The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 1, The Civil War

I recently read A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714, by Mark Kishlansky. It's part of The Penguin History of Britain series. The book is from 1996, and it looks like the series is getting a refresh. I don't know if there will be a new edition of this book, however, since Prof. Kishlansky died a few years ago.

I quite enjoyed it. It's almost entirely a political history of the Stuart century, from the accession of James I (and VI of Scotland) to the death of Anne. Don't read it for insights into the literature, architecture, or science of the time, interesting though all of those were. Kishlansky barely mentions any of them. Religion does get covered, mostly because of its strong influence on politics.

 That's William III. Don't worry, we'll get to him

That's William III. Don't worry, we'll get to him

But I was actually reading it for the politics. I'm interested in the nature of political legitimacy, when people accept it, and when they reject it--and the Stuart period has multiple collapses of legitimacy. I'm apprehensive of our own time, and want to see how other eras handled it and what the consequences were.

I see four periods during the Stuart century that can provide us with some ways to view our own time: The English Civil War, the two great conspiracy panics of Charles II's reign (the Popish Plot and the Rye House Plot), the Glorious Revolution where some rich people used the panic of the population to dethrone their legitimate monarch and invite the ruler of a frequently hostile foreign power to take over the position instead, and the savage beginnings of recognizably modern party conflict during the reign of Anne. The Stuarts were frequently annoying and usually infuriating, but they were never dull.

The biggest one comes first: the English Civil War.

Pulling out the guns

I've always been interested in the English Civil War, the most violent of these collapses of legitimacy, but I've never really understood it. I read A Monarchy Transformed to read about it in the context of its entire era. I do understand it a bit better, but I now know it's going to be a long road.

James I took over a kingdom where the incumbent, Elizabeth I, had been kicking the can down the road for decades.It was like inheriting a vehicle whose frugal previous owner had not done any maintenance, never changed the oil, and bribes the inspector at emissions testing time as cheaper than doing the necessary work. So James had trouble with financing, as did his son Charles I after him.

Not that their notoriously expensive art-collecting lifestyles didn't contribute. It isn't hard to imagine a monarch who did a better job managing Parliament, wars, the Scots, the Irish, and religious strife better than Charles I. But it is hard to imagine one who comes through the crisis unscathed.

Eventually, everyone pulled out their guns, got into their gangs, and fought it out. Not satisfied with one bout of civil war, they took a break and had another. It's important to remember how brutal and bloody this all was. According to Geoffrey Parker in Global Crisis, his global history of the 17th century,

[The English Civil War]...killed about 250,000 men and women in England, Scotland and Wales, or 7 percent of the total population...Between 1640 and 1660, several hundred thousand men and women were maimed or rendered homeless; and tens of thousands more were taken prisoner and enslaved by the conquerors....

Civil wars are the most brutal of wars.

Then the victors killed the King, because he really was just so damn annoying there really wasn't much else they could do. I'm sure most of them knew it was a bad idea, but Jesus, what a pompous jerk. Even the fact that both he and his sidekick Archbishop Laud were both really short, around my height, doesn't make me sympathize with either of them.

OK, he's dead. Now what?

But then what? Between various Parliamentary factions, religious groups, and the Army, there was constant mistrust, hostility, and conflict. Eventually a charismatic leader, Oliver Cromwell, became dictator and turned England into a successful bully that punched way above its weight in European affairs.

But neither he nor Parliament ever created a functioning political system to replace the previous one, so when he died, there was nothing to do but ask Charles's son, Charles II, to come back and pretend nothing much had happened. Successful Truth and Reconciliation efforts require a small bit of Truth and a whole lot of Reconciliation, ignoring a lot of past bad behavior until everyone involved is dead, and this one was surprisingly successful.

But why did everyone start killing each other in the first place?

But it's hard to really see the hostility that led to the death of seven percent of the population in a few short years (something like 22.5 million dead in a proportional conflict in the United States in 2018, if you want a cheery number). Oh, you read about squabbles about altar rails and ship money and Catholicism, but that seems like the usual incomprehensible issues people in the past seemed to get so exercised about. But under all that was clearly a lot of rage.

Of course, it might be that the islanders were just getting competitive with the Continent, where the Thirty Years War had become the bloodiest European conflict before the Twentieth Century. Keeping up with the Hapsburgs, and all that.

