we come from; but my observation is that the Internet may shrink the big differences but amplifies the small ones. The proliferation of echo-chamber like forums and clique-like behaviour can be frankly depressing.

On the positive side of the fence, and related to part of what started this new discussion, my home in Northern Ireland is proof that we can and do move forward. Often through lots of tiny incremental little things, we human beans can move from terrible and oppressive places to something much better.

I want to expand the positive part of this, but am pushed for time right now and just felt the need to get some thoughts out there.

Dave.

6:

Sorry. Wandered off topic there. Musing in a hurry. Please ignore my last post.

7:

One solution I've heard for the "fear the Other" problem is the expansion of the boundaries for what we consider the Self. And it seems that expansion has been going on steadily for at least the last century, with more and more groups of people becoming off-limits for extractive, oppressive, and generally horrible practices. Obviously we still have a long way to go, but I can't think of a metric for racism, chauvinism, or xenophobia that we aren't scoring higher on now than we did in 1912.

The are probably a lot of reasons for the expansion of the circle of self, but I think one major driving force is economics. Specifically globalization, whose whole point is to break through boundaries and open lines of trade between different groups. It is no longer possible to (for example) hate brown people and be a successful businessperson. Those brown people are probably involved up and down your production, and they're probably your clients, too. You can't afford to express your paleolithic hatred of the Other at them, because you want their labor and money.

8:

In regards to the Fear of Other, it'd be nice if there was a smartphone app that could pick up on your own personal flight or fight responses. That would then text you concerning the situation. "What's going on here? Solve this quick puzzle for me so I'm sure you're not insensible."

Then maybe the functionality would move on to a bot that would ask you what exactly the situation was, and whether or not you think your response was warranted. Sure, there would be a lag if you were in actual physical danger. But say you're in a lecture hall and something the person at the podium says really makes you mad...

The best people I know in my life provide sounding boards for me. They aren't always available, though. An app as described wouldn't replace them by any means, but would be more satisfying than shouting into vacuum.

9:

I think the darker the subject matter, the better morally your lead characters need to be. You have to show that you as the author disapprove of this world you have created. Complicated characters that do evil but still love their children and are kind to pets really bother a lot of readers. And they will blame you.

You can write the complicated characters but you will need to put them in morally acceptable world where other characters disapprove of their evil ways.

Put morally good characters in a situation where they defend and promote an evil system and you will find yourself denounced on message boards every where. Pull it off and you can make great literature although the book will find itself on a lot of banned book lists.

Lots of reader hate it when you jam the normal signals on who is good and who is bad. At that point, by definition you are making difficult literature. You had better be damn good at it because the world does not need nor will it tolerate bad difficult literature.

10:

This is at the heart of the problem. Evil people, or people who do evil, generally do not consider themselves evil at all. Very often the opposite - they are doing a hard, dirty and (to them) necessary job for a "higher purpose". Ideological dictators with multimillion bodycounts like Mao, Stalin and Hitler are prime examples.

11:

Along the lines of Bensen and Stephen. If you have a connection with someone and they are your friend you are likely to forgive them many social blunders. Bump into a stranger who likes a different sports team, musical artist, clothing style than you and they are automatically filtered into an enemy category.

People, especially those who live in cities, are permanently on the defensive. They have to be. In that sense strangers are guilty until proven innocent. You can subvert this by establishing a connection in any manner of ways, by working together in the same office or just engaging with a smile and small talk about the weather.

I like the idea of an app that shows you what you have in common with the people around you at all times. Say you catalog all the books, movies, music, sports etc you like. The app, or augmented reality whatever gadget, would automatically list the strongest commonalities you have with that person. Like Dave said, 'The proliferation of echo-chamber like forums and clique-like behaviour can be frankly depressing.' But people in those cliques HAVE commonalities with the rest of us. They just aren't being highlighted.

TL;DR Everyone has something in common. End aggression and oppression by facilitating the discovery and reinforcement of those commonalities. Disassociate the differences.

12:

City living reinforces antisocial attitudes. When I was walking with Fiona through a village near where I grew up she was surprised that people we passed said hello. What that happens in London it's a prelude to begging or worse.

13:

"I think the darker the subject matter, the better morally your lead characters need to be. You have to show that you as the author disapprove of this world you have created. Complicated characters that do evil but still love their children and are kind to pets really bother a lot of readers. And they will blame you."

To me this is a good example of a problem that modern readers have -- many want to only ever be entertained without thinking. My personal opinion is that no form of fiction should fear to tackle difficult situations and unlikeable characters. I wouldn't want to read only books like this forever, but if writers refuse to tackle hard subjects for the sake of sales, then we'll only ever get the next James Patterson masterpiece or *shudder* Fifty Shades Of Grey alike.

I would also disagree with the heart of the above quote that an author should show their disapproval of the subject or setting of their novel. A great writer should write honestly, and let the reader determine the right or wrong of a character's actions through the prism of the story.

14:
A great writer should write honestly, and let the reader determine the right or wrong of a character's actions through the prism of the story.

I completely agree. However very few writers are great. By definition most are average. Even great writers dont produce great works every time out.

I think the more difficult the subject matter, the more you need to think long and hard about what your attempting to say. It is hard enough just getting and keeping a career in writing. Finding yourself burdened with a nasty label can make it impossible. At the very least you can find yourself spending a lot of time just explaining how you really did not say what everyone is accusing you of saying.

15:

I disagree very strongly with your whole world-view, near as I can tell; fiction that merely reinforces a simple monochromatic good/evil world view is basically little better than propaganda for dualistic religions, be they Christianity or Islam. The real world is a whole lot more complicated and nuanced. Good fiction makes us challenge our assumptions, rather than reinforcing them mindlessly.

Oh, also: taboo topics in SF/F? Try writing a novel that takes an understanding, or even sympathetic, perspective on the 9/11 hijackers and selling it in the US market. Or one that deals honestly and openly and non-judgementally with the sexuality of a protagonist who has paedophile interests. Or one that takes an honest and judgmental view of western capitalism as it is actually practiced -- the libertarians and objectivists will lynch you in effigy!

16:

Au contraire, city living inures us to living with strangers. Rural people are friendly to non-strangers but often exhibit far more extreme xenophobia to real strangers than city-dwellers. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, weary acceptance of difference.

The worst, most toxic combination is small town living; the xenophobia and racism of the countryside mixed with the semi-anonymity of the city.

17:

To answer the original question... I can't think of a topic in the wider sense that's off-limits for SF&F and few that haven't been covered.

I think it would be harder to write certain sides of a topic though, at least commercially. Child abuse is a nice, emotive topic. There are a plethora of stories of children having a tough time and growing up to be heroes, or villains, or anything in between pretty much. I can't think of a story about an anti-child abuse crusader in an SF/F setting - but I'm pretty sure there must be several. (I guess you could claim Snow White is actually, although I see that more as stereotyping sexually active women as evil.) To Stay In Omelas deals with it in a more neutral stance, a work of act in short story form that makes you wonder would you stay... knowing that your utopia is powered by the suffering of all being visited on a child.

But could a successful book be written putting the child abuser as the successful protagonist? My inclination would be not - not in any genre. Lolita is possibly the closest anyone comes to it and even there it's hard to consider Humbert Humbert as a successful character really.

There's a series I read somewhere with a rapist as the protagonist but he's rapidly neutered (I think with cybernetic implants) and it's really about him coming to terms with his past and redeeming himself.

