It’s not all Thud and Blunder

Some people wear their ignorance of the classics in genre fiction as some kind of badge of honor. Read something that didn’t come out just this year by one of the SJW Darlings? Never! What would be the point of reading something one couldn’t vote to win an award just so you can pat yourself on the back for having the taste to read a winner?

Well, you know, it turns out some of those old white men had some talent for writing too. After all, Talent knows no Race or Gender, right? Right? Oh, who am I kidding, the only SJWs who read this are looking for Social Justice Faux Pas that they can catalog and barf up should I somehow rise to any kind of prominence in the future. But these poor benighted fools have really missed out.

In this case, I just finished reading a complete collection of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories. (I’d post the Amazon link, but it seems that this particular edition has disappeared from the Kindle store, but has not been deleted. There are plenty to choose from.) And I was surprised as hell at what I read.

Just say “Conan” and one of two images springs immediately to mind. The 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, or the ongoing Marvel Comic. One thinks of a bare-chested swordsman in a fur loincloth, with Frazetta-esque maidens in brass bikinis and silks clinging to his mighty thews. This is, of course, wrong. While it is true that in a few of his adventures in the more desert-like climates, he’s wearing breech-cloth, it’s described as silken, but for far more of his adventures, he’s wearing chainmail or even plate armor.

Conan got around. He’s been a thief, a mercenary, a pirate, led armies, and finally became king of one of the greatest kingdoms of the Hyborian age. And between those things he’s often lost it all and been a penniless wanderer.

The other image that comes to mind from those who have never read the originals is that as a barbarian, Conan is a simple brute. Again, not true. His Barbarian nature keeps his reasoning clear and unadorned with the gilding more civilized minds use to gloss over the cruder realities. Conan sees to the root of the matter, and cuts through the lies, sometimes literally. He is smart, a master strategist and tactician, and a natural leader of men. However, he is also imperfect as well. He is not a Marty-Stu by any means, and some of the stories actually center more on the point of view of other characters.

Yet another false image of Conan would be that he is a brutal ravager of women. But in fact, he is a consummate gentleman. About the worst thing he ever did was steal a kiss from a former princess, who suddenly realized she rather liked the idea. It makes sense, since while some of Howard’s attitudes were products of his age, he did, in fact, hold some feminist values – not today’s twisted form of feminism, but the actual idea that women and men can be equals. Conan even subordinated himself to a pirate queen in one story, and lost an invaluable treasure to save a slave girl from death.

Reading these stories made me realize that the Sword and Sorcery genre is eternal. Unlike Science Fiction, where reality has run roughshod over the imagined future, an imaginary past can never be superseded. The classics can be read today and be just as enjoyable as they were when they were first published. And among classics, Conan is king. Conan defined the Sword and Sorcery genre, which Howard virtually invented. His inclusion of dark gods and sorcery may have grown from his correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, but his vision was very different. He and Lovecraft often disagreed, even on such subjects as the value of civilization. Imagine that today, people who fundamentally disagree maintaining an active and civil correspondence!

Howard could also write amazingly well. Almost every story had at least one word that sent me to my Kindle’s built-in Oxford dictionary. (“Debouched” for example, has nothing to do with “debauched”. It means (of troops) to march from a narrowly confined space to an open one.) Admittedly, I was pulled out of it a bit with descriptions of Jade and Ivory as building materials, and the occasional use of “ejaculated” as a said-word, but his descriptions were lush when setting the scene, and his action brimming with excitement, as if even he could barely wait for the next sentence as he wrote it.

Howard only wrote Conan stories over a short span of years. Unfortunately, as his mother, to whom he was very attached, slipped into her final coma after suffering for years with Tuberculosis, he shot himself. If he had been able to carry on, who knows what he might have accomplished. He was at the peak of his success when he ended it all.


By the way, Howard’s mythical Hyborian age, crammed in between two geological cataclysms that totally transformed the European continent, means that the descendants of the Cimmerians would eventually go on to become the Celts and the Irish. Yeah, Conan’s a Irishman. Red Sonja, incidentally, who never appeared with Conan, is Ukrainian.

And as for bare-chested barbarians, The one time it is mentioned, Conan’s chest is hairy. But that’s harder for comic artists to draw, I guess.

