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Reading someone make clear a philosophical point is akin to ecstasy. I’ve struggled long and hard to give a definition of the Common Good, but PJ Smith cuts right through the crap and presents it like it is:
Peace and good order, people. That’s goal.
One has to wonder if the real difficulty with understanding this isn’t so much the topic being “esoteric” (it isn’t), but our own personal desire to elevate our individual/personal good above the Common Good and thus finding ways to legitimize such desires.
I mean, every form of liberalism does it: Libertarians do it by diminishing the Common Good to simply the conditions which allow individuals to maximally exercise their own will (see Citizens United). Progressives do it by calling a “right” anything that maximizes self-definition (see Casey v Planned Parenthood and Ogberfell v Hodges). Conservatives do it by appealing to “Freedom” (see the rhetoric around the Cold War and “War” on Terror). And Marxists do it by appeals to strict equality (see… well, the only examples are failed states, but don’t let that stop you neo-Marxists!).
We need to stop that. The individual is only truly alive when participating in the Common Good and that, my friends, is peace and good order. If you aren’t ultimately aiming at that, then get out of the way.
And don’t give me that “but Nazis!” crap. We’ve allowed one horrific 20 year period event scare us from over 2000 years of healthy political thought (of which the Nazis weren’t even an heir, just looked like it to the liberally brainwashed). Seriously? Do we want to total the life loss under the liberal regimes in the past 300 years? One should have no problem both condemning the atrocity of the Shoah and calling the world to a more healthy political climate of peace and good order.
Alright, enough morning venting. Let’s go write something fun.
A major theme of the kind of pulp fiction I want to write is romance. The growing of a relationship between a man and woman is one of those primal sorts of themes that most everyone finds appealing. It’s rather criminal that it’s become primarily the purview of women, with the great chivalric romances as inspiration to men being relegated to history. Though a simple glance over the majority of action movies reveals that the basic interest is still there. What would Die Hard be without Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly motivating Bruce Willis’ John McClane? Well, as the sequels prove, mostly crap.
So I’m trying to put a romance in my most current story. Of course, I’m also a brainwashed modern with little real romantic experience. Thus I thought it’d be an interesting twist to have the two characters hate each other and then later fall in love. That’s easy to do right?
No. No it’s not. Especially in short fiction where you’re trying to keep the story moving. And especially when you don’t want to go through some huge, multi-stage character development on the part of one or the other or both.
What do you do in such a situation? Well, why not make some attraction present from the beginning? I kid you not, this was like a lightning bolt from heaven. It’s the kind of illuminating experience which only the obvious can bring about.
Let me give an example from my current mental obsession, Beauty and the Beast.
To get it out of the way, the live-action is a study in how not to do this. They wolf scene climax, which is the turning point for both Watson-Belle and the Beast, makes little sense because you don’t see any attraction inspired between the two (or at least one) before this event. We all know it happens because it happened in the original, but actual causal connections are left to our nostalgia to fill in.
A few scenes do this work in the original. First, Belle’s meeting of the Beast:
We immediately see how the Beast is struck by her. This isn’t the head-over-heels type thing – the Beast is no John Carter, capable of being struck by Dejah Thoris at a glance. The point of the whole story is to get him there.
But still, we see the striking which begins it all. Start at 0:43 – Belle’s sacrifice is the first strike. Something of his coldhearted justice melts at this. Then its back as he continues doing his Beast thing.
As a length aside (and I’m still fuming, so let me vent in my parlour): This is also an incredibly important point for revealing Belle’s character. Not only in the self-sacrifice, but in her devotion to her word and the promises she makes. She elects to be imprisoned and this election becomes more binding than any actual chains. This is completely destroyed in the live-action as Watson-Belle lies to both the Beast and her father, duplicitly make the prisoner exchange and then denying her parole openly.
In the original, her devotion to her promise also contributes to her willingness to care for the Beast – her own word has made her a prisoner here and thus it is her own devotion to that word which keeps her ultimately from fleeing. See The Wolf Scene where she makes reference to breaking the promise as she leaves – it’s that promise and her own good hearted nature that has her bring the Beast back and care for him. Why does Watson-Belle do it? Beats me. … Okay, I guess she too is good hearted, but seriously? She should have just left him at the gates for the servants to pick up and then get back to town right away. The girl was preparing to jump out the window hours before.
But back to the matter at hand. Let’s go back to that first encounter. Things get more interesting as the Beast escorts Belle to her room:
Watch the whole thing. Lumiere’s intervention is an important appeal, trying to reframe the Beast’s vision to see Belle not just as a prisoner but as something more, a someone worth treating well. This is the constant theme of the servants as they seek to civilize and build the virtue of their prince. But he needs more, as he just huffs at Lumiere.