Robin Hood, "slippery" Jim DiGriz present lawbreakers as heroes successfully - with popular support and a moral crusade or a strong moral code in some places. There's a more modern series about an assassin (in an Urban Fantasy setting) who thinks no-one can love her because all of the evil things she's done - but she draws the line at killing children regardless. Through the series she's also redeemed by love of friends and the fact that she sets out on a crusade to kill a criminal kingpin and various charming sidekicks.

So, I'm wondering just how bad an anti-hero we can get away with? I guess Elric has to be right up there - he commits genocide after all - but he's mostly morally ambiguous and bored rather than out-and-out evil. The Melniboneans are pretty evil by most moralities too... how bad is it to destroy an evil society?

tl;dr - we can deal with any subject matter. I'm not sure we can deal with any stance on all subject matters - not if the book is doing to be successful anyway, and we want to write some more.

18:

Yes, those are some good examples of taboo topics, but there are many others. Reread H.P. Lovecraft if you need a reminder of other ideas that are now taboo but were once permissible. I can't say too much on this topic though, or I risk your wrath. I will just say that your ideological biases are very obvious, as I'm sure you know. Every ideology creates taboos, and yours is certainly no exception.

19:

"Religion obviously isn't the answer. It gets used as an excuse to oppress every bit as often as racism and sexism"
Are you really making a claim against all religions, including e.g. the Quaker and Jain religions? While I do not consider myself religious I don't think your claim is either obvious or valid. There are both theist and non-theist religions which (individually or more likely collectively) might well be an important part of "the answer".

20:

Is there such thing as an off-limits topic for SF/F writers?

Well, I would caution any aspiring author that it is very difficult to say anything new or interesting about vampires.

For the rest, one theory says that Dunbar's number is the big factor. Basically, the size of a primate brain determines how big a tightly-knit social unit can be. For humans it's around 150. In other words, the population of a human tribe where everyone knows everyone else is capped at about 150; more and more effort is needed to prevent splitting above about 75 people in a tribe.

see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number

Humans build social structures bigger than this through fractal hierarchy. The president doesn't need to know every soldier as long as he knows every general. Every general knows the president, the other generals (his peer group), and his subordinate colonels. Colonels know their general, the other colonels, and their subordinate majors. And so on. (I'm simplifying the rank structure for clarity. It's actually more involved, but the principle is the same.)

The bad news is that we all, and leadership ranks especially, make decisions that affect people whom we don't know, and whom we simply don't have enough gray matter to know on a more than superficial level. Their problems and struggles seem unreal to us, while the problems of those nearby get our attention. It starts to make sense to lay off 10,000 people (who don't feel real to me) to preserve bonuses for my peers (who do).

21:

fiction that merely reinforces a simple monochromatic good/evil world view is basically little better than propaganda for dualistic religions, be they Christianity or Islam. The real world is a whole lot more complicated and nuanced.

I agree that overly simple moralizing is off-putting, but a writer can also go too far and write a conflict where each side has a good point but the audience can't relate to either.

Gray vs. black morality is a popular compromise. It gives complex people with their own points of view on one side, irredeemable bastards on the other side (zombies are ideal for this).

22:

As well as what Charlie said about black and white themes, what bothers me about your replies is the assumption that writing is and should be all about a career and success; Charlie (and many other professional authors and aspiring amateurs) have repeatedly said and know that the story is the thing, telling the story is all important compared to any measure of popularity or financial success.

23:

"Things can improve because they HAVE improved."

I'm good with that statement, I think.

24:

"Often through lots of tiny incremental little things, we human beans can move from terrible and oppressive places to something much better."

Yes. I'd venture to say that lasting change largely comes in tiny incremental changes. Sweeping changes are tougher. They just are.

25:

Heh. An app? That's a thought I hadn't even considered. Interesting.

26:

"Evil people, or people who do evil, generally do not consider themselves evil at all. Very often the opposite - they are doing a hard, dirty and (to them) necessary job for a "higher purpose". "

That's my thought too. Makes things very complicated, doesn't it?

27:

"To me this is a good example of a problem that modern readers have -- many want to only ever be entertained without thinking. My personal opinion is that no form of fiction should fear to tackle difficult situations and unlikeable characters. I wouldn't want to read only books like this forever, but if writers refuse to tackle hard subjects for the sake of sales, then we'll only ever get the next James Patterson masterpiece or *shudder* Fifty Shades Of Grey alike."

Largely, I think we agree, Dave. This isn't the *only* kind of reading I prefer, but it is my favorite kind. I want to think. I like thinking. I found the graphic novel "Preacher" by Garth Ennis disturbing from time to time. I even had to put it down a couple times. However, I found it to be very powerful.

(And that's why Liam carries a lighter with a flag on it. Ahem.)

28:

"Good fiction makes us challenge our assumptions, rather than reinforcing them mindlessly."

Yes. This.

"Oh, also: taboo topics in SF/F? Try writing a novel that takes an understanding, or even sympathetic, perspective on the 9/11 hijackers and selling it in the US market. Or one that deals honestly and openly and non-judgementally with the sexuality of a protagonist who has paedophile interests. Or one that takes an honest and judgmental view of western capitalism as it is actually practiced -- the libertarians and objectivists will lynch you in effigy!"

Also true. Yet, we have Nabokov's Lolita. [shrug] It's not something I personally want to explore, but... [shrug] Notice I never said that consequences wouldn't result. I just said that SF should be free to explore certain boundaries. If we don't question, how do we learn new things?

29:

Lolita - personally, I lay some of the blame on the parents for choosing that name in the first place. Just asking for trouble!

30:

"Are you really making a claim against all religions, including e.g. the Quaker and Jain religions?"

Yes, I am really making the claim that no religion has come up with the ultimate foolproof answer to the oppression question. None. Christianity is not exempt because of sexism. Mind you, spirituality can be a *part* of the answer, but it hasn't resolved the problem. We still have oppression, after all. It didn't go away with the creation of Quakerism. Please note that I'm aware that Quakers have done a great deal of work in fighting oppression in many forms, and I admire them for it. Hell, I wouldn't have the right to vote in the U.S. without Quakers. However, the problem still exists.

31:

"So, I'm wondering just how bad an anti-hero we can get away with?"

I don't know. That's an interesting question.

32:

"Well, I would caution any aspiring author that it is very difficult to say anything new or interesting about vampires."

People said the same to me about Irish mythology and fairies. [shrug] I never said it was or should be easy. Only that it should be possible.

"The bad news is that we all, and leadership ranks especially, make decisions that affect people whom we don't know, and whom we simply don't have enough gray matter to know on a more than superficial level."

And this is why we need government and laws and systems to help us get past that. Technology too.

33:

I suspect that Nabokov selected that name for a reason. Character names *are* one of the tools in our toolbox.

34:

"Charlie (and many other professional authors and aspiring amateurs) have repeatedly said and know that the story is the thing, telling the story is all important compared to any measure of popularity or financial success."

Dave, I love this. :)

35:

These are the kinds of (taboo?) thoughts that enter my mind when I am exposed to such shallow thinking:

Progress is a lie. Your life will end in darkness very soon. The universe mocks your puniness. Science and technology will destroy us all. Nothing ever changes. All civilizations fall and every species goes extinct. The strong survive, the weak perish, and everyone dies in the end. So you can take your fantasies about ending oppression and go sell them to the rubes down the street. I'll see you all in the eternal Void, except I won't, because there's nothing to see!

36:

"Hello" is introducing yourself, implying that you are about to have some kind of relationship with the person. "Hi" says you recognize the person as a person and accept them in your environment, would not mind them introducing themselves if they needed to, but don't have any particular expectations or driving need for further interaction immediately.

