politics

Away from a theory of a village so insignificant it isn’t even there creating a roadblock

There’s a major controversy currently underway in academic circles.  A study that attempts to expose non-scientific practices among major academic journals, where buzzwords and politics allegedly outweigh solid research, has the social sciences world abuzz.  Our contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens gives her reflection on the ultimate importance and consequences of the study.

 

Scene from Catch 22

-That sounds like a lot of crap.
-It is a lot of crap, Sir.

In Catch-22, Yossarian receives a medal for releasing his bomb load over the ocean. Realizing that both the target and the mission have no military value, whether considered strategically, tactically, or psychologically, he toggles his bombs three minutes before reaching the target, determined to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths. Because his plane is leading the formation, every bombardier in the group toggles their bombs on his cue. Yossarian’s insubordination is now mutiny, for which the commanding general wishes to bring Yossarian before a court martial. However, he immediately recognizes that a court martial will precipitate no small amount of negative publicity, much of which will reflect badly on Yossarian’s commander; that is, on the general himself. Luckily for both the general and Yossarian, there were no German fighters protecting the sea, and no flak defending it. Consequently, the group was undisturbed and in perfect formation, meaning their bombs fell in a perfect pattern. For achieving this perfect bomb pattern, Yossarian and several other officers of the group receive medals, and the general’s public image is enhanced commensurately.

Yossarian’s refusal to strike the intended target wasn’t cowardice or treason, but an awareness not only that the mission was pointless, but that his commanders were as aware of this fact as he was.

After the war, Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, attended both USC and NYU, and received a Masters in English from Columbia. He was also a Fulbright Scholar who taught at Penn State and later wrote ad copy full time for a small but successful agency. He spent more time in academia than in uniform, and didn’t just know bullshit inside and out, but was sufficiently proficient in flinging it to make a living, although selling the movie rights to an internationally successful novel is what made him a millionaire.

The day before Catch-22 premiered in theaters, Canadian-American psychiatrist Eric Berne was delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of the Golden Gate Group Psychotherapy Society. He had titled his address “Away from a Theory of the Impact of Interpersonal Interaction on Non-Verbal Participation,” and admitted midway through that the title was a sham. In that speech, he speculated that the reason people went into psychiatry was “that they’re not required to do very much except to have staff conferences to explain why they can’t do very much.” Anyone who has read or seen Catch-22 recognizes instantly what Eric Berne meant: You can only see the Major when the Major isn’t in.

After admitting to the sham title, he explained that he’d decided upon that title because psychiatrists were always presenting papers titled “Toward a theory of…” one thing or another, but actually several things conflated for importance; not an importance of content but of context and resonance. It had to sound like something it wasn’t, really, without being too clear about what that was. He also explained that he decided on “Away from a theory” because he felt that it was only when you stepped back from any theory, and got a good look at it from a clear vantage point, that you could make any sense of it. He also noted that in the real world, no one goes “toward” something. When you get on an airliner, for instance, the pilot never says, “We’re going toward Chicago.”

Obviously, the hypothetical supposition that nonsense which sounds good and flatters someone in authority can be accepted and even applauded had been tested and proven even before Sokal successfully rose to the challenge in the late twentieth century. That three academics could give new life to a classic Calvin and Hobbes strip by cobbling together some trendy buzzwords isn’t exactly the stuff of firestorms.

Calvin and Hobbs Academia

It’s actually more of a tempest in the tea party. Yes, four facetious papers were actually published. Out of twenty. And three more had been accepted. But the four published papers were not acclaimed as brilliant by readers; rather, they were spotted as nonsense, even if there was no initial presumption of disingenuous intent or bad faith. And the brilliant scheme to expose something ended by exposing only the schemers, who prudently chose to confess to their duplicity somewhat ahead of schedule.

