Political Correctness

A Trip I’d Take in a Heartbeat

Imagine the following: you hop on a local train in Boston and, a few weeks later, hop off a train in Patagonia.  It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, doesn’t it?

Well, it kinda is, except for the fact that it isn’t, technically, possible; not only is the Darien Gap still alive and well, but there are other spots where the train system is disconnected in the middle of the journey.  That, of course, didn’t stop Paul Theroux from getting as close as possible in 1979.

Now, I don’t normally read travel books of any kind (though we do sometimes have travel writers here), but I’d read Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast in high school (it wasn’t assigned reading, but I used to sit in the back row and I had a locker just behind me.  Another class was reading this, and I was bored in class, so I read it while my classmates were slowly discussing Shakespeare plays that I’d already finished reading), so I decided to give this one a shot.  Plus, I got the book for free…

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux

The Old Patagonian Express tells the story of an adventure which, even in the limited form that Theroux attempted, is no longer possible.  The final legs of the train journey, within Argentina, no longer exist (they may, again, someday – the missing link has recently reopened for cargo trains… here’s hoping passenger service will resume someday).

It also tells the story from a point of view that is almost forty years old.  Yes, I know that most Americans are still just as provincial in their outlook today as they were in 1979, but now the WAY they are provincial has swapped around.  Today, an American traveler might be surprised that countries on the other side of their border are not as politically correct and don’t really care for American’s sensibilities…

Trochita - Expreso Patagónico - Patagonian Express

But in 1979 it was very different.  Theroux might have been a world traveler and an enlightened exponent of his age, but he still looks at the people in Latin America without romanticizing them, and generalizes about their habits and activities in a way that would cause shock and outrage if published today.

The net effect of this is… refreshing and likely more accurate.  Much of what he says isn’t exactly gentle and “nice”, but it is supremely accurate.  Someone using this as a field guide for Latin American countries might find that a lot has changed, but might still find a more realistic description of the people one will encounter along the way than if you look at a modern equivalent.  Seems that modern authors will never let you know when a certain town in Costa Rica is populated almost exclusively by people who hate tourists and look to rob them whenever possible.

Now, the question is: is accuracy a sacrifice that it’s reasonable to make in the name of cultural sensitivity?  When does political correctness cross the line from a necessary buffer to avoid prejudice to outright lying in order to soften a hard truth.

I don’t have the answer to that, but I recommend reading this book if you’re interested in the question.  It will make you think, and possibly to question.

And besides, it tells about a fascinating adventure which, in itself is more than enough to justify the purchase price.  Also, we like trains.

Definitely one to read if you can.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most popular novel, Siege, is available here.

 

 

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Remembering a Time when Political Discussion was the Province of Intelligent People

Social media seems to have given us a new paradigm: everyone, no matter how uneducated or unprepared for public discourse, posts political opinions, and we’re supposed to respect them, even if they’re moronic.

So what we end up with is that someone with perhaps four working brain cells posts a political statement which is based on a popular view or a piece of news fabricated by the Huffington Post or by Fox News – both sides are equally stupid when it comes to this, so not making any distinctions by party today).  Perhaps they just copy and paste some one-sided meme. Then, an equally ignorant individual from the other side jumps in and refutes the argument.

No one, of course, uses the media bias chart where everything under the midpoint of the yellow rectangle needs to be ignored if you have aspirations to being an intelligent human being… And any news further to the right or left of “skews” is worthless.

Media-Bias-Chart_Version 3.1

Eventually, the discussion dissolves into name calling in which people who aren’t racists get called racists, people who aren’t Nazis get called Nazis, and people who aren’t Communist get called Communist.  Of course, all of the people who call people these things are idiots…

Like all religions, politics has become dogmatic: if you don’t agree with the virulent left, you are a racist, if you don’t agree with the virulent right, you are a commie.

And then there’s Trump, who stirs the pot for unknowable reasons of his own which only makes things worse.  But this isn’t limited to the US… it’s a worldwide phenomenon.

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

in 1928, things were different.  Back then, political discourse was for thinkers.  There were expendable idiots even then, of course, but they were just rank-and-file members of different political parties who could be counted on to grab king’s horses or die trying.  But the actual thinking was done by individuals with qualifications.

Which is why, ninety years later, A Room of One’s Own holds up so well.

