Friday, September 18, 2015

Atlas Shrugged/THS pt 3

Alright. I'm gonna give Ayn Rand credit for one thing: She can write descriptions and nail imagry. She might be tone deaf when it comes to nuance, social issues and giving fucks about other humans, but oh my god when she turns on the purple it...kinda works.

The ceiling was that of a cellar, so heavy and low that people stooped when crossing the room, as if the weight of the vaulting rested on their shoulders. The circular booths of dark red leather were built into walls of stone that looked eaten by age and dampness. There were no windows, only patches of blue light shooting from dents in the masonry, the dead blue light proper for use in blackouts. The place was entered by way of narrow steps that led down, as if descending deep under the ground. This was the most expensive barroom in New York and it was built on the roof of a skyscraper.
And being a refugee of the bar and restaurant scene, I kind of love Rand's barely hidden contempt for "let's fake a hole in the wall" asthetics, especially that "descent" when your bar is built on top of a goddamn skyscraper. I worked for a place that went all out Wild West, complete with an antique bar, smokey karosine lanterns--that gave every. single. fucking. waiter. heart attacks when we had people under them--and wooden panelling that took two weeks to install and another week--with three different chemicals--to stain. It was a pretty neat place--and that bar was a work of beauty and I'm glad it got another life--but the western theme was kind of ruined by the year-round Christmas lights draped on every ceiling beam and light fixture. Yeah, this is a thing, and it's not dead, and it's probably the only thing I'd love to help Rand roast alive.

It's also the perfect place for James "I've got no dick" Taggart to be meeting with his three buddies, Orran Boyle, Westly Mouch--who Hank Rearden ID'd as his pet lobbiest, so sucks to be Hank--and Paul Larkin, who was Hank's buddy. So it Really sucks to be Hank.

One thing I haven't brought up, mostly because I think it's the world's dumbest gimmick, is that each chapter has a title and, like most random details in this book, the titles Mean Something. Unfortunately for us the title is "The Top and the Bottom" and this chapter will mostly be Rand building a Strawman for altruistic socialism when fueled by capitalistic idiots, showcased by these four morons talking.

Lemme make it clear: Rand does not write characters. Rand writes touchstones with dialogue. And for some reason Rand thinks that the kind of socialist college students who studied Marx to irritate their dads would somehow become CEOs and Lobbiests, so these characters have exactly one note, and that note is WHINE. 

 And for the record, I consider myself to be a capitalist, and I don't really like government-funded altruism programs, mostly because why would you give that responsibility to THOSE people. That said, I believe that we do have a responsibility to take care of other humans, and that if you've got the cash, the time, or the ability to help somebody else, you should do it. Denying that responsibility on the basis of "Fuck you, got mine" makes you a bad human, and applying that principal to the government is an even worse idea than expecting the people who can't remember how to hit "erase" on their tape recorder. Any legislation from the government will, IMHO, have the primary motive of controlling the actions and behaviors of the people who vote for them. I believe in a small government because the government fucking up by the numbers is a lot harder to fix than individual errors. I also think that both sides have real good arguements, and that none of those arguements made it into this fucking book.

Orran Boyle starts out the grape-fest by whinging about Hank Rearden's untested not-steel and how it's going to destroy the industry, splattered with apologies to James Taggart for being unable to make rails out of real steel for him. James's entire contribution to the conversation is to spout off things that capitalists think socialists say, and stare into his drink.

“Disunity,” drawled James Taggart, “seems to be the basic cause of all social problems.
Right. Because it can't be privilege, racism, sexism, unequal access to resources and the sheer bad luck of living in the wrong part of the country when the Natural Disaster Roulette Wheel happens to land on your number.

Orran Boyle agrees, then argues that "It’s my absolute opinion that in our complex industrial society, no business enterprise can succeed without sharing the burden of the problems of other enterprises.”

He then quickly proves that he means his burdens and other people's companies, and it contains a line that is even more hilarious than Rand probably intended, because Orran says he has the best company because Associated Steel won a Globe.

Between Orran's whining and Rand's exposition, we learn that there's a big steel ore shortage. I'm not sure if Rand wants this to be an actual shortage, or just a shortage of people who know how to run a mine. Which...actually brings up a pretty big narrative failing, because steel ore drying up would be a really, really good reason for Hank to create his metal. It's not the power of his wanting that drives him, but a quickly developing need that will need to be solved long, long before anybody understands that there's a problem. It would justify Dagny using Rearden Metal on her railroad, and increase the drama of another couple points. But having the emergancy be, you know, something other than smart people quitting their jobs would detract from Rand's point.