Belle, herself, is that more. Upon seeing her, he is struck again. See 0:17. A one-two punch: accusation of injustice and revelation of her pain. The Beast is left to wonder if he’s done something wrong, just for a moment. Then returns to his task, but with a twist: “I’ll show you to your room.” Apparently the servants’ efforts aren’t completely useless.
Things get really interesting as they make their way through the castle. At 0:38 see Belle recognize the ferocity of her surroundings and quickly seek what solace she can in the Beast and Lumiere’s light – complain about power-play all you want, but masculine might can be a safe harbor. It is what it is.
The Beast turns and is again struck by the quietly crying Belle. Lumiere pushes him to make conversation and we see him get a little tongue-tied, before a reminder of his past brings forth that trademark inordinate rage. The final invitation to dinner reveals both his desire to assuage what terror he caused her, his own anger and despairing self-absorption, and the tongue-tying she puts him in.
The tongue-tying especially, but everything as whole show that he is attracted to her. Not just physically, but in all this feminine mystery that is making him uncomfortable with his own cold injustice. She, in her very existence, is starting to crack him like an egg and he’s left in an uncomfortable wonder.
All in less that 10 minutes, we see the kindling of attraction. Far more on the Beast’s part than on Belle’s, yes, but something that can begin to grow, grow to the point that he’ll throw himself at a pack of ravenous wolves to protect her and ultimately kindling attraction in her (combined with the help of the servants and her own curiosity at who the Beast really is, see her exploring The West Wing, especially the encounter with the portrait – this scene ends with a poignant moment of him realizing his own fault). They encounter the obstacles that make a good romance, especially in the Beast’s inner turmoil and redeemable self-absorption (especially compared to the irredeemable self-absorption of Gaston). The rest is all about seeing if this first attraction can become something more. In this story, something so great that it transforms a Beast into a man.
So take-away: I need my characters to be a bit more attracted from the get-go. Can’t make the romance ex nihilo.
I went and saw the recent Beauty and the Beast remake this last weekend. I came out feeling like a sexist, racist, bigot.
I’ve written up some thoughts on the movie, and it’s comparison to the original, but I’m not quite sure I’ll get around to finishing them or posting them. Because rereading them I feel like a sexist, racist, bigot. (I tend toward John C. Wright’s opinions – Ugly and the Beast).
I’m pretty open about being rather retrograde in my Catholicism – I sympathize with the Latin Mass, I attend a parish which uses Elizabethan English (US Ordinariate), I’m a defender of the Crusades and Inquisition, I’m a monarchist and imperialist. These opinions are so safely dead in much of our culture that I’m more of a curio than anything else. Or maybe that’s just because I only see these opinions expressed in dark corners of the internet and I feel safe in thinking the response to me will be a laugh and not a ceasing of friendship.
Other opinions, well, I’m not so open about. I’m sure most of my friends know I have them, but they just aren’t spoken of. I have very traditional views about gender, gender-roles, and relations between men and women. I have very traditional views about culture, immigration, and how we portray history. I have very traditional views about art, cultural artifacts, and the way thought, reality, and the censorial arm of society should interact.
And to put it bluntly, all that was triggered by Beauty and the Beast. Emma Watson’s Belle was an avatar of break-the-corset feminism; masculine virtue was relegated to buffoonery in Gaston and forced-indoctrination in the Beast. Fairy-tale France was diversity-washed to an extent little different from putting some Scotsmen among the royal court in a tale of the Ethiopian Empire. And the needs of culture meant that in a world where “sacrebleu” is an exclamation, the will of the individual and his self-identity must be treated sovereignly.
And to even express those opinions makes my whole skin crawl with worry. “Am I sexist?” “Am I a racist?” I live in a kind of bifurcated bubble where I have all these beliefs about culture and society, but I have to actively eschew discussing them for fear of being the spark that enkindles someone’s hate.
Of course, some will tell me to just let my opinions loose, don’t worry about others. But down that path is hypocrisy, since I’m perfectly fine with censorship in theory. I’m not a free-speech advocate. I don’t believe in “Letting your freak flag fly.”
And here’s where what probably amounts to brainwashing rears its ugly head. Upon hearing such ideas, how many (myself included) raise the spectre of Nazi Germany, of Fascist Italy, of Communist Russia? I do it, if anything to warn me how close my opinions (seemingly) come to the great bugbear of the 20th century.
So I live in a bifurcated mental bubble. I wonder how many of us do, whether consciously or unconsciously. I wonder if that isn’t some of the cultural tension we see boiling up. Arguably it is present in the popular hypocrisy around sexual expression (women should be free to flaunt their assets as self-expression; flaunting women’s assets in media is objectification). It’s also present in our drive for diversity (all cultures and people are the same; european cultures should appreciate non-european cultures as higher than their own).
Modernity is oddly maladjusted, confused, hypocritical. And I, for all my railing against it, am a modern.
