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Notes from the coal face

I'm hacking my way through the underbrush leading into the dark interior of the middle book of a trilogy right now, and finding it heavy going. (Hence the reduced frequency of blogging.)

I find it useful to distinguish between loosely coupled trilogies, and tightly coupled ones. Loosely coupled: three books that can be read separately, but which in combination turn out to revolve around a common theme, and add up to something more than the sum of their parts. Tightly coupled: in the extreme case, it's a single gigantic novel in three acts, so that the second and third books make no sense if read as self-contained entities.

What I'm working on now is probably about 70-80% of the way over to the right on this continuum—a 300,000 word narrative in three chunks, each subsequent one building on its predecessors. This isn't quite the first time I've tackled such a work (arguably books 3-6 of the original Merchant Princes series were intended to be one big fat novel, until a messy collision with bookbinding technology sentenced them to be 300 page episodes), but it's the first time I've gone into the job knowing from the start what it was that I was trying to build. And I'm now at the stage of the project, roughly 40% of the way in, where of course it feels as if I'm making no progress at all and it's doomed to utter futility and incoherence.

One of the problems with writing a novel, or a short story for that matter, is maintaining thematic consistency. Most of the trappings of a work of fiction are modifiable—you can kill off or introduce characters, reverse the plot or reveal the earlier goings-on to be flounderings-in-darkness or misunderstood by the narrative viewpoint, and throw in twists and turns. But the one thing it's hard to mess with is the theme of the story—what it's all about, at the highest level.

Examples of thematic content: "Neptune's Brood" was an abstract exploration of just how one might build a financial infrastructure to support interstellar colonization at slower-than-light speeds, and what can go wrong with it; at the same time, "Neptune's Brood" also asked whether we own money, or money owns us. "Rule 34" was about the future of criminology (not crime) in a networked world, and about how socially acceptable behaviour changes over time. The first Merchant Princes series was, at the highest level, about the annoying fact that actions have consequences, and blood is thicker than water.

The thing is, when you set out to write a book, or a series, you don't necessarily know what your theme is—but it's the invisible direction your compass is pointing you in, and if you lose track of it while you're writing you end up travelling in ever-diminishing circles rather than making progress. Even if you aren't aware of your theme when you start, you'll be intimately familiar with it by the time you finish. If you aren't, what you've got isn't a novel, it's a novel-shaped blob of jelly. And it's generally a bad idea to change thematic track halfway through a book. Your readers will notice the switchback, like the point in the middle of From Dusk til Dawn where it changes gear from a Quentin Tarantino two-psychopaths-on-a-road-trip-with-hostages movie into a completely batshit Robert Rodriguez vampire gorefest, complete with exploding eyeballs and pneumatic-drill-powered wooden stake machine: it's kind of hard to ignore that sort of thing, and it doesn't work well at all unless you know exactly what you're doing and have a palmed card to present to the reader to explain why you're doing it.

To add complications: tightly bound trilogies or really long novels have structural issues all of their own. In a plot-driven novel we usually have a simple progression: from the initial status quo to some source of disruption, then growing tension as the protagonists grapple with whatever's going on, to a climax where the tension is resolved, and a finale that hopefully asserts a new status quo and delivers some kind of sense of closure (closure being what grown-ups want instead of "and they all lived happily ever after"). But if you're writing a 1000 page story that's going to be carved up into 333 page episodes, each of the non-final episodes needs some sort of climax, roughly as powerful as the climax of a 333 page normal novel, but building on each other until we reach the titanic resolution at the end of the story. Structurally it's a sawtooth rather than a single peak in the graph of tension plotted over time.

The challenge in writing a big-ass tightly bound trilogy is that you have to ride a ratchet up a sawtooth of increasing tension with periodic lulls, all the while keeping your eye on the thematic compass. Consequently, writing a 1000 page story that neither sags in the middle nor spirals up its own arse turns out to be more than a little bit harder than writing three stand-alone 333 page stories—even though you can use the same characters and setting throughout.

(And now: tea break's over, it's time to pick up that shovel and go back to work in the word mine ...)

90 Comments

1:

And meanwhile you're also coping with a change in what apparent type of SF/F you're writing, which can't be helping. That MP apparently starts as a Portal Fantasy, and yet you've got Space Opera waiting in the wings, isn't going to help.

(Though that's a different axis to theme.)

2:

... though if you suddenly start channelling L Frank Baum, we'll understand: your building has just been blown away to Oz. Here's hoping the winds aren't that bad, and you don't lose slates. It's leery enough 400 miles further south.

3:

The wind is dying down now, nothing to worry about. Although network rail have cancelled all trains until they work out where there's trees on the line and flooding. One killed by a lorry falling over.
Round my way, my neighbours tv ariel has fallen on my roof, which woke me up and caused me to spend a few minutes making sure eevrything was alright inside and outside.

So Charlie and Edinburgh are getting back to normal. As you say it's the flooding in England that's getting worrying.

4:

The storm isn't that bad; the 142mph gusts were over a hundred miles north of here. (I am, however, not heading out for my daily swim until the afternoon, when the winds are due to die down.)

... Yes, I should have added in public: the Merchant Princes series started out as something resembling a portal fantasy (protag from our world goes through a wardrobe door into magic-land, has adventures) then gradually morphed into technothriller territory. The new Merchant Princes trilogy starts out as near-future Grim Meathook Future dystopia with added cyberpunk chrome, and is due to morph gradually into space opera. Because I get bored easily and need a challenge ...

5:

The new Merchant Princes trilogy starts out as near-future Grim Meathook Future dystopia with added cyberpunk chrome, and is due to morph gradually into space opera. Because I get bored easily and need a challenge ...

So looking forward to this!

6:

I am amused that Wikipedia is currently showing on its front page, as one of those 'Did you know...' items, that the highest ever wind speed recorded in Sweden is a mere 110 mph.