So while Orran Boyle is saying shit like “The only justification of private property is public service.” and "private property is a trusteeship held for the benefit of society as a whole.” (By the way, nearly a thousand people highlighted that phrase) Westly Mouch is nodding like a bobble head. Every once in a while he says something like "Uh-huh" and "That's true" and lets Jim elbow him off the table. Seriously, the fact that James Taggart has a horrible sense of personal space gets a couple paragraphs.


That's another point I have to give to Rand. She might not be making real characters, but everything, and I do mean everything that they do is consistent. Rand poses her strawmen so that their actions and behaviors reflect their words, giving you the impression that they really, truely, actively believe what they're saying--and also that they don't believe it, at all, and are purely selfish assholes. Boyle's dialogues about how "businesses must carry each other's burdens" are bookended by James's wish for the waitstaff to be fired for mixing weak drinks, and Dagny's philosophical meanderings are punctuated by her strong, purposeful movements.

The point of this conversation is for Rand to lay out her utter incomprehension of socialism, but Orran Boyle also wants James, Mouch and Paul Larson to take Hank's company apart via legislation. Hank's got his own iron ore mines, which is why he can make steel and Boyle can't. Rather than trying to find his own mine, Boyle wants to take away Hank's so that they both don't have one. Congrats, our understanding of socialism is officially at Grade School Republican Diatribe level. Boyle's attempts at manipulation are blatant, obvious and byzantine, and nobody calls him on it because they'll have their own manipulative projects and they want him to support them when it's their turn.

The problem here is that Rand's strawmen defeat her own arguement fairly handily. It begins when Paul Larkin has a loud emotional outburst at the thought of hurting Hank. James replies:

“That is an anti-social attitude,” drawled Taggart. “People who are afraid to sacrifice somebody have no business talking about a common purpose.”
And holy shit James Taggart is a motherfucking Sociopath. Yeah, I get that this is Rand's arguement in a nutshel--that socialism is intrinsically anti-social--but in making that arguement she expects me to believe that anybody could listen to that phrase and think "Yeah, let's listen to this guy." Seriously, the entire book rests on the idea that people are dumb, that they are so lacking in intelligence and basic social instincts that they are incapable of recognizing a motherfucking sociopath advocating business cannibalism, and then, mind, then that the human spirit is great and wonderful and noble and worth saving.

There is a scene in Terry Goodkind's laughably terrible Sword of Truth series in which a society damned to an eternity of purposefully terrible artwork (Specifically terrible statues) are brought about to the hero's mode of thinking by a single sculpture proclaiming that "Your lives are your own!" It's stupid, it's melodramatic as fuck, but at least it's based on an idea of an inalterable quality in humans that, once presented with, humans recognize. This is exactly the opposite. It's an argument that people are too brain-dead and unobservant to know that James Taggart--not to mention everybody else at this table--is not somebody you want to be around. Ever.

And the thing is? Humans are good--and I mean really, really, really good--at recognizing anti-social behavior. It's kind of like knowing when you've put your hand in a fire. This is why the vast majority of us don't follow cults, have abusive relationships, or let pick up artists be anything other than phenomenal asshats. We know on an instinctive level that this is not safe, and we back away. Humans are an interdependant species--not just social, in that we like to be around each other, but in that we do actively need the support other humans provide. There's a very good argument that some functions--ie the massive pain of childbirth--exist in their current state to drive one human to seek out another specifically for help. And when humans do find themselves involved in antisocial relationships, it's usually because something--ie a manipulative abuser--actively worked to break them.

In order for the universe Ayn Rand is creating to exist, humans would have to have their basic survival instincts--the same things that make us recoil from hot stovetops and avoid bitter food--so badly blunted that they are beyond function. AND IN THE SAME MOMENT she wants us to believe in the nobility of man as a thing of value in and of itself that cannot be defeated, and that a defeat of said nobility in an individual means that person no longer has worth. In fact, I could stop this entire critique right here, right now, because this is the problem of Atlas Shrugged and most of Rand's other writing. Rand is presenting two absolutely contradictory ideas--innate human nobility and innate human stupidity--and demanding that we give value to both. HUMAN BEINGS DO NOT WORK THIS WAY.