After an earlier squabble with Parliament, Charles I dismissed it and ruled on his own for the next eleven years, the period of Personal Rule (or the Eleven Years' Tyranny, if you want to be a sorehead about it). Things actually looked OK. Harvests were good and there were no big disasters, so it seemed to be working. But underneath the surface the finances were just not adding up. And there was no way to raise taxes without Parliament. Afterward, people probably looked back at this period with longing, thinking about how good life had been, even as the foundations had slowly collapsed.

So a halcyon period can conceal the rot that causes its structure to collapse. And this particular collapse was horrendous. I think it was worse than our own Civil War...but maybe more like any future civil war we might have. No one in the future will really understand what we were fighting about either. I'm not sure I do, and I live right here.

Will we feel lucky if we get our own Cromwell?

Why does everyone think that if we get rid of our clunky, old-school political system, we can agree on a shiny, efficient new one?

Next time: Conspiracy theories and more conspiracy theories. OK, Plots.

The weirdest scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey

A couple of weeks ago, I took my son to see the restored 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70 mm at the Somerville Theater.

It was fantastic. I'd forgotten it started with an actual overture, Atmospheres, by Ligeti. At the Somerville the speakers are huge, and you felt it in your chest. Plus the theater still has a curtain, which remained closed until the famous Also Sprach Zarathustra.

What's wonderful about it is how unconciliating it is. Unlike pretty much ever other science fiction movie, it doesn't seek to meet your expectations, charm you, or to make you feel good about yourself. In fact, it thinks you're kind of dull. After all, you're just sitting in a darkened room, eating popcorn and staring at it.

It has no real characters, a plot whose main motive force comes late in the movie from a piece of malfunctioning industrial equipment crossed with a bad employee ("Open the pod bay doors, Hal...this is going on your performance review"), and ends in a strange sequence that telescopes a man's life into a few minutes of accelerated senescence.

The abominable Dr. Floyd

 "I've got my eye on you."

"I've got my eye on you."

But before we get there, we have to follow the sinister bureaucrat Heywood Floyd as he travels incrementally from the Earth to the Moon and refuses to inform anyone of anything in every place he moves through. I took him for granted when I saw the movie as a kid, or even in college when I saw it again, but now he seems a complete fraud. He has a strained, dishonest-feeling conversation with his young daughter over a videophone. He can't come to her birthday party. One has trouble imaging this fine-tolerance piece of bureaucratic machinery wearing a party hat and blowing a noisemaker at a kid's birthday party. In fact he can barely pretend to care about his offspring--that is, assuming she is not a crisis actor of some sort, hired to create a simulacrum of a real life.

 Does this hat make my head look fat?

Does this hat make my head look fat?

Floyd then has a strained conversation with a bunch of Russians, who include the only non-stewardess/receptionist women in the movie. These women are also not forced to wear unflattering bulbous headgear like their servile American sisters (as far as I am aware, these Kubrikean bonnets have not yet been used in The Handmaid's Tale). They are friendly with Floyd, but don't believe a word he says. They've all played this game before. They let the somewhat-less-sophisticated Smyslov ("guys always think they're so smart") ask the obvious question about the transparently fake story of a disease outbreak at Clavius. Floyd stonewalls shamelessly. Lying doesn't even give him pleasure, but it's the only thing he knows how to do.

 Is it just me, or does Elena look weirdly like Theresa May from this angle?

Is it just me, or does Elena look weirdly like Theresa May from this angle?

We then see a sequence of the technological sublime, as Floyd flies from the space station to the surface of the Moon—where he goes to a conference room to give a briefing. In general, the movie alternates vividly realized scenes of space travel with mundane, even boring sequences of people being people in a technological civilization, Unlike the terrified ape men of the opening sequence, they doze off, eat at Howard Johnson's, get tans, and lie blandly to their fellow evolved apes: the ultimate goal of our striving.

Then we see Floyd give a briefing. He has killed men with his bare hands, we just know it. But here he just stands behind a podium and tells everyone they need to sign security oaths, penalty for not doing so unstated but obviously pretty bad. After all, the airlocks all have breathable air on only one side, if you catch my drift....

Then Floyd takes another spaceship to the terrible discovery, along with a subordinate named Halvorsen and a guy who hands out sandwiches. Here we have as blandly corporate a piece of toadying as I have ever had the bad luck to live through:

HALVORSEN: You know that was an excellent speech you gave us, Heywood.
SANDWICH GUY: It certainly was.
HALVORSEN: I'm sure it beefed up morale a hell of lot.

Floyd told a crew if high-level professionals they couldn't tell anyone the truth about what was going on, and then ordered them to sign loyalty oaths. Maybe what boosted morale was the fact that no one was actually detained for interrogation. But these guys know their business. In an organization, a lot of your time is spend assuring your superiors they deserve their positions, and the rest is spent clarifying to your subordinates that they certainly deserve theirs.