Advertisements

And We Are All Mortal

Thirteen Days Film Still

Marya Kazakova as the Soviet Woman waiting outside Robert Kennedy’s office while Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin attempts to postpone World War Three, tentatively scheduled for the following morning.

 

Our series of posts reviewing movies that deal with JFK’s presidency continues today with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ review of Thirteen Days.  For the previous posts in the series, see here, here and here.

Other than two contemporaneous documentaries, there aren’t any noteworthy films about the 1960 US presidential election, at least as far as google cares.  Likewise, in cinematic terms, The Bay of Pigs has been frequently referenced but rarely depicted.  So with the exception of November 1963, only thirteen days of October 1962 define the Kennedy presidency in film, and only twice have those thirteen days been presented to audiences in a substantial production.

Ironically, 2000’s Thirteen Days isn’t based on Robert Kennedy’s book; it just uses the title to great advantage; an advantage that 1974’s made-for-TV docudrama, The Missiles of October, which was based on Robert Kennedy’s book, gave up in alluding to another book, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  If you’re confused, just imagine how Robert MacNamara felt.  As the Kennedy administration’s Secretary of Defense, he’d personally experienced every moment of those thirteen days at their most immediate and intense, and when he was told Kevin Costner was starring as the main character–well he surely envisioned himself as that character, and must have been immeasurably flattered.  But he had to ask, just to be sure, and when producer Peter Almond, who had arranged a private screening for MacNamara, said, “Kenny O’Donnell,” MacNamara immediately refused, adamantly, to watch the movie, because in reality, O’Donnell was among those least aware of what happened during the crisis; he was a personal appointment secretary, and his job was nothing more than tracking and choreographing politically beneficial occasions, and keeping the President punctual.  Something like the guy on the carrier deck holding the paddles.  Undeniably an important position, but of a necessarily limited importance, particularly when contrasted with someone at the highest levels of command.

Robert MacNamara failed to understand the phenomenal value of a well-placed fictive device, at least until he later relented and viewed Thirteen Days, which he then described it as “absolutely fascinating … a very constructive and responsible portrayal…”  That fascination, which is sadly absent from The Missiles of October, doesn’t arise from the responsible presentation of factual details, which both films do well, but from placing those details in personal perspectives; most frequently by allowing Kevin Costner to portray Kenny O’Donnell responding to these moments, or acting upon those events, as they are revealed to him, and in turn to the viewer, through the fabrication of O’Donnell as a character who is essentially fictional in spite of being a real person who was also a close friend of Robert Kennedy.

As with any illusion, the effectiveness of it is established through a deft sleight of hand.  The opening credits present themselves on a backdrop of short clips evoking the zeitgeist of the conflict through the confluence of the two concurrent international contests–the space race and the arms race.  And as the last of the credits fades out along with these images, we find ourselves at the O’Donnell family’s breakfast table.

The O'Donnel Dinner table from Thirteen Days

The implicit cliche goes unsaid, but remains clear; all the more so for being tacitly inferred; the first of these thirteen days begins like any other day.  A detail made all the more effective for its triviality is Kevin’s report card, which he tries to slip past his dad by saying it’s a permission slip.

Kevin O'Donnel's report card from Thirteen Days

Of course, dad notices just a heartbeat before putting pen to paper, and this image retains a recurring resonance each time the elder O’Donnell rebukes or reproves either Jack or Bobby, or when he reminds everyone that press secretary Pierre Salinger had to be kept in the dark throughout the crisis, or when he spells out to a journalist the consequences of reporting rumors the White House is unwilling to confirm.  And true to form, the film concludes with the last of the thirteen days ending like any other day, with Bobby standing beside Jack, and saying, “We’re out here, Kenny.”

The Big One

First Edition of the King James Bible

There are some books that all aspiring writers MUST read, no excuses accepted.