 But that's where this gets really, really weird, and why I'm comparing C.S. Lewis's writing to Rand's. It starts with this line:

“I can’t be expected to buck the trend of the whole world, can I?” Larkin seemed to plead, but the plea was not addressed to anyone. “Can I?”
If there is one person gifted at creating iffy Strawmen, it's C.S. Lewis. He also creates some really good characters--Til We Have Faces is probably his best character work, because he is very, very careful to give everybody from the Pagan murder-priests to the athiestic Greek Fox a solidly realistic point of view--but when he takes off his writer hat and puts on his theologian one, oh my fucking God are the scarecrows everywhere. In the Great Divorce--something he wrote in response to the Marrige of Heaven and Hell--there is a long, long, long conversation between two priests about "going against the Mind of the Age" and I swear to fucking God you could take Larkin's line, lop out the middle bit, drop it in the Great Divorce and nobody could tell.

 Rand's writing really, really should not sound like a theologian's response to somebody else's work.

Anyway, the fantastic four here babble on about laws, and legislation, and then remind everybody that they are Heavily Invested in a copper mine in Mexico run by Francisco D'Anconia, and that Mexico is going to nationalize this mine any chapter now. James also finds out that there's nearly no trains on his railroad down there but plays it off rather cool for a drunk guy.

Then the chapter ends and...oh yeah. This part.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dagny Taggart's life history will take up the rest of the chapter.

One thing I've learned as a writer is that character history does not equal character development. I just watched Mad Max: Fury Road, having never watched any other Mad Max movie. I knew Max was Mel Gibson and that cars are involved...and that's about it. And oh my GOD was that a good movie. Fury Road is a kick-ass movie for a lot of reasons (Heavy Metal Platform Speaker Car complete with DOUBLE NECKED FIRE-SHOOTING GUITAR) but what struck me as the most notable is how little character history you get. You learn very, very little of Max, beyond that he's running from dead people. I kept waiting for the long conversation between him and Furiosa where he explained how his wife died saving a colony of bees or something, but that never happened. And he's the one with the most history in the story. Immortan Joe rules a town. His Wives are probably kidnap victims, Furiosa came from a random desert tribe, and what the blue fuck is Nux anyway? But the characters are far, far from being blank slates. Every single one of them is richly developed within seconds of seeing them on screen--and in the case of the Wives, well before we're even aware of their existance. Max and Furiosa's arcs are fairly predictable, but Nux's transition from annoying little fucker to (MASSIVELY CENSORED SPOILERS) was incredibly well done. And only one of these characters has anything remotely resembling a detailed backstory, and that's only because he's from three other movies.

So I am not going to rehash how Dagny grew up around ancient trees and flowers, how she feels "arrogant pleasure" (SERIOUSLY RAND? ARROGANCE AS A POSITIVE CHARACTER TRAIT?!?) at the sight of her railroad, or how she immediately grasped the greatness of the men behind mathmatics. Nor am I going to repeat every single, slow, groping step it took for her to get into the boardroom. These things would not matter even if this were a character driven story and it matters even less here. Dagny's entire purpose is to stand up pretty and spout whatever point Rand wants to make at this particular moment, and nothing in her backstory either helps or detracts from this preformance. The only thing we learn of any value is that she's lonely because nobody is her equal, and that could have been accomplished with about five fewer pages of boring descriptions of her first job at a switch-house.

 We also get the full history of the San Sebastian mines--those copper mines James invested in--and it is, if possible, even worse. Because not only is it unnecessary, it is extraordinarily, extremely racist.

“The Mexicans, it seems to me, are a very diligent people, crushed by their primitive economy. How can they become industrialized if nobody lends them a hand?”
 Folks, I live approximately three hours away from the Texas-Mexico border, in an area where Hispanics--the term on the census, and the term I hear used most frequently in the area--are 80% of the population. To say that Mexico needs to "become" industrialized is to say that--well, America needs to "become" industrialized. Meaning that if you say that, you have just exposed yourself as an ignorant moron (Who is probably really white). Mexico is not miles of rolling desert with cacti, drug lords, cantinas, folklorico dancers and bull-fighters every twenty miles. It's the country with the BIGGEST CITY IN THE WORLD that also happens to be BUILT IN THE MIDDLE OF A FUCKING LAKE. (And up until 2002, it had the last remaining Volkswagon Beetle factory, which has sadly closed its doors).