Floyd then goes to the site of the excavated monolith, where he touches it, an oddly humanizing gesture, showing the man beneath the functionary. Then the monolith screams, and we cut to Discover One, en route to Jupiter.

We will see Heywood one more time, right when Dave finally eliminates HAL and we hear HAL sing "A Bicycle Built for Two". Floyd tells the viewer what the purpose of the mission is, revealing that no one on board had any idea of why they were traveling out to Jupiter. Poole and Bowman were really professional, because they never once say to each other "Do you ever wonder why the world created a crash program to send us out to Jupiter?"

Of course, Floyd thought he would be addressing the full crew of Discovery, not just the one survivor, Dave Bowman. I can't judge how much any of this can be counted his fault, but somehow I'm inclined to think that Floyd carries a lot of responsibility for how things worked out. However, I'm sure he's already chosen someone less politically adept to take the fall. Maybe Sandwich Guy.

The weirdest scene

What, you thought I forgot about this?

The weirdest scene is the one where the languidly sun-bathing Dr. Poole watches a video from clearly fake parents wishing him happy birthday. It's pre-recorded, and the movie has been at pains previously to let us know that the round-trip message time delay is now over seven minutes.

 An even weirder birthday party than the first one

An even weirder birthday party than the first one

Again a birthday party, again a weirdly stiff, fake-seeming encounter, except that this time only one side is able to speak. Poole watches the video placidly, lounging in shorts and white sneakers and socks. His "parents" sit behind a large cake covered with lit candles (absurd overkill indicating a support crew just out of view) and tell him about other people who failed to show up for this event. Presumably the two of them are going to eat the cake in Poole's honor. They discuss a few other family members, a problem with some bureaucratic form, and then say goodbye. Poole watches without showing any reaction, and without recording a reply to send back.

In a movie full of stiff, by-the-book characters, Mr. and Mrs. Poole are the stiffest and most clearly reading from a script written for them by bureaucrats. Then, after the transmission ends:

HAL: Happy birthday, Frank.
POOLE: Thank you, HAL. A bit flatter please.

HAL lowers his headrest. That is as much reaction as Poole can manage. Is it any wonder we fear being replaced by AIs? Who will really notice the difference?

By the way, the only way I could have gotten all this straight, despite having seen the movie only a couple of weeks ago, was by the meticulous shot by shot analysis of the entire movie at Idyllopus Press, well worth reading.

What struck you most on rewatching the movie?

And if you haven't rewatched it on this latest release, you really should.

One man, one proxy

Often when people, at least some leftish people of my acquaintance, get a political result they don't like, they start talking about flaws in how votes are counted. Proportional representation! Elimination of the Electoral College! Epistocracy! There has to be something to straighten things out.

But, of course, both sides were aiming at a target in a known location. To try to redraw the target around where you arrow hit and saying that location makes more sense ignores the fact that, if you do, your opponents will also be aiming at that target next time, and there is no guarantee at all that you will still get closer to it than they will.

Still, there have been interesting oddball ways of counting votes and assigning representation in history, and while they will not change our politics, our fiction can certainly still use them. Colonial Maryland had, at least for awhile, a particularly interesting system.

You can exercise your vote, or assign it to someone else

 The Founding of Maryland

The Founding of Maryland

According to Edmund Morgan, in his book on the rise of the necessary myth that representative government actually represents us all, Inventing the People, The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, colonial Maryland in the 1630s experimented with an interesting proxy system for voting.

If you were an adult male, you could go to the assembly yourself. Or you could assign your vote to someone else, who would go to the assembly, and vote his vote and yours and those of anyone else who had given him their proxy.

As Morgan describes someone going to the assembly with these proxy votes:

He did not represent anyone who had not specifically and individually empowered him; and a man could even change his mind, revoke the assignment of his vote, and attend in person...One could also transfer one's proxy, as it was called, from one man to another after the session began.

So the assembly did not have a specified number of attendees, but was attended in spirit by everyone who had entrusted his proxy to someone else.

The result was a politically bizarre situation: within the assembly some men had only their own vote, while others had the votes of all their proxies in addition to their own. On one occasion an aspiring politician named Giles Brent had enough proxies (seventy-three) to constitute a majority of the assembly all by himself.

The personal connection

Inventing the People really digs into how weird the idea of representative government really is--and how conceptually fragile. It is a mutually agreed-upon fiction. If we cease to agree, the fiction disappears. The book, while written in 1988, has a lot to say to our current era, where a lot of people are questioning the fictions essential to the survival of our system of government.