37:

If laws, systems, and technology don't help people navigate their local social environment, they get ignored. For example, most states have laws on the books, dating from past eras of unionization, against most of contemporary corporate America's worse labor practices. The laws go unenforced, because nobody has both the social clout to get them enforced and the incentive to do so.

This echoes the old saying that amateurs talk about legislation and pros talk about implementation.

38:

Next, you're going to tell me that puppies die, aren't you? [sniff]

LOL.

39:

Complicated characters that do evil but still love their children and are kind to pets really bother a lot of readers.

Indeed. They're too true-to-life. They are also very interesting and also quite instructive. Some people even find such characters sexy.

K.J. Parker's "Engineer Trilogy" went a little too far down that road for my taste, but I also blame the (anti-)hero's implausible luck and planning, and Parker's habit of lovingly building characters and scenery, only to trash them.

My wife is in your camp, however. She reads SF to get away from assholes, so I usually don't recommend the darker stuff to her.

40:

Sorry, Jay. I believe that government and laws are useful tools. I'm not big on living in Mad Max-land. Thanks. [shrug]

41:

I wasn't saying that government and laws aren't useful. I was saying that they are inevitably human, and necessarily reflect the priorities of the humans who comprise the system.

42:

So, I'm wondering just how bad an anti-hero we can get away with?

Something that author Mark Lawrence has been dealing with his protagonist of Jorg. He has gotten some very decidedly strong defenders and detractors for his character.

43:

I'm wondering just how bad an anti-hero we can get away with?

Pretty bad. File off the serial numbers, tweak the endings and you could make a hero of Stalin or Hitler pretty easily, while Mao is a hero to many. Most action heroes are nasty ol' bastards when you look at them right. (E.g. William Gravel, or just about any other Warren Ellis character.)

But to echo what was said earlier, don't make your character offensive. Readers will put up with just about any sort of evil, but offend propriety and you're toast. Murderers and rapists are OK, but no creeps or jerks, please.

James Ellroy's novels is an exception that tests this rule, but he writes True Crime set in the "bad old days" with unreliable narrators.

44:

I was going to try NaNoWriMo with a story set on the Orient Express in the winter of 1938-39. Austria is part of the German Reich. The rump of Czechoslovakia is in turmoil after the betrayal of Munich.

And a thoroughly professional young lady, carrying secret plans, pitches Otto Skorzeny out of the door of a speeding express train.

Otto Skorzeny is a significant character in a lot of alternate history fiction. On the evidence of his autobiography, he wasn't one of the evil Nazis. And I just don't believe that. He was trying to keep his neck out of a noose, and the things he did admit to were the same sort of things as Allied soldiers had done.

Very briefly, he was in the Austrian SA, their sturmabteilung, which were the thugs which did the rioting on behalf of the Nazi Party. They were an organised paramilitary. And he had enough status in that to be in on the seizure of the Austrian chancery, which allowed the false claim that the Austrian government had asked to be taken over by the Reich. When the invasion of Poland triggered actual war he joined the SS because he was too old for the Luftwaffe. And he was a fairly ordinary Waffen SS officer on the Russian Front. Not a bad guy at all.

Which I so totally do not believe.

Waffen SS on the Russian Front: that is one of the more toxic elements of Nazi Germany. They fought hard, and they also committed war crimes as a matter of course. And the ordinary Army was not all that much better. It was glossed over after the war, as part of the brewing of the Cold War, but the supposedly honorable Imperial German Army of 1914 had been ruthlessly terrorising the Belgian towns they passed through, and the evidence of both World Wars is in the Belgian civilian cemeteries.

"Frightfulness" was not something which came from the Nazis, nor was it limited to Imperial Germany. Look at what happened to the Serbians.

And Skorzeny doesn't mention any of that.

So I had him as an agent of the sicherheitsdienst, maybe not full-time, put onto the Orient Express in pursuit of the secret plans, at the last minute. Reasonably good-looking, a bit of a charmer and soon to be very very dead.

I'm fed up with the alternate histories which use him as a not-quite-evil Nazi. He had the personal courage and the quick wits, and the luck, to have made a name in that war, whichever side he chose to fight for, but he started out by betraying his country.

I didn't get anywhere with the story. I spent a couple of weeks in hospital, and it sometimes seems as though every pharmaceutical has the side effect of drowsiness. But at least I killed Skorzeny.


45:

How bad?
I read these books in my teens, and that was only 25 years after the war. I was surprised the bookshops stocked them: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/k/leo-kessler/ss-panzer-battalion.htm

46:

And not saying "Hello" to everyone you pass on a city street isn't being rude or antisocial, it's just practical. You'd never get anywhere otherwise, this is basically why the US Army/Air Force generally don't salute indoors--that and you'd get a cramp in your arm.

47:

Not just city streets but anywhere in the city even in places mostly empty eg parks. Someone says "hello" to you in London generally means hassle. Cities may foster tolerance, but they also foster a hostile indifference.

48:

Oh dear, I did say I was going to be brief.

A critique of modern capitalism? I consider myself to have anarcho-syndicalist tendencies, with a degree of admiration for the surviving European constitutional monarchies. As symbols, they can provide a path out of otherness. They're more human than a flag, something that connects better with our circuits.

And how many Presidents would be confident enough of their image to arrive at the Olympics as Queen Elizabeth appeared to?

49:

In this day and age nothing is really taboo, or else somebody would surely be making money off it. But the more unusual your topic, or the morals of your characters, the harder you will have to work to not be off-putting to most audiences. Authors whose characters do things I wouldn't can still keep me engaged if there is some form of redemption. That can come if the character changes over the course of the story, or if I am persuaded to understand why the character has to be that way and its just tragic or necessary.

In fact, you always accept characters who are not exactly you. That's part of why we read fiction. To limber up. But if you stretch me too far I will have to move with it to relieve the strain. That is, I will have to add my own internal caveats as I read, ditance myself from an author who is obviously crazy. Lose involvement, and that's never good.
So there has to be hope that the story as a whole will turn out something I can live with. Rule 34 did that well.

I think human nature includes opposing pairs of capabilities because over the course of our evolution our ancestors exprienced a variety of environments and situations. Being ready to adapt to anything was the best way to go.

Xenophobia is one such capability, and I suppose it is paired with sort of Agape style hippie dreaminess. Experience can make a person go either way, perhaps the same person in different situations. Perhaps xenophobia is not always the real cause of oppression, but rather just a weakness played on by conniving leaders who orchestrate oppression for calculated aims. Racism in the south was drummed up to empower the rich elites. But then again, Hitler was actually as much a nut as any lowly camp guard.

I think oppression is a common theme in science fiction (and fantasy) because its just a great way to generate dramatic tension, and as long as you are making up the setting you can use it freely.

I think its important to note that in reality conflict is not the same as oppression, though groups in conflict will usually accuse each other of oppression. Oppression is when you war on someone with restraint, either to keep them exploitable or to keep them from reaching the point of warring back. When both sides are going for the jugular it's just conflict, which actually has less dramatic tension.
No hidden currents, no angling for a way out, just trading blows. Yawn.

As for evildoers always thinking they are right, that's useless. What, anybody that thinks they are right might be an evildoer and not know it?
Stalin breathed. If you breathe, you are Stalin.
Or is the implication that breaking your own ideals for higher ends is never a good idea? As Herbert Spencer said some people say "With the Deity right and expedient are doubtless convertible terms. For us, however, there remains the question—which is the antecedent, and which is the consequent? " That is to say, not being omniscient, we can't know the true consequences of our actions so we should go by moral rules instead. But I protest that not being omniscient, we can't know the true consequences of many moral rules either. We all form our own ideas of what usually works, and that's what makes us different. And whichever works better wins.