What a long, strange trip it’s been….

I’ve been at a loss for a while about what to write, which is sad when your blog is only quarterly. There really hasn’t been anything particularly scandalous going on in the SF world. I mean, SURE one could remark about how incestuous it looks that Mary Robinette Kowal simultaneously was elected president of the SFWA and got the SFWA’s award, the Nebula, but I’ve got award fatigue. Maybe there’s Scalzi’s weasel-worded tweet crowing about how successful his side has been and claiming that the puppies have gotten nowhere in their careers, but you know, I’ve been following the construction photos of the mansion that Larry Correia has been building on the top of that mountain he bought, the one with a gaming room bigger than Scalzi’s apartment (I assume he’s living in an apartment – it would be a bit creepy to seriously investigate). But again, just because we live rent-free in his head doesn’t mean we have to occupy the space.

I still haven’t managed to dig up the stories for the “Three Stories that convinced me to give up Asimov’s” thing I’ve been planning, although I found a bonus story in the process. But I will be writing a piece about Human Wave Science Fiction, it just hasn’t gelled yet.

But considering the final post in so many blogs is a post that begins “I’m sorry I haven’t posted in so long….” I figured I’d break that particular cycle. But I am going to write about something completely different. Mark Twain.

How much Twain have you actually read? I mean, if you’re old enough, you probably got Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn in high school before the SJWs in the education system declared them nekulturny. Maybe you read The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, which is harmless enough. No, I found a free kindle book a while ago and started reading, and it was an epic journey, literally, as well as for a reader.

I am speaking of The Innocents Abroad. This is Twain’s travelogue from a trip he took in 1867, two years after the Civil War, touring the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. It is a very long book, but then, it was a very long trip. And travel in those days was not as simple as hopping a jet to Milan for the weekend. This was a tremendously extensive expedition. And one of the unique features of it was that the passengers had the exclusive use of a steamship for their travels, rather than connecting on various commercial routes. This allowed for side trips, and re-uniting with the ship at different ports later. This alone was a fascinating insight into how travel worked in those days. (At one point towards the end of the trip the ship had to stop to reload coal. It took eleven days!) This is the kind of travel where you have to make arrangements to maintain your household for months before you leave. When the ship, the Quaker City, left New York, it took a full week to reach the Azores.

When they reached the Azores, that’s your first taste of how wildly divergent cultures and values were between places in the pre-internet, pre-telephone, pre-intercontinental telegraph days. And one of the most striking things throughout the whole adventure is how eager the locals are, in virtually every locale, to bamboozle and swindle travelers. This from their first anchorage:

A swarm of swarthy, noisy, lying, shoulder-shrugging, gesticulating Portuguese boatmen, with brass rings in their ears and fraud in their hearts, climbed the ship’s sides and various parties of us contracted with them to take us ashore at so much a head, silver coin of any country.

It was also the first of many times various “guides” placed the travelers astride donkeys and drove the poor creatures at breakneck speeds through the city streets.

They continue to Gibraltar, touring the inside of the rock which has been made into an impregnable fortress, where they were assailed constantly by locals telling them an innane and pointless story about a nearby hillside.

From there, they journey by train to Paris. Twain has many marvelous things to say about France and Paris under Napoleon III. It is well run, neat, orderly, sumptuous, and the parts that aren’t are undergoing a program of urban renewal that actually benefits the property owners in those districts. The World’s Fair is also taking place in Paris at that time, and the wonders on display would have taken Twain more days to take in than he had. So he contented himself on watching people, visitors from all over the world.

But the scourge of professional guides continued even in ultimately civilized Paris, where the one the hotel arranged for them continued to try to steer them to shops he had arrangements with. Getting the fellow to take them to the Lourve was an all-day affair. Twain and his companions began their campaign of psychological warfare in resistance to these fellows then. For example, from then on all guides were named “Ferguson” as far as they were concerned, which greatly confused the guides. And the real fun began in Italy, where we shall arrive anon.