Maybe Scotland, on independence, could go shelter behind Norway too.

7:

Yes, it could be that most damage occurs down here - a number of properties have been evacuated in Essex already.

(The East Coast still remembers the 1953 floods that killed hundreds of people, and the highest sea levels this time will be pretty much the same as then. Lets hope 60 years have produced better sea defences. And I'll keep my fingers crossed for those the other side of the sea in the Netherlands.)

8:

Because I get bored easily and need a challenge ...

That's one of your strengths, in my opinion. If a writer is getting bored with what s/he's writing, then there's a good chance many readers will too. Trying new things, stretching yourself and the reader, that's what makes for good writing, or at least, interesting writing (because there will be failures, though a noble failure is frequently more rewarding than a formulaic success).

It's why I'm so deeply disappointed with Piers Anthony — he did write some interesting stuff, such as Macroscope, and yet he ended up bogged down in the Xanth world. (My assessment of Xanth is that the first was great, the second about two thirds as good, the third two thirds as good as the second, and so on.)

Contrarily, Terry Pratchett has managed to avoid that trap — although he's written even more Discworld than Anthony wrote Xanth, he's managed to keep it fresh, he's managed to address different themes in the different books, partly by having sub-series.

I understand why Anthony kept doing Xanth — he's a writer writing for a living (few can be as lucky as Larry Niven in that respect), and Xanth is what pays him.

9:

"In a plot-driven novel we usually have a simple progression: from the initial status quo to some source of disruption, then growing tension as the protagonists grapple with whatever's going on, to a climax where the tension is resolved"...
unless you're Arthur C. Clarke, in which case a novel is just a description of more and more stuff, until the book ends. (Yes, exceptions such as "Childhood's End", but generally the case, see "Rendezvous with Rama")

10:

What, you don't think that the Fountains of Paradise, or Imperial Earth, had a story to them? What about "2010", or "Tales from the White Hart"?

It may not have been "thriller" levels of impending excitement, but they were far from just "describe stuff".

11:

Hit submit too soon - you could argue that Imperial Earth was thematically about love, loss, and identity across distances; or that Fountains was about the difficulties of any large-scale engineering project.

Meanwhile, enjoy the thought that the weather is foul, and that you're warm and dry in shelter; civilisation is wonderful. Right now, I've got blue skies and sunshine playing across the (visibly uninhabited) landscape between my desk and Castlelaw hill...

12:

It sounds as though you're describing what a non-plot-driven novel may be.

Though in RWR, you have:

Initial status quo: The peaceful solar system
some source of disruption: Rama arrives
the protagonists grapple with whatever's going on: Explorers enter and investigate the interior
the tension is resolved: Rama ignores them and heads on out

13:

To outline or not to outline. I can understand discovery writers who come up with something vast just writing it a page at a time. Usually it comes out as a bit disjointed and without a unified theme. No outline? Yeah, it's obvious. I can understand outliners working on something complicated and making it all come together. What amazes me is someone who doesn't work from an outline who can still write something big that comes together and holds up.

A writer has a chance to fix problems in a novel with the next draft but for a series, the last book is out the door and can't be touched. There's no way to undo mistakes.

14:

I'm glad to see a working novelist offer that kind of definition of theme, and account of its use. I heard about "theme" in junior high school English, and I was never able to get a real grasp of it as a concept, in contrast to the other standards, plot, characterization, setting, and style. That wasn't helped by definitions that equated theme (what a story is about) to thesis (what the story is asserting about its theme). Eventually I came up with the idea that (a) the theme is what the story is about at an abstract level, the thing that everything in it relates to, and (b) the theme is used as a principle of selection in deciding what to put in and what to leave out. That seems to be how you're using it.

The issues you point to come up in the other narrative form of the role-playing campaign, which is where I thought of them. Even at the most basic level, if you sell your players on a dungeon crawl, and they find their characters traveling from city to city seeking a buyer for their loot, or fighting crime in the streets of the capital, some of them are likely to object—because you've violated the campaign theme. And the "bait and switch" campaign is one of the proverbial Bad Things GMs can do; over on the Steve Jackson Games newsgroups new GMs are regularly proposing their great idea for turning campaign X into campaign Y after half a dozen episodes, and other GMs are regularly saying, "If you didn't warn your players to expect a big change like that, you're going to have trouble keeping them on board!" All that is about change of theme, I think. It's not exactly the same as what a novelist deals with, but I think it's close enough so that using the same word makes sense.

15:

due to morph gradually into space opera.

Am now wondering how you Doppleganger a spaceship. Some new tech letting it occupy the same space in multiple universes? No. Never mind. I'll look forward to finding out in good time.

Meanwhile, in Colorado Springs (just after 8am) it's -2ºF, expected high of 6º. Only about an inch or two of snow, and currently no wind. I'd really rather not go out today, but have to.

16:

A writer has a chance to fix problems in a novel with the next draft but for a series, the last book is out the door and can't be touched. There's no way to undo mistakes.

Usually, yes. (Spoiler: that's why the identity of the Big Bad in the first Merchant Princes series is who it is -- I made a mistake in book 2, and by the time it became critical book 3 was in print. D* C* was the only person who actually fit the bill of goods. Otherwise I'd have had to make Miriam's world diverge too far from our own.)

That's why, incidentally, I intend to hand in the first two books in this trilogy as a unit, and the third book before the first is out of copy edits (in other words, when there's still time to fix that kind of problem). It plays havoc with the cash flow (I get paid a chunk on delivery of each book), but it's the only way to be sure.

17:

"Usually, yes. (Spoiler: that's why the identity of the Big Bad in the first Merchant Princes series is who it is -- I made a mistake in book 2, and by the time it became critical book 3 was in print. D* C* was the only person who actually fit the bill of goods. Otherwise I'd have had to make Miriam's world diverge too far from our own.)