50:

"Is there such thing as an off-limits topic for SF/F writers?"

NASCAR

Because no vehicle in NASCAR there can ever be as cool as this one:

http://dementedink.deviantart.com/art/Lost-in-Space-Chariot-85415355

On the other hand, if we're on this planet to heal then the Robinsons were on that other planet to inflict painful scripts on viewers.

51:

File off the serial numbers, tweak the endings and you could make a hero of Stalin or Hitler pretty easily, while Mao is a hero to many.

For a worked example, see The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad, which presents Hitler's plans for Europe re-dressed as a fantasy novel with post-nuclear trappings, notionally called "The Lord of the Swastika". (Hitler's Gary Stu is dictator Ferric Jaggar.) That book-inside-the-book is given as written by an artist named Adolf Hitler, who settled in the US after serving in the German Army, and also worked as an illustrator. There's a scholarly introduction defending Hitler against the scurrilous charge of anti-Semitism.

This was originally published with cover blurbs from Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, and others (all obviously in on the joke) who lauded "Hitler"'s bold narrative.

52:

I would add Buddhism and Hinduism to the list of religions that do not have a solution to oppression. Buddhism was historically closely aligned with elites and Hinduism is codified oppression itself (caste system).
I think no religion has solved this until now because human societies needed oppression. Yes, this runs deep in our psychologies and is hard to outgrow, but societies also needed it. Because until now, more human energy could be coordinated with a fair dose of coercion that with just cooperation.
I think a knowledge-driven economy will change a lot of this by ending scarcity and much of the need for competition. In many cases, the knowledge I have is more useful to me when others have it too. (Although the current system is structured to create the opposite situation)
As that happens, then we will need something that has the meaningfulness that religion has had for many people (and science has for a few) and that tackles oppression directly.

53:
I'm wondering just how bad an anti-hero we can get away with?

Pretty bad. [1] File off the serial numbers, tweak the endings and you could make a hero of Stalin or Hitler pretty easily, while Mao is a hero to many. [2] Most action heroes are nasty ol' bastards when you look at them right.

I'm not sure I agree with part 1 of this, in a story setting. We can, to different degrees, accept real people as heroes with flaws (even quite big ones like killing a few million people) but I think we struggle more with characters in stories with such flaws, unless they're going on a redemptive arc. Beauty and the Beast has to be the archetype here. What we accept and possibly even enjoy in a story is almost always rather different to what we can accept (and enjoy or suffer) in our actual lives. I was at university in the era of Dallas, Dynasty and the like, and in a middle-sized rather cliquey social group. While lots of people were lambasting the TV shows for their complex sexual and personal interactions, we were lambasting them because you could drop their stories into our intra-group dynamics and we'd think it was a very peaceful week. Stories usually have to have some degree of verisimilitude to work - even if you rephrase that as immersion, engagement etc. - actual people and events don't have that.

Although I'm not a sports fan, nor an American, let me ask if you were writing a story about a durable, popular baseball star, closing in on some milestone... would you really have him achieve it by hitting a home run that also scores the game winning run? Probably not, because it's just too cheesy. But Derek Jeter did exactly that for his 3,000th hit. In fact I only remember it because you can't argue "OMG, that's soooo cheesy!" because it actually happened. The Apollo XIII story is rather the same - I saw the film with someone who didn't know it was based on a true story and bitched about Hollywood adding a happy ending like that.

As for 2 - yes. It's a paraphrase of "One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist" and all those others. The Stainless Steel Rat is a criminal. Robin Hood is a traitor and rebel, murderer and thief. But we extenuate by circumstances, success and all the rest. And we pretty much demand some drama in our stories too - even soap operas. But as soon as the dramatic conflict is situational rather than character-based, the protagonist's heroic actions are excused by the situation. Doing the same thing outside that situation - in modern society gets the police and/or army after you. Although we demand verisimilitude, we also demand dramatic tension in a way that the Chinese offer curses about.

54:

Dirk @ 10
Precisely
Note that the high-body-count people are following a “Higher cause”, so Stina’s claim that “Religion isn’t the answer” is waaay off – religion is the problem.
All religions are based on blackmail, to start with, & their body counts are only comparatively low because (apart for the communists murderous rampages) we haven’t had a thorougoing religious pogrom since modern weaponry was invented.
Given the resources to hand, the internecine Sunni/Shia conflicts inside islam, & the murderous activities of OSD & the inquisition did “quite well” considering.
Disagree about 12, though … you are much less likely to get a Salem witch or Pendle witch trial in a city ….
See also Charlie @ 16.

Charlie @ 15
Didn’t John Varley have some very-close-to-possibly-paedophile interest in some of his shorts? Ah, got it: “In the Bowl” (?)

Greg D @ 19
Erm, Quakers are a subset of christianity.
Nuff said, no matter how personally “good” individual quakers are.
& Stina @ 30 … also because xtianity claims to have the ONE solution to all problems, which is obviously total crap.

@ 35
TROLL ALERT!
No evidence whatsoever for his/her lying fantasies – promulgated over an entirely science-based medium (modern electronics, no less).
Just being able to post such a message on the internet automatically means the writer is either lying, deluded, or both.

AaronB @ 43
“A thug in a Savile Row suit” … Ian Fleming’s description of Mr. Bond (!)

55:

I've recently read a collection of JG Ballard interviews. He seems to have acknowledged no limitations at all. And suffered for it. An entire US edition pulped. 'Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan' not coming up to the mark apparently. And the notorious 'Crash'.

But then I think about his childhood in wartime Shanghai and it seems to me he has a right to his morally emptied out world.

And I'm just a bit dubious about writers who are, I don't know, splashing about in the shallow end of moral ambivalence?

56:

Well, I would caution any aspiring author that it is very difficult to say anything new or interesting about vampires.

Ahem.

This seems like a good place to give you the first sentence of Laundry Files novel #5, "The Rhesus Chart":

"Don't be silly, Bob," said Mo, "everybody knows vampires don't exist!"

(Boy, does she turn out to be wrong about that. But I digress ...)

Dunbar,s Number: I have no argument with that hypothesis. But it's possible to breathe new life into even the most tired cliches if you apply the right brainstorming tools. Remember, clichés are cliches because they were such a good idea once that everybody copied them!

57:


"So, I'm wondering just how bad an anti-hero we can get away with?"

I don't know. That's an interesting question.

It might be worth you time to look up "The Iron Dream" by Norman Spinrad. Hysterically funny, once you get the metafictional premise. (Also: anti-heroes don't get much worse than Hitler's Mary-Sue, Ferric Jaggar ...)

58:

The Iron Dream was a joke, and explicitly so.
Leo Kessler played it straight with his SS Wotan series and Colonel Kuno von Dodenburg as the heroes. That was, IIRC, about the same time as Iron Dream was published. It would be interesting to know the relative sales figures.

59:

"Leo Kessler" was a pen-name of Charles Whiting, who wrote a lot of stuff under various names, fiction and non-fiction. I've come across one mention of him selling 60,000 copies per year, but he would write a lot of books in a year. After 1973 it was mostly fiction, 8 or 9 books in a year.

I do recall reading a couple of his histories, but I have only the very vaguest feel of their quality. They didn't stand out, but I can see how he would have accumulated a lot of knowledge, as an historian, which would have gone into the fiction.

60:

The more authentic (fiction) books at the time were by Sven Hassel:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sven_Hassel
He wrote 14 books that have sold 53 million copies
http://www.svenhassel.net/photogallery.html

61:

Gotcha. Thanks for the clarification. I've spent a lot of time around punks, see. :)

62:

I happen to agree with Dirk's first answer, that the real filter is what editors are willing to buy, or the public is willing to buy from you directly.