Of note should be his visit to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, considering how it has been in the news of late due to the fire. I can not do justice to his descriptions of its magnificence with an excerpt here. Although this is also where the tremendous inventory of bogus religious artifacts they encounter on their travels begins. Again, in the pre-information age, where extensive travel is a rarity, it’s simply not possible for people to compare notes and discover that there are enough “nails from the true cross” to build an entire house. Twain, however, kept extensive notes. He was, after all, a newspaperman.

The sheer scale of the palace at Versailles impressed him, and his description of same impressed me. He has an amazing way with words, as you would expect. but even more breathtaking is the picture he paints of a lake in Switzerland, where the mountains run directly down into the water.

They make their way down through Italy to Rome, where he sees many works of art, and the Vatican, the scale of which is hard to wrap your head around. And every guide and every local seems to want to tell them about something that was designed by “Michel Angelo.” (That he wrote that way makes me wonder if our spelling Michelangelo is a corruption.) But Twain is rather dismissive of the “Old Masters,” and expresses a greater appreciation for the Romans.

Well, not entirely. He goes on for a bit imitating what he thinks modern newspaper reviewers would make of a Roman gladiatorial show at the Colosseum. The Innocents Abroad is not just a dry travelogue, but is full of social commentary of the age and dry and sarcastic wit.

In Genoa, most of the professional guide scams center around Columbus (Colombo in their local parlance). The game for the guides is to leave their charges wonderstruck. But Twain and his friends have really advanced their game when it comes to fighting back, feigning ignorance about what they’re being shown and flustering “Ferguson” with irrelevant questions and deliberate misunderstandings. When taken to see a letter supposedly written by Columbus, the Doctor started complaining about the penmanship.

“I don’t care who it is! It’s the worst writing I ever saw. Now, you mustn’t think you can impose on us because we are strangers, We are not fools, by a good deal. If you have got any specimens of penmanship of real merit, trot them out!– and if you haven’t, drive on!”

Another gambit was to ask if whatever famous personage they were being told about was dead. I’m not sure who the Doctor was, but as a traveling companion, he must have been an absolute hoot. They were taken to see a bust of Columbus:

“Ah, what did you say this gentleman’s name was?”
“Colombo!–ze great Christopher Colombo!”
“Christopher Colombo–the great Christopher Colombo. Well, what did he do?”
“Discover America!–discover America! Oh, ze devil!”
“Discover America. No–that statement will hardly wash. We are just from America ourselves. We heard nothing about it. Christopher Columbo–pleasant name–is–is he dead?”

And so on. They ran that man ragged trying to find something that would impress them. They were just determined not to show it.

Twain also makes many asides to put the places he’s visiting in historical context. Venice, when he is there, is a dying city. But he recalls us to when it was a thriving port, and the gateway to the world. And with that, he tells of the corruption and criminality that ran it. He also throws a little cold water over one of the most historic romances of Venice, if, by a little cold water, you mean the flow of Niagara Falls.

They visit Pompeii. He paints an amazing picture of what it was like, and the disaster that befalls it, and then contrasts it with his current day, and the steam engine waiting for them blowing its whistle calling for them to board and leave this dead city. He reflects on the fleeting nature of fame, and projects how current fame of his era will, 5000 years hence, be reflected in an encyclopedia in 5868. I think our technology has outstripped his projection. It only took 150 years for Wikipedia to corrupt information about the past.

Another aspect of travelling we do not reflect upon, but which figures often in this tale is disease. Cholera is epidemic. Some of the places they visit force travelers into fumigation rooms. And indeed, later Twain falls ill in Damascus. When they visited Greece, they were not allowed to land. The authorities insisted they stay at anchor for 11 days before anyone would be allowed ashore. Well, our travelers thought this was entirely unreasonable and a waste of their time, and Twain and his three friends wanted to see the Acropolis, so they endeavored to sneak ashore in the dead of night, ascend the mountain, see what they could and return to the ship without being caught. It was an intense enterprise, which for some reason also involved stealing all the grapes they could manage from the Vineyards they passed. That struck me as odd. They were almost caught, not by the port authorities, but by the guards each vineyard seemed to employ against raids by the other vintners.

The Quaker City then sailed up into the Black Sea, where they visited Odessa and eventually managed to have an audience with the Czar of Russia.