So part of the work of this blog, and this is perhaps a beginning to some growing manifesto, is to figure out how to end this bifurcation. More proximately, it’s about how to express my desire for traditional culture and the means to attain it. More remotely, it’s about getting the guts just to call immorality, heresy, and nonsensical crap what it is without that worrying monkey on my back. In general, it’s about sooner or later pulling off this, while being less of a self-absorbed jerk (substitute “Beast” for modernity).
Sure, I’m doing it through comic-books, science-fiction, and movies, but one needs to keep these higher goals in mind. And let’s be honest, I tend to think Beauty Will Save the World. Beauty just involves more barbarians, space princesses, flintlock airship combat, and intergalactic rocket swordfights than most people think.
And for the record, Beauty is not Emma Watson. Beauty is this:
Fran Wilde’s “The Jewel and her Lapidary” has oodles of potential. From an intricate magic system, political machinations, the ending of an era, some pretty good cover art… This story has everything going for it.
So I’m just a tad upset that this is probably, so far, the worst of the Hugo-Nominated Novelettes. At least it’s not for overt attacks on reality.
“The Jewel and her Lapidary” tells the story of Lin, the youngest princess of the royal household (and so a Jewel), and of Sima, her Lapidary, a gem-whispering servant bound by vows to Lin. The story begins in the midst of a palace coup. Sima’s father has betrayed his king, the two having a the same relationship of Jewel and Lapidary as Sima and Lin. As the enemy marches in, a battle of wills begins between Lin, the only surviving Jewel, and the invading commander over the rulership of the Jeweled Valley and it’s magical gems.
There’s three major thematic conceits which the story revolves around: 1) the magic of the gems, 2) the political struggle, and 3) the characters of Lin and Sima. Each, as ideas, had me entranced.
First, The magical system at work here is fascinating. The gems of the Jeweled Valley are able to influence those around them in some psychic fashion, referred to as hearing the gems. These gems can only be heard by a few select individuals. However, uncut and unset, the gems will drive those who hear them insane – driving their emotions in this or that direction, requiring great will power on the part of the hearer. These individuals can be trained to overcome this and ultimately speak through the gems to command and orient their powers. This training involves making special vows to the Jewels, initiated by becoming bound by various etched metal bands. Thus these individuals become Lapidaries.
This magical system offers quite a lot of potential to be explored. The Lapidaries have great power in “speaking” the gems, powers to even halt armies, but are also circumscribed in their power by their vows to their Jewels. The gems also become a sort of third-person in this relationship, seeking to influence the Lapidaries to selfish action, while becoming helpful by being cut and set by these same Lapidaries. Some Lapidaries may want to break free, but doing so will drive them insane – as we see in the first scenes with Sima’s father betraying his vows to the king. There’s a whole lot here that can become narrative tension.
Second, we also see the relations between the peaceful Jeweled Valley kingdom which depends upon the gems for its protection and prosperity and militaristic Mountain kingdom which depends upon its force of arms and is threatened by powers not seen in the tale. There’s a whole lot of potential here as well. With such strength in its gems, is the Jeweled Valley correct in turning inward and leaving its neighbors to their fates? If more powerful and willing, is the Mountain kingdom correct in breaking the Jeweled Valley’s isolationism so as to foster wider prosperity?
Third, the characters. Lin and Sima are the only survivors of the palace coup. Lin is the youngest of the Jewels, a fourteen year old girl. She was never trained to be a ruling Jewel, betrothed instead to a far off kingdom. She must quickly grow up in order to keep her people safe, confronting the ultimate fate of one who would die for her people.
Sima, seventeen, has been Lin’s constant companion since childhood, bound to her both by vows and the love of friendship. In following Lin’s commands, she is forced to break the vows that bind her and keep her sane. She must struggle, from then on, with the tension between the love of and loyalty to her friend and the call of the gems. She is also very aware of her own weakness as a Lapidary, never inheriting her father’s more powerful influence of the gems.
All three of these points, the magic, the politics, the characters, have absolutely astounding potential to make a great story. What pains me is that this potential is squandered at almost every turn.
The magic system is not something you fully understand until the end of the tale. Its general outline is present from the beginning, but its details, details important to the story, are left confused for much of it. Is it willpower that silences the gems influence, or do you need the vows? Do they allow only psychic influence or more evocative magical powers (like the gems of RA Salvatore’s DemonWars Saga)? How does the Mountain Kingdom expect to control the gems without a bound Lapidary? When do the gems become silent, when do they speak (because they appear to do both)? Do the gems have some sort of personality, can they act on their own toward some end?
Wilde seems to be trying to avoid exposition and info dumps, something I applaud, but even if Lin and Sima understand what’s going on, the reader doesn’t. And having constant mental references to vows only helps so far. Especially as Wilde uses a framing device, a traveler’s guide to the Jewelend Valley, there’s easily places to offer some exposition to help a reader out.