Now, those who know me well, know that I think extreme leftist thought (like extreme rightist thought) is hugely unproductive.  Making everything about identity politics, attempting deconstruction and brushing off a hundred years of evidence that shows that certain economic models simply don’t work unless you hold the population to them at gunpoint don’t strike me as the actions of intelligent people with everyone’s best interest in mind.  In fact they are more akin to the thinking of the religious fanatics they supposedly oppose.

Worse, I’ve gone on record disagreeing with Woolf’s opinions about Middlemarch, so I’m emotionally invested in disagreeing with her in particular…

Nevertheless, any fair reader will admit that Virginia Woolf wrote a revolutionary, angry book that is, at the same time, cogent and calm in its delivery.  As a means to attain a goal it strikes me as a hugely superior method than going out and calling everyone a racist.

In fact, this book-and the speech it was based on-are a political tract disguised as a bit of advice given to a group of women who wish to make their way in the world as writers.  It highlights an inequality by way of a series of remarks about a fictitious women’s college and then focuses on the one thing that would help the women in her audience overcome that unfortunate reality.  It doesn’t put everyone in a position to help them in the role of the enemy (which, at best is counterproductive and at worst can lead to Trump and Brexit).

So, am I recommending that you read a political essay from ninety years ago, from a side of the spectrum that isn’t my favorite?  Yes, I am.  I believe more people need to read this and to think about why it works, and why it hasn’t been out of print since its initial publication in 1929 – and long after its initial goals have been reached (remember that, today, there are many more female writers than male writers being published).

Maybe if more people did so, political discussion would return to something approaching semi-evolved subhuman intelligence.  Even that would be a vast improvement.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who prefers to explore the ramifications of technology as opposed to politics.  This makes him very different from almost all science fiction writers published today.  His novel Outside is a prime example of this preference.

The Byzantine Story of the Buenos Aires Zoo

On a cool evening in the autumn of 2016, I got home and my wife told me that there was an event being held in the neighborhood.  The idea was that one could visit various expositions and historic sites around Belgrano R and get a stamp at each.  Once one had all seven stamps, one could claim a prize.  The only catch was that we had to do it all before 8:30 PM… it was already 6:30.

St Saviour's Church Belgrano

Her kids and I (she couldn’t join due to being seven months pregnant) took off at once.  We rushed around like maniacs and visited 3 churches (including the one in the photo), 2 schools, a social club and some other stuff I can’t remember, walked about three miles and earned our prize.  The kids chose a book.

On the face of it, this book was a natural choice, as it was about the Buenos Aires Zoo.  But delving a little deeper, it wasn’t really a good book for kids at all.  It was a collection of scholarly historical essays dealing with the creation of the zoo itself in all its historical and social significance, as well as a specific focus on a Byzantine Portico commissioned for the entrance to the park.  The book, quite naturally, is entitled El Pórtico Bizantino del Jardín Zoologico de Buenos Aires.

El Portico Bizantino del Zoologico de Buenos Aires

To understand the attraction of something like this, it must be noted that, when the zoo was being planned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buenos Aires was the capital of a world power which looked to Europe for its social cues.  Anyone visiting from fin de siècle Paris would have felt right at home, and did.  Transplanted victorian ladies would have been able to walk the park’s promenades without having to modify their dress–their Argentine peers would have looked exactly the same.

So the government had art experts scouring the markets in Europe and the Middle East for suitable antiquities.  Many arrived… some real, some not-so-real, and the analysis of whether the Portico’s columns are from classical antiquity or from a 19th century Italian workshop is both exhaustive and, to a modern reader, amusing.

Amusing in a sad way, though.  Firstly, because, despite having been in the zoo many, many times, I’d never really paid much attention to the semicircle of columns set on an island in a park lake.  It was just part of the background, and a difficult to see and not-very-imposing part at that.

Secondly, it’s sad because, due to unfortunate intervention of a small but vocal minority, the Buenos Aires zoo, a magnificent public space enjoyed by a city of fifteen million people, was forced to close at just about the same time as I was gaining possession of this particular volume.  It’s supposedly going to be reopened at some future date as an eco-park (the word “eco” in there should give a clue as to which special interest group needs to be appeased), but it hasn’t happened yet.

It’s poignant that the Portico might disappear now.  Not because it was a major attraction–it wasn’t.  But it was part of the history of the city… To have it disappear as an unintended side effect of pressure from fanatics is a sad but accurate reflection of how the modern world works.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Incursion was released by Severed Press in 2017.