Even if Mexico became a "People's State" whatever the fuck that is, it would still be an industrialized country. It would still produce goods of some level of quality and would still grow that technology reguardless of who or what ran Mexico City. America might like to take pot-shots at Soviet-era Russia for shoddy tech, but it developed functional nuclear technology (FYI Chernobyl was the result of about five human errors and a wanton disregard for the USSR's safety regs, which it DID have) and a working space program (...though that does depend on your definition of "working" given how it crispy fried Vladimir Komarov) at pretty much the same rate we did. The only reason they never made it to the moon is it was basically a missile-based dick-measuring contest. The nearest thing to Rand's vision of "the People's Republic of Mexico" we've ever seen is North Korea--and admittedly, I agree with the theory that nobody's tried to take it over because frankly, who the hell would want to? so I probably shouldn't talk about North Korea--and that is only because it purposefully isolated itself from anything that isn't North Korea. And EVEN THERE you have a steady flow of technology both in and out of the country and solid modernization, complete with cell phones, computers and a working electrical grid. The reason North Korea is dark except for Pyongyang is because the Kim family only lives in Pyongyang. As for the rest of the world, the US might have spent the last fifteen years fucking the Middle East over but, Dubai is still building things that make Michael Bay blush. African nations only appear backwards to a western audience because we only send our camera crews to the savanna's version of an Appalacian coal-mining town (or meth-head trailer park) and--seriously, I could go on for hours and that's not even touching the whole "primitive people" superiority complex bullshit. In other words, the kind of backwards degraded culture Rand is proposing here not only is not possible, it doesn't exist.

Which means that Dagny's entire reason for not wanting to invest in Mexico--ie that it takes resources away from a failing Taggart Transcontinental because Mexico has no resources of its own--is inaccurate, short-sighted and very, very, VERY racist.

Dagny is also putting all--and I mean ALL-of the Taggart eggs in Ellis Wyatt's basket because he has OIL.

Again, folks: TEXAS GIRL. Yeah. DO NOT PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN THE OIL MAN'S BASKET.

Dagny is so stricken by the idea of building a railroad line to Mexico--and by the way we are STILL in a fucking flashback--that she considers leaving Taggart Transcontinental, her one true wub dream job. But no. She's still here, still fighting, and has still stripped down the line in Mexico to whatever rattle-traps and leaky boilers she didn't want to put on American rails. Meanwhile the construction of the line is described in detail that implies that Mexico really is a deserted backwards wasteland of scrub brush and villages made up of cantinas and stucco churches.

So the only thing we've learned from this ENTIRE THING is how Dagny Taggart is a flaming racist. WOW.

...and then James comes in to yell at his sister for abandoning the Mexican line.

...didn't we already do this? Back in chapter one? Dagny told James she'd done this and he flipped his fucking goard? WHY ARE WE DOING THIS AGAIN?

 There is one good comparison here, though, and I don't think Rand intended this. Dagny, near the end of the Flashback that didn't Flash, thought about how much she wants the company to do well and how the rebuilt Rio Norte line would "redeem the rest". Noble. Now James is on about the copper mines and he says this:

. Why, the copper traffic alone will pay for everything.”
In other words, it's just another example of how James is wrong to think that way because he's a dirty socialist, whereas Dagny is right because she wants things. RIGHT!

And Francisco D'Anconia is her ex-friend and ex-lover and oh good Christ I don't care anymore. Dagny and James fight for a few pages and then she goes home, thinking about her ancestor because of course what we need right now is more of Dagny's backstory. She stops at a cigarette stand near her house and we meet the Cigarette Collector, who is, God help me, an important plot point for later. Why does he collect Cigarettes?

He glanced at her and did not answer. Then he said, “I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart. I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips. I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind— and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.”
And I think it's appropriete that this book is comparing ideas to cigarettes, because too much of this one is probably going to give me cancer!

The Cigarette Collector promptly freaks Dagny out--as in she literally screams at him--by asking "Who is John Galt?" and the scene ends.

So that we can transition to Eddie Williers talking to a random employee in the railroad cafeteria.

Right. This shit. I'm going to spoil a major plot point--mostly because it is so flaming obvious it's unreal--and just tell you what's going on, otherwise I can't begin to make this part coherent. Eddie Williers is talking to John Galt. Eddie is talking to John Galt because otherwise John would have no way of getting the information he needs to do the sort of things the plot demands that he do. Which is mostly "Fuck with Dagny Taggart" and "Kidnap smart people". However, because John Galt is 1. supposed to be a big secretive figure and 2. ACTUALLY EMPLOYED BY DAGNY UNDER HIS REAL NAME, Galt gets absolutely no written dialogue whatsoever. Instead we get Eddie Willers' stream of consciousness with a scattering of ellipsis that make it look like Rand hit her book with bird shot. Galt's responses are repeated by Eddie in the form of questions. The entire effect does little to add to suspense and does an awful, awful lot to undermine Eddie's credibilty. Given developments later on, this is a very, very, very stupid move on Rand's part, because it implies that John has no other way to get info on his targets than the extremely unlikely chance encounter with random CEO assistants in business cafeterias.