In English, I can think of two obligatory tomes.  The first, and one which we’ve discussed here before, are the complete works of William Shakespeare (yes, even Cymbeline).  I’ve never really found anyone who argues this point… I’ve found a lot of would-be writers who haven’t read this, but all of them think they should have.  After all, much, if not all of what came afterwards was built upon the structures created by old Bill.  It’s so deeply ingrained into the literary language that we take it for granted, and when, as the BBC has recently begun to do, his influence is made explicit, we shake our heads in wonder.

The other book seems to be more divisive, but is a book that is even more influential.  It is, of course, the King James Version of The Bible.

A lot of writers, mainly for political reasons, absolutely refuse to read this one.  Some will be angry that I’m mentioning it here.  As an atheist myself, I can tell them that they’re not very smart; reading the KJV has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with understanding the roots from which the tree of English-language literature, including the most radicalized leftwing tracts of today, grows.

But its influence doesn’t end with the dozens of sayings and cultural and moral baselines that it has injected into society.  It is also a book that took the best of the oral traditions and, over the years, honed them until each became the most convincing version it could be.

Of course, the bible does mix it up a bit.  On one hand, you have compelling narrative spots (the extremes, Genesis and Revelations come to mind), but it also has mind-numbingly boring spots (Leviticus, I’m looking your way).  In fact, I’d say that about half of the text itself has little to no impact on the public consciousness today, especially when it comes to the Old Testament (although I’d love to know just how strictly modern Judaism keeps to some of the tenets – if anyone knows, would love to hear from you in comments).

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

So reading it is a slog of rules and names and measurements of temples in arcane units at times (broken up by the narrative bits, which are quite good).  This isn’t Dan Brown.  You won’t find it un-put-downable.  But the time invested is worth the effort (my own payoff came when, during a game of trivial pursuit, someone asked me how many psalms were in the Book of Psalms… A question I would never have been able to answer before reading all 150 of them – hopefully, your payoff will be deeper than this).

The upside is that you’ll get to read firsthand stuff you hear or read about every day.  From Samson to Adam and Eve, from Jonah (man was he minor) to Jesus, it will be an important element in your cultural toolbox.

So I read the whole thing.  It took a while, but it was definitely worth it.  I wouldn’t, probably, do it again, but I would definitely recommend a cover-to-cover reading of the KJV as one of those bucket-list experiences that a writer needs to have under his belt.  It will make you a better author.

And yes, you’re allowed to take my name in vain as you struggle through Leviticus.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s novel Incursion is supposed to be even better than his popular book Siege.  You can check it our here.

Taking Another Look at Gardner Dozois

We’ve discussed Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction series here before.  These books are the longest-running and most complete overview of the short fiction in the genre that money could buy.  The Summation–Dozois’ comprehensive essay about the state of science fiction–at the beginning of each book is worth the price of admission on its own.

I’ve been a bit down in my reviews of some of these volumes lately, mainly because I saw them following the same depressing trend as the rest of the genre–while the writing is uniformly excellent, the stories themselves are boring, and they are beginning to fall into a predictable pattern.  With all of time and space to play with, is it possible that so many of the “year’s best” stories harp on the same theme?  It’s always the same: someone with no power (usually from an oppressed group or subgroup) does something and the reader comes to understand how power works and how the oppressed feel and act.  The American culture wars writ large… and yawn.  Individually, the stories can be inspiring and interesting… but a dozen of them together make for a dull slog.  Thankfully, there’s usually a dark and twisted Alastair Reynolds tale in there somewhere to break up the monotony.

In fact, I have often pointed to Dozois as being one of the main motors of this trend.  After all, he spent more than thirty years as the single most important tastemaker in the genre.  If he said it was good, then it was good.  No questions asked.

And then Dozois went and died on us in May.

Though I never knew him personally, never sold him a story and had been critical of some of his recent selections, he was an important literary figure in my life (and even more for others).  Collections he edited, alone or with others, take up quite a bit of lineal yardage in my bookcases.  I knew his name very well as a teenager, long before my first story sale, or even before it occurred to me I might have stories worth telling.