You do, mostly, understand the system by the end, but this appears less a final revelation and more of finally being exposed enough to pick up the pieces. If this had some pertinence to the end, I’d be more willing to accept this. Instead, it feels like frustration with no payoff. Especially as we are made to see this as the end of the Lapidaries – something we don’t really care about because we never really understood what they’re up to.
As for the politics, well, Wilde decides to make this a clear good-versus-evil tale. The Mountain Kingdom is nothing but a cruel oppressor, desirous of power. Their leader, Nal, is an alpha-bitch who wants to marry her son to a Jewel and thus rule the kingdom. On one hand, I’m fine with this – I like my complicated villains, but I also like the one-dimensional, there-to-be-defeated sort. However, Nal is depicted less like a one-dimensional villain and more like a greedy fool who bit off more than she can chew. We’re made at times to think she’s having to be cruel only to keep her men’s loyalty, not wanting to appear weak. We’re also made to believe she’s doing this to save her kingdom from some approaching menace. But this is never explored more than a few lines. Wilde seems to not want to make her Mountain Kingdom another set of orcs being led by Sauron, but neither does she go through the effort to actually humanize them and make them complex. Instead we’re left with an unsatisfying mixture – these guys are cruel and mean and just plain evil for the sake of evil, but don’t worry, they’ve got real reasons we’re just not going into them. I can hate a complex villain – one who is doing some great evil for some apparently great good – and I can hate the pure supervillain – just doing his thing to conquer the world. But when it’s both, because the two are somewhat at odds, I’m left unsatisfied.
Finally, we come to Lin and Sima. This is probably the strongest point of the story, but has its weaknesses. Both tend to complain a lot. Lin seems only a step away from hating her family for not training her to rule. Sima bemoans constantly her broken vows (apparently referencing the broken physical bands, as she remains loyal to Lin). While the threat of the gems to Sima’s resolve is constantly mentioned, it never becomes more than a possible threat (even when confronted with the most powerful of gems). The majority of the story is the two of them sitting in dark, cramped places, often surrounded by their dead family, and miserably reflecting on their lives. The existential angst is palpable, but probably overly so.
A kind of hopelessness is oppressive throughout, but Wilde wants desperately for it to end in hope. The final climax offers a good, hopeful ending, but the story less develops to that ending as just wallows in the pain of it all until this exit presents itself. This could work, but we also don’t see much character development through this pain. Lin goes from scared child to willing to sacrifice herself in the first few pages and no more change is made. Lin is willing to make those sacrifices in the beginning all the way to the end. In retrospect, there’s just not much going on here. Not giving Sima more of a struggle with the gems was a definite weakness.
In the mix of this is a whiff of gender-politicking as well. Something just irks me about every male in the story being either weak (Lin’s father), traitorous (Sima’s father), gem-addled (Nal’s twelve-year old son), or just plain cruel (all of Nal’s men). Even in her memories, Lin’s brother is shown not having any care for his Lapidary, and it is always Lin’s grandmother who is giving her advice. When asked about marriage, Sima is left unsure who she would marry. I think most girls would be unsure in this world – no guy in this story is worth a damn.
The writing had some moments which perturbed me. Refusing to name or give a tag to the Royal Lapidary leads to passages like this:
Then the King’s Lapidary fell quiet for the first time since Lin woke.
The two girls listened, shaking in the cold, for the mountain army’s drums. They wondered how long the palace’s doors could hold. But no drums came. Only silence. The King’s Lapidary climbed up on the lip of the palace wall. He turned to face the courtyard. His lips were pressed tight, his eyes rolled. He spread his arms wide. His hands clutched at the air.
Sima rose to her feet. Began to run toward the wall.
Without another word, the King’s Lapidary leapt from the wall, his blue robe flapping, the chains on his wrists and ankles ringing in the air. And before Lin could scream, the King’s Lapidary crashed to the flagstones of the courtyard.
By the end of it, the term “King’s Lapidary” is like a hammer to the head. This isn’t present throughout, but a good lesson in giving your characters tags.
The jewel crafting could also get a bit confusing, especially when it went on for a while. Maybe I’m just a simple man, but I don’t like the use of a bunch of technical terms cropping up in the middle of the story, especially when few people actually have these skills. It doesn’t require an info-dump, but more space given to let the crafting be followed using layman terms would be helpful.
All these comments make me think the story was hurt by being a novelette. It screams to be given more space to grow – to explain its magic system, to give the villains more character, to become used to all the gem crafting language, to allow these complex relationships to actually develop.
In summary, “The Jewel and her Lapidary” has a bunch of wasted possibility. We won’t Index it, but I can’t recommend it either.