Remember how that snotty kid pointing out that the Emperor wore no clothes caused the government's collapse, and his country's conquest by brutal and oppressive neighbors? I bet he's sorry now.

What makes you feel genuinely represented?

Do you expect your elected representative to do exactly what you want, or are you hiring a skilled expert to make decisions that you recognize you are too lazy or ignorant to make yourself?

Sometimes there's a good reason for procrastination

 Actually, I regard it as more of an art

Actually, I regard it as more of an art

Often the hardest thing is getting started. You're faced with a vast, complex, tedious, and frustration-filled project. It needs to be done, but the thought if it is so unpleasant that you'd rather do almost anything else. So you put it off and you put it off until the consequences of further delay are so threatening that you establish what the first doable task is, sit down, and dive in.

And you find out that in fact...it is just as awful and miserable as you thought, except that it takes much longer, because you spend hours making mistakes and then trying to recover from them, trying to figure out why numbers don't match, or changes mysteriously appear in places you could have sworn were immune from accidental change.

Because sometimes you've put something off for good reason. In its little stories of humble success, the procrastination kind of slides over these fairly frequent circumstances.

Today I did not one, but two things I was putting off. One involved money, and involved finding a bunch of long-lost documentation, calculating a very large spreadsheet, and chasing someone else down to contribute something. It was miserable, and lost me hours, but I had to do it, and the only way was to essentially put off necessary work.

Then, all evening, I did some of that necessary work, with an unintuitive web interface I don't use very often. Nothing displayed properly, files vanished into mysterious URLs, what displayed wouldn't change when I changed the text, because what displayed was a duplicate in another location.

Now I'm done with both projects, and don't really feel at all satisfied. Maybe later I will but...really, did it need to be that hard?

I was totally right to evade these projects. The only sad thing is that I couldn't evade them forever.

What projects have you recently gotten to that you kind of wish you hadn't?

Or is there one you want me to tell you not to start?

My Readercon Schedule

Readercon_logo.gif

I have three panels at Readercon next weekend, which is kind of my sweet spot. I like doing them, and I like doing enough work that I contribute to the convention, but I don't like doing too many. I'm not particularly extroverted, and so don't like being on stage too much. Plus, it's pretty easy to get tired and be boring, rambling, and dumb on a panel.

As a writer, I figure I am on a panel to entertain, not sell, at least not directly. The more interesting I seem, the better it is. So getting tired and "holding forth" as so many of us have done, is really a bad idea.

I did not get a moderator role, despite the fact that I put myself down for it a number of times, including on at least one of these panels. I sometimes evade knowing a lot about a topic by being the narrator. Then I can be curious and ask questions I actually want the answers to.

I'm done with my work by Friday night, giving me time to hang out with friends. If you're at the con, please do find me, even if I've never met you before.

What Comes After Late Capitalism?
Salon C
Thursday, July 12, 2018 9:00 PM

The current American economic climate is often referred to as "late capitalism," suggesting that capitalism as we know it is on its way out and will soon be transformed beyond recognition or replaced altogether. What can futurists and fabulists imagine for how that might happen, and what might take its place? How would postcapitalism look not only in fiction but in our lives, transforming publishing, reading, and conventions?

  • T.X. Watson moderator
  • Alexander Jablokov
  • Romie Stott
  • Christopher Brown
  • Robyn Bennis

The Bureaucracy of Fantasy
Salon 5
Friday, July 13, 2018 4:00 PM

Authors such as Daniel Abraham, Max Gladstone, and Ken Liu have received attention for incorporating bureaucratic concepts into their fantasy works, but fantasy frequently has bureaucratic underpinnings that escape notice because they're so familiar: the nuances of who inherits a title or a throne, the specific wording of a prophecy, detailed contracts with demons. Why do some bureaucracies feel more incongruous in fantastical contexts than others? What are some tricks for making dry, nitpicky topics exciting and comprehensible?

  • Kenneth Schneyer moderator
  • Alexander Jablokov
  • John Wiswell
  • Victoria Sandbrook
  • Phenderson Djèlí Clark

Dorothy Dunnett, Literary Legend
Salon C
Friday, July 13, 2018 8:00 PM

Alaya Dawn Johnson called Dorothy Dunnett "the literary equivalent of the Velvet Underground": not many people read her, but everyone who did wrote a book. A painter, researcher, and opera lover, she wrote what she wanted to read: epic historical drama. Come learn what our panelists and many other writers learned from Dunnett.