So I decided to take a step back and to look at his work in the context of the current state of the genre by dipping into two of the Year’s Best books, one recent and one a little earlier.

The Year's Best Science Fiction - Tenth Annual Collection - Gardner Dozois

The earlier volume was The Year’s Best Science Fiction – 10th Annual Collection, chosen precisely because it comes from a time before I was writing in the genre and from a time before the culture wars overran the SF world.  This one collects stories from 1992 – I was in high school then.

This one was interesting indeed.  You see, the trends that were to shape the nineties and noughties were already there: despite the fact that a lot of the stories had a very eighties feel to them (eighties feel in SF is hard to explain except to say that I know it when I feel it), the choice of some writers who would come to make a deep impact on the field, and themes such as environmentalism and diversity were already present.  Dozois wasn’t so much leading the charge as he was reading currents that it would take others a decade or more to recognize.

The Year's Best Science Fiction- Thirty-First Annual Collection - Gardner Dozois

The recent volume was The Year’s Best Science Fiction – 31st Annual Collection, which covers stories published in 2013.  My verdict?  This one was a little better than the preceding pair, and the hope from the thirtieth edition was realized.  In this volume, the trend to have fewer and fewer of the more preachy stories continued, and the quality and enjoyment factor, as a consequence, increased.

I still need to read four more of Dozois’ volumes (I hope the publisher clearly and explicitly either ends the series or assigns a new editor instead of keeping Dozois alive as a zombie) to see if this trend continues, but I suspect it might (stay tuned for future reviews).

If it does, it will be Dozois’ greatest prediction: while the 2018 Hugos were, due to internal politicking in the SF world, a tinny and hollow celebration of one group’s politics, with absolutely no relationship to literary merit (through no fault of the winning writers, I hasten to add, all of whom probably do have literary merit), Dozois was looking forward to the time after the politicking was done, and a new SF genre more accepting of both racial and political diversity came into being.

While everyone else was shouting, Dozois was busy reading everything, regardless of politics, and thinking.  My suspicion, pending the few volumes I still have left to enjoy, is that the shouters on both side’s of SF’s divide will catch up to Dozois sometime in the next decade.

His adult voice among squabbling children will be sorely missed.  And so will his summations…  man, those were awesome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest Science Fiction novel is entitled Outside.  You can buy it here.

Because Reading the Warren Commission Report Is Like Drowning

Our star contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens is back.  Today, she brings us her look at Oliver Stone’s JFK.  As always, her eye for history and analysis brings the subject to life.

JFK Assassination

On November 22nd, 1963, that bright shining moment which was Camelot abruptly faded to black.  In an amazingly similar way, when we look back at December 20th, 1991, we see that this big blue ball we know as the earth, after several centuries of spinning and moving just as Galileo insisted it did, began to go flat.  With the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK, an adroit concatenation of details became more convincing than a rational evaluation of what those details added up to, because it succeeded where David Miller’s Executive Action (1973) failed.  As Roger Ebert concluded, in JFK, Oliver Stone was able to “marshal the anger… gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

It should be noted in passing that contrary to what has been said for more than fifty years, more than one hunter using the same model rifle and same ammunition attributed to Oswald has managed to replicate the allegedly impossible, putting three shots, and not just two, into a moving target at the same angle and distance; experienced crime scene investigators using precise laser measurements have digitally reconstructed the details of Dealey Plaza and recreated the events of that historic day; without resorting to magic, ballistics experts using a bullet identical to the one found on the gurney have replicated its assumed performance in simulated human bodies placed in the position of the president and Governor Connally; and experienced forensic pathologists have evaluated the skull fragments, concluding that those grisly moments revealed in the Zapruder film are the consequences of two bullets, both fired from behind, with the first shattering the skull in a manner familiar to pathologists who conduct examinations of fatal gunshots to the human head.  None of this, or even all of it taken together, gives any indication of any shooter other than Oswald, but of course, it doesn’t prove that Oswald was the shooter, or that one shooter acted alone.  If one believes there was a conspiracy, one cannot be convinced by the available evidence that there was no conspiracy, yet if one wishes to dismiss any possibility of a conspiracy, one is hard pressed to ignore the myriad coincidences surrounding this assassination.  And this is the strength of Oliver Stone’s JFK.