Writing the Other

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I recently read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  This was a gift, since it’s not the kind of book I’d normally have bought for myself.  I don’t go out of my way to read extremely unusual viewpoints in my fiction (for those who don’t know, this book is written from the viewpoint of a boy with Asperger’s). I read fiction to be entertained or to learn about the human condition, and find that neither happens when the author is forcing an “other” on us.  And a character such as this one, by its very nature, can’t be anything but forced.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I read this one.  It was a quick and easy read because the author, Mark Haddon, writes very deftly, and the first three-quarters of the book are quite entertaining.  They’re couched as a mystery story, and one can look past the message in the fiction.  It does fall down at the end because, inevitably, the message needs to be delivered and not even someone as talented as Mr. Haddon can get around the fact that message fiction is always worse than any alternative.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

My own favorite message-fiction gripe is The Handmaid’d Tale.  While I’m not a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s undeniable that hers is a brilliant literary mind.  But in order to get a message across, she thought it would be fun to take an interesting idea and bludgeon us with it.  The results are only successful if you happen to be an activist for extreme feminism (which, interestingly, and in her own words, Atwood isn’t).  I can only imagine what a real SF writer, say Ursula LeGuin or Robert Heinelin would have done with the idea.  They would have put the story first and left the message in the background (of course, they would have sold millions of copies less, but that’s another story), making the book much better, if more ambiguous, in the process.

Another example of a politically-fueled book that fails to impress is Atlas Shrugged.  It’s just as bad as the Atwood, and for the same reasons.  Only the politically motivated can possibly maintain that it’s a good book.

The second reason I’m glad I read it is because it got me thinking about writing “the other”.  This is a bit of a taboo in certain literary circles.  Essentially, there’s an outcry against people from any dominant group writing characters that belong to supposedly subjugated populations.  Whether that subjugation is due to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or whatever is irrelevant; the feeling is that there should be a minimum of tolerance for writers who commit this sin (unless that writer is part of the “right” group, in which case he’s an activist and it’s OK – yes, hypocrisy is alive and well in literary circles, it seems).

I happen to disagree.  I believe that a writer has the obligation to write whichever character is best for the story.  If someone is offended… well, let’s just say I am probably not the right person to apply to in those cases.

An author needs to tell a story.  It’s likely that that story is aimed at a certain audience so, if you’re writing about someone who is extremely different from you, you need to make sure that you do it to the best of your ability.

Will it be perfect?  No, probably not.

Does that matter?  No.  Not unless the discrepancies are so large that your audience finds them jarring.  Nobody matters but your readers.  If a college professor out in Portland denounces you for being insensitive to vegan activists because of your portrayal of your main character’s boyfriend, chuckle, thank him for the extra sales and write your next book (Chronicles of a Free-Range, Locally-Grown Chicken).

I do draw the line at purposely portraying characters from underrepresented groups as villains for political reasons, but I think the writers who do so aren’t a problem.  Why?  Because they’ll weed themselves out.  As I said earlier, books where the message gets in the way of the story are crap.

So yeah, there will always be Puritans and Prohibitionists who like to butt in and tell everyone what they can and can’t do, especially in the age of social media and the politization of absolutely everything.  Ignore them.

And if anyone says you can’t write something, tell them I gave you permission and send them here.  By the time they finish reading this, they’ll be so mad at me that they won’t even remember what they were scolding you about.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who wasn’t born on Tau Ceti, but still writes about people who were.  He also isn’t a young woman, but the main character of his novel Outside is.  He’ll let readers decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

Stripping the World to its Bare Bones

Albert Camus L'Etranger First Edition

It’s amusing to wonder what the Wehrmacht censors thought when presented with Albert Camus’ novella The Stranger for their approval in 1942. One can imagine them getting together in a smoke-filled meeting room, looking into each other’s eyes to see if any of them had taken any particular offense (or even any particular meaning) from the book and then, with a collective shrug, approved it for lack of any better idea.

After all, a book about the world’s indifference to someone completely outside of all its rules–Nazi, Allied, Polynesian, it makes no difference–can’t be framed as a political tract or even particularly subversive.

And, in that light, they were correct.  The books subversiveness is aimed at a much deeper level of existence than mere politics.

But let’s talk about the politics for a second.  The Nazis–the freaking NAZIS–let it pass and yet in the post-colonial world a sequel was written where the arabic characters were given a life of their own. Talk about completely missing the point and making a fool of oneself.  This is why so many post-colonial movements are derided: they put anger ahead of brains, and it shows a little too strongly.