That said, I think I know a place that's off limits, not because it's taboo, precisely, but because it's hard and nobody wants to go there. Many of you have seen this demonstration already, I think.

Simply imagine that the human species, more or less as it currently exists, has another million or five million years ahead of it. We don't go extinct, we don't kill ourselves off, we don't transcend to techno-gods through some singularity, and we probably don't colonize other stars. At any point in time, the people would be recognizably human to us now, specifically in the sense that a writer could write about them and most people would sympathize with them. They might or might not look like us.

Here's the off-limits part: What might the world look like in:
--1000 years?
--5000 years?
--10,000 years?
--20,000 years?
--40,000 years?
--80,000 years?
--160,000 years?
--320,000 years?
--640,000 years?
--1,280,000 years?
--Or whenever?

If you're like me, I'll bet that 1000 and perhaps 5000 years looked doable, but after that, part of your mind froze up with those numbers. I'll also bet that at 5000 years you were mumbling something about the Egyptians, and at 80,000 years you were thinking Neanderthal, which is the second mental trap, that we tend to unconsciously project forward from an equivalent distance in the past (books like The Future is Wild show this unconscious bias starkly).

The thing is that this future isn't off limits, it's just so hard to get to that it might as well be. Science fiction mostly is a literature of progress, either for progress or criticizing it. We're good at handling dystopic zombie apocalypses or utopic singularities, but thousands of years of one damn thing or another isn't what we want to think about. It's just a lot of hard work and heartbreak, generation after generation. Making a good story out of it just doesn't seem desirable.

Problem is, if we ever get to that semi-mythical state of sustainability everyone sane person is aiming for, that's the future history we will have. This is the future that science fiction has abandoned.

63:

"I would add Buddhism and Hinduism to the list of religions that do not have a solution to oppression."

Oh, I totally agree. I only focused on Christianity because the individual to which I was responding seemed to think that Christianity had *resolved* the problem.

64:

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!
Totally both on and off topic, I recall one episode of Lost in Space when the family was confronted by ultrasuperior aliens who sneered at their advanced computer by claiming that their children had more powerful machines as toys!

65:

I agree that overly simple moralizing is off-putting, but a writer can also go too far and write a conflict where each side has a good point but the audience can't relate to either.>/i>

Well, it is done, and, IMO, very well done, in "Princess Mononoke".
It features a conflict between a human town, with "normal" people that consume a forest to live, and the forest spirits that defend their home.
Neither group is written as evil, they each have good reasons to do what they do... But you can understand each side, and relate to both, which makes the conflict all the more tearing.

66:

"But you can understand each side, and relate to both, which makes the conflict all the more tearing."

I like that in a story, however. Simplistic binary is kind of dull. Also? Real life is complicated. And again we're back at 'reading for escapism vs. not.' On the other hand if there's not a certain level of realism, I *can't* escape into the narrative.

67:

Just ... please don't let your vampires sparkle. That's all I ask. Bursting into flames and/or exploding are fine, but sparkling just might be unforgivable.

68:

@ 35
TROLL ALERT!
No evidence whatsoever for his/her lying fantasies – promulgated over an entirely science-based medium (modern electronics, no less).
Just being able to post such a message on the internet automatically means the writer is either lying, deluded, or both.

I think you might want "depressed".

I suspect that one of the reasons there is very little depressed fiction is that writers in that mood can't scrape together the energy to write. Thus, a strong bias for either progress and ensuing happiness or at least impressive fireworks, not a petering out in a whimper.

69:

Oppression isn't a simple problem

Oppression is always, from someone's perspective, a solution. In a capitalist society, the problem being solved is usually "how can I produce a product more cheaply than the competition?" from the producer's perspective, and "how can I afford the neat stuff I want?" from the customer's perspective.

The device on which I am writing this, and (I assume) the devices on which you all are reading this, and (presumably) most of the devices in between are made in China by poorly paid workers under deplorable work conditions. Furthermore, we all knew that when we bought the stuff. Similar devices produced by unionized first-world labor would be much more expensive, probably in most cases unaffordable.

70:

made in China by poorly paid workers under deplorable work conditions

And yet, better paid than other jobs, and under better working conditions than other jobs.

71:

Certainly. There's no clear standard for deciding what constitutes oppression. I know Americans who consider their level of taxation oppressive, while most Swedes pay twice as much without complaint. I used the word "oppression" because Stina did; I consider it unhelpfully vague in most circumstances.

72:

Yes, there are off-limit topics in speculative fiction. Specifically, any works which deal with race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, economics, and/or politics from any other perspective other than the dominant, oppressive (heh) left/liberal perspective are automagically branded as racist, sexist, homophobic, selfish, et. al., by the soi-disant advocates of so-called 'tolerance' and 'diversity'.

It's really quite sad.

It's also considered sexist to pan the works of female authors, or racist to pan the works of non-Caucasian authors. This is the only way to explain why the late, absolutely untalented and unreadable Octavia Butler has been praised to the heavens, when in fact she couldn't write her way out of a wet paper bag.

And of course, you and the majority of commenters will lambaste me as being racist, sexist, evil, and so forth, for saying so. Because it is imperative to demonize anyone who doesn't agree with the dominant, oppressive left/liberal worldview.

So much for 'tolerance' and 'diversity', indeed.

73:

As a pre-emptive request, please don't feed the troll.

As a warning, don't troll.

74:

Just as a note: Charlie has already announced work (albeit not in the Laundry series) involving sparkly vampires. In fact, sparkly vampire unicorns.

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/04/psa-new-book-deal.html

75:

@ 74 etc ..
"Off limits"
SPIDERS as hero-figures (shudder) ??
I know the amazingly boring & didactic Piers Anthony did it once, which should be some sort of wrning.

76:

And he'll be writing the sparkly vampire unicorns into his Laundry series, which means Lovecraftian pastiche. Non-Euclidean squamous sparkleponies with names like Cthulhoof, Nyarlath-horn-tep, and Andalus-natchla perform classical dressage maneuvers in eleven dimensions.

Well, that was the last of my SAN. Time to go on a shooting spree.

77:

Re antiheroes. What I find interesting about gray characters is how and where we draw the lines in our head.

e.g.

Takishi Kovacs (from "Altered Carbon") is a murderer, and several other nasty things. And I hated him.

Robin/Reeve (from "Glasshouse") is a murderer, a torturer, and (on one occasion) a rapist. I spent a week in his head, crying with him and cheering for him, even though I knew on some level that he was almost as bad as the "villains."

Interesting, that.

78:

OTOH, I do think there's sometimes a bit much of an emphasis on antiheroes in SF. Some authors (Octavia Butler comes to mind) have used ordinary characters with ordinary flaws, to great effect.

79:

I will say that it is clear that the troll in question has not read anything from such Baen authors as Tom Kratman.

80:

If we're going down that sort of a route, Weber doesn't make it obvious (and why should he have to?), but the majority of the female Manticoran characters in the Honorverse are non-white.

81:

"Re antiheroes. What I find interesting about gray characters is how and where we draw the lines in our head."

Exactly. I agree.

"Takishi Kovacs (from "Altered Carbon") is a murderer, and several other nasty things. And I hated him."

It's been a long time since I read Altered Carbon, but I enjoyed it a great deal. So, I'm afraid we differ on that one. Good thing there's room for all sorts of characters and ideas in our genre. :)

"Robin/Reeve (from "Glasshouse") is a murderer, a torturer, and (on one occasion) a rapist. I spent a week in his head, crying with him and cheering for him, even though I knew on some level that he was almost as bad as the "villains.""