JFK movie poster 1992

Stone does not fail to marshal facts, but he uses them for emotional impact rather than for their factual value, just as one collecting bricks need not build a wall with them, but might choose instead to hurl them for impact.  “The film hurtles,” (Ebert again) “for 188 minutes through a sea of information and conjecture, and never falters…”  This is not to say his collection of facts is complete, or that the facts themselves have all been, or even could be, verified beyond question.  Stone himself conceded, perhaps disingenuously, that JFK was an “alternative myth”.

The impact of his impeccably crafted myth is all the greater for its cast of mythic proportions.  Donald Sutherland, Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, and John Candy are all cast in minor roles.  Joe Pesci is cast in one of his best supporting roles, and Tommy Lee Jones, as Clay Shaw, plays one of his most unusual roles impeccably well, effectively giving the devil his understated due as a foil to Costner’s equally impeccable presentation of a District Attorney caught up in something surely beyond his jurisdiction, and yet falling somehow squarely within it.

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.

A Bilingual Treat

Growing up in multiple cultures can, sometimes, be difficult, but it also has it’s joys.  I was recently gifted a book by a friend entitled Ramon Writes.  Now, this book can’t be understood by anyone who doesn’t meet the following criteria:  A) lived in Buenos Aires for at least a few years, B) speaks fluent English and understands the culture of the large British emigration to Argentina in the late 19th century and C) speak fluent idiomatic Spanish–particularly focused on Buenos Aires slang from the 20th century.

Ramon Writes_Buenos Aires Herald_Basil Thomson

A tiny group, surely?

Apparently not.  Item A is dispensed with reasonably easily, as 15 million, give or take the odd million people currently reside here.  B is the one that seems to be the stumbling block unless one realizes that like most third world countries, the good schools are mostly British, which means that many middle-class and upper-middle-class children grow up with at least a passing knowledge of the culture needed, as well as a high level of proficiency in English.  C is pretty much everyone, so no problem there, except that it excludes foreigners.

The analysis above isn’t necessary, though.  My edition of the book is a third edition from 2007, meaning the two earlier ones sold well enough to justify this.

So what IS Ramon Writes?  It’s a collection of pieces from the sorely missed Buenos Aires Herald newspaper, once a bastion of culture which was eventually destroyed by both the internet and an unfortunate change of ownership but which, for 140 years gave Argentina one of the few decent sources of actually objective news for intelligent humans in the country (along with the La Nación newspaper… and nothing else). Also, it was the only place that ran peanuts cartoons; enough said!

These pieces ran from 1949 to 1977 and tell the story of the scion of a traditional British / Argentine family who is essentially what we’d call a vago atorrante (it translates roughly as ne’er-do-well, but has much deeper cultural meaning in Argentina).  This is a personality type which is well suited for life in Buenos Aires in that era, but not so much to keep with the expectations of his respectable family.  Being a ne’er-do-well doesn’t disqualify one from society, you just have to take the barbed comments!

They’re funny and entertaining but more importantly they’re also a veiled critique of life and morals at street level but also among the high society, while not shying away from the occasional barbed comment aimed at the politicians of the day.  When you realize that those politicos included people such as Perón and the military dictators of the 1970s, men with a true lack of anything resembling a sense of humor, you also end up admiring the courage these took.  Basil Thomson, the man behind the columns, could easily have had serious trouble because of what he wrote.

Anyhow, this is a tiny piece of extremely local color that serendipity dropped on my doorstep, and I decided to share with you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest is a very silly fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad.

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.