  • Kate Nepveu moderator
  • Victoria Janssen
  • Nisi Shawl
  • Alexander Jablokov
  • Lila Garrott

Can causality violation save this marriage? Dexter Palmer's Version Control

Version Control

Dexter Palmer

Science fiction is best when it is about the near future, and thus, about now. Too often, we're writing about situations distant in space and time, so characters and dialog have some warrant to be unrealistic. I'm certainly guilty of a lot of that.

Palmer writes better than most people in our genre, and Version Control held my attention from start to finish. Palmer pushes both detailed observation of specific personality types, social and professional milieus, and stages of life, and wider-scale cultural criticism, accomplishing both with real panache.

Is Version Control science fiction?

Aside from the causality violation device (please don't call it a time machine--this bit of fiddly correction is a funny recurrent theme in the book), Version Control has a variety of science-fictional trappings, from self-driving cars to a President who can speak intimately, if a bit salesmanishly, to every one of his fellow citizens.

But these are merely external features, not integrated with the basic story at all. It could have happened here and now, and really, it does happen here and now. A car crash plays a role in the plot, and Palmer has to do all sorts of explaining how it happened despite the safety precautions, but it is just a car crash, something that happens here and now all the time. This is an occasional flaw of various forms of SF, particularly alternate world SF. I remember an alternate world novel where there was a kind of magic, and there was a terrible, concealed disaster at some facility. When you dug into it, it was an industrial accident. Those used to happen all the time. Terrible, dramatic, interesting...but nothing deeply existential. A bad marriage is painful, whether you're wearing a gray flannel suit or a suit of armor.

But adding these kind of nifty (though usually not as original as they think) features is what more literary types do when the decide to "do" SF: what they are really doing is not extrapolation, but satire. There's always a covert jokey element to it, a lack of seriousness. Palmer takes his basic device and the team working on it seriously indeed, but he does not take his world seriously.

Now, a lot of SF is, at its root, satirical. Both satire and SF have reductio ad absurdum as a basic technique. Philip K. Dick, for example, was a satirist. But he inhabited the worlds that he created, and took them seriously as emotional spaces separate from our own. I guess that's the basic difference between mainstream and genre writers. Genre writers like a separate world, while mainstream writers find the very notion of such a world pointless and even ridiculous, and so merely distort the one in which we actually find ourselves, while ensuring that the reader remains grounded in the fact that it is, in fact, fundamentally our world.

The SF elements outside the basic conceit are not a big deal either way. Don't let them bother you, but don't expect them to startle you either.

What I learned from this book

Palmer knows how to pace things. Mostly that means not going too fast. Now that I think about my own work I realize that I worry that slowing down will bore the reader. That is a sign of not trusting the reader. Palmer does trust the reader. The main POV character, Rebecca, gets a post-college slow period where she hangs out with her girlfriends, and then an extended description of how she tries online dating. Each of these sequences is a delight to read, because Palmer observes closely, and builds suspense into the choice of whether to take another drink--even if you pretty sure the answer is going to be "yes". Every little emotional transaction has a bit of suspense, and a bit of a payoff. The pace actually feels fairly quick, because there are interesting little things going on on every page.

Now, I'm not sure how much understanding that is really going to help me. "Put interesting things on every page" is an aspiration, but a hard one to achieve.

What do you think is a diagnostic difference between mainstream and genre fiction?

There are probably as many answers to this as there are readers, so I'm interested in being argued with.

My Boskone panels

I’m at Boskone In a couple of weeks. I’m moderating the Noir and Marketing panels, something I like to do—I like to think I’m a solid, mildly authoritarian moderator who keeps things moving. And the Marketing one will reveal to me all the things I still don’t know about how to promote myself as a writer.

If you go, be sure to look me up.

Angels in Speculative Fiction

16 Feb 2018, Friday 15:00 - 16:00, Marina 4 (Westin)

Angels in fantasy, science fiction, and horror aren't always what you might expect. There are the ones that behave, well, angelically, and the fallen angels — but also bad-tempered angels, angels from advanced civilizations, and more. What attracts writers (and readers) to this motif? What common themes, like redemption or the Fall, recur? Are there novel ways to write an angel?

Bob Kuhn, Alexander Jablokov, Victoria Sandbrook , Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Walt Williams

Future of Noir

16 Feb 2018, Friday 19:00 - 20:00, Marina 4 (Westin)

Noir (the French word for “black”) began as a Hollywood subgenre depicting hard-boiled, cynical characters in sleazy settings. It’s certainly found a new home in urban fantasy. But is the murky world of noir inherently incompatible with the sleek, shiny surfaces of science fiction? Or as our visions of the fruits of science and technology grow darker, does noir have a future as a main strain of SF?

