Yet Another ‘How Did I Not See This Coming?’ Post

Being at the intersection of academia and SFF has been like watching two battlegrounds lately. But the wars have been almost entirely within the ranks, between progressives and liberals, so I thought they were politically irrelevant.

After all, when a liberal says something, is schooled by a progressive, and humbly apologizes, nobody’s vote has changed. Just in case any of us thought it might, it’s been repeatedly pointed out to us that someone who abandons a commitment to social justice just because they were yelled at on the internet is a fragile, sniveling turncoat whose only real commitment was to self-righteousness.

Liberals are safe targets. Their manners and opinions can always be corrected, and they’re not going to turn around and vote for Trump out of resentment.

Even when Sad Puppies and Gamergate and Heterodox Academy came along, I still kept viewing these internal battles as safely left-wing. I didn’t like the prospect of a world of tiptoeing around and watching one’s every word, but I really saw no alternative. Even when I read debates and thought ‘that liberal’s mistake was in sympathizing with these bullies in the first place,’ I never considered becoming conservative.

I was stupid. I apparently thought that nobody less liberal than myself knew how to use the internet. Even when every article that challenged the PC policing garnered pages full of comments thanking the author for saying what the commenters dared not say, I still thought everybody posting was safely liberal and that the only potential republican voters in the picture were the ones over at Mad Genius Club.

How dumb was that? A lifelong liberal like myself can be brought to ‘To hell with this and its little dog, too,’ yet politically undecided observers were supposed to just take no notice?

It’s common to say that you can judge character by watching how someone treats subordinates. I now think you can also judge it by watching how people treat their friends and allies. People on the sidelines can see how much damage is done by friendly fire. They can imaginatively put themselves in the participants’ shoes, and ask ‘Do I want even one iota of this in my life or my children’s lives?’

I imagine myself as a truly undecided voter, standing in that booth on election day where nobody can see or comment on what I’m about to do. I imagine myself asking myself which side I want in my life for the next four years. Weighing economics, concern for various identity groups, the general feel of the future each side conjurs up. What will my life be like if each group prevails? What does it look like in settings where these groups have prevailed? Which of those would I want to live in, to engage with? How do they treat their friends?

I voted for Hillary because I care about a lot of people who have reason to fear the racist end of Trump’s coalition. I want them to be happy and secure. But on a lot of other levels, my vote for her felt like giving up hope. I don’t want to live in a PC future. I don’t want positions that were respectable in January to be ‘bigoted’ by June. I want off the euphemism treadmill, and into a world where we – at least those of us on the same side – treat each other as if we meant well.

Undecided people are watching. I want them to see something they’d like to be part of.

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Satire vs SFF

10917836I’ve been reading brutal satire lately. It feels like cleansing my palate, brushing off cobwebs, struggling out of a too-tight sweater that was given me by an easily-wounded elderly relative who’s been here for an extended visit… OK, that metaphor got a little out of control. But it’s how I feel when I pick up something like Lightning Rods or The Sellout.

After spending years reading SFF, my jaw drops when I pick up something like this. She didn’t just say that! Did he really — holy crap!

Then I go to google, expecting a hundred reviews calling out these books for sexism, racism, general problematicality, and find nothing. The folks who put every SFF novel, comic book or movie under a social justice microscope have nothing to say about these books. It is as if I’ve stepped into an alternate universe with completely different standards.

I suppose this is the nature of genre. Someone who picks up a romance with a soft-focus cover would not be pleased to find Lightning Rods between the covers. But SFF has always advertised itself as the freewheeling exploration of ideas, the genre that boldly goes where no-one has gone before. We puff out our chests and say Look at our bad-assitude! Our intellectuality! Our courage and innovation! when in fact right now most of our critical voices seem more focused on reshaping the field into a moral niche market.

I like moral niche markets. I own all of George MacDonald’s novels in two versions. Maybe I’ll be happier with the state of current SFF now that I’ve realized that’s what it is.

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Bring Back the Luddites

I read it over and over. “President X can’t possibly bring back jobs, because ROBOTS. AUTOMATION.” People write it as if they were saying ‘President X can’t possibly fly because GRAVITY.” As if increased automation were an irresistible force of nature.

Know what I hate? I hate when the parochial interests of one segment of society become enshrined as irresistible forces of nature. As a scientist I hate it on two levels – not just the political corruption but the incoherence. Know what was an irresistible force of nature? Smallpox.

Tell me that we could overcome smallpox but we can’t overcome automation. It becomes obvious that you’re talking nonsense, and giving a pass to the people who benefit from automating away all the jobs in the country except their own, and those of the politicians who enable them.