A good friend of mine (stolen from me to be a Dominican by God, the selfish deity…) has made some comments in a private setting about the hate he sees among the conservative and traditionalist Christian community. Anyone who isn’t in a liberal echo-chamber is very aware of this. For a variety of reasons, the rhetoric of most conservative folk has become animated by derision, trolling memes, and gleefully laughing at the failures of the enemy.
This is especially problematic for the Christian. I can’t speak for what passes for protestant theologizing, but in the Catholic tradition any and all hate of God’s creation is a rejection of God. Instead, the Catholic must so love God that he wants all to love him as well. As the Thomist Garrigou-Lagrange (Santo Subito!) puts it:
“[O]nly then do we truly love a virtue when we wish others to love it also; only then do we wholly love God when we desire to make Him loved *by all.* […] We may go even further and say that, if we desired only one soul to be deprived of Him, if we excluded only one soul–even the soul of one who persecutes and calumniates us–from our own love, then God Himself would be lost to us.” – The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life, pp 2-3
I’m not quite innocent in this matter. I’ll repost vitriol. I’ll like it. I may even comment. Get me riled enough, and I’ll drop a treatise on you in a comment box.
Still, the situation made me think about my own project – trying to write and why I want to, especially with who I am.
I’m very much a retrograde Catholic – my only apologies for the crusades, inquisition, and wars of religion is that we didn’t see them through to the end (and we can talk later about how hate is not involved in these). Oh, and I’m an unapologetic monarchical-imperialist. Long live the Holy Roman Empire!
Guys with my types of wrongthink are especially frustrated. I mean, you “freedom of expression” folks, the modern “conservative”, are just trying to defend a liberalism that’s only just starting to crack. My crew? We want to dynamite the last 300-500 years and return to glorious Christendom. Freedom of religion? Anti-censorship? Capitalism? Error, blasphemy, and heresy,. But (most of us) are very aware that, probably, only a civilizational collapse will allow the old order to be restored – and (most of us) aren’t looking forward to that. We’d rather Jesus just show up. We’ll probably get both.
So yeah, my crew is frustrated. But it’s present throughout the conservative-part of the world. And we lash out with a lot of anger and hate. Especially us men. We see error that needs to be corrected, injustices that need to be remedied, and honor and glory that needs to be restored. And we don’t feel able to do so.
This isn’t all fully our fault. We’ve not been equipped to do this. The last generation (by and large, not universally) failed to pass on a firm commitment to what we’ve found to be the Truth. Those institutions built to defend the Truth, to form defenders of the Truth, were repudiated by many in favor of something that we see crumbling all around us – relativistic, syncretistic, liberal crap.
To make matters worse, we’re all, to varying extents, children of this culture we’re repudiating. We all have certain totems and fetishes that we’ve built some sort of stability upon (freedom of x, for most Americans; apparently racial constructs for a lot of the alt-right). These are often totems that make tension within us, as we refuse to admit they are of the very thing we are refuting (this is more pressing to us integralists and retrograde Catholics – we can’t really promote monarchical-hierarchy by populist means… At least not with any self-consistency).
A final piece of this unholy puzzle – the internet. The internet presents itself as an easy, cheap medium to try and fix all the errors, injustice, and dishonors we see. More often than not this is through argument and discussion. The very things a culture IS NOT built upon. And it’s that faulty culture that is the real issue.
Argument and discussion DO NOT make a culture. They CANNOT make a culture. This pains me to admit as one who mostly peddles in ideas. Think of your own life though. What “idea” is your way of life built upon? Ideas can inspire culture creators, but often these must become greater than the idea. Communism as peddled by Marx & Engels is now dwarfed by it’s inculturated forms, whether on the political scale or SJW scale.
But the internet helps us think it does. And arguably the printing press, but I can only be so much of a luddite.
Frustrated, ill-equipped, brainwashed, and touting an idea-network as our culture creator – it’s a recipe for self-destruction and that’s basically what we’re seeing.
This is especially damaging to the Christian and his evangelical mission. We no longer preach in radiant and awe-inspiring joy, or the serene triumph of the followers of the crucified. Instead we shout passively-aggressively, openly deride the lost and confused with a laugh, or become cold-hearted comics equipped with memes. The only joy we often partake in is the small moments of passionate guffawing or raging – anything to help us forget our own seeming impotence in the face of Satan and his unthinking and unconscious forces.
I do think there’s a way out, and this comes back to my writing. We have to make prayer and penance, of course. And we need to see more visual signs of the faith (processions and the like), but I think the men among us especially need something a bit more. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can outline what my plan is – write pulp stories of adventure.
For those watching the sci-fi/fantasy world, especially the literary market, you’ll come across the same sort of vitriol experienced in political discussions. There’s a dying liberal establishment being shouted and derided by brazenly foolish, mostly conservative, upstarts. Those involved in and driving the discussion (with memes, derision, twitter warfare, trolling of awards, trolling of major publishers) are getting a lot of the attention. Few of those guys, though, are actually helping anything.