Albert Camus Philosopher

So what does it subvert if not the social and political structure of its day, which it accepts without question?

It goes after the very core of what it means to be human.  By looking at the world through the eyes of the ultimate flatliner and alienated outsider, Camus questions the botom layer of the fabric of society.  Family.  Friends.  Lovers.  The very existence of a possible connection between two individuals besides shared interests and shared pleasure.

In that sense, it’s a brilliant exercise and flinches away from the end consequences only a couple of times that I was able to spot.

Of course, it’s also a dead end.  The reader is left feeling very little for the character at the end of the book.  Perhaps a vague sense that it would have been a happier ending if someone had recognized his right to be different… but also that it probably wouldn’t have made all that difference after all.  The nihilism is a bit contagious.

It’s also a dead end because it doesn’t really deal with the human condition except at one extreme, and that extreme, though valid as an argument–why can’t humans be allowed to live within their own moral codes–is still not a discussion (seventy five years after the book was writen) that humanity is mature enough to have.  People who deviate from the social establishment (be that a small group such as an office, a medium-sized group such as a political party or a large one such as a nation-state) are treated badly and metaphorically put to death.

I’ll leave others to attempt to link this one to the modern world (try analyzing a school shooting through this lens and you’ll come up with a disturbing and different take), but I do recomend giving it a read.  It’s one of those which sets the borders of human thought, and that’s always valuable.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argetine novelist and short story writer.  If you enjoy reading about outsiders, check out his novella Branch, which explores what might happen when humanity splits into distinct species.

Crossing Genres Successfully

As a writer who has published a number of science fiction books but whose next two scheduled books are in different genres (a humorous fantasy coming out in March which you can have a look at – and pre-order if you’re in the mood to make a writer happy – here, and a literary collection of linked stories which is scheduled for a little later in the year), I’m always interested in writers who succeed across multiple genres.

There are many, but since I’ve recently finished reading Hornet Flight by Ken Follett, let’s talk about him.

Hornet Flight by Ken Follett

Some years ago, I was in a relationship with a girl whose first contact with Follett was through The Pillars of the Earth.  When I chuckled and told her that Follet was a writer in the Ludlum mold – a man who produced thrillers aimed at the male beach-reading audience, she was shocked and nearly offended (she was easily offended by things that broke her structured view of the world, so that might not mean much).

As a guy who’s never shied away from reading a little bit of caveman fiction, Follett had made several appearances in my reading piles, and had always delivered.  Most notably, The Key to Rebecca is not only a good WWII spy novel but, more importantly, it finally forced me to read the original du Maurier book which is utterly brilliant and has the best opening line in the history of literature.

But back to Follett.

His case is different from mine.  I’m trying to expand into other genres while I’m still a small fish in the pond.  Supposedly, it’s easier to do it this way before you become so well-known that publishers and readers expect something specific and get angry if they don’t get it.

Follett seems to have neatly defied that conventional wisdom.  When he started writing historical novels, he was already a giant in the espionage field with a number of massive bestsellers under his belt.

Did the historical books succeed despite of this?  Or because of this?

It’s a good question.  My own opinion is that Follett’s track record–and a desire to keep him happy–spurred the publishers of the historical books to give them the marketing support they deserved.  Combined with the fact that they are reportedly very good (I have yet to read one, but intend to remedy that in the short term) sold them to a completely new audience, people like my former girlfriend, who’d never heard of the man before, but are fans of well-written historical novels.  Apparently, when your pool of new readers is almost completely different from the old one, you don’t get typecast.

More interesting still, however, is how the new audience and style feeds back into the thrillers.  Hornet Flight (2002) was written after Follett started writing the historical novels…  and I can kinda tell.

His earlier thrillers, as far as I remember, were testosterone-fueled action stories where masculine virtues were celebrated – the difference that Follett brought to the table was historical accuracy.  They were the kind of books your ex-paratrooper friends might have enjoyed and that the local librarian would have wrinkled her nose at.

Hornet Flight?  Not so much.  The spy-novel genre is a formula that works pretty well and Follett’s attempts to be inclusive and politically correct while still writing a WWII thriller falls a bit flat.  Part of it is that most of the novel is buildup to a spectacular ending (nothing wrong with that ending!) which makes it a bit of a slog in parts (whoever wrote that blurb on the cover above must have been talking about a different book), but most of it seems due to Follett’s attempt to translate modern political mores, including character selection (for example there is one female main character, good guys and bad guys, for each male) into the middle of the Second World War.