I’ll tell you what’s a real force of nature; unless we start killing unwanted people, they are going to hang around for decades, and they will do something with their time and their energy and their anger and their desire to, I dunno, have meaning? Have money? I’ve been saying this for years, I know, and for years they weren’t doing anything and I would have looked like a fool if anyone were looking at me.

This year, I don’t feel so foolish.


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Politics needs the Cladistic Revolution

Phylogenetic groups, public domain via Wikipedia.

Phylogenetic groups, public domain via Wikipedia. Birds and reptiles are grouped together on shared evolutionary novelties; birds and mammals, on the single significant trait of being warm-blooded.

This was a big issue in my previous life in the world of systematics. The field was in a huge paradigm war between people who classified dead fish based on shared evolutionary novelties (the cladists) and people who classified based on the most significant shared characteristics, the classical evolutionary synthetics of the historical greats. Cladists won this battle, which at the time even participants realized was not one of the great disputes of history.

Only now I begin to believe it was one of the great disputes of history, or at least it should be. Because misclassifying our fellow citizens is becoming a real thorn in my side, and leading to misunderstandings with public significance.

For instance, right now too many of my friends apply evolutionary synthetics to people who don’t support Clinton. Not supporting Clinton is the most significant characteristic for them, so Berniebros like me are in the same group with Ted Cruz. What useful generalizations can be made about this group? None that I know of, but that doesn’t stop the constant stream of posts about how we are all sexist, despite the fact that so many of us Berniebros love Elizabeth Warren.

If we applied cladistic methods to classifying the group of ‘not supporting Hillary,’ we would realize that it is completely divorced from reality (polyphyletic, for jargonistas). Like the bird-mammal grouping in the illustration, it consists of parts of two widely different groups, which cannot be expected to resemble each other in anything except the one characteristic the group is based on. They would be better classified by their evolutionary novelties: Berniebros, Trump fans, Tea Partiers, neoliberalism-haters. None of these groups have much to do with each other, and predictions based on one group will not help you manage the other groups.

This problem afflicts every social issue I can think of. When we classify by the most significant characteristic instead of the novelty that unites a group, we do not see what’s going on. Should a college classify all the students who didn’t enroll in one big group, or look at the students who left after a certain event as a distinct group? Should we lump together all people who are blocking the street during a protest, or distinguish the people who came together in the church van from the people who live on that street? Should I lump all the students who are passing my classes together, or distinguish those who already took it somewhere else from those who are being exposed to it for the first time? Should a pollster ask whether people feel the country’s ‘on the wrong path,’ or break them down into people who feel it’s becoming too socialist and people who feel it’s not socialist enough?

The answer depends on if we want to accomplish something, make useful generalizations and predictions, or just massage our presuppositions about what’s significant.

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Credible Fiction

from 'How To Create a Surreal Hollow Face Portrait in Photoshop' on

from ‘How To Create a Surreal Hollow Face Portrait in Photoshop’ on

I read a book this week that lacked credibility.

It wasn’t a non-fiction book, so those criteria of credibility didn’t apply. It was a novel about a well-defined phenomenon – the decline of the Jesuit order after Vatican II – and it contained lots of well-reasoned explanations for the phenomenon; it was obvious that the author had done their homework and thought a lot about the topic, but still it had a spectacular lack of credibility. Which naturally has gotten me to wondering about what ‘credibility’ means for fiction, and why I would even want it, and to what extent a lack of it affects my judgments about novels.

A lot of people talk about credibility in fiction in terms of accuracy. Have the characters been written in ways that are believable? Would a reader in the know view this character’s attitudes and actions as plausible? Yet the book I just finished was full of academics, saying the kinds of things academics would say in the kind of settings in which academics say them — it even included the transcript of a class lecture — and I still found it lacked all credibility.

Credibility can be derived from internal consistency. Do the characters’ actions reflect their personality traits? Do they relate to the situations? Yet in this book, the characters’ actions, personalities, and situations matched for the most part.

A book might lack credibility by being obviously biassed toward one position, forcing the facts to support the author’s favorite conclusion. Yet in this book, every person had a different opinion and the author was scrupulous about not judging them. So that wasn’t why I found it lacked credibility.

No, what this book lacked was any real explanation of the phenomenon at its center. Which seems odd, when the entirety of the book was people going around asking each other about its cause. And when I realized that’s what I was missing, I was confused – because I certainly wouldn’t have thought the book credible if it had pushed one answer too vigorously. So what did I want, anyway?