I haven't read Glasshouse yet. I'll have to wait and see on that one. I have issues with rapists. Everyone has their lines. [shrug]

"Interesting, that."

I know? Isn't it amazing when that happens? A sign of excellent writing, that. But I always keep in mind that just because I personally don't like it, that doesn't mean it's worthless. Frankly, I'll never read Lolita. [shrug]

82:

Robin/Reeve (from "Glasshouse") is a murderer, a torturer, and (on one occasion) a rapist. I spent a week in his head, crying with him and cheering for him, even though I knew on some level that he was almost as bad as the "villains."

Ahem: it's a while since I re-read "Glasshouse" but I don't remember Robin/Reeve raping anybody. (Mass murder and war crimes he/she/it will cop to.) Mind you, R is probably the most unreliable narrator I've ever written. (Any first person present tense narrative where the narrator is murderd two thirds of the way through the story is, shall we say, playing games with your perceptions ...)

83:

I won't call you a racist, or a mysogonist, or anything of the sort for not liking Octavia Butler.

I will say you have no taste whatsoever, but that's not the same thing.

84:

Umm, I might be misremembering. IIRC it was "offscreen," when (s)he was masquerading as Fiore; and implied in Reeve's narrative. Though I suppose the reader has a lot of reason to believe that Fiore-Reeve has a completely different personality, and is effectively a different person...

Suffice to say that Robin is not the kind of person I'd want to associate with.

Re Butler, I would emphasize that plain prose doesn't indicate plain content. Especially in SF.

85:

Uh yeah, that was page 277-278 of the paperback. It's implied (but not stated definitely) as part of Fiore-Reeve's revenge on Mick. (Who is himself a rapist, abuser, and generally disgusting character, but still.)

Gods, I'd forgotten how hard to read some parts of that book were.

86:

Yes, this merely confirms my assertions - anything which is contrary to your own political/ideological views is automatically 'trolling'.

87:

Hi! You have attracted my attention while on vacation. Not Amused.

Roland Dobbins, this is your yellow card.

Reasons, in descending order of importance:

1. Picking a fight with the moderators (who are just trying to enforce my policy)

2. Mistaking your personal taste for universal literary merit (specifically with respect to your opinion of Octavia Butler's work, which some of us happen to respect because we hold subjective opinions that differ from yours)

3. Trying to start a land war in Asia and a war on two fronts (hint: never try to swallow anything bigger than your own head)

88:

Diana Rigg was actually a step back from Honor Blackman's character. Cathy Gale was much less impressed with Steed than Peel. "I wonder what's for breakfast?" "Cook it and find out."

Heteromeles @62, I think Iain Banks touched on the history just sort of trundling along for a long time theme in Against a Dark Background. While some of the aliens in Lovecraft have super tech, you could argue that we are seeing the aftermath of civilizations that went on so long in an "ordinary way" without an external justification (i.e. God) that they eventually went senile and/or insane and/or cancerous. (I am not arguing for religion here. I am just pointing out that a meaningless eternity is one of the things religion says God/The Force/Etc. saves you from.) Credit Lovecraft for having the courage of his convictions here.

89:

@75:
SPIDERS as hero-figures (shudder) ??
--
Well, there's Krek in Robert E. Vardeman's "Cenotaph World" series. As long as you don't mind spiders the size of Volvo sedans...

90:

:)

Me? I haven't read Octavia Butler... yet. However, she's definitely on my reading pile. (It used to be a couple of books on the floor next to my bed. Then it took over an entire bookshelf. Now, it's a bookshelf *and* a stack on the floor.)

91:

I have one of those too, and we're not alone just amongst users of this blog!

92:

I suspect most of us here have large To Read shelves/bookcases. My problem is that I'm an inveterate book buyer, adding books quicker than I can read them. Which isn't saying much, as I'm a painfully slow reader. Butler's been in there for a long while (including "Survivor"; I got a 1st edition copy before I knew anything about it), but new books keep coming out (am in the middle of "Rapture of the Nerds" right now), and I haven't gotten to her and many others.

93:

That's a good point. Unfortunately, I think Lovecraft is a particularly bad example for deep history. The 400 million year old paper book that's still somehow readable (Shadow Out of Time) is a great example, as are the wooden shutters that are, I think, 10 million years old and still functional--in Antarctica (Mountains of Madness). And Cthulhu was lying dormant for "vigintillions" of years (10^63), as well as being active at some point in the mesozoic (hundreds of millions, or 10^8).

Yes, I'll give Lovecraft credit for invoking the scariness of big numbers history, and I think that's an excellent thing. Unfortunately, he did a very bad job of making it real. That's actually kind of the point: we have a lot of trouble seeing the difference between 500 years, 5,000 years, and 50,000 years, except that crowds of zeroes tend to unsettle us.

As for cultures that "eventually went senile and/or insane and/or cancerous," that's definitely a notion of capital P Progress, combined (I'm sorry to say) with a bit of 1920s theories of racial decadence. We do live in a society that tends to believe in up or out, progress or apocalypse, and the idea of old=decadent fits in well with this. I'm not going to violate Godwin's Law, but racial decadence theory does have an unfortunate history.

Compare the idea of racial decadence, with, say, Hindu belief in cyclical history and continual reincarnation. Their biggest measure of time is the "Kalpa" which are aeons defined as 4.32 billion years (Bhagavata Purana, ~10 century CE). This is an alternative view of history as a very, very big wheel, where Buddha can give you the vision of climbing above the clouds to realization on a mountain made of the skulls of your previous incarnations (http://www.sacred-texts.com/shi/igj/igj03.htm).

While I'm not arguing that the Hindu view is better or more accurate, it's pretty blindingly obvious that people have managed to live with the idea of history with cycles and without any notion of progress to perfection on a societal level.

Personally, I think you've got to work with a semi-cyclical view of history if you want to think about the deep future of humanity on this planet. Yes, like Motie cycles. From a writer's point of view, this isn't a bad thing. Certainly, Jack Vance did a nice fantasy version of the end of it.

94:

"I'm wondering just how bad an anti-hero we can get away with?"

Pretty bad. File off the serial numbers, tweak the endings and you could make a hero of Stalin or Hitler pretty easily, while Mao is a hero to many.

It's been a while, but IIRC in Dune Messiah, Paul Atreides confesses to Stilgar that his galactic jihad has massacred populations several orders of magnitude higher than Hitler's or Genghis Khan's.

95:

Regarding what is "off limits":

It's pretty hard to come up with something that won't be offensive to somebody. (Hell, it's hard to come up with a gift for a secret santa arrangement that is unlikely to offend somebody.) It's also hard to come up with something that will offend everyone. You can come up with something that will reliably offend particular interest groups, but anything that does that will be applauded by some contrary interest group (even if it's stupid).

96:

As a perfect illustration of this, our office gave up on even having a secret Santa arrangement when it became obvious that at least half the men wanted nothing to do with the arrangement.

97:

I am curious which alternative history you think portrays Otto Skorzeny as "not quite evil Nazi"? Skorzeny is a major character in Turtledove's alternate history (the one with space lizards), and in John Birmingham's Axis of Time trilogy. In both I found Skorzeny entirely evil -- his good-ole-boy lets-all-have-fun attitude toward his friends makes it worse, not better, because it jars so much with what he does to not-friends.

98:

Was Skorzeny evil? I doubt it. If you read his bio it seems he was more of a headstrong opportunist. Apart from that, AFAIK he was acquitted of war crimes.