Instead, what’s actually being constructive and starting to actually draw people without vitriol, is the creators, often not involved in the discussion, of new works which seek to eschew the liberal crap. They’re not perfect, but they’re actually making culture, writing stories that buck the trend without being thinly-veiled treatises (see Cirsova and Story Hack, and Castalia House and the Superversives). Those involved in that vitriolic discussion aren’t as creative, it should be pointed out. Some were creative and are now inundated in the hate-mongering, or have to back away from it to create. A few are delegating creation in order to indulge in the hate-mongering. But you rarely see the hate united with that creation. At least I don’t.
The slew of reviews I’ve been writing are really me trying to figure out how to do this writing thing. I don’t plan to be a classic maker, but want to tap into some of the culture-forming of the early pulps – simple stories with simple virtues. I’ve got two under my belt. We’ll see where I go with it.
But what does this have to do with those who don’t want to write pulp-adventure stories? Create culture. It doesn’t need to be some work of art. It could be teaching Sunday School. Playing music. Coding games. Building cars. Flying kites. Writing blogs (but be careful of this one…). Brewing beer. Drawing and Painting.
And this is evangelizing! The faith, the CULT, is not OTHER than culture, it imbues it, in ways no active integration could ever achieve (the witness of “Christian” pop and literature can attest to that).
An oversimplified historical example: Hitler became the SOB he was in some part because his creativity was crapped on. So he turned to hate. That’s what far too many of us Christian men are doing.
I’m not going to call for the hate-mongering to stop, though I wish it would (well, the better part of me does). I don’t think it’ll be useful for me to wag a finger, especially with some guys going around defending the Christian right-to-hate. What I do want to do is tell people to start creating those artifacts and events and touchstones and institutions of culture. I’m betting you’ll find the hate dissipate as you learn to create.
And truth be told, I hope you can join me on my crazy island, telling people about this dude who died in a backwater, pining for crowns and priests in flowy robes, and retaking this rubble of rock called Jerusalem. And probably gushing about clean-limbed Virginians and space-princesses. I do like my space-princesses. Alright, enough for now.
I’m somewhat biased against the Hugo awards. My own reintroduction to science-fiction and fantasy in the past few years was by means of the various puppy campaigns (wikipedia, infogalactic). I skew, on paper, heavily conservative (well, integralist…), so I’m a pretty easy recruit for fisking liberal awards. And the Hugo’s, in the past few decades, have definitely been a liberal award.
Still, I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Ursula Vernon’s “The Tomato Thief”, published in Apex Magazine’s January 2016 issue, is pretty good. A Magical Realist story, the tale depicts an old grandmother discovering a cursed girl stealing her tomatoes and the adventure to help free the poor girl. Along the way, we are introduced to a world of train-gods, talking coyotes, road-runner boys, gila monster dragons, and well-mannered stable boys.
Vernon’s prose is solid, with a penchant for plain descriptions that help to give a sense of normalcy to the fantastic, one of the hallmarks of good Magical Realism. There are some odd tonal movements in the story: the title and first quarter seem overly mundane compared to the rest of the tale; the middle skirts moments of epic-fantasy; and its final climax wobbles between a sword-and-sorcery style heroic ending and magical realist dream-logic. It also forgets a major plot thread set up in the beginning – the whole title of the piece really.
What the story does really good is easing you into the fantasy. It starts with a rather humdrum argument between mother and daughter:
Grandma Harken lived on the edge of town, in a house with its back to the desert.
Some people said that she lived out there because she liked her privacy, and some said that it was because she did black magic in secret. Some said that she just didn’t care for other people, and they were probably the closest to the truth.
When her daughter Eva asked her to move into town, to be a little closer, Grandma Harken refused. It got to be a regular ritual with them—“Mother, won’t you move in a little closer? I worry about you out there alone.”
“What’s going to bother me out here?”
“You could step on a rattlesnake,” said Eva.
“I’d rather get bit by a rattlesnake than the neighbors,” said Grandma Harken.
Grandma Harken is a tough old woman, fiercely independent but very aware of her own age and weakness. The story begins when she notices her tomatoes, the pride of her garden, disappearing in the night. We see the old woman set herself up with a shotgun full of rock-salt and after a few evenings of trying to stay awake, finally confronts the thief – a mockingbird.
After a few moments of standing there, glowing like anything, the mockingbird dropped into the center of the bushes. Light splashed over the garden, briefly turning the squash and beans into a fantastic landscape of black and white … and then the light was gone.
In the dimness, she could see a figure standing up. The figure bent down, and came up with something in its hand.
Grandma Harken cocked the shotgun. The noise was like a crack of thunder across the desert.
The figure froze.