I’ve read a lot of novels about religion that satisfied me and were extremely credible, so I thought back to them and realized that they had the kind of credibility a novel can justifiably claim – credibility about the characters’ internal lives. Their opinions, actions, and personalities were credible given their histories, positions, and internal values. We got to know them deeply and see all the underpinnings to their actions.

That was what I had hoped for from the book I was reading. It was why I chose to read a novel rather than a series of blog posts. But what I got was a series of blog posts put in the mouths of characters in a novel; a novel whose author obviously knew the setting they were writing about, but that simply was not interested in chronicling how individual people made their decisions. It was exactly what I wanted a novel to get beneath, and it made me realize that the credibility of a novel, in contrast to a non-fiction book, lies in that exploration of the individual.

My critique group has been telling me they can’t get into one of the major characters in my WIP, and this may be what they’re getting at. So even though I was very frustrated with this Jesuit novel, it was worth reading for that insight.

Perhaps I’ll spend part of the weekend writing out backstories for all of my characters.




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Connect – or not?

Network, by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Network, by
Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

A friend of mine was in a class of really shy people this summer, and the leader finally had them play the ice-breaking game Connect. Heard of it? I hadn’t either.

It’s one of those games where you talk about yourself until someone else in the group finds they have something in common with you, upon which they shout ‘connect!’ and talk about themselves until someone else finds… etc. etc. I gather you can use string, but my friend didn’t report that. What she did report was how much fun it was. She became quite animated as she described the things people had in common, how folks leapt in to state their connections, how everybody became at ease with one another and laughed and enjoyed themselves.

When I got home, one of my friends had posted a video on how to have conversations on Facebook. It contained the advice that’s become so familiar — don’t try to answer someone’s recounting of their experience with anything you think is similar in your own experience. They are not comparable and you don’t understand what it is like. In other words, don’t connect.

As I considered it this morning, I thought that a lot of our current advice about how to converse with one another assumes that we’re mad at each other. It’s advice about how to talk to someone who already expects the worst from you, who will tip over into regarding you as an asshole at a moment’s notice, and who enters into the discussion with deep misgivings about your agenda, motives, and basic cluelessness. In which case yes, it’s probably smart to not tell them about your experiences, or try to voice what you think theirs were like. It’s probably smart to just keep your mouth shut and listen. It’s also probably smart to excuse yourself after a while, and let both participants relax and talk to people they’re not mad at.

But is this how to form relationships? Personally, I have trouble forming friendships with people who are following the rules of good discourse with me, listening so considerately to my stories and not disclosing anything relatable of their own. My friendships are with the people who compare their experiences to mine, getting into deep discussions of mothers and what is it with them, or workplaces and what is it with them anyway, or what each of us liked about our latest vacation, what we ate at State Fair, or so forth. Without that give-and-take of shared, compared experience, I don’t see how I could become someone’s friend.

I wonder if we’re being given a set of etiquette rules that not only assume conflict but prevent friendship. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for, in these tense times. Maybe it’s an artifact of the people laying down the rules; in the video my friend posted, it was a professional interviewer rather than a professional friend-maker. Maybe these rules, like so many etiquette rules, are really telling us how to have a superficial interaction with someone you don’t care about. Maybe the best goal you can have in an initial encounter is to follow the rules and not make a bad impression.

Or maybe what we really need is for some leader in every social gathering to stand up and give us permission to connect.



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Irritated by an Economist

Who isn’t? In particular, I’m irritated by this article from the NYT, in which an economist tries to grapple with the question of why voters simply don’t believe it when economists say global trade is good.  You’ll be glad to know, voters, that he has an answer! In fact he has four; First, you are isolationist. Second, you are nationalist and don’t care about other countries. Third, you are focused on the benefit to your own ethnic group (that’s racist, folks; you needed me to tell you that because) Fourth, you are insufficiently educated.

You’d think that a professional economist reflecting on the failings of his profession would mention things like that 2013 spreadsheet error in the paper supporting austerity economics – especially since that paper was from the very department he works in. But why quibble over trifles?

When I read this article I thought to myself, here we have a discipline that studies large-scale issues that lead to great human suffering, and often gets things about them wrong, and generally seems more interested in analyzing the numbers than in helping the individuals who are suffering, and they wonder why they are not trusted by those people. Duh?  But then I thought about other disciplines with those same potential drawbacks. I thought about epidemiology.