That's why, incidentally, I intend to hand in the first two books in this trilogy as a unit, and the third book before the first is out of copy edits (in other words, when there's still time to fix that kind of problem). It plays havoc with the cash flow (I get paid a chunk on delivery of each book), but it's the only way to be sure."

Interesting. Who was the big bad ideally supposed to be, if you don't mind me asking? Another real world figure / close enough version thereof, or an original character, or what?

18:

Who was the big bad ideally supposed to be, if you don't mind me asking? Another real world figure / close enough version thereof, or an original character, or what?

I hadn't worked it out in enough detail when I handed in book 1 (which got turned into books 1 and 2). So when I was working on what was to be book 2 (and got split out into books 3-6) I was winging it until I realized that only one guy actually (a) fit the slot, (b) had a reputation for kitten-eating evil, and (c) was a public figure people would recognize.

Midway into book 3 I realized I'd written myself into a corner whereby the only way out was to point at a high level politician who'd left politics for some years, was part of the post-2000 government, and was cold-bloodedly ruthless by repute. If books 1-2 hadn't already been in print I could have filed off some rough edges and got rid of the restrictions that forced it to be Dick Cheney, but it was too late.

19:

Why would you have changed those restrictions? Having D*** Ch***y as the vilain was pretty awesome.

20:

You didn't see the hate mail I got from a certain type of American voter. It died down after Barack Hussein "Secret Muslim" Obama became president -- I think they were all hunkering down in their bunkers, polishing their guns and stockpiling gold and ammunition -- but still, I could do without their un-fond reviews in places that influence potential purchasers.

Anyway, by the time I was into book 4 the only way to run the plot honestly was to go full-tilt towards the obvious conclusion. Complete with mushroom clouds. And that's not how I wanted to end things. It's not that I was looking for a happy ending, but the end of "The Trade of Queens" was just a bit heavier on the Grim Meathook Future than I'd originally intended ...

21:

I'm saving my reading of Merchant Princes for the special edition here in the States. I'm looking forward to seeing how you got there with Cheney who, by all appearances, is one of the most evil men to ever gain access to the White House.

The point I find surprising is I didn't think it would be politically feasible to cast a real world person as a villain, never mind that you don't live in the States. Abraham Lincoln might be portrayed as a vampire hunter but I would think any kind of portrayal of a major, living figure would have legal in a tizzy. Something like South Park can do it because stirring controversy is their hat. Did you get much push-back on this?

22:

Nope, no push-back. When you read the series you'll see why.

(NB: I hope to have an announcement to make in the new year wrt. the revised edition. However, we're now into December and US publishing shuts down for two weeks at the end of the year, so nothing is going to be decided, or happen, before January.)

23:

I reckon the second volume of a trilogy is an ideal opportunity to write a tragedy. The first volume has established the world, the characters and the overall situation. The third volume can pick up the pieces and head for the resolution. So the second volume is free to do what it wants, and one structure that fits is to take the protagonist from the situation at the end of volume one, put her through the wringer while everything shes tries to do turns to ash, and leave her facing a bleak future with no hope. Then the third volume can find a way out, with small step after small step leading to a hopefully thrilling finale.

Two older examples are the second volume of The Lord of the Rings and the second Thomas Covenant book.

24:

I would've thought the theme of the merchant princes was lack of control (Men plan, god laughs style). As literally no one (Not even the author!) was in control of events.

25:

You didn't see the hate mail I got from a certain type of American voter. It died down after Barack Hussein "Secret Muslim" Obama became president...

I've got a friend who likes sharing things from that wing of the asylum. The usual cries of 'poor people are taking OUR money for their food!' and 'the Secret Muslim's health care plan is [broken|socialism|lethal|unfair to insurance companies]!' can be predicted. Today I saw a protest against, if I'm reading it correctly, the basic concept of taxation (or maybe it was sharing at all); I can only assume that some people really don't understand how societies have been working since we all started using agriculture and gathered together in cities.

26:

Para 2 - I wasn't overly happy about what might be going down in New Britain with their revolution. The writing about what happened to the Grunmarkt chilled me in ways that nothing else bar the first time I saw film of an airburst nuke has ever sone, so kudos points for that anyway.

27:

That suggests to me that they not only don't understand taxation, but also don't understand insurance. Let's ignore the overhead recovery and rent-seeking, err, "for profit" aspects of insurance and just look at the risk protection aspects. I'll simplfy matters a bit by assuming that the event will always require to be paid for at the very end of the term.

There is a 1 in 1E6 chance of a certain event occuring in a group of 1E6 people in a 10 year period. If this event occurs, it will cost that person 1E7 in local currentcy, which is unaffordable for anyone but a multi-millionaire. To spread this risk, they agree to pay 1 currency unit per year into a fund, which will pay the affected individual the 1E7 they need.

Accordingly, insurance is, by their definition, actually a socialist (if not always government) activity.

28:

Arguably, the modern world (by which I mean from the Renaissance up to the present) wouldn't be recognizable without modern notions of insurance.

As I tell my students over and over, the accurate pricing and allocation of risk is a valuable commodity. Strangely, few of them are inspired to become actuaries :-)

29:

Well, my argument was more about "right-wing USian politics" than about actuarial risk, but I think we're agreeing?

30:

If you thought "The Libriarian" was exciting, wait until you see "The Actuary", coming your way on USA Network this spring!

31:

I think it goes even deeper than that. There's compelling evidence from psych research that concepts of fairness are hardwired into us, they're not just cultural. But we're not always seeing things with the same eyes so what seems equitable to one seems unfair to the other. One brother sees his father giving his other brother hoisted on his dad's shoulders on a long walk, he might see this as fair if his brother is sick and not able to keep up. But if he's myopic, he can't appreciate the context. It's not that his brother needs the help, it's that his brother is getting something he is not. Therefore, it's unfair. And the outrage feels so pure, so valid, that he feels no need to question it.