And then, it is finally the part of the trip where they go on their pilgrimage to the holy land. Twain and a number of the Pilgrims choose the overland route, which takes them away from the Quaker City for an extended period. Fortunately, instead of the usual lame guides and scammers, they have enlisted a crew of disciplined and hard-working Dragomen, Arab provisioners and guides, who make the trip as comfortable as possible. Although this IS the middle east in 1867, so there is a limit to that. The Tents are nice, and they get them up and down very quickly, but the schedule is grueling, the desert sun pounding, water can be difficult to come by, and their mounts, well, the less said about the poor beasts the better.

This part of the trip is a revelation. the path takes them through Syria, and Lebanon, from the Galilee to the Dead Sea. They visit Beirut and Damascus, and the sites of battles and holy events from 1800 years prior to their trip. the end of the trip being their arrival in Jeruselem, which is choked with more holy sites than a man can wrap his mind around. The history is thick in this area, and Twain puts it all in context. But the thing that impresses him the most in this context is the scale. All of these world-shaping historical events have taken place in an area that would fit well inside nearly any of the states of America. Biblical Kings were barely tribal leaders, lording over tiny kingdoms.

But the present day for Twain travelling this area is little different than it was nearly two millennia earlier. Time has stood still in the middle east. Although he didn’t do it directly, comparing the wonders on display at the World’s Fair in Paris and the mud and dung huts people lived in, the poverty was grinding. And yet, there was a lack of industriousness that virtually assured advancement would never happen. They were beset constantly and from all quarters by beggars demanding “Bucksheesh”, everyone wanted a piece of them, and expected it, even in those places where they looked at the travelers with unbridled hate in their eyes for their being Christians.

Twain’s tale differs greatly from many of the Travelogues that came before. Those books had been studied in depth by the members of the expedition in order to prepare. One was so embellished by tales of the author confronting Bedouin raiders with his pistols that all of the party is armed, which was not unusual at the time. They had no need of them. Although that did not stop some of the local sheikhs from assigning armed escorts to their party to guard them, for which they had to pay. Twain has nothing good to say about many of these prior works, seeing as they were probably written to romanticize the trips, and substitute for actually traveling to the region, rather than being actual, useful guides. At one point, he talks about how virtually every spring and water hole is described in loving a lavish detail as “Fountains”:

“If all the poetry and nonsense that have been discharged upon the fountains and the bland scenery of this region were collected in a book, it would make a most valuable volume to burn.”

The man can snark.

He does not have much good to say about some of the more devout of his fellow travelers either though. They are rather ardent souvenir collectors. At every chance they seem to be chipping off some little chunk of some important artifact, so that they will have a piece of it to take home, or writing their names and towns on places they’ve been. Although he did note that one enterprising fellow was merely labeling a fistful of pebbles as being from the places they’d been. We still see this kind of practice today, but if it had continued at the pace these termites kept up, History might have been eliminated by the present day.

Jerusalem though, had a profound effect on him. Even with the typical fakery surrounding all the religious artifacts they had seen on the trip, this was indeed the legit place were the Crucifixion happened. Twain puts it all in the proper historical perspective.

Eventually though, they do have to leave Jerusalem, and make their way to the coast and rejoin the Quaker City. They then stop in Cairo, Egypt, and see the Pyramids. Back then, people climbed them. In fact, burly Arabs helped them, practically throwing tourists up the steps. He was most impressed by the Sphinx. And the Sphinx proved impervious to the hammers of the Pilgrims, yielding no souveniers.

The trip back, relying on ocean currents, takes them first to Bermuda, and then finally back to New York. This journey takes several WEEKS to accomplish. Think on that in this age of Jets. This portion was rather uneventful because as they traversed the Mediterranean, no place would allow them to land, Quarantine, don’t you know.

In conclusion

This was a fascinating, and rather long read. But what does it have to do with science fiction, you might ask. Certainly at the time, it was purely non-fiction, objectively, it still is. But in a way, it is time travel to the past. Not only do we see the world of 1867, but we see it through the eyes of a man of that era. And though those eyes, we also see the past of two millennia ago. Both eras are almost like visiting an alien world, they are so different from how we live today, but we can also relate to them because they are our history as well. By understanding the past, we can understand ourselves better, learn how we got here, and learn what things change, and what things stay the same.