And everthing he's talking about is something that the plot has already covered in excrucating, painful detail, and repeated at least one other time in another scene. And after telling John--who, mind, is just a random employee having a surreal conversation with his boss's glorified secretary--that Dagny's favorite composer is Richard Halley, the chapter finally, mercifully, ends.

And now for That Hideous Strength.

 After leaving the flat that morning Jane also had gone down to Edgestow and bought a hat. 

Oh simple, concise writing how very much I have missed thee.

She had before now expressed some contempt for the kind of woman who buys hats, as a man buys drinks, for a stimulant and a consolation. It did not occur to her that she was doing so herself on this occasion.

I know it looks a lot like I'm kissing Lewis's ass on this book, and that's mostly because...well, I am. The issues I have with THS are, in this order, the pacing, the Lesbian villian, and Lewis's painful attempt at women's issues, a subject he really, really, REALLY did not get at fucking all. But after pages and pages of unnecessary character backstory this simple, single half-a-paragraph of actual character development is a fucking breath of fresh air.

She also runs into Mrs. Dimble, the wife of Cecil Dimble and the unofficial den mother for Jane's former dorm. It's quickly established that Jane has been losing touch with the Dimbles now that she's not Mr. Dimble's student anymore, and Mrs. Dimble uses the hat as an excuse to invite Jane out to lunch. It's established even faster that the Dimbles' house is beautiful, comfortable, welcoming and rather famous for being all three. We get a good sense of how much Jane likes it there.

“You’d better take a good look at it then,” said Dr. Dimble. 
“What do you mean?” asked Jane. 
“Haven’t you told her?” said Dr. Dimble to his wife.
 “I haven’t screwed myself up to it yet,” said Mrs. Dimble. “Besides, poor dear, her husband is one of the villains of the piece. Anyway, I expect she knows.”
Yes. See, along with the sale of Bragdon Wood, which we covered last time, goes a lot of other properties the college owns. The wood was the important bit to the college because it has History and gives the college character...but all those other properties that weren't even important enough to bring up at the meeting were other people's houses. The Dimbles and, it seems, about half of Edgestow, are about to be thrown out so the NICE can build their facility.

Guys, I just read at least forty Kindle pages in which the plot was not advanced one iota, and here we have character development, two new, major characters introduced and the stakes (minorly) raised in less than three.

There's about a paragraph devoted to looking at the hat, and then this exchange happens:

When the hat was being put away again Mrs. Dimble suddenly said, “There’s nothing wrong, is there?”
 “Wrong?” said Jane. “Why? What should there be?” 
“You’re not looking yourself.” 
“Oh, I’m all right,” said Jane aloud. Mentally she added, “She’s dying to know whether I’m going to have a baby. That sort of woman always is.”
I really like this, because in the preceeding paragraphs Lewis--through Jane--spends a lot of time poking at the attitude that feminine women are all babies and clothes and and fluff and have nothing of substance. I don't really get what he intends to do with it now that he's jammed a stick at it--the veneer of disapproval suggests he's trying to lampoon the concept--but he's certainly doing--

 “Do you hate being kissed?” said Mrs. Dimble unexpectedly.

WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK. No, folks. No, Mrs. Dimble is not the lesbian character I have so many issues with, and I have absolutely no idea what this is. I've read this book multiple times for pure enjoyment and I've always assumed that Mrs. Dimble has noticed that there's something wrong with Jane's marrage, but what the hell.

However, this absolutely shatters Jane, because it got too close to her actual problem, and she breaks down in tears. Mrs. Dimble puts her back together and gets Jane to admit the real problem: She's in an unhappy marrige and, oh yeah, PSYCHIC NIGHTMARES.

Mr. Dimble, meanwhile, begins rambling on about Arthurian legands, which is a preamble to one of my absolute favorite characters in this or any other book, and is comparing Camelot with Briton directly before the Axis invasion--and it is very, very, VERY Briton-centric, to the point where if this were an American novel, we'd be riding on a F-15 painted like an eagle shedding 'Murican flags with fire shooting out of our ass--and then this happens:

And where would Merlin be?” “Yes. . . . He’s the really interesting figure. ...Has it ever struck you what an odd creation Merlin is? He’s not evil; yet he’s a magician. He is obviously a druid; yet he knows all about the Grail. He’s ‘the devil’s son’; but then Layamon goes out of his way to tell you that the kind of being who fathered Merlin needn’t have been bad after all...“I often wonder,” said Dr. Dimble, “whether Merlin doesn’t represent the last trace of something the later tradition has quite forgotten about— something that became impossible when the only people in touch with the supernatural were either white or black, either priests or sorcerers.”