Likewise, the American conservative is railing against the poors living high on the hog with all that welfare money, never appreciating that to be on public assistance means you're already in terrible shape and that it's far more comfortable to be fully-employed with a middle-class job than scraping by on the dole. They can't do the math on that one.

"Why is the Make-A-Wish kid getting treated so special?"

"He's dying from cancer."

"That's not fair!"

"No, it isn't; that's why they're trying to do something nice for him."

"No! I mean I want to be treated that way, too! How come the cancer kid gets all the breaks?"

"You poor dear. And just think, you'll have your whole life to be envious of him, long after he's dead."

32:

I would put it differently: Insurance is a redistributive activity. But unlike a lot of redistributive programs, which people will only take part in under duress (taxes are paid under duress), insurance is a redistributive program that makes people feel better off, even the ones who don't get anything back from it. I've paid renter's insurance for many years now, and never gotten a penny back, and that makes me feel fortunate!

To have socialism, you have to have coercion or duress: People being compelled to pay into a common pool even if they don't feel it makes them better off to do so, without the option of exit.

The big conflict that's starting to emerge in the United States is between people who think that insurance is supposed to make them individually better off, and people who prefer coercive schemes that everyone is required to participate in even if doing so makes them worse off. I don't find it incoherent to reserve the name "socialism" for the latter, and call the former "capitalistic"—because, if we had a system in the United States that allowed everyone to buy medical insurance at the actuarially fair price for their age, sex, place of residence, and state of health, which would in fact be redistributive in the sense you're talking about, I don't think anyone who favors socialism would think that was socialistic in the sense that they mean.

33:

You appear to be using an idiosyncratic definition of the word 'socialism' which loads it with negative connotations. Can you reconsider and redefine?

34:

As I have already demonstrated, insurance only makes those unfortunate enough to have to raise claims and then fortunate enough to have those claims allowed "better off".

Oh and slagging off socialism on a left-leaning British website is asking to get flamed.

35:

Yup. Some of us -- including the moderators -- think that we could do with a whole lot more socialism around these parts. (Not, I hasten to add, the totalitarian Leninist vanguard-party kind: but your middle of the road European social democratic variety.)

36:

Put that way, stopping at red lights is coerced behaviour, since it's reinforced by fines, points on your driving licence, and even prison depending how reckless you are. Is a non-coercive (by your definition) approach to traffic safety desirous to avoid any taint of that nasty socialism?

37:

Stopping at red lights is most effectively and regularly enforced by average to poor attention drivers and 1500 to 2500 kg vehicles on orthogonal paths...

38:

Whilst I'd agree that social democracy is definitely better than the encroaching neoliberalism we have now I worry to what extent it's just cosy capitalism. I'd rather a strong effort was put towards researching the implementation of an actual socialist system along the lines of market socialism (democratically accountable institutions for provision of essential goods and services, market of co-ops for luxuries).

39:

Theme-shift is a good problem to have, especially when writing an exciting continuation to a great series.

I personally am very excited to see what Mars looks like in different dimensions!

Thanks, Charlie...

40:

There was that German town that removed all traffic lights and signs, and everything worked out fine.

Or so the story goes...

41:

But apparently not enough, since we also have the nasty socialistic laws to reinforce the enlightened self-interest of avoiding accidents.

42:

Traffic lights, like many other phenomenon, are a class of regulations that most people would vote for even if they don't want it to apply to them.

I'm not sure if there is a term for this (it's related to relative advantage) but another example is how Canadian hockey players when surveyed overwhelmingly would rather not wear a helmet but at the same time the majority support mandatory helmet wearing. Why the conflict? Because whilst each individual player is prepared to take the increased risk of injury in return for slightly better performance they know that if it was allowed everyone would do it and a situation would arise in which there was no relative performance increase but it's more dangerous for everyone. Hence a ban.

You might be able to get from A to B quicker if you ignored traffic lights and you might be personally OK with taking the increase risk of a crash. But if everyone can do it there's no advantage to anyone but a lot higher risk. No one is going to voluntarily obey traffic lights in such a system because they'll lose out so we need a rule in place that applies to everyone.

43:

Hope that was not the town of Schilda...

http://etcetra.weebly.com/the-schildbuergers.html

IMHO, passing red lights is something of a German pastime, though that might be my acquitance only, I always thought city traffic the real inspiration for TOVA tests:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Test_of_Variables_of_Attention

And then, there are these nice radio warnings with speed tests...

44:

There's a certain type of conservative that thinks there must be some liberal conspiracy if bog-standard economics ever indicates the 'socialistic' solution is optimal, the private one not so much. Come to think of it, that's where the freshwater school of economics originated ;-)

Where conservatives ever got the idea that the science of economics prescribes 'free market uber alles', always and forevermore I do not know.

45:

I don't know how TV writers manage the "writing oneself into a corner" issue as well as they do. They don't always, but I think it would drive me crazy...

46:

george herbert @ 37
Bollocks
Enforced when you are a pedestrian, crossing when the road-lights are well-red (like 2-5 seconds) - & the approching motorist decides he can't be bothered to stop, even after you've stepped off the pavement to cross the road?
[ Happened to me AGAIN, yesterday ] ??

47:

Don't engage George on stuff like this, just . . . walk away ;-) As long as you don't discuss politics he's a fairly reasonable fellow.

48:

I don't think it is idiosyncratic. Can you point to me any social system under which people who want to make contractual arrangements to collectivize costs can do so, but those who do not enter into the contract are not made to pay and are not benefited, that is called "socialism" by socialists? Or any social system under which people who want to pool their property in general are free to do so, but those who don't retain private ownership, that is called "socialism" by socialists? Or any social system under which people voluntarily give wealth to those in need, but those who don't give are not subject to compulsion or duress, that is called "socialism" by socialists?