99:

As for cultures that "eventually went senile and/or insane and/or cancerous," that's definitely a notion of capital P Progress, combined (I'm sorry to say) with a bit of 1920s theories of racial decadence.

I never understood the concept of "senile culture" -- what the hell does it mean? Especially when individual members of this culture are not senile at all -- Vernon Vinge goes to the trouble of pointing that out in "A Fire Upon the Deep", which makes the concept even more baffling.

100:

As far as I am concerned, Paul Atreides does NOT "get away with it". I find both him personally and Fremen despicable.

101:

Well, "no more evil than an average SS soldier" is an awfully low bar to me. I am sure Skorzeny did not have pathological hatred of Jews or Slavs -- he just killed them because that way his bread was buttered. Yes, headstrong opportunists can end up pretty evil.

But Zochaka was complaining about Skorzeny being whitewashed in fiction, and I saw no particular evidence of it.

102:

The Stainless Steel Rat is a criminal. Robin Hood is a traitor and rebel, murderer and thief. But we extenuate by circumstances, success and all the rest.

Actually, I disliked Jim DiGriz precisely because he is not criminal enough. For a supposed sociopath, he is far too fastidious. When in the first book (chronologically, not first written) I realized I wanted DiGriz to rape the blackmailing whats-her-name, I knew these books were not for me.

103:

"I never understood the concept of "senile culture" -- what the hell does it mean?"

It is one where the founding ideals and principles have been subverted, tyrannical elites preside over chaos and things are falling apart because nobody gives a shit. No innovation, no change. We have seen it in the USSR and we are seeing it in the Corporatist West.

104:

I'll cheerfully agree that Jim DiGriz is a sociopath, but not that he is "far too fastidious". Sociopaths can operate to a strong moral code, and in all the banks, trains and payrolls he robbed, he never killed anyone.

Also, I wouldn't use a book written as a prequel that far after the others to prove anything about the character; it's much more likely to reflect a shift in the author's moral compass.

105:

tyrannical elites preside over chaos and things are falling apart because nobody gives a shit.

While that makes perfect sense, most SFnal examples of "senile culture" are not like that. More like "Nothing changes and no innovation... for no apparent reason, just because culture is old". Exemplified by the Coordinator of European Sector in Asimov's Evitable Conflict: "We are a tired culture". Not tyrannical in any way, and no evidence of individuals being particularly slovenly or uncaring -- just "we've been innovating for several centuries and are tired of it" WTF?

106:

Well, presumably such cultures seem "tired" because for those who are rich and powerful and running things any change is for the worse. So real change is discouraged. An alternative might be the endpoint of the EU - a kind of soft tyranny where nobody is allowed to do anything for reasons of "health and safety".

107:

I agree with some of what Dirk wrote, but the fundamental idea of a "senile culture" is problematic. A great example is Korea. Back 120 years ago, the "Hermit Kingdom" was even called a vampiric society, with a few wealthy landowners (the yangban, an meritocratic aristocracy and their immediate descendents), a weak king and weaker bureaucracy (conservatives take note), and a lot of very poor, heavily taxed peasants who lived for the most part in grinding poverty. And a lot of slaves (of the yangban), as well as untouchables, along with almost no social mobility and little contact with outsiders. They did brag about their millennia old culture, though, although this state of affairs was a few centuries old.

Then came Japanese colonization, WWII, partition, the Korean War, industrialization, and now we have Gangnam Style as the most popular video on You Tube, and South Korea is one of the most wired societies on the planet, while North Korea perpetuates the old Hermit Kingdom meme.

Old Korea could have been an example of a "senile" culture, sure of its own perfection and unwilling to change. A rather better analogy is "parasite load." There are a lot of parasite loads, but in this case, I'm thinking of the biological model, of how many parasites an animal host is carrying. Too many parasites will kill the host, and old Korea had an enormous parasite load. While I don't know much about North Korea, I'm willing to bet they've got a huge parasite load too.

Parasites, in this case, are those who make money without giving anything to society, rentiers who enrich themselves without giving back, artists without audiences who take public support, the disabled and dependent, and so on. I will say that parasites are inevitable, and societies that attempt to get rid of all their parasites cause far more problems than they fix. To reiterate, I'm *not* saying kill the poor, sick, elderly, odd, or even the rich: they're inevitable, and often they have important values that can't be expressed in monetary terms. Nonetheless, societies that spend most of their efforts supporting those parasites have a lot of trouble keeping food on everyone's table. Parasite loads have to be regulated to keep the whole system going.

One can easily make up a story about how a society with a heavy parasite load is "senile." Thing is, parasite infestations can be cured. Senility can't. The metaphor matters.

108:

I never understood the concept of "senile culture" -- what the hell does it mean? Especially when individual members of this culture are not senile at all

Heh.

If I was going to play devil's advocate, I'd make a strong case that the English-speaking nations -- US, UK, Aus, possibly not NZ -- are senile. They switched from wealth creation to wealth consolidation a couple of generations back, and our younger generations -- those born after 1970 -- are doomed to be poorer than their parents, for the most part. Higher education is being priced out of availability for all but the rich and turned into an employer-credentials mill for the poor, driving debt; our macroeconomic climate is dominated by banks rather than producers: our legislators are either corporate yes-men or ineffectual dabblers who are unable to effect change. Oh, and in the name of fighting a war on an abstraction we have constructed a gulag that Stalin would have envied, and locked ourselves inside it.

(But I don't believe in cultural senility; it's warmed-over 1920s race theory, which is pretty much the benchmark for intellectual bankruptcy.)

109:

I think you guys are taking an intermediate view of senile culture here. I was speaking of deep time or close to deep time with a technological basis where it is hard to do anything new because of exhaustion of ideas, where there are only so many layers of irony you can add.

I don't believe in it myself because cultures collapse, for various reasons and in various ways with or without direct succesors. But Heteromeles original point seemed to preclude discussing culture this way; so I tried to fish up some examples of what he said could not be done or could not be done right in SF writing: writing of civilizations that don't progress or regress on a timecscale of millennia or more. Your discussion seems to bear that out because you can only really think in terms of a few generations. Eventually every culture either completely dies or sprouts new cultures from within or suffers external intervention. So the modern West is not going to remain senile anymore than Japan was going to remain detached from the world for more than a few centuries.

I like Against a Dark Background, but that civilization would probably have collapsed faster than it appears to be doing (or the species might have gone completely extinct.) It was still a cool thought experiment.

I thought Lovecraft's Old Ones civilization was actually cancerous. The material infrastructure of their society, the shoggoths, literally rebelled against them.

110:

That's a good point, but it's a progressive view. The counter argument is hunting and gathering, which demonstrably survived about 40,000 years in Australia. This doesn't mean Australians didn't come up with some original ideas, but most of they carried most of their technology with them from elsewhere.

We don't necessarily need to invent our ways out of problems. Often, application of what people (collectively) already know is sufficient. It's entirely possible that one day we'll know everything that's worth knowing (as in Brin's Uplift Universe) and life will simply go on from there.

The odd thing is that, for most human cultures, this state is the norm: you belong to a culture, it teaches you how to be a proper human, and you spend your creative energy not on inventing your way out of problems, but on solving problems using existing concepts and tools. This is actually the way most people work even now: they get their education, go off to work a career, and only innovate under extreme stress. That doesn't mean that they stop learning and getting better at what they do, but most people would rather not reinvent themselves, given a choice.

111:

Actually, we're in an interesting state relative to the 1920s. In terms of things like finance, we're very much in the bubble-blowing financial regime that led up to the Great Depression, and the laws that prevented the Depression from returning have been dismantled and are not being reinstated (which is a bigger failure of Washington than the Fiscal Cliff).