There is a really great idea that he's introducing here that I probably won't have space to get in to (Thanks bunches, Ayn) but this is the start of why I love this book so fucking much. C.S. Lewis, one of the best Christian theologians of all time, has just written that perhaps there was something of value in pre-Christian religions.

And yes. This is going to be a running theme with massive, massive payoffs in the future.

Dimble then begins talking about what the NICE might dig up while they're building their new HQ where the Dimbles' garden used to be. Dimble fancies that it might be Merlin, and that the guy running the NICE--Jules, which is Lewis taking a pot-shot at his contemporaries--isn't the type to think he'd inherit "Merlin's Mantle". Jane remembers the last half of her nightmare, the prone guy in a tomb, and damn near faints on the Dimbles' table--and it is not played off as "silly woman". Instead, its treated as a real, significant emotional shock.

Jane describes her dream to Dimble and tries to laugh it off, as she figures Dimble will either dismiss her as a silly woman, or figure she's crazy. He does neither.

“Extraordinary thing . . . most extraordinary,” he kept muttering. “Two heads. And one of them Alcasan’s. Now is that a false scent . . . ?”
However, one of his current students needs him, so he tells Jane that 1. She's sane and 2. if she absolutely, positively has to tell somebody about her dreams, please go talk to a friend of theirs before she goes to anybody else. The chapter ends with Jane going home.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Atlas Shrugged/THS Chapter 2

In chapter two of Atlas Shrugged, we are introduced to buildings. Slowly. Very.

 It began with a few lights. As a train of the Taggart line rolled toward Philadelphia, a few brilliant, scattered lights appeared in the darkness; they seemed purposeless in the empty plain, yet too powerful to have no purpose. The passengers watched them idly, without interest.

There is so much shit to unpack here. First, we have the major writing fail of that whole "seemed purposeless" bit. "Seemed" is a word on my red flag list--when I'm editing, I'll look up every case of "seemed" and try to delete it. Thought, realized and the ever-popular "was doing" set up are also flagged. These are words an author uses when they don't want to commit to a detail, or they are trying to convey information that a character has no possible way of knowing. The lights are scattered--which implies purposelessness and therefor makes the whole "seemed" bit unnecessary--but too bright to be meaningless. As are street lamps, stoplights, road flares, car lamps, house lamps, flashlights, train lights, and anything brighter than a firefly's ass. Attributing purpose to something man-made is easy and obvious. What Rand is attempting to do--badly--is imply that only certain things get the value of purpose and, in turn, imply that purpose itself is a higher value. The problem is that not all purposes are good ones. The lights illuminating a dockyard aren't going to have the same level of importance as a road flare at a car wreck.

And then we have the whole "watched idly" bit, which is another running theme in Atlas. It is implied that it's wrong that these passengers don't care about the random scattering of lights outside a train window, that they should be interested and worshipful and should discount their own business to be drooling fans of someone else's universe.

But we're not going to value somebody else's shit the way we value our own. We're not supposed to. Success in your field does not automatically rock my world, nor do your failures invalidate (or validate) a single fucking thing to me. Of course Random Passenger Alpha doesn't give a rats ass about random lights outside their train. They might be contemplating brain surgery, or the funeral they're heading to, or, you know, going to sleep like a normal human being would at night. This expectation of hyper-vigilance for success is stupid.

...this is the first goddamn paragraph.

 Rand continues to describe a building via the dopplar effect, and of course this is Rearden Steel. And for a group of people who, we are told, emphatically don't give shits about the building...a lot of them have really, really negative thoughts about Rearden Steel. We are supposed to see this as the cruelty and apathy of those who are not Gifted And Talented...but it comes off more like the nerdy kid (This being Rand) fantasizing about how all the popular people will hate them once the nerdy kid is famous and successful. And it's about as realistic.

We then move on to the pouring of metal, and oh my GOD is it purple, and dawn and morning and thrilling and I'm sorry, I've read sex scenes that are less masturbatory than this.