Alexander Jablokov (M) , Nik Korpon , Christopher Irvin, Vikki Ciaffone, Laurence Raphael Brothers

Group Reading: Cambridge SF Workshop

Format: Reading

16 Feb 2018, Friday 20:00 - 21:30, Griffin (Westin)

A rapid-fire reading by the members of the long-running Cambridge SF Workshop, featuring writers Heather Albano, James L. Cambias, F. Brett Cox, Gillian Daniels, Alex Jablokov, Steve Popkes, Ken Schneyer (M), Sarah Smith, and Cadwell Turnbull.

Heather Albano, James Cambias , F. Brett Cox , Gillian Daniels , Alexander Jablokov , Steven Popkes , Kenneth Schneyer , Sarah Smith

Non-Genre Fiction That Inspires Us

17 Feb 2018, Saturday 15:00 - 16:00, Marina 3 (Westin)

We’re always talking about icons such as Mary Shelley, Stephen King, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others who breathed air into our literary lungs — but what about non-genre fiction? Our panelists discuss some of their favorite authors from outside the SF/F/H field, who have inspired them as writers and readers.

Kenneth Schneyer (M), Tamora Pierce, Alexander Jablokov , Theodora Goss, F. Brett Cox

Marketing Uphill

18 Feb 2018, Sunday 11:00 - 12:00, Harbor II (Westin)

Sometimes marketing for writers feels like walking uphill to school barefoot in the snow. Does it ever get easier? At what point is enough enough for you and your social network? What about live events? How much should you invest, and how do you measure the return? Our panelists share their experiences and tips for managing your marketing.

Alexander Jablokov (M), Melanie Meadors, Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, Joshua Bilmes , Craig Miller

Trying to take advantage of insomnia

For many people, insomnia involves not being able to get to sleep. Mine, when it manifests is in the form of early morning awakening. Its incidence comes in waves. Sometimes I have no problem for weeks at a time. Then there will be a period when I do wake up at 3 am or so, but fall back asleep almost immediately. Then comes a period, such as the one I'm going through now, when I wake up at 4 or 4:30 am or so. My usual wake time is 5:30.

So, this week, I've been hitting the writing chair way early. That can be great--I can get my fiction stint in, then turn to client work, and not have a time crunch later in the day when exercise bumps up against other required tasks.

But sometimes it also gives me an excuse not to work. "I have an extra couple of hours!" I, for some reason, say. "That means I deserve to goof off." It doesn't help that self-control is lessened when I haven't had enough sleep--and willpower is not something I have an oversupply of to begin with.

I do have a project I want to get done before I go on vacation (a revision of a novel about my detective, Sere Glagolit), so today, Saturday, I've been working since about 5. And I'm ready to take a break!

So, using the time makes it valuable, giving in to temptation and goofing off makes it a curse. You might think that decision would be easy.... But if you are realistic, you know how hard it is.

Death threats from vegans

Being a jerk seems to be some kind of survival mechanism--and everyone seems to be struggling for survival. I'm confused as to why.

A few weeks ago, the guys on one of my favorite podcasts, Slate Money made some kind of mild joke about vegans. The result was rage, denunciation, and resolutions to stop listening to the podcast. Jordan Weissman had to take some time in the podcast a bit later make a point of apologizing for angering everyone.

Then I read an article on Clean Eating.

Before we go any further, some calibration: I find almost all dietary schemes weird and annoying. I have good friends who are paleo, or vegetarian, or what have you. They are invariably really careful not to impose their notions on others, to work with the food available, and to be good friends and colleagues rather than whiny pains in the butt. I recognize that food has implications far beyond nutrition, and speaks to our social selves, our bodies, and our relations to the living world. I do get that. But like everything else in modern society, it seems to have been weaponized.

Anyway, now that you know not to listen to me, that clean eating article had some delightfully typical interactions in it.

The article, Why we fell for clean eating, provides a nice summary of the issues, so read it. Clean eating, like many self-improvement-through-activities-that-don't-actually-demand-you-improve-yourself schemes, is promulgated by clean-scrubbed beautiful young women.

One such woman, Jordan Younger, found herself having health problems on a pure vegan diet, so backed off of it a bit by eating fish. She came, um, clean about that choice. A subset of her Instagram followers (many people seem to have a lot of time to scroll through pictures of other people's food) became enraged.