Why do people feel more positive towards the person who writes about how many microcephalic babies we can expect in Brazil than they do toward the person who writes about how many job losses we can expect in Ohio? I think the reason is obvious; epidemiology is subordinate to medicine.  It’s an outgrowth of medicine, and as such it is the servant of attempts to cure people. The epidemiologist or pathophysiologist may seem (or in my case, be) more enthusiastic about the cool disease than about the patient, but the discipline will not even exist if it doesn’t serve the actual doctors and nurses who are helping that patient.

Where is the equivalent moral grounding for economics? Where are the cadres of selfless economics professionals fanning out through underemployed communities to do something about human misery? I have never seen a field economist. I’ve never been asked to donate to Economists Without Borders. So basically, I mistrust economists because I don’t see any evidence that the profession gives a damn about human welfare – yet it expects to influence policies that affect my life. What’s not to hate about that?

I searched for better articles on why economics wasn’t trusted, and found several that seemed to have a faint notion of this issue — at least, they suggested that economics should be more tightly integrated with social sciences  (one also suggested that they pay attention to data, which boggled me). But I didn’t find anything that suggested that economics needed to become subordinate to some discipline explicitly directed toward human flourishing. I’m not even sure what that discipline might be. And that may be the underlying problem.

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Review: Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer

too like the lightningHow can you go wrong with a book that has been officially permitted by six governmental agencies, certified nonproselytory, and has a page full of detailed trigger warnings for sex, violence, discussion of religion, and opinions likely to cause offense?

Too Like The Lightning isn’t a book set in the future or a book about the future, but a book from the future – and what a clever conceit it is!  This is the cleverest book I’ve read in ages.  I honestly can’t tell the author’s positions on any of the topics she addresses in it; in fact, I can’t figure out the narrator’s positions on most of them – though that may be because this is just the first volume, so BE WARNED, it ends right in the middle.

The middle of what? is the question.  Or rather, if it’s the question you might be frustrated by this book – because for this book, being in the middle is the whole point. Don’t pick it up if you want a clear quest carried out by a relatable protagonist with virtuous motives; if you want identifiable heroes and villains; if you want anything that fits into your current thinking.  Because this is a book from the future, and its point is to drop you into the middle of that future — a future clearly grown out of our current preoccupations, serving as an ambiguous commentary on them for those who wish to take it that way, but really its own thing whether you like it or not.

In short, this is a worldbuilding book.  But saying that minimizes it, because this isn’t one of those books that reruns themes from history in a postapocalyptic *yawn*, or one of those books that creates a new culture from mediaeval *yawn*, or a book which incorporates the most exotic, incomprehensible traditions from other *yawn*. This is a book populated by people who’ve consciously built every detail of their culture on first principles, who care nothing for tradition, who read Voltaire and would find current postmodern discourse amusing if primitive.

Imagine a world where …

  • gendered pronouns are verboten (but our narrator finds them useful, so he applies them based on what stereotyped role the person appears to be taking)
  • religion can only be discussed in private, with a government-certified professional
  • convicted criminals become slaves for life, forbidden to own so much as a sandwich
  • you’re not the citizen of any country, but of the supranational collective of your choice – or of none, if you really want to live without protection of the law
  • knowing another language is a grievous breach of the speakers’ privacy
  • the police can’t just tell where you are at any moment, they know your heart rate…

All seen through the eyes of one of those convicted criminals, a man who may be shoveling out a sewer one minute and called away to advise a head of state the next. Because Mycroft Canner is no ordinary person, no ordinary criminal, and his problems are no ordinary problems — especially the child he’s trying to protect (or does he really do protection?) in between hopping from continent to continent to deal with his noble masters’ flurry about the yearly ten-best lists, on which they may or may not appear, and about which they seem to care way, way too much.

Those lists are the weak point of the plot, for me. Why does anybody care? I certainly don’t, but that just allows me to ignore them in favor of pondering the worldbuilding and admiring how well the author jerks me around. Are all those permissions and trigger warnings on the first page satire, or are they demonstrating that this would be a good thing? How about Mycroft’s use of gendered pronouns, with which the reader argues occasionally? Do they demonstrate that gendered pronouns can really be done away with, that they should be done away with, that they leave a vacuum into which gender stereotypes will slip, would we or not, that Mycroft is messed up?  And what about slavery? Is Mycroft getting a good deal, or a raw deal?

In the last third of the book (just about the point I was saying to myself Oh CRAP, this thing is moving too slowly to wind up in one volume) the book begins to live up to those trigger warnings, so don’t skip over them.  But that in itself is a game-changer, throwing everything you’ve begin to assume about this culture and the characters into a cocked hat – which somebody is sure to be wearing, in this Enlightenment-worshipping future. And by the time it ended, all I wanted was the second volume.