Although to really learn from this, you have to approach it with an open mind, rather than just searching for those things that confirm your prejudices. I could fully see one of my contemporaries from the opposite side of the aisle seizing upon Twain referring the the land south of Lebanon as Palestine, and shame himself using that to support anti-Semitic boilerplate arguments. But Twain never refers to any of the people there as Palestinians. There are Arabs, Bedouins, and Jews there. And none of the countries seem to have the cohesiveness to be called a nation-state. Even the various religious sects seemed to have reached a detente over the handling of the religious sites. Maybe they have something to teach us there.

I am not going to link to the kindle edition of this book that I read. There are several available, since the book has long since passed into the public domain. The one I read had a formatting issue that caused the entire text to be rendered in center justification (and this is not the first time I’ve run into that with a public domain work). I was able to fool my Kindle Keyboard into left justifying it after briefly detouring into the dictionary, but my tablet is too smart to fall for that trick. It also lacked the copious illustrations of the original.

Message Received

One of the greatest dividing lines in current Science Fiction is the debate over “Message Fiction”. It was an issue that began to rear its ugly head decades ago, long before it became the genesis of the Sad Puppies. But this isn’t yet another Sad Puppies post. I want to look at the topic of Message Fiction because I recently came across a particularly arch example.

Now, when it comes down to it, short of pure action-adventure stories, almost all science fiction has some kind of idea or message behind it – the “What if” that makes the fiction speculative. Exploring those possibilities is what drives the story. 1984 was a dystopia that asked the question “What would life be like if the UK became the ultimate expression of an authoritarian socialist state?” But to have a story, one needs a conflict. Thus, 1984 has Winston Smith, a cog in the government machine, start to have doubts and go against the system, much to his misfortune. Certainly there have been stories that are little more than a travelogue through the author’s vision of the future, but other than the title, how much do fans really remember about Gernsback’s Ralph 124C41+? But even the action-adventure stories have something to say, something about the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and having something worth defending even at great personal cost. I myself am an absolute sucker for heroic self-sacrifice, as long as the author doesn’t use that too cheaply.

But while almost all stories have a message, if the story doesn’t come first, then all you have is a lecture. If characters have to act in ways no reasonable person would, because the message demands it, even if the plot would refuse, then you are dealing with Message Fiction.

And yet, there are some people who actually like that sort of misery. And so, in an attempt to understand them (since not one of them would dare to try to understand me – it would go against their preconceptions), I took a little dip into a short from one of the queens of Message Fiction, one they love so much they gave her an unprecedented three consecutive Hugo Awards, Nora K. Jemisin. I saw an announcement for her recent short story compilation, How Long ’til Black Future Month?, and I read the sample. Well, I tried to. The first story kicked me out pretty hard, but it fueled this blog entry, so I’ll try to get through it, just for you.

The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is the first story in this collection. But “story” is somewhat of a misnomer, since there is no plot to speak of. It’s more of a narration than a story, but I’ll still call it one. It’s also billed as Jemisin’s answer to Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (pdf link), and includes one sentence taking a cheap shot at it. While it’s clear that Jemisin has tried come up with an answer to it, it’s also clear she didn’t understand the question. While aping Le Guin’s format and style (If you’re feeling generous. If not, you could go so far as saying “ripping off,” but I won’t), she misses the point. There are plenty of articles analyzing Omelas, including Le Guin’s own words, so I will not duplicate them here. That’s not where I’m going with this.

Exactly like Omelas, the story starts by setting the scene in a Festival in the city of Um-Helat. The Day of Good Birds is a celebration of how wonderfully Equal everyone is. The Narrator tells us it’s all about Joy, and rainbow-colored decorations, and costume bird wings, and so forth. The Narrator tells us about how wealthy and well-cared for the people in their society are, long-lived and with ample opportunities, and then in almost direct contradiction, tells us that there are homeless, but they can have apartments if they really wanted, but if they don’t, the spaces under the bridges are swept daily, and all the park benches are padded for comfort, and there are caretakers who will protect them from their follies and keep them away from weapons. (There are weapons in paradise?) But the city and the citizens are all about caring for each other, even over profit.