Fountains of sparks shot in beating spasms, as from broken arteries. The air seemed torn to rags, reflecting a raging flame that was not there, red blotches whirling and running through space, as if not to be contained within a man-made structure, as if about to consume the columns, the girders, the bridges of cranes overhead...A flow of stars hung above the stream, leaping out of its placid smoothness, looking delicate as lace and innocent as children’s sparklers.
 Hank himself gets only a paragraph, and compared to his steel it's downright spartan. This is the very first time his special metal has been poured. Ever. Which means that Dagny not only ordered something untested, she ordered something that didn't even exist. Like, maybe there were test batches or something, but the wording really, really implies that this metal was just a formula on paper until Rearden started throwing shit into a crucible. This is like booking a year long voyage on the Apollo 1 rocket. You know. The one that exploded during a test with all hands on board. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS.


 Then he walks home. At night. In the middle of fucking nowhere. In a society that is collapsing.  He does this all the time. Tonight, he's got a bracelet he made from his first pouring of Rearden Metal ever, and he thinks about how much work went into making the bracelet and the Metal, and because we might miss this from the rather good phrasing, It had taken ten years to make this bracelet...ten years is a long time, Rand then lists all the work that went into researching the formula.

ALL. OF. IT. Including the late nights, the lack of sleep, the criticism, and how his happiness makes him lonely because he's unappreciated.

There's a phrasing about how all this is glorious, not because it's useful or good, but because it contains consious intention. It's the same thing as in the first chapter, where the power of wanting something, not the value or the nature of the thing wanted, is enough to justify character behavior. I want it, therefore I ought to be rewarded. It reminds me a lot of that scene at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy where Rocket and the space cop are arguing over the definition of stealing.

 We then get Hank's entire work history. It reads like a very purple resume and doesn't make me actually like this guy.

And then it is time for a Statement of Purpose:

He felt that he could forgive anything to anyone, because happiness was the greatest agent of purification. He felt certain that every living being wished him well tonight. He wanted to meet someone, to face the first stranger, to stand disarmed and open, and to say, “Look at me.” People, he thought, were as hungry for a sight of joy as he had always been— for a moment’s relief from that gray load of suffering which seemed so inexplicable and unnecessary. He had never been able to understand why men should be unhappy.
Hank Rearden, in other words, has the empathy of a brick and is kind of a shitheel. What I find incredibly interesting, though, is that Rand appears to be using Joy much the same way that Lewis does. Not as a magnification of happiness, but as a transcendant moment that surpasses happiness. Having said that, if Rand is using Joy that way she's missed the entire point. The factors that create Joy in one individual are different from the factors that create it in another. Not everybody is going to be delighted that a steel factory is making steel. And this highlights a major, major problem in Objectivism. It discounts entirely the differences between individuals and expects them all to be identical in both their needs and their abilities.

Anyway, he made the bracelet for his wife to celebrate his metal, only his wife (who is also kind of a shitheel) doesn't like it much. And I have to admit it: I really, really like Lillian's character.

“Why, darling,” she said in a bright tone of amusement, “isn’t it too early to come home? Wasn’t there some slag to sweep or tuy√®res to polish?”

She's awful. She's verbally abusive, manipulative, and later on pulls a couple stunts that are truely reprehensible, but she doesn't take Hank's shit. At all.  Unlike James Taggart or 90% of the rest of the cast, she has no reason to exist other than to as a comparison for Dagny. And like most comparison characters, Lillian gets a life of her own through the author's own negligance and misunderstanding. She takes absolutely no shit from anybody, and it's clear Rand had no idea what to do with her after she served her purpose of making Dagny the coolest person who ever cooled so she just kind of fades away.

Hank also has a mother, who serves no purpose in the book whatsoever, and a brother, who is James Taggart 2.0: The Unemployed. There's a long, long sequence where Hank overhears his mother, Lillian and brother Phillip talking about how Hank Is Not A Saint. I have to admit, I'm imagining him sitting against a closed door with his ear pressed to the crack, with a mental age of about five. He then has a long thought-spiral into unappreciated depression because he supports them and they think so badly of him. And then Rand slips up. Again.

Why that chronic air of suspicion, as if they were waiting to be hurt?...they seemed wounded by anything he said, it was not a matter of his words or actions, it was almost . . . almost as if they were wounded by the mere fact of his being.