Grandma Harken looked down the barrel and said, “Don’t move. And don’t you drop my tomato.”
I actually really, really like Grandma Harken. She’s a desert-hardened old bird, with aspects of Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley from Downton Abbey and the usual crotchety old-man with a heart of gold.
Grandma Harken’s hand didn’t waver on the shotgun, but her mind was off and running like a jackrabbit.
She was never born a shapechanger, not looking like that. Whatever she’s done or had done to her, it came from the outside in.
Can’t imagine why anyone would try to turn herself into a mockingbird, but there’s strange people in the world and no accounting for taste.
At least she ain’t a kachina, or anything that looks like one. She’d been a trifle worried about that. Grandma Harken’s relationship with the people up on the three mesas was distant but cordial and she wanted to keep it that way.
This does a good job of setting up Grandma Harken’s own skill and ability in working in this world without a bunch of exposition. Small little asides, like the comments on kachina, also help to give some subtle world building. It’s in this way that we are introduced to the fantastic working of the world. It’s a slow, subtle movement that helps one accept the final shapeshifting, dragon-summoning climax because, of course, that’s what would happen. You don’t blink an eye at being told the first and second world are being folded – it’s bonkers, but you just go with it, because the story has slowly brought you into the wonder-land. Without this slow build up, the fantastic elements would appear like a bunch of rule-breaking or Lewis Carroll absurdism.
I rather appreciate this move and the eschewing of Brandon Sanderson style magical-engineering. There’s a place for that, but there’s also a place for just saying “the train-gods woke up” with a nod as if this is the most obvious thing in the world. Crazy things happen and Grandma Harken takes it in turn, responding in similarly crazy, almost deus-ex machina fashion. There’s something fun about it really.
The one glaring issue may have been that the story got away from Vernon, and this is seen in the dangling plot thread – the importance of the tomatoes, built up in that early mundane section, is completely forgotten. In the climax, they aren’t even mentioned. Why did the big bad want them? I’d have, by this point in the story, been pleased with him just saying he was hungry for one – it’d fit with the simple folklore-fantasy of the world. But it feels like, in the writing, the story grew larger than Vernon intended and thus became, not so much about stopping a tomato thief, or even saving the tomato-thief, but Grandma Harken traveling about the world. There’s a clear end it’s working toward, but this is one story where it’s the adventure getting there that’s the real meat of things.
As for some of the virtue-signalling present in most Hugo works, there isn’t really any here, at least to my reading. There’s an opportunity with the Native American folklore themes, but the closest it gets is with the train-gods’ embracing the various foreign peoples that built the railroad, but this isn’t dwelt on much. I’m thankful for that.
I don’t know terribly much of Vernon’s thought space, though some trolling on Twitter implies we wouldn’t be friendly in matters political and cultural. That this didn’t come out as much in her story was pleasant.
The story, in general, isn’t my cup of tea, but I can appreciate it and definitely enjoyed elements of it. So far, my frontrunner for the Hugo.
Continuing on with the 2017 Hugo Nominated Novelettes, we have “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman, published in the April 2016 issues of Clarkesworld. My main focus is on some undergirding philosophical issues. Jon Mollison has some commentary on the story’s virtue-signaling mess.
It’s a sci-fi story, where alien structures, “towering domes of overlapping, chitinous plates in pearly dawn colors, like reflections on a tranquil sea”, have appeared suddenly all over North America with human translators that were abducted at birth.
The story picks up when Avery, a driver for a Specialty Shipping company, is tasked to take an alien for a ride in a tour bus. The human translator and alien, unseen in a mass of shipping crates, are picked up in Rock Creek Park and direct Avery to drive “anywhere”. On their trip, the translator reveals he is a kind of conduit for the alien who itself is perpetually unconscious, literally unaware of things. The translator, from time to time, establishes this neural connection by the traditionally terrifying means (weird tentacles in facial orifices) and the alien participates in his awareness. This is like a drug to the alien though, who is dying like a junkie.
After some off-color encounters where the alien wants to experience things like killing and eating a cat, they finally end up driving to a cemetery where the alien can die in peace. Avery has a moment reflecting on her daughter who died in infancy 20 years back, before the alien properly dies and the translator reveals that the now rotted alien will give off spores establish colonies in the brains of passing dogs and children and invade. The story ends with Avery excitedly collecting spores to “grow an alien of my own” (read: embrace our new unconscious overlords).
From the get go, it has to be said the story is written well. The Hugos at least cull the bad writers, technically speaking. There are some oddities around characterization. Lionel, the alien translator, has ostensibly grown up in a world where his closest companion is unconscious and unaware. The writer attempts to get this across by strangeness in behavior, but it doesn’t read well from Avery’s responses. She seems oddly unfazed and mechanical, even when she’s trying to get away from the guy who just ate a cat to death.