But the bestest thing about Um-Helat is the diversity! But it is the section where it talks about this that things really begin to take a darker tone. Because in spite of the place being filled with folks from all over the world, and everyone being a polyglot, and nobody exhibiting any hatred, and everyone having every opportunity to become what they want with no barriers, there’s this:

If one wanders the streets where the workers and artisans do their work, there are slightly more people with dark skin; if one strolls the corridors of the executive tower, there are a few extra done in pale. There is history rather than malice in this, and it is still being actively, intentionally corrected – because the people of Um-Helat are not naive believers in good intentions as the solution to all ills. No, there are no worshippers [sic] of mere tolerance here, nor desperate grovelers for that grudging pittance of respect which is diversity. Um-Helatians are learned enough to understand what must be done to make the world better, and pragmatic enough to actually enact it.

Yeah, everyone has choice and opportunity, however being tolerant and color-blind doesn’t cut it. But when they start taking direct and decisive action, you’d better stand back, bud. We will see later on what they mean by “actively, intentionally corrected”.

And the writing begins to get out of hand, from description to scolding. The Narrator starts directly addressing the reader, but worse, starts putting words into the reader’s mouth so as to shame you. The very next line:

Does that seem wrong to you? It should not. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by those concealing ill intent, of insisting that people already suffering should be afflicted with further, unnecessary pain. This is the paradox of tolerance, the treason of free speech: we hesitate to admit that some people are just fucking evil and need to be stopped.

Yeah, if you believe in tolerance and free speech, and are a little less than sanguine about folks who “pragmatically” take action to make the world “better” you’re on the side of the “fucking evil” you awful reader you. Although the logic connecting this and “ill intent” and the infliction of suffering is tenuous at best. And then there’s this:

This is Um-Helat, after all, and not that barbaric America.

*record scratch*

I had almost glossed over the previous paragraph the first time, but that line right there kicked me out. This is followed by the cheap shot at Le Guin’s story. But this also leads to a structural problem with the tale, because further down Um-Helat is described as being in a dimension parallel to ours, with only information passing between the two if you can read electronic signals from the other. And the Narrator is in our world. So the usage of the word “that” is just a little peculiar.

And it immediately gets worse. The Narrator suddenly unloads on the reader. It would be excessive to quote it here. It’s in the sample. But in short, you don’t believe this place is paradise because you’re polluted with racism, sexism, homophobia, and believe it’s the natural way of the world. And it culminates with these words being put in your mouth as a denial of this.

“Impossible!” you hiss, your fists slowly clenching at your sides. “How dare you. What have these people done to make you believe such lies? What are you doing to me, to suggest that it is possible? How dare you. How dare you.”

You are offended be the idea of equality, the Narrator speculates. And after yet another attack at our (and the Narrator’s) world as a hellscape, the Narrator tells us that we have no right to be offended by his accusations. The Narrator keeps calling you “My friend” but to me that comes across with all the sincerity of a used car dealer, or a stereotypical Middle Eastern merchant calling you “Effendi”. (Oh dear, Did I say something naughty? Did I Offend you? Or just tell you something true?) But how can we be offended by the idea of Equality when it’s already been made clear that even in the paradise of Um-Helat there is still some that needs active measures to address?

Now, during the festival, the narrator introduced us to a character. Not much of a character, mind you. She is unnamed, has no actual dialogue, and the only active thing she does is call a crowd’s attention to an introverted man’s small home-made pin created for the festival. But with the glowing terms with which she is described, you would think that she is the author’s self-insert, rather than the Narrator. She is black and bald and powerful, Uniformed in Gray, graceful, and assertive, and gone in a paragraph until later.

After the tirade against the reader, we are back to this woman, being described as a “social worker,” one of the self-sacrificing individuals who make the society of Um-Helat work. But her next job makes her sound more like a Cop, or worse. And in retrospect this throws a completely different shadow over her actions at the festival.