She lost followers “by the thousands” and received a daily raft of angry messages, including death threats. Some responded to her confession that she was suffering from an eating disorder by accusing her of being a “fat piece of lard” who didn’t have the discipline to be truly “clean”.

Bee Wilson, the article's author, had a debate with a clean eating author at a literary festival, enraging the audience, who had come for spiritual succor and got a discussion about how nutrition actually works, something they in no way wanted.

On Twitter that night, some Shaw fans made derogatory comments about how McGregor and I looked, under the hashtag #youarewhatyoueat. The implication was that, if we were less photogenic than Shaw, we clearly had nothing of any value to say about food (never mind the fact that McGregor has degrees in biochemistry and nutrition).

It's startling how pretty much everyone who wants to disagree with a woman has to find a way to insult her personal appearance. This is as true on the left as the right, and as true among women as among men. Orthorexics are the worst in this regard, because they feel that in some way the right food consumed in the right way enables them to transcend the body altogether.

Anyway, as I said, this has not hit me in my personal life. Despite what you might here, pretty much everyone around here (Cambridge, Mass) enjoys food, but does not obsess about it, and those who have specific dietary requirements do their best not to make it seem that their strength is your weakness. So I go online to get outraged by things. And to come up with clickbait headlines.

The miracle of dentistry

I've mentioned it before, but I'll say it again: vaccines and not pooping in our drinking water may account for most of the gains of modern medicine, but dentistry is an interventionist treatment that actually works, and is constantly undervalued.

Over last weekend, one of my rear molars started to hurt. By Sunday night it hurt so much I could barely sleep. Fortunately, my dentist could take me Monday morning. He examined me, found that the molar had cracked, and sent me off to an endodontist that had a slot for me in the next hour.

There the endodontist examined the tooth, determined that it was worth saving, shot lidocaine into my gums and went to work.

This was my first endodontic procedure (root canal). It's extremely anxiety provoking. You're leaned all the way back, your face is covered with the rubbery blue sheet of a dental dam, you can't talk, you can barely breathe, and you see the mist of abrading tooth enamel, as well as hearing and feeling the work of the drill.

But it didn't take long. It's now packed with a temporary filling. She will take a look Monday to determine whether, in fact, it is salveagable. I couldn't tell if she was naturally optimistic, or giving me a real read on the probabilities.

Two things about this.

One: the cost. I'm a freelancer, and don't have dental insurance. The cost was almost a week's earnings, payable in advance. I put it on my credit card. And that's not the end of the expense, because if it is indeed saved, I need to get a crown on it. I have no idea how much that's going to cost.

Bad teeth are one of the real horrors of being poor. Consider this NYT story about a three-day open-air free clinic. It starts with a man grateful to have 18 teeth pulled. He's been in pain from untreated cavities for years. I have some savings, but this one hit me pretty hard. Many people have a lot less flexibility. If I hadn't been able to afford it, would I just have gone home, suffered, had the tooth eventually crack all the way through, and then, finally, gotten it pulled?

In discussions of healthcare, dentistry is very much in the background, as if it was some kind of cosmetic thing, or a "nice to have". Because a bad tooth won't immediately kill you? Most of healthcare is not about preventing imminent death, it's about helping you live without pain, without impairment, without increasing weakness. I'm not even really sure why dental work is not regarded as "healthcare".

Second. I asked my endodontist about something I'd heard: that endodontists get specific calluses from their work. I thought it might be in along the forefinger or something, but she said they did, on the thumb and forefinger, from using their delicate instruments. Then she became very self conscious and remarked that she also overdue for a manicure. This transformation from competent but warm healthcare professional to individual with some personal vanity was quite startling, and more than a bit charming as well.

Then I had to bicycle home a fair distance in the pouring rain (the endodontist was a fair way from my dentist in a direction away from my apartment), take some pain killers, and have a nap. I've been tired all week, whether from this tooth adventure or just general malaise.

Note, apropos of the cost: I don't expend healthcare to be free, and don't think it should be, save for the poor. I went from a person in agony from a cracked tooth to someone without pain, and with the potential of a repaired tooth, in short order, after some work from a skilled professional. Sure, I feel like I spent a lot of money to just not get quite back to the state I was in previously. But guess what: that's pretty great! Pretending it shouldn't cost any money seems to be a mistake, to me.

Emotionally out of step

The other night I saw the movie A Monster Calls at a friend's house. It's about a boy, maybe 12 years old, whose father has left and whose mother is seriously ill. He's bullied at school, drifts through is days in his imagination, and eventually ends up living with his emotionally distant grandmother in a house where he is not allowed to touch anything. Oh, and he's visited by a talking tree man from the nearby churchyard who says he will tell him three stories, and then wants to hear one in return.