The huge difference between now and the 1920s is that there are no threatening alternatives to Wall Street right now. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, there were major ideological threats from communism, anarchism, and fascism. Democracy seemed threatened both from without and within, and that *seemed* to have gotten Wall Street and Washington off their fat behinds to create the New Deal, simply to keep the US from going communist or fascist.

Currently, we don't have a major ideological threat to capitalism as currently practiced. Shari'a, terrorism, and the new anarchy aren't the existential threats that the first wave was. Ironically, that may be building a bigger crisis that happened the 1920s. We'll see.

112:

You might find this informative with regard to Russian politics. Frolov has kicked up quite a storm amongst the H+ types:
http://transhumanity.net/articles/entry/russian-extreme-national-bolsheviks-and-neo-nazis

113:

Good grief, three posts. Anyway, the other point about deep history is that knowledge gets lost, and sometimes has to be reinvented.

This is normal. When I got my PhD, for example, I was one of a few hundred experts in a very esoteric field that studied one of the most common organisms on the planet, something you've almost certainly never heard of. I no longer practice that field, and indeed the central technique I used are passe. Indeed, the entire field could be wiped out by a handful of stupid college presidents wanting to focus on, say, erectile dysfunction, at the expense of studying the most common things on the planet.

Much of our society runs on the backs of similar small coteries of specialists: nuclear engineers, those who maintain the internet backbone, power grids, run water distribution, sewage, or handle logistics for grocery stores, are all small groups of people. Kind of scary, isn't it?

One thing about the future is that inevitably disasters will happen, and we will lose those critical skills. I comment that this would be sort of like Motie cycles, but the truth is that our global civilization can crash, and in the fulness of time, it will crash, either due to its own failure (most likely) or due to a catastrophe like a supervolcano. I doubt this will cause the human species to go extinct, but if our distant descendents want to rebuild big cities, let alone global civilization, they will have to reacquire most of the esoteric urban infrastructural skills and sciences that we take for granted now.

I suspect that future human history may be a continual story of loss and reacquisition of these skills. Note that I'm not saying the future will look entirely like the past, any more than the Dark Age following the fall of Rome looked like the Bronze Dark Age that preceded it by about 1000 years. When the western empire fell, people didn't go back to working bronze, but they did desert the towns and latifundias. Archeologists have found similar cycles in the Andes (about a 500 year cycle, with 2 or 3 repeats before the Spanish hit) and the Mediterranean (a 300 year cycle of clustering into towns for protection, followed by expansion into the countryside as conditions became better), and there's no reason to think we're free of such cycles. The only difference is that now they may be global, whereas before they were regional.

In a real way, this harkens back to the old fantasies, such as the Hyborian Age, or Tolkien's ages of middle earth, or (yes) Lovecraft. What I'm suggesting is that the old masters got it backwards, and that cycles of growth and crash aren't just our past, they are our future as well.

114:

(All according to Humbert Humbert, of course, but faute de mieux:)

Her parents didn't name her that, but rather 'Dolores'; 'Lolita' was M. Umbre's name for her.

115:

Cool discussion. It's kind of sad that I've not seen this kind of thing anywhere else. I suspect it's because I've been hanging out in the less interesting parts of the internet.

"That doesn't mean that they stop learning and getting better at what they do, but most people would rather not reinvent themselves, given a choice."

I've done it several times. I started my career in retail sales. I switched to administrative assistant. Then I became a graphic designer. From graphic designer I went into writing. In the US, I think it's more rare to stick with the same profession your entire life. However, that may be my personal bias because I have reinvented myself.

116:

Glad to oblige. Charlie's good at instigating and running these kinds of things.

I agree with you, by the way: I've invented myself more times than I care to remember, and I'm reinventing myself as a part-time writer right now.

The thing is, would you reinvent yourself if society gave you a role you were comfortable with? Say that you had a clean progression from child to student to functioning adult to master to elder to revered ancestor? Certainly, such a routine is impossibly constricting to some, but I'm pretty sure that most people would jump at the chance, especially if it offered the possibility of becoming a respected master of something they innately had some skill with.

Even now, the utopian dreams of many progressives are to give everyone a comfortable life doing stuff they're good at, not to dump everyone into unpredictable future where you have to reinvent yourself every few years because some dumbass in Washington, New York, or Beijing has just nuked the economy again, or some dumbass in Silicon Valley is getting his rocks off on making shiny addictive toys, and marketing them as the next great thing, so that we tap on glass screens to talk to people sitting next to us. Yes, that's a run-on, but I think it makes the point: reinvention isn't necessarily the most desirable thing. Sometimes it's necessary, is all.

117:

Wow, that's a great link about how the Russians hate the thieves who rule them. Its like some kind of a sci fi setting.

Back in the early nineties I was reading all this stuff about what was going on in Russia at that time and I saw it coming and thought it was a very bad thing to have happen. If only we had helped them end communism more gracefully.

In fact, I came up with a whole plan for how they could do it. My idea was that they should (1) set all property of the Soviet Union up as stock corporations, then (2) issue every citizen an equal amount of a new currency with which they could buy stock in those corporations (the only way to get the IPO). Afterward there would of course have been consolidation, but at least it would have been better than what actually happened.

Wrote it up in a letter to the editor of the school paper of the university I was attending at the time when a high Russian offical was visiting to make a speech or something, but they didn't print it.

118:

What's happened in Russia will happen here if things go on as they are.

119:

You are being very coy about your (former) field of expertise. Why don't you just tell us what are these "most common organisms" hardly anyone studies? Nematodes?

120:

"The thing is, would you reinvent yourself if society gave you a role you were comfortable with?"

Speaking for myself, I get bored too easily--unless we're talking about writing. For some reason, I see endless permutations of areas of interest there. Of course, that's what mastery is about, right?

At the same time, we humans need varied experiences to be more whole. I'm not sure it's 100% possible to design such a system. Sure, stability is a good thing, but stagnation is not. As with many things, it's the balance not the extreme that is more desirable.

"Yes, that's a run-on, but I think it makes the point: reinvention isn't necessarily the most desirable thing. Sometimes it's necessary, is all."

I don't think I disagree with that.

121:

Say that you had a clean progression from child to student to functioning adult to master to elder to revered ancestor? Certainly, such a routine is impossibly constricting to some, but I'm pretty sure that most people would jump at the chance, especially if it offered the possibility of becoming a respected master of something they innately had some skill with.

I think you are oversimplifying things here. Between "impossibly constricting" and "jump at the chance" there is quite a bit of room. I am comfortable with steady learning, and am very bad at "reinventing myself". Yet in my admittedly unscientific experience, even people of such mindset tend to get bored with what they do by the age of 40 or 50. Moreover, how do you know with what you have "innate skill" until you try it?

I am a software engineer, and am quite good at it. However, I also always liked biology, and relatively late in life discovered that I am very good at scuba diving. If I did not have all modern adult responsibilities, I would have gone back to college, gotten degree in marine biology, and embarked on another career. I did not do it, but would have if I could. And I know a lot of people my age who also would have liked SECOND career -- as opposed to "constant reinventing". Not sure how society should be structured to accomodate this.

122:

"And I know a lot of people my age who also would have liked SECOND career -- as opposed to "constant reinventing". Not sure how society should be structured to accomodate this."

Personally, the longer people live I think the more we'll see second careers. My background being one of reinvention actually works for me as a writer. A large number of writers have backgrounds like mine, actually. We need experiences to build stories from. It seems to be how it works for a lot of people.

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