It seems to me that the social arrangements, real or theoretical, that get called "socialism" are not arrangements that people are free either to participate in or to opt out of as they choose; they are arrangements that are chosen for everyone in a whole society, and that everyone has to go along with. That is, they are compulsory, and they are legally enforced. Do you actually have examples of purely voluntary socialism to point to, or are you simply objecting to my focusing on an aspect of it that is not usually emphasized?

49:

Everyone else has already brought up road traffic laws, there's plenty other laws to mention. The distinction is surely between 'socialism' the political philosophy which in general means mass participation in ownership, production and democractic things, including the fruits of technological advancement etc, and 'socialism' meaning the laws by which a society is run.

IN the specific case of healthcare, your point is.... displaced, because countries that don't socialise their healthcare in ways which render 'market' solutions constrained, have much higher costs and worse outcomes for people, e.g. the USA. So as I pointed out, you're basically saying that socialism is defined as forcing people to pay for things they don't want to. Of course this is also trivially the case of Quakers paying for the American war machine, but someone nobody seems to want to give them a tax rebate.

50:

I think there's a problem with your logic. I asserted that socialism is based on compulsion; I did not assert that everything based on compulsion is socialistic.

Nor was I arguing that socialism is bad; I was not taking a position on that at all. I certainly wasn't saying that compulsion is always bad. My point was only that socialism is based on making economic arrangements in general compulsory, and that with the element of compulsion lacking in true insurance contracts, they cannot be called socialistic. You might as well say that the fact that my girlfriend and I live in the same apartment, co-own the furniture and the books and the DVDs and the food and the cats, and share expenses makes us participants in socialism.

As to the road, who owns the road? When you come into my home, you do so on the condition that you will accept my rules of conduct, and if you aren't prepared to do so, you can stay out. That's compulsory in the sense that all ownership of property is based on compulsion; but it doesn't take any special scheme of compulsion. (And, again, I'm not saying that compulsion as such is always bad.) Someone owns the road, and they have just as much right to set rules for using it. If the road is private property, the private owner can set rules; if it's common property, whatever government is responsible for common property can do so, not as a special exercise of compulsion, but as the owner. If you want to say that everything that is compulsory is socialistic, then since private property rests on compulsion, private property as such is socialistic, and the hardest core anarchocapitalist libertarian is a socialist. At this point I think I see Ken MacLeod laughing over in the corner. . . .

51:

You see? When you unpack it the rest of us can understand what you are saying!

52:

I just finished Neptune's Brood, and I was thinking the theme was you mis-hearing Joseph Campbell. "Write me a creature that is as dysfunctional a parent as a man, but not like a man..."

53:

When you look at how large a share of the U.S. health care system, before the ACA, was funded by Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veterans' Administration, a description of it as "not socialist" seems oversimple. I would note that it's estimated that roughly a third of lifetime health care costs are incurred in the final few months of life, which are normally covered by Medicare, so the blame doesn't rest solely with the market sector.

There is also the fact that the long established system of comprehensive prepaid group care funded through one's employer was not a product of the market on its own. It came into being during World War II, as a way for employers to do an end run around wartime wage controls. The IRS made employee health benefits exempt not only from income tax but from Social Security tax. That amounted to the federal government lowering the price of health insurance by 25% or so if you got it through a corporate employer rather than paying for it directly with after-tax earnings; and the same comparison applies to prepaid group care versus just paying the doctor or the hospital yourself. But one of the liabilities of third party management of expenses is that it weakens the incentive to keep them down.

There is also the fact that each of the fifty states has its own medical insurance industry, and that it's not possible to buy insurance across state lines. That is, there's much reduced competition. The effects of monopoly and oligopoly on prices aren't a big surprise!

I'd also note that the UK doesn't lack concerns with the cost of health care. I've been reading about the "patient responsibility" movement (as bioethicists call it; the popular nickname is "fat and fags"), which calls for denying all health care to people who smoke or who are overweight, except in immediately life-threatening emergencies, because it's felt to be unfair for them to impose medical costs on the taxpayers who support the NHS. (I haven't heard anyone proposing to exempt smokers from cigarette taxes, though. Don't those help support the NHS?) I don't suppose that this kind of inefficient and irrational proposal would be gaining ground if cost control weren't also a concern under actual socialized medicine.

I don't think there is any easy fix, even if you leave political acceptability out of the equation.

54:

You do mean "John W. Campbell," don't you? The world where Joseph Campbell edited Astounding Science fiction would be an interesting alternate timeline; I'd enjoy seeing Kimball Kinnison more overtly treated as the Hero with a Thousand Faces.

55:

Greg (and scentofviolets) ...

I think you misunderstood. (and to SoV - I don't see how this subquestion is political in the slightest... ?)

People in cars who routinely blow through red lights are going to get hit by people in cars blowing through green lights in the orthogonal direction.

Because, you know, if it's a green light, you don't need to check for cross traffic, right?

I both stop on red and look on green, not because I want to avoid tickets (though I do), but because I've seen too many serious accidents.

This doesn't entirely solve the pedestrians' problem, but drivers will learn from being killed and maimed running red lights... eventually, via herd instinct if nothing else.

(This is not an argument to do away with traffic police, or laws, if that's what you were afraid it was).

56:

No, there was a mutual misunderstanding there ... Also, I'm getting very pissed-off, because "jumpers" at the lights between my home & the railway station are getting commoner - it now happens to me there, once a fortnight or so, - & at leat 3 times every two weeks to my wife, who is still commuting daily.
There is also seems to be the perception that "it's only a pedestrian" - I've seen them approach sets of lights which are changing to red, observe no other vehicles, but there ARE pedestrians & accelerate through the red!
.... [ And not just at my local crossing, either]

57:
When you look at how large a share of the U.S. health care system, before the ACA, was funded by Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veterans' Administration, a description of it as "not socialist" seems oversimple. [...] I'd also note that the UK doesn't lack concerns with the cost of health care.

Bit of a difference in scale, though, considering that the US cost of health care is roughly twice that of the UK (per capita).