Remember Free Speech earlier being denigrated? Well they also say “But some knowledge is dangerous.” That dangerous knowledge being knowledge about any world other than Um-Helat, like our world. This is a bit strange because at some point in Um-Helat’s past they were exactly like us, and even the remnants of their wars still survive, and the kids at a certain age are carefully educated about this – much like how the citizens of Omelas are all taken to see the child to know where their happiness comes from, except instead of the bare, unvarnished, brutal truth, the account is apparently heavily edited to inspire maximum conformity. Now, using the same quantum receivers that the Narrator apparently uses to learn of their world is a criminal act. Still, there’s a shadowy underworld of folks with a thirst for knowledge, who share what they’ve learned about us, and horror of horrors, have ideas that are not in tune with the actively enforced ideas of Um-Helat. How actively enforced? It’s the death penalty. I guess that’s what they mean by some people must be fucking stopped, eh? Yup, Paradise is enforced at the point of a pike, somehow humanely driven through both the heart and spine simultaneously by these grey-clad “Social Workers” who are judge, jury, and executioner, literally. As they stand over the body of one thought-criminal, his young daughter swears revenge. Thought Crime! She is to be detained until she comes around to the proper thinking – that her father should be dead for selfishly believing anything other than what they’ve decided is best for everyone to think. They will put her in what we would call a re-education camp in our horrible world. (This is based – in fact, the entire premise of the tale is based – on the idea that simply being exposed to an idea can influence one’s thinking, “polluting” it, as it were.)

The Narrator crows that this dirty secret must make the paradise of Um-Helat more believable to us. Well, no. It makes me believe this is no paradise at all, no more than Airstrip One would have been paradise if they didn’t have to lower the chocolate ration. Whether Big Brother is a mustachioed man or a bald black woman with silver studs in her skull, he is still a tyrant. The Narrator, being the crazed analogue of the dead man in Um-Helat, believes that just telling us about that world will somehow infect us with the idea of their “superior” culture the way our ideas infect them. He wants to get our world to resemble theirs.

Well, you know, some people are fucking evil and need to be stopped.


Why do people inflict this kind of stuff on themselves? It’s not doing that horribly in the Amazon rankings, in spite of the truly shitty pricing that the Big 5 put on e-books. (#7651 overall on Kindle ($14) at this writing). So there must be some audience for this sort of plot-less misery. I could have made an even shorter summary: Paint a visual picture of a place, tell the Reader he’s a shit, and fantasize about killing people for thinking the way you’ve accused the reader of thinking. That’s what it boils down to. I really don’t see the appeal.

The idea that this is some kind of answer to Le Guin’s story is cosmetic at best. In Omelas, yeah, people had a paradise but it was predicated on the suffering of a single child, and they all knew about this. But the folks in the title of the story, the ones who walk away from Omelas, those are the people who ethically believe that they cannot partake in a society where everyone knowingly inflicts horrible suffering on a single scapegoat child as the price for everyone’s pleasure. They reject unlimited joy for themselves because the weight on their conscience is too high. Sure, it’s a message, but it’s delivered without the narrator straw-manning the reader and impugning his motives. Yes, she does engage the reader on two points, but only hypothetically on points they might also consider pleasure in the “Paradise” of Omelas: Sex and Drugs. (This is also a reflection on the times it was written in. Those were the transgressive shibboleths.)

But The Ones Who Stay and Fight? They silently and secretly dispatch enemies of the state. Jemisin calls them Social Workers, but a better word might be Stasi. No matter how benevolent they think they are, they are still agents of Thought Control. And it’s pretty clear from the context, unlike Orwell, she is not writing this as some kind of cautionary tale. Whether she views herself as the beautiful black female character, or the Narrator, berating us for our culture and who somehow believes that telling us about this world will make us wish for it here, either way, this is what she believes. The title characters do not reject a false paradise, they enforce it.

I suspect though that her audience believes in the same way. Lord knows I’ve seen enough of this from the ranks of the Social Justice Warriors. People who hypocritically oppose the death penalty for mass murder or terrorism, but would gladly see someone stomped to death for the thought-crime of wearing a MAGA hat. Look, the idea of killing people until the only ones left are the ones who agree with you does not produce a perfect society, no matter how much you believe it would.

But even then, it doesn’t quite make sense. If they agree with her, why eat up stories that accuse them of being rotten sexist racist homophobes?