Everyone else was deeply moved by the movie, and several people were weeping near the end. Afterward, others talked about the good the animation of the tree man was.

I felt like an inadequate human being, because I really hated this movie.

This is not me. Really.Every story the tree man tells the boy, Connor, comes complete with explanatory apparatus that makes clear what wholesome and psychologically empowering lesson the story imparts. Two are vaguely fairy-tale-like (one about a royal family with major communication problems, the second about a rationalist and therefore inevitably tragedy-bound parson, and a sullen apothecary with a failing business), the third just a nub to incent action in the story. And they aren't even stories, really. Without the excess commentary, they are just situations. And they rely a great deal on some nice watercolor illustrations--which Connor, the boy, can't actually see, because he's being told the stories, not watching them on the screen, making his experience even less adequate.

Beware of stories with explicit morals. Stories can bring us through conflict to resolution, but they allow us to do at least some of the work ourselves. At the end Connor is forced to bark out his realization of how he is coming to terms with his own frailty in the face of tragedy.

The tree man...oh, and the animation is so hyper-realistic there is nothing at all magical, ambiguous, or even disturbing about this big piece of shrubbery at all. Anyway, the tree man is voiced by Liam Neeson, who does a good job with some pretty wretched lines. I kept imagining him barking at someone who indicated some doubt about one of his stories, "I will find you, and I will explain it to you!"

 You really don't want him to do that

And he's a yew tree, which finally explains a mysterious verse from my childhood.

So long, farewell, auf weidersehen, adieu, adieu, adieu, to yew and yew and yewAs if the over-explained stories weren't enough, there comes a point where two characters who have been in conflict hug each other in the face of tragedy as "This is a big emotional moment, folks!" music rises.

Well, now I'm just being kind of mean. But this kind of thing takes all the fun out of...well, pretty much everything.

But I do have to emphasize that mine is a clearly minority opinion, among critics as among audiences. I am allergic to overt authorial manipulation, but many people welcome it. But that's an essay for another day.

 

 

 

"So, how's the novel going?"

Writers aren't exceptionally mean, even to other writers, but it does somehow seem that way, because of the way we leave our egos exposed. No wonder others are tempted to at least give them a good swift kick now and again.

"How's the novel going?" (unless you know the writer is a demon of productivity, in which case there are other ways of getting their goat) is one of the great questions. It seems to come out of genuine interest, maybe really does come out of genuine interest, but a certain passive aggressiveness that leads, when deployed appropriately, to dismay, depression, and defensiveness. Well played!

Yeah, I asked a couple of people that at Readercon. You may ask why, if we treat each other so badly do we hang out with each other? First, it's because many of us are genuinely entertaining, at least to each other. Second, by the same token, no one else finds us as entertaining as we do.

And I did have a great time last weekend, and had to take a long nap the day after to recover.

My time at Odyssey

Last week I did a guest author stint at the great Odyssey Writing Workshop, held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH. Odyssey is kind of a bootcamp for people honing their skills in all areas of fantastic fiction. For six weeks, 16 writers write, read, think about, discuss, eat, and sleep fantastic fiction, under the stern yet kind direction of Jeanne Cavelos, who created the enterprise.

I envy them. I never did anything like this earlier in my career, which might really have helped.

Jeanne likes to have a writer or editor come in every week, to talk about the writer's life, and help critique varius students' work. Since writing is very much a part-time enterprise for me, which I anticipate for most of the students, I focused on how to manage that, and what to expect.

I'm not a writing teacher. It's just not a topic where I think I have an enormous amount to add. And it takes me forever to come up with something useful or interesting to say. This year my topic was literary SF, which is just crazy as a topic. Usually I do plot, which I can kind of fake. But it was kind of fun researching, thinking about how literary fiction differs from commercial fiction, what writers should pay attention to, and how to have fun with it.

After a couple of weeks drafting my lecture, writing critiques of a bunch of manuscripts, giving my lecture, having individual conferences with students, and in general talking about writing for a day and a half, I was exhausted. I came home and slept much of the weekend.

Jeanne does this all day every day for the entire session. It's really her baby, she knows everyone is depending on her, and she is enormously present for everyone at all times. I just can't fathom it.

This is about as much instructing as I can manage with my limited energy and even more limited neurons, but I do enjoy it, and end up meeting a lot of interesting people. I worked with some fine writers, and hope to see them in print soon.