Either the Brits are getting a really good deal, or the Americans are getting ripped off.

Indeed, the amount of US health-care funding through Medicare, Medicaid and other government programs would be enough to pay for the entirety of NHS (again, per capita). Somehow, though, the US health-care system manages to absorb all that money and ask the patients to pay again.

58:

The problem I have is that you seem to be saying compulsion is bad, labeling the result "socialism", and forgetting that any system of government depends on compulsion.

If you don't have some form of collective compulsion in the system, some strong man will grab power and authority. Yes, there are women who have inherited that authority, but there is less chance of a woman pulling that initial trick than of the Higgs Boson not existing.

You're splitting hairs on your definitions. And you seem to be lauding a system which, on the historical evidence, is against women and which consigns most people to a life which is nasty, brutish, and short.

I doubt we shall ever meet. On the basis of the image you are presenting here, I am rather glad of that. In this modern world, it is hard to get an adequate supply of rotten fruit.

59:

It seems to me that the social arrangements, real or theoretical, that get called "socialism" are not arrangements that people are free either to participate in or to opt out of as they choose; they are arrangements that are chosen for everyone in a whole society, and that everyone has to go along with.

Your definition of "socialism" is so broad that every nation that has a criminal code is clearly socialist.

60:

I don't suppose that this kind of inefficient and irrational proposal would be gaining ground if cost control weren't also a concern under actual socialized medicine.

One of the unspoken problems with the NHS is that the pharmaceutical industry is capitalist in tooth and claw -- it's thoroughly integrated into the global pharmaceutical industry. The same goes for suppliers of medical devices. Regulation of medicines in the UK is pretty similar to the way they're regulated in the USA. Result: the NHS can deliver economies of scale in provision of healthcare to customers, and it has some degree of monopsony customer leverage in buying supplies, but the range of supplies it can buy is determined by the market, not necessarily by the needs of its patients. Which is why the UK doesn't have a leg up on antibiotics relative to the USA in the context of the war on antibiotic resistant hospital infections.

And to make matters worse, the current NHS reforms in England are designed to balkanize the system, split it up into competing trusts, and force all services to be contracted out to the market. Thus disastrously undermining the monopsony leverage of an integrated service and adding profit-seeking to the parasitic costs. So costs are about to spiral through the roof. (TL:DR; we need a fuckton more socialism in the NHS, not less.)

61:

People in cars who routinely blow through red lights are going to get hit by people in cars blowing through green lights in the orthogonal direction.

Not familiar with British roads, are you? Four-way intersections with traffic lights controlling them are a rarity, compared with other types of light-controlled junction ... especially traffic-light-controlled pedestrian crossings (pedestrian pushes button, waits for red light to stop traffic, crosses road safely -- assuming traffic obeys the signal).

62:

Well lets get several other things clear -
I'm not aware of any country that has anything approaching national coverage of healthcare without some fomrs of restrictions on companies that provide it. It all depends on what you want - better coverage and overall treatment, or a market which will inevitably leave some or many people in the dirt.
I do find it hard to believe that each state isn't a perfectly good large market for healthcare in itself (With obvious exceptions being those out west with small populations). The issue is not so much that, it's that healthcare is a complex good requiring a physical place to treat people, and means of funneling people to that place as appropriate. It simply isn't as simple as a car manufacturing plant and distribution network because we're dealing with humans, instead of cars. Thus lack of competition occurs not because there are not opportunities to compete, but because cut throat competition on the old fashioned model is impossible. You can't amalgamate all the hospitals in a state into one mega-hospital for example, yet that is precisely what happens in manufacturing.

The UK's concerns with the costs of it's healthcare are irrelevant, insofar as every company, every government, is concerned with its costs, if they aren't, they get into trouble. In fact the NHS has been becoming more expensive not because of anything socialistic, but because the last few governments have increased costs as part of their weird marketisation plans as Charlie says. For instance, the discredited and wasteful private finance initiative was used to build hospitals, and an internal market was set up which increase bureacracy. Before that, the UK managed okay outcomes on something like 2/3 of the spend in other european countries, FOR THE ENTIRE POPULATION.

The final point you don't seem to cover is that corporations in general don't want markets, they want monopoly, for that is where the money is. Rather than worrying about socialistic practises, you should be checking who is bribing the politicians or carrying out various underhand manouvres to ensure that there is no market at all.

63:

So is there any system of society that is not based on compulsion? Since justice, military and police are nothing but means of compulsion, it would have to do without those institutions. You'd probably also abandon any tax systems, since who'd pay taxes voluntarily? So please describe a utopia based on these premises to us and we might be willing to accept that compulsion is a meaningful concept to distinguish between political systems - but for sure it doesn't distinguish between socialism and capitalism.

64:

He seems to have the common American (particularly among conservatives) notion of Socialism: that it is one monolithic system, with a set structure, rather than it being the name for dozens of systems with similar goals--of course the same is true of democracies, and any other governmental system. It's kind of like churches, they use the same book, but the interpretation is different in each.

I'd also say his line:
To have socialism, you have to have coercion or duress
is nonsense. You can have people with common beliefs and goals coming together and agreeing to work toward those goals. Not that I think that would necessarily work on a national scale.

I'm thinking more about the Shaker/Quaker type colonies of 19th century America, and I guess modern Kibbutzim. Sure, someone will say that their religion is the compulsion, but not all Shakers followed the religion, and certainly not all kibbutzniks do. Also there were many non-religious communes at the time. And, of course, none of them lasted long, because, you know: Humans.

And I'm rambling on, so that's it from me.

65:
People in cars who routinely blow through red lights are going to get hit by people in cars blowing through green lights in the orthogonal direction.
Because, you know, if it's a green light, you don't need to check for cross traffic, right?
I both stop on red and look on green, not because I want to avoid tickets (though I do), but because I've seen too many serious accidents.