It’s been three weeks since I finished this book, and I still haven’t a clue what the author thinks about anything.  I couldn’t be more satisfied.







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Complicity and Naming Buildings

When I joined my current school, we only had one building named after a person. It was named after St. Clare of Assisi, who I knew only as the patron saint of television.

In recent years, the school has gone through a bout of renaming buildings. We have three more named after nuns and one named after a person I honestly know nothing about, and this has happened at the very time when students at other schools have started protesting buildings named after people they disapprove of.  So I’m wondering what the point is of naming buildings after people, anyway. I never see a defense of some historical name that explains why the person chosen was memorialized in the first place.

It would be pretty interesting to have truthful explanations of why buildings have the names they do. I’m betting the plaque would usually read ‘This person gave us a mess of money and we didn’t ask how they made it. You wouldn’t have this building without their tainted money, so suck it up. You’re complicit.’

That is not the case at my school, of course, since we’re naming buildings after people who’ve taken vows of poverty and obedience. A time will come when that’s viewed as problematic in itself, I’m sure. I hope we will then be honest enough to put up our own plaque: ‘This person gave countless hours to run the school, and we didn’t ask or care whether she wanted to spend her time that way or not. You wouldn’t have any of this without her. Suck it up, you’re complicit.’

What are we trying to accomplish when we take names off buildings? Are we trying to hide from our own complicity? ‘I’m not too good to benefit from this thing I deplore, I’m just too good to admit it.’

Today’s Memorial day, one of the few days in the year when we all unite, or at least seem to, in celebrating the ways we benefit from something we deplore. This is the day we all suck it up. We’re complicit. But tomorrow we will start anew looking for ways to deny that.

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The Charms of Discourse

That was the subtitle of Advice From Pigeons, but only Sofia Samatar got the reference. Maybe Matt Bruenig would have: he has an interesting post up today about how The Discourse marginalizes the people.

I always agree with Matt completely the first time I read his stuff, and then begin to accumulate second thoughts and concerns and objections as I go on. I certainly agree with his critiques of identity politics in this one. He is arguing that the combination of The Discourse and Identity Politics creates a seamless barrier between the working class and the pundit class.

  • Lower class people, almost by definition, cannot engage in The Discourse. They do not have the education, credentials, or jobs necessary to do so.
  • Upper class people (broadly construed) can engage in The Discourse, but if they do so as a partisan or advocate of the lower classes, they are dismissed because they are not themselves lower class.

This is pretty obviously true. But when I zoom out or in, I have disagreements.

Zooming out, I see Matt’s piece as accepting that the liberal academy and intelligentsia, and The Discourse, are important to social justice. If there’s anything the Trumpening should be making us ask about, it should be this. Working class people have not gone away just because The Discourse has not included them, any more than creationists have gone away because The Discourse doesn’t include them. Matt points out clearly that pundits and practitioners of TD (I am tired of typing The Discourse) are different, become different, from the groups they rose from. What he doesn’t consider is the possibility that they become irrelevant; that TD is simply a way of keeping academic types occupied with themselves, so the rest of the country can go on its own way.

Zooming in, I ask myself if the entire process of education isn’t legitimately about changing people’s approach and language, teaching them to take analytic approaches. TD is the language of analysis, of technical experts who weigh alternatives using abstract terms that apply to all of them, rather than of advocates who are arguing for one alternative over another on far less abstract bases.

Perhaps the problem is not that TD shuts out the people, but that TD speakers insist on bothering the people. If advocates want analysis, after all, we technical experts are available for hire or pro bono; why should we assume that we are assets to movements that have not sought our services? I do not assume that I’d be any use on a hospital floor, even though I could draw a fine flow chart of the patient’s pathophysiology.

I think a lot of what comes out of the academy these days is about our own insecurities and ego issues. The rest of the country is lucky if it gets to ignore our flurrying around as we try to figure out how working in the ivory tower imparts value to ourselves and society, and what to do about the fact that when we come up with an explanation that satisfies our souls, it is usually phrased in The Discourse – so nobody outside the tower either understands it, believes it, or cares about it. Is the answer to require outsiders to learn our language before they can participate in the discussion, or to go and find out through honest research just what our discourse is good for in people’s lives?

In Advice from Pigeons, Charms of Discourse are used to summon demons by flattering them – defining them in ways that lure them into a charmed circle and keep them trapped there, listening to their own stories, until they figure out how to refute the assumptions embedded in the charms.  It was true when I wrote it, and it’s still true today.

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