Yeah. This is kind of whipped puppy syndrome and it implies nothing good about Hank. Being "wounded by the mere fact of his being" is a real nice thing to imagine if you want to feel holier-than-thou and put-upon. But...yeah, most people don't react like that. Obviously this relationship is real, real dysfunctional. If it were one person (Say, Lillian or the mom) then yeah, it could be that Hank is in the right. But it's more than one, and that usually means that Hank ain't the cool person he thinks he is. And the assumption that they are "wounded" by his existance, rather than his actions, means that yep, he's likely in the wrong. And that he really, really does have the emotional maturity of a five year old.

He also has a buddy over, Paul Larkin, who proceeds to attach himself to Hank's ass like a lamprey. Paul congradulates Hank on his metal, then warns him that the State Science Institute wants to take him down. Hank laughs him off because his metal is good and everything will be alright in the end because he's the worlds most dysfunctional, co-dependant Pollyanna. Even better, Paul is described as being short, fat and "unfinished", which means he's going to be a bad guy later and probably betray Hank first chance he gets. Golly, it's so wonderful when you can ID the bad guys by their appearance!

 Through the conversation with Paul, we also discover that Hank has a lobbiest in Washington whose entire purpose is to protect Hank from new laws, which...is perfectly realistic. The guy's name is Westley Mouch, and his description also implies that later on he's going to fuck Hank over. Having established this, we then move on to the Existancial Angst portion of the chapter:


“Damned if I see why. Can you tell me that? What’s wrong with the world?” 
Larkin shrugged sadly. “Why ask useless questions? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? Who is John Galt?”

Yeah, that's still no YOLO.

Then it's Phillip's turn to be visected.

There was something wrong, by Rearden’s standards, with a man who did not seek any gainful employment, but he would not impose his standards on Philip; he could afford to support his brother and never notice the expense.
Yeah, having a family member who is a continual deadbeat is a hard situation, and enabling problematic behavior is an issue. But the issue is not Hank supporting Phillip altruistically--it is that Philip is taking advantage of Hank and abusing the privelage of getting to live relatively expense free.

Also: Philip went to College, and Hank didn't.

And now it is time for Strawman to attempt arguing. Philip asks Hank for a little money for his charity--something disgustingly socialistic--and Hank, well:

And then Rearden thought suddenly that he could break through Philip’s chronic wretchedness for once, give him a shock of pleasure, the unexpected gratification of a hopeless desire. He thought: What do I care about the nature of his desire?— it’s his, just as Rearden Metal was mine— it must mean to him what that meant to me— let’s see him happy just once, it might teach him something— didn’t I say that happiness is the agent of purification?— I’m celebrating tonight, so let him share in it— it will be so much for him, and so little for me.

And that is how you love somebody. You figure out what gives them joy and you provide that even if you don't fully understand it. Do it within the limits of safety, but do it nonetheless.

Thing is? This is played as an error in thinking--something that Hank does wrong. A misstep. Philip gets no joy out of the donation--in fact, he asks Hank to keep his name off the check because the charity GASP! doesn't like corporations donating (...in what universe, Rand?). The idea of doing for another, not because your desires corrispond but because you just want to make them happy, is played as a bad thing. However, rejecting a gift because it's not what you want--which means the giver made no attempt to figure out what you'd like--is played as wrong too--Lillian's barbed acceptance of the bracelet because it isn't diamonds (Speaking of which, Hank, would it have killed you to put some effort into that thing?) is handled as if she'd thrown it back in his face and spit at him in good measure.

 “But you’re wrong, Paul, you’re so wrong! What would happen to Henry’s vanity if he didn’t have us to throw alms to? What would become of his strength if he didn’t have weaker people to dominate? What would he do with himself if he didn’t keep us around as dependents? It’s quite all right, really, I’m not criticizing him, it’s just a law of human nature.”
I begin to think that nothing good, kind, or generous ever happened to Rand. It also shows me that she believes altriusm is a zero-sum game--that in giving to one, another loses something of value. Generosity diminishes the great without magnifying the weaker.

But the thing is? Humans need other humans. The key phrase here is interdependant. In which we depend on each other. There's a much abused term in Christian circles--a helpmeet. A lot of people assume that a helpmeet is intrinsically weaker than the thing it is helping. This term is most commonly applied to a wife (as is the ever-dispicable "weaker vessel") But the term itself defies that definiton because it first implies that the husband needs help, and second that the helpmeet is capable of meeting that need. The word meet, back when this phrase was coined, meant sufficient or equal to the task. An interdependant relationship is a relationship among peers, a kind of sheild wall against the world. When one person in the relationship fails, another can step in and take the heat until person A is back on their feet.


This is why altruism isn't a zero