Perhaps the book was an attempt to appeal to the demographic that is reading his historical novels and also to the people who rely on him to give them great WWII thrills?  If so, he definitely failed the latter – they don’t want revisionism or forced diversity, they want those stories real and raw, warts and all.  Not being privy to the sales numbers, I can’t discuss the former.

I read Folletts every once in a while and, as I mentioned, I want to read the historical books (or at the very least the first one) so I’ll probably be adding some more opinions on his career in the future.  Stay tuned!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the Argentine writer who wrote Siege.  Everyone loves Siege. 

Acton Bell was the Best of them

It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of Acton Bell.  After all, this was a writer overshadowed by better-known siblings Currer Bell and Ellis Bell.

What?  You haven’t heard of them either?

Ah, you must not be a collector of first editions or a student of literary history.  You see Currer Bell published a novel entitled Jane Eyre, while Ellis was responsible for a tome entitled Wuthering Heights.

first edition tenant of wildfell hall

Yes, they were.  Google the first editions if you don’t believe me.

All right.  In their era, it was difficult to get published, so the Brontë sisters sold their work under male pseudonyms, Ellis, Acton and Currer being the sobriquets chosen by Emily, Anne and Charlotte.  But while even the most casual readers are familiar with the work of Emily and Charlotte–either via the written word or the countless TV and film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (or, for absolute bizarreness, the music video of the latter)–very few have been exposed to Anne’s work.

There is a reason for that.  Charlotte, who was the only one who didn’t die terribly young, kept Anne’s novels from being reprinted after her death (she is also rumored to have burned a manuscript of a second novel by Emily).  So while Charlotte’s work was becoming ever more well known, Annes languished, only beginning to get critical recognition much later, with the early feminist movement.

Political use of her work aside, it’s a true pity that Anne seems to be the forgotten sister (brother Branwell, by all accounts, squandered any talent he might have had due to a dissipated lifestyle).  Judging simply by her writing, she seems to have been, by far, the best of the three.

Yes, I know. That’s supposed to be Emily, the firebrand whose prose scars you as you read.

Yes, it’s true that Emily’s writing, and her characters are both more memorable than Charlotte’s.  They are tortured, egoistic souls stymied by their preferences and circumstances and as melodramatic as it is possible to be.  Definitely better than Charlotte’s stultifying boredom (yes, I know there was a madwoman in a tower.  Still boring)…

Anne Brontë by Branwell Brontë

But Anne, as a novelist, took more risks than Charlotte, and wrote a clearer, better-paced story than Emily.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the best of the Brontë novels.  If you don’t believe me, that’s because you haven’t read it.  It contains sympathetic protagonists who defy the conventions of their time enough that they feel almost modern, and the story is about the way they struggle against those conventions and the consequences of rebellion.  Also, it has an antagonist who deserves to be despised.

Though the novel’s re-acceptance into 19th century canon is cause for rejoicing, it’s a bit unfair that it’s been tarred with the “early feminist novel” brush.  That alone will keep many people from approaching this book–anyone familiar with the writing of Kate Chopin will have learned their lesson: writing that only survives because of a political push is always terrible, even if the politics are sound.  It’s a pity that this should be so because Anne’s novel is actually good literature, despite the anger that might or might not have informed some of its more memorable scenes.

Yes, the very act of writing and publishing this book was a feminist act (as was that of Wuthering Heights, which is just about the most un-feminist book I can think of), and yes, when Anne’s protagonist leaves her husband, it was the first time something like that had happened in a major English novel.

But there are more important things going on in this book, and the political significance, whether contemporary or post-mortem, was given to it by others.  It’s really just a book about characters dealing with their world as best they can.  And it excels in that light.

So go to your library and ask them for something by Acton Bell.  Hopefully, a librarian should know what you mean… if not, send them here!

Food Scares in the 21st Century – and the misguided, albeit well-meaning people who propagate them

Monsanto.

For a certain kind of activist, and for many people who get their news through social media (and worse, believe what they read on other people’s feeds), this is possibly the dirtiest word on the planet.

frankenfood propaganda 2

But Monsanto is actually just a symbol.  An easy-to-point-to enemy that represents the terrible evil that is the genetically modified food industry.  There are many other companies, and more than one government behind the scenes, involved in the same debate.

The anti GMO activists are well organized and have learned to use powerful words such as Frankenfood to use consumers’ ignorance and fear against them.  This isn’t really the fault of consumers, of course.  Most people won’t have the time–or, let’s be honest, the interest–to do any kind of research around genetically modified foods, so if someone says that Frankenfoods are bad for you, they will buy it hook, line and sinker.

Another thing working in the activists favor is that eco-groups such as Greenpeace are getting more and more respectable every day among intellectuals and postmodernist thinkers.  A statement from one of these groups creates a feeling of legitimacy behind a claim of GMO food being bad for consumers, wildlife, biodiversity, or the planet as a whole.  But mostly, and smartly, they focus their attentions on people’s self-interest and insist that GMO foods are bad for you and your family.  It’s a smart strategy because while people might be concerned about biodiversity, they won’t change their behavioral patterns because of it… but tell them they will die if they eat Frankenfoods, and they’ll go out and buy organic.

Finally, there’s the perception that GMOs are mainly used by big farming consortiums.  And everyone knows that big business is Evil (note capital “E”).  More reason to avoid them.

So the case against GMOs is pretty clear.  The question, one supposes, is what works in favor of GMOs?

Reality, mostly.

Let’s take this from the least important point first and work our way up to why people who know what they’re talking about will calmly and happily eat any GMO product you put in front of them, and feed them to their families, too.

The myth that farming corporations use GMOs and local farmers don’t is silly.  Local farmers are mostly using the same seed suppliers, but even if they are actually trying to avoid the corporate seed conglomerates, there’s no way to avoid genetically modified crops.  You see, human beings have been modifying crops and livestock through selective breeding for thousands of years.  The most basic non-GMO seed available on the planet is… not even remotely non-GMO.  So one can have one’s mind at ease regarding that particular point.

The second point that doesn’t hold up at all well is that environmentalist groups are against GMOs.  That must count for something, right?  Well… While these groups do excellent work to create conscience around important environmental issues, they are equally often overcome by the enthusiasm of extreme factions within and will often take action before the science is completely understood… simply on general principles or because they feel it is an important issue.  While one must admire their courage, this simply isn’t the right way to go about things.  Greenpeace’s stance on GMO potatoes in Mexico in the late 90s and early 2000s was a clear indication of enthusiasm overruling science.

(We take the time to point out a conspiracy theory question here.  We have no proof, so we present it for you to reach your own conclusions.  Is it just coincidence that the European Union, many of whose governments support Greenpeace, is way behind on GMO use when compared to places like the US and Latin America?  We don’t know, but tend to think it isn’t).

frankenfood propaganda

Finally, there is the science itself.  Many different disciplines argue that GMOs are one of the best things that has ever happened to humanity, but let’s choose just two.

Mathematics is the first.  And we don’t even need to go much further than the four basic operations.  It’s not in doubt that crop yields have grown thanks to the modification of seed stock, and losses to parasites have been driven down.  At the same time the population of the planet has also been growing steadily.  If you do the math, you will be able to conclude that without GMO, a good chunk of the world is now starving.  Not in countries that export food, perhaps, but how would you like to be in England without GMOs and with a new-age, enlightened and postcolonial population who won’t let you simply invade the nearest third world country and steal their crops?

For the second, let’s choose medicine.  After exhaustive research, the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that there is no evidence whatsoever that genetically modified crops pose a health risk to humans.  This article from the Alliance for Science gives an overview.  Interestingly all the people who think otherwise, including Greenpeace, were invited to give testimony.  The conclusions were unshakable.

So, in this solemn act, we hereby officially demote GMO-bashing to the level of pseudo-science.  Welcome home!  Take your place alongside astrology, homeopathic medicine and pop psychology!

Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction, Part 2

For Part I of this series, see here.

Dozois Year's Best 30

As lovers of all literary forms, from Romance to the classics, we don’t turn our noses up at anything, mainly because we know that everything is interesting in its way.

But not everyone shares our eclectic preferences or polymath tendencies.  For decades, the literary establishment considered Science Fiction writing to be little more than a lowbrow diversion suitable for children and the lower classes.  The pre-pulp and pulp eras of the genre are probably the most illustrative of the times when that attitude was prevalent.

After WWII, however, the tide shifted and the stereotypical science fiction fan was a pimply male who was better in the classroom than on the playing fields of the world.  Fans of SF clustered together and fandom–a pioneer that showed today’s myriad fan communities the way forward–was born.  The fiction, of course, was still dismissed as something that was fine for teenage boys: you know, rocketships and robots and that sort of thing.

Both of these stereotypes over-generalized, of course.  The literature being published in the pulps was often excellent… and the postwar fans were not all pimpled nerds.  Having said that, there were arguments that upheld both of those assumptions, and no one was particularly concerned with debunking the prejudice except for SF fans themselves, and no one really cared what they thought.

In the sixties, those postwar teens had become adults, and deeply resented the ghettoization of their beloved genre.  They set fingers to typewriters to prove that SF could be grown up as well, and proceeded to bombard the world with reams of mostly-forgotten prose (Dune being the major exception) that proved that the genre could do character-driven stories, stream-of-consciousness, literary sexuality, drug-addled confusion, angsty existentialism and pop psychology just as well as the literati of the day.  It was the New Wave.

Luckily for the genre, that particular tendency soon died out and SF went back to its roots in the seventies. After the new wave, the genre was more mature and held a much higher profile (more thanks to Star Wars that anything the New Wave did for it), but it was still easily recognizable as the genre which had been born in the pulps and not some weird thing that Andy Warhol would have written had he been a writer.

The eighties, which we discussed here continued the pendular swing towards action-driven SF, but the pendulum swung back decisively in the nineties.

With a few honorable exceptions, the more visible genre is now dominated by character-driven, agenda-driven literary fiction, and is bitterly split roughly along political party lines in the US.  At the risk of over-generalizing, Democrats seem to appreciate the high-quality writing of the genre the way it is, and are at the helm of many of the established magazines and also at least one of the major houses while Republicans find the current iteration of SF to be mind-numbingly dull and overly focused on politics over substance (this is the essence of the famous Sad Puppies schism).  They are also the core audience of one of the publishing houses.

Other than the two we’ve mentioned, the rest of the houses don’t actually care about the color of the politics if they think they can sell the book, so there is more literary diversity on the bookshelves than in the magazine spectrum but, as the talent in SF is supposed to come up from the magazine world, even the big houses’ output does tend to skew a little to the left.

So why am I rehashing and oversimplifying the history of the SF genre?  Easy, I’ve been catching up on my reading of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction Anthologies.  Though I’m still a couple of years behind, I recently read #29 and #30.

A quick note for those new to the genre: Dozois, a former editor of Asimov’s is the current taste-maker of the SF genre.  Vastly experienced, he is hugely respected in the field and can be essential in making (or ignoring) promising young writers.  He specializes in the short form, which means that he can turn an obscure story in a mag into a famous piece just by including it and praising it in one of his anthologies.

Anyhow, Dozois’ taste has evolved over the years, perhaps matching, perhaps leading, the genre’s swing towards more literary sensibility and political activeness and less entertainment.  The two or three Year’s Best books before #29 had been pretty dull and more concerned with diversity of voices than diversity of content, broken only by the occasional Alastair Reynolds tale (Reynolds is always high-concept fun and I honestly think he doesn’t care about politics at all… at least that’s the impression I get from his fiction).

Dozois Year's Best 29

And #29 was just another one of these.  Kind of a slog.  Some good stories and some great writing in there, but not enough to become a memorable collection.  Sort of another grey monument to the “diversity” era of SF.  The worst of it is that the individual stories are all generally good.  The problem is that, when taken together, they put the problems of the genre into sharp focus.  No one seems to want to deviate from the norm and after two dozen tales, it does get monotonous.

Number 30… gives me hope.  There seemed to be less grey porridge in there, and a few more tales that march to their own drummer.  Reynolds, of course, but also a brilliant one by Stephen Popkes.  It just seemed… better than any of the prior ones, perhaps a sign that, after a couple of decades, the pendulum is swinging back towards the sense of wonder that has been lacking in the genre for so long.  (or it might have been the fact that they re-used the cover art from Foundation and Earth, and this colored my thinking!)

Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov

Of course, this might just be a flash in the pan.  Both of these came before the Puppies controversy.  That ended with the establishment simply retrenching and covering up their ears, trying to yell louder than the opposition–as it does in every walk of life–and widening the gap.  Time will tell if Dozois took the same line.  Our review of the anthos from the next few years should answer that.  Stay tuned!

Beyond a Few Statues

Statue of Lenin Dropped

If you were alive in 1989, then you remember the end of socialism.  Millions of people decided that individual freedoms were more important than collective security and, defying humorless men with guns, brought down nearly every government in Eastern Europe.

One of the lasting images burned into the retinas of those of us glued to CNN was that of statues of socialist leaders being pulled down all across the region.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple.  The destruction of a few statues was not enough to destroy the idea of socialism, and, twenty years later, the world is awash with left-leaning ideas that cover the spectrum from slight sacrifices in personal freedom in the name of more equality for vulnerable populations to full-blown communism.  Socialism clearly isn’t dead.

Why?  Well, because the statues weren’t socialism, and neither was the Berlin Wall.  Socialism is a collection of ideas about how society should be structured in order to achieve a certain number of goals.  These ideas range from making capitalism a little more “fair” to doing away with the capitalist system altogether.

And these ideas don’t live in statues.  Statues are about power, but ideas live in books.  That’s why socialism didn’t die when everyone thought it had: those books stayed on the shelves and eventually a new generation of activists and scholars rediscovered them.

The above seemed a timely reminiscence, as today’s review is about Gone with the Wind.  The book, not the movie.

Why timely?  Because, as I write, there has been a very recent series of high-profile removals of Confederate statues from public spaces in the US, mainly of General Lee.  These removals took place in a highly polarized climate, but were undeniably driven by a large number of people (although they were probably also opposed by an equal number… as one can imagine, reliable numbers in today’s media climate are hard to come by).  Protesters and counter-protesters clashed, with violent and even tragic results.

Perhaps the problem is that both sides seem to have forgotten the lessons of 1989.  No one cared about the statues until they became front page news; they were just part of the urban landscape, and I’d have been willing to bet that most could not have told you who the guy on the horse was until everything hit the fan.

But the ideas?  They exist.  In the case of the Confederacy there is a structured case for why it existed: broadsides, pamphlets, letters and even the constitution are in university archives.  But these documents are not the ones that keep the idea of the Old South alive for its proponents.  Popular media does that job.

Perhaps the most virulent example of propaganda in that respect is a film: Birth of a Nation.  It tells the story from the Southern side, and no matter where your sympathies lie, you end up feeling strongly for the characters.  Yes, time has passed it by and the premise of the “Ride of the Klan” is cartoonish and grotesque, but the film is very well done all the same.  In fact, it is considered one of the true greats of early film.

More subtle is Judge Priest, where folksy Will Rogers shows us how it’s done without beating anyone over the head with it.

Gone with the Wind Paperback

There are countless other examples, mainly from the twenties and thirties when mass media was working up some serious steam, but the biggest seller of the idea of the Old South was clearly Gone with the Wind.

The film… was just a Hollywood blockbuster, and not really a propaganda piece (despite never questioning the nobility of the Confederate cause), but I’d argue that the book is the Old South’s Communist Manifesto.  It’s impossible to read this brick and not feel truly moved by the plight of every single Southern character (except Scarlett–she’s unbearable), and feel a deep sense of loss for a way of life that ended in blood and fire.

I don’t read books with an eye to the politics, which meant that I approached this simply as a book (and a romance at that), which meant that, until I sat down to write this review, was only concerned with the story itself and the plight of the characters.  The fact that it also contains a good blow-by-blow account of what was happening in the war made it doubly interesting for anyone who enjoys history (and if you’ve read our manifesto, you know we do).

By the end of the book, I felt truly sorry for what the characters had to live through… and also pined for the society that existed at the beginning of the book.  Granted, it only takes a little bit of analysis to recall that the gentrified lifestyle existed on the back of a slave economy but I postulate that most casual readers will not do the exercise of analyzing this and will walk away with a deep sense of loss.

I’ll go one step further: I will categorically bet that no one who picks up this book purely for pleasure will do this analysis.  The people who are sensitive to the issues it raises will either avoid it or read it for study purposes, not for fun.

Perfect propaganda.

So what to do with it?  It’s still selling very well, so it’s not going to go out of print anytime soon (and the Kindle is bringing it to a completely new audience).

So, ban it?  Burn it?  Try to pressure the publisher into canceling the next huge print run?

Or perhaps just accept that ideas can’t–and shouldn’t–be killed?

Whatever happens, it should be an interesting battle to watch.