By your logic, people would always wear seat belts, right? ;-) In real life your scenario doesn't happen often enough that society has deemed it necessary to create disincentives penalizing this sort of behaviour.

I mean seriously, you've never seen motorists speed up to beat the red light or almost run down a pedestrian because they've just gotta make that turn right now? Iow, It's not the consequences for the reckless driver that's the problem, it's the consequences of their reckless behaviour to others.

66:

It seems that the number of people who keep their high beams on all the time is increasing too.

But maybe I'm just standing on my lawn and yelling at passersby.

67:

Actually, I noticed that too. Mentioned it to my wife, when she was driving after dark: her thought was that it's newer cars with LED lights. They seem to be brighter and harsher than the old bulbs, possibly because they're point light sources that don't have a large diffuser.

(Then again, it might just be inconsiderate ass-hats leaving their headlights on high-beam the whole time.)

68:

I can't say I've noticed any difference in number of people leaving on high beam myself recently, but obviously there's a certian amount of variation involved.

Instead, the really bright blue-ish headlight problem is from the new ones found in expensive cars (well BMW's and AUdis for starters), I believe it's some sort of high intensity discharge thing using xenon.
http://www.tested.com/tech/2835-halogen-to-lasers-how-to-spot-different-types-of-car-headlights/

I find them painful to see and too bright.
The other problem is Chelsea tractors and their badly adjusted headlights, meaning that their dipped is just the right height to blind you when they are 50ft behind you.

69:

@guthrie - Certainly the states out this way are big enough to have theoretical competition. The biggest problem is that it is impossible as a consumer to know in advance what the price for any procedure will be - the doctors literally do not know, and you can't beat it out of the back office without more effort than any sane person will put in.

There is a legal requirement to charge every patient the same amount, so that is know, but there is no law around how big a discount you can give to a patient. So if you walk in off the street, you will be charge 3-4x what a privately-insured patient would pay, and in turn, they will pay more than a Medicaid patient would pay.

For example, my MiL went into ICU, the bill was in the region of $125k, at the end of the day the insurers and medicare paid less than $20k.

And, when you get hit by a bus, of course the first thing you do is pull out your phone with your one working limb and compare hospital prices...

Thanks to fucking Joe Lieberman, (the senator for insurance companies) single payer got left out of ACA, which basically allows insurance companies to take 1.6% of the US GDP as rent. 16Trn is total GDP, healthcare is about 2.5T, 1.25T is private, so insurance companies take $250Bn a year. If it was single payer you'd save at least have of that, $125B used to be a significant amount of cash.

70:

My problem with outlining: Much of my thinking is in tactile/kinesthetic/visual diagrams; sometimes in four dimensions, rarely in five dimensions.

This is a bit difficult to get down on paper.

71:

You see, the discounting thing does sound like a market in action, but of course with stonking great big gatekeepers in it, i.e. the insurance companies, whose best interest is balancing payments out as being less than payments in, and so we have all the instances of companies effectively reneging on the the deal and not covering people with pre-existing conditions.
Now if you hold markets and individual freedom above the individual healthiness of said individuals and don't care if they die of horrible preventable illnesses, then by all means have a 'free' market system. But the poor won't be able to afford healthcare and will die earlier. Anyway, if they have to pay all their income over in healthcare, how will they afford to consume to prop the economy up?

72:

Around here, you have to watch out for mad cyclists taking short cuts over pavement corners — behind the lights, so it doesn't count, apparently — or ignoring lights and just blowing through in an effort to save precious momentum. I think they're a heretic cult of Tibetan buddhists who have consecrated their bicycle wheels to serve as prayer wheels, so they have to keep them turning....

73:

Yeah, that sort of behaviour can also have bad consequences for people who are not them. Maybe not as much as a car - but still a risk to other people. Not cool.

74:

Thinking about this a little further, the basic problem with motorists and cyclists isn't that most of the offenders are unfeeling ass-hats (though certainly some of them are); it's just a real-life example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. The guy who blows through the red light firmly believes he's a 'better than average driver' (I know I think that I am, if only because I scrupulously operate my vehicle accordance with Missouri law ;-) and so it's okay for him to that; he's a skilled pro who would never do such a thing if in his estimation this could cause an accident. But that's only part of it.

The kicker is no matter much evidence there is to the contrary, he will still firmly believe he's 'better than average'.

And that is most of the reason why we have legal penalties for running red lights.

75:

I'm too lazy to do dumpster-diving the internet for it right now, but I seem to recall a study determined that slightly over 70% of drivers rate their driving ability as being between "above average" and "very good".

(I know I've got poor eyesight and reflexes, so I try to drive defensively and work on the assumption that I'm a worse than average driver. I'm probably right, but if I'm wrong about being worse than average that's less likely to be dangerous than my being wrong about assuming I'm better than average ...

76:

I was in a car with a great driver once.

Never again.

He definitely had skills but leaving yourself with no margin for error is a recipe for eventual disaster.

77:

Under what definition was he 'a great driver'?

A great racing diver perhaps, but leaving no margin for error, particularly for other people's error, on a public road is not good driving.

(Disclaimer: my father actually was a racing driver. I never felt unsafe, ever.)

78:

I'm afraid it's worse than that: most of the cyclists I deal with around here are:
a) higher than average income (especially those with the fancy bikes)
b) male
c) on stimulants
d) firmly convinced of their own righteousness
e) firmly convinced of their own status as a persecuted minority so long as they are on their bikes, and
f) (for mountain bikers) totally willing to ignore all zoning laws in building trails for their own thrills

In other words, I'd say they're cribbing out of the Evangelical Christian playbook, not the Tibetan Buddhist playbook. Or perhaps the mafia playbook (as in, "if you don't give us trails to ride, we'll make 'em ourselves, and you can stop us, see?").

And to think I used to enjoy riding my bike to work.

79:

Dick Cheney might have enjoyed being cast the villain in the Merchant Princes series (for all we know, he's a Stross reader). He does seem to have a sense of humor about such things, even going so far as to appear on the Jay Leno show in a Darth Vader costume to promote his memoirs.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/03/dick-cheney-in-darth-vader-costume_n_947977.html

Maybe Mr. Stross should solicit him for a blurb for the upcoming reprint of the Merchant Princes.

80:

OGH:
Not familiar with British roads, are you?

No, we only have trivial numbers of the mid-block lights for pedestrian crossing and the like out here (SF Bay Area, and other parts of the west I drive in regularly).

I do maintain that those who blow through those lights will probably blow through 4-way light intersections and eventually get themselves killed, as long as you have those intersections. But I do understand that if most of the red light intersections are that type, they may flatten some pedestrians before the lesson is learned.

Separately, OGH writes:
I'm too lazy to do dumpster-diving the internet for it right now, but I seem to recall a study determined that slightly over 70% of drivers rate their driving ability as being between "above average" and "very good".

About that.

Nestor wrote:
I was in a car with a great driver once. Never again. He definitely had skills but leaving yourself with no margin for error is a recipe for eventual disaster.

There are variations on this theme; advanced drivers refer to this as Hooning, among other things. Lack of: awareness of the environment, in terms of the attentiveness and skill level of the other drivers; respect for their right to be on the road; avoiding causing them distress or panic; not exposing them to excess risk in their use of the road; awareness of how far you can realistically see and avoid, etc.

I performance drive. But I also don't push it in tight traffic (I usually use 2-3x more following distance than other traffic around me), don't endanger the other drivers, don't be rude to them, etc. What I do on a back country road with sufficient visibility to not run over a bicyclist who might be around the next corner does not justify being an ass to others on the freeway.

81:

It's not a formal cite, but I've seen the same thing quoted independently by a significant number of people.

82:

Someone once told me that "the superior [pilot] uses his superior experience to avoid situations in which he has to display his superior reactions".

I liked that very much, and I think it applies here.

83:

Bellinghman: Have you seen _Rush_? I am very much reminded of the scene shortly after Niki Lauda meets Marlene and they end up thumbing a lift ...

84:

As it happens, no I haven't. I have it down as something to see, since although it was after my father's time, it was still in the high-casualty era of the sport.

(When there's a 10% per annum attrition rate, it's not a career for someone with three children to worry about.)

85:

My guy was a friend of a friend whose car I got into one night with a group to be ferried from a to b, only to find myself whizzing down streets at an uncomfortably fast pace, culminating with him battery parking the car in a rather narrow gap in one smooth motion. He was a young guy, obviously at the top of his game and trying to show off. I decided to walk back home :)

86:

I'm not sure driving in realistic traffic and cutting out all margin for error are compatible.

The first time I was in a car driven by a champion racing driver was also the time I realised I was leaving way too little margin for error in my own driving. This person drove like I thought grannies did, with a huge following distance, usually well below the speed limit, never getting upset when people cut into the gap but instead worked to regain it. It was a singularly relaxing drive through rush-hour traffic.

By way of explanation, I was told that on a racetrack the car and safety rig are designed to handle quite serious accidents, and if something does go wrong, the medical team is right there. In road traffic, a standard vehicle, and lacking a reinforced crash cage and multi-point seatbelt, an accident is likely to be quite serious at any legal speed, and any assistance is most likely going to arrive only after the point at which a bad injury has become a fatal one.

Since then I have systematically changed the way I drive. Who am I to argue with the experts? Plus, like Charlie, I believe it's better to assume one is a below average driver and to act accordingly, than to have one's Dirty Harry-style challenge to the universe met by something unexpected happening in one of the car's blind spots.

87:

"Battery parking"? Please explain. (Unfamiliar term.)

88:

one of the car's blind spots

I used to drive far more aggressively in my early 20s.

Then, when I was 25, I sprang a detached retina. But it was a complicated one, held in place by an adhesion of scar tissue, so it was really hard to figure out what was going on. My first warning, in fact, was probably the increasing number of close calls and near misses during my workday commute -- I was doing locum work and driving up to 100 miles a day at the time. When I discovered the cause (it took ages) and went in for surgery, I came out with my confidence in my eyeballs well and truly rattled because I'd learned the hard way that I couldn't always see cars and trucks coming at me, and shouldn't assume that other drivers could, either.

(The eyeball made maybe a 90% recovery, but it still taught me something about myself.)

89:

Google Is Your Friend.

In this case, it seems to indicate parking in the Battery neighbourhood of New York, which I'm going to guess is not the meaning Nestor meant. From context, I'd guess parking nose-in between other cars.

90:

No, we only have trivial numbers of the mid-block lights for pedestrian crossing and the like out here (SF Bay Area, and other parts of the west I drive in regularly)

Having just come back from a week's business in SF, I have to say that I found US roads rather badly designed. Those big, wide, four-way junctions would be so much safer as roundabouts... and remove the need for the rather commonplace "U-turn at the four-way junction", or the need to turn right through a red light. Non-reflective signs (mounted well above eye level) don't help.

...meanwhile, the driving standards were "interesting". Swooping across multiple lanes of freeway seemed compulsory, with the use of indicators optional; not quite Indian standards, but still mildly stressful.

My roadcraft was affected by having three graduate colleagues die in traffic accidents in the first couple of years after I got my license; not to mention watching my (police trained, very experienced) father never quite recover from crash-testing a Volvo into a stone wall in an attempt to avoid hitting someone that just pulled across the road - you can be a great driver, but the other person can be a dangerous moron, or even just careless. Driving bicycles and Series III Landrovers also forced a reliance on anticipating trouble, rather than using power or brakes to get out of it...

(My mother has spent over forty years driving all over the world, including multiple Balkan winters, and has never put a scratch on a car. She also held the family door-to-door record from home to Dusseldorf airport, so she isn't exactly slow...)

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