Well, it’s because they ARE. As the book says, “SJWs Always Project.” If you scratch a Liberal, underneath you find that they are exactly what they hate. In this case, the driving force is what they call White Guilt. The reason they believe that white people are inherently, unchangeably, and institutionally racist is because they see it in themselves, and they therefore believe it is true in everyone else (Hint: It isn’t). But they believe themselves to be better because they acknowledge it, and go through all the rigamarole to make up for it and be a good ally.

In short, reading shit like this is penance for being white. Subjecting themselves to a stream of invective about their failings for being white gives them absolution. It’s kinda like those folks in the BDSM community who seek out a black dominatrix to work out their guilty feelings, and having paid for verbal abuse and a beating, feel that they’ve done their bit for race relations, and for the liberal side of the SF community, Mistress Nora is just the ticket, and they are paying her with sales and awards for all the abuse they can stomach.

(I apologize to those of you afflicted with the mental image that might conjure up. Believe me, I know your suffering. I edited out even worse.)

In summary, Le Guin’s message was that you can’t build a true Utopia based on the suffering of a single person. Jemisin’s message is that surely you can, if you make sure the right people are suffering.

This story also points out another problematic issue, one that is the focus of the entire collection (or indeed, Jemisin’s entire career): Racial Identity. This issue could probably be the subject of another whole essay, and the fact that I would be excoriated up and down for writing it would be a condemnation of the rigidly politically correct conformist turn SF fandom has taken, and greater society as a whole.

The reason Racial Identity fails in Science Fiction is because there are only a few ways to cover the topic, and they are extremely limited in impact. They’ve been done to death, and there’s virtually no way to breathe new life into them without making them even less authentic.

The first is what you see in this story. Race as an utterly unimportant factor. We are told by the Narrator that it doesn’t matter – that racially specific descriptors are still used but they don’t carry the negative connotations they do (or at least that she claims they do) in our usage. But if the race of the one highlighted character doesn’t matter in a postulated SF world, then guess what, it doesn’t matter at all. The story could be told with a character of any race in that role if it truly did not matter in that world. Race would be mere window dressing. The only use of that character’s race in this story was to bludgeon the reader with accusations of racism while being straw-manned into saying that who she is is somehow shocking.

Even worse, this opens up the author (unless she’s a black woman) to criticisms of tokenism, or ignoring racial issues, or whitewashing over them. Our friend the “Social Worker” could be accused of “Acting White” since her behavior isn’t specifically ethnic. (This unavoidable criticism becomes a straitjacket on the writer.) But addressing that leads to the next sort of problem.

The second way that Racial Identity fails in Science Fiction is a current-day parable set in the future. If your story set a hundred or a thousand years in the future has race relations that haven’t changed a bit from the current day attitudes, then what is the point? Are you saying that they will never improve? Is racial equality a futile dream, destined to be sabotaged forever by society? That’s pretty dismal. But it could be worse….

The third way, rarely seen, is that relations could be even worse. I haven’t yet encountered any in my own reading, but I imagine the result would take the form of stories set in some kind of racial civil war. And even if the author takes the side of the Black Union, the result really isn’t that far from the fever dreams of the readers of The Turner Diaries. Oh, I suppose it might find an audience in the self-loathing white SJWs who hand out Hugos who feel they deserve to see themselves destroyed by proxy, or militant racial separatists on the other side. But are either of these really that large of an audience, and even if they are, do you really want to serve them?

I suppose the fourth is the Inversion tale. But given how the audience for the third way to write these things reacts to an example like Farnham’s Freehold, their desire to read a racial revenge fantasy has to be tempered by the risk of being declared a racist by their fellows.

By the way, you could say the same thing for almost any form of identity politics. And while it’s possible to have these as an element in the worldbuilding of your stories, to make them the centerpiece of your tale simply kneecaps your tale from the outset. There are four ways to do it, but all of them are wrong. Social Justice has made it so, and the only way to get a pass depends on the skin color of the author.

Is there a way out of this trap? Maybe, but I don’t know what it looks like. All the roads have been blocked off by the same old no-win rhetoric. But the one road I will not take is the one traveled by the fans of this sort of work: I will not just shut up and take this abuse.

The message has been received, and rejected.