But what about the content? What’s going on in the story? As my last review made clear, this is what I care about. I’m actually not a man against message fiction – I just want good messages, artfully presented.
The story stumbles on this count.
At the core of the story is the question of consciousness, acting with intentionality. Those who are familiar with the philosophical discussion around eliminative materialism (championed by big time Fantasy Author and philosopher R. Scott Bakker) may recognize its contours. Gilman doesn’t completely endorse such a view – the denial of intentionality, our capacity to act in such a way that is “about” something (see here if you want to shake that limb) – but she has tried here to imagine a “sentient” race which is basically such a thing. Human have intentionality – we are conscious, aware of, and thus direct our actions – but the aliens do not.
Swallowing this pill is made easier by not ever interacting with the aliens. The translators instead tell us that they are this way, acting confused whenever Avery uses language that applies consciousness to the aliens.
Humans, you see, have this cerebral cortex. Apparently the aliens just have the inner brain, but evolved to an immensely high degree. Thus they “act” without consciousness. I read it basically as having an instinctual nature, akin to an animal, but so complex that it “looks” human.
The story has a somewhat dim view of human consciousness. In fact, Avery seems to recognize that her own life problems stem from such things:
“As the road led them nearer to southern Illinois, Avery found memories surfacing. They came with a tug of regret, like a choking rope pulling her back toward the person she hadn’t become. She thought of the cascade of non-decisions that had led her to become the rootless, disconnected person she was, as much a stranger to the human race as Lionel was, in her way.
“What good has consciousness ever done me? she thought. It only made her aware that she could never truly connect with another human being, deep down. And on that day when her cells would dissolve into the soil, there would be no trace her consciousness had ever existed.”
Later, holding death watch over the alien, she and Lionel reflect on consciousness:
“Does he know he’s dying?” she asked.
Lionel nodded. “I know, and so he knows.” A little bitterly, he added, “That’s what consciousness does for you.”
“So normally he wouldn’t know?”
He shook his head. “Or care. It’s just part of their life cycle. There’s no death if there’s no self to be aware of it.”
“No life either,” Avery said.
Lionel just sat breaking twigs and tossing them on the fire. “I keep wondering if it was worth it. If consciousness is good enough to die for.”
She tried to imagine being free of her self—of the regrets of the past and fear of the future. If this were a Star Trek episode, she thought, this would be when Captain Kirk would deliver a speech in defense of being human, despite all the drawbacks. She didn’t feel that way.
“You’re right,” she said. “Consciousness kind of sucks.”
So it may not be that the alien “appears” human in its complexity. In fact, it may be that we humans are just screwed up. Then again, the alien dies because it’s attempting to experience consciousness, as though it is something they desire. Thus we are left with some hope in the final paragraphs of the story:
“‘We’ve got something they want. The gift of self, of mortality. God, I feel like the snake in the garden. But my alien will love me for it.’ She could see the cooler in the rear view mirror, sitting on the floor in the kitchen. Already she felt fond of the person it would become.”
It’s all an interesting thought experiment. However, perhaps because of the philosophical training, I’m left wondering how the aliens ever experience the desire for consciousness. How do they even act or decide to do things, how do they direct their translators and such to some end if they aren’t conscious? Or do they? Are these things actually only following instincts? They apparently infect other races to build their structures, to effect their invasions. Is this a decision? Apparently not, at least not a conscious decision. It seems to all only be instinctual.
But why laud this? The things feel no pain. This seems the crux of Avery’s attraction to their unconsciousness. She’s a woman who lost her child and is now rootless in the world. She appears to desire to experience something of the aliens’ unconscious existence. I’m tempted to go down nihilistic-suicide readings here, but I’ll refrain.
There is an egalitarian spectre, though. The two ways of existence – conscious and unconscious – seem to be treated with equivalence by the end – each able to help the other. I’m uncomfortable with this. The aliens seem to be nothing more than animals, maybe not even plants. Very complex animal-plants, but still nothing but animal-plants. They may not be conscious to life and death, but similarly they are not conscious to right and wrong – not a point made explicitly in the tale, but eating a cat to death without concern seems a little amoral.
In philosophic terms, this is tantamount to denying anything special about being human – at it’s best end, a kind of buddhist all-is-nothing; at it’s worst, full on atheistic materialism. Both amount to that same thing really. Maybe I should have gone down the nihilistic-suicide reading.
If the philosophic point here is too much, then go for the political. You know that environmentalist which says dogs and humans are the same? Yeah, that’s what this is.
Beyond this underlying nihilism, there’s also the usual cultural klaptrap ready to strike. The well-todo brother is gay; small town folk are bigots; the foreigner is treated with unfair suspicion by all but the protagonist. Oh, and being a traitor to humanity and celebrating an alien invasion is aokay!
Interesting, but nihilism. Always with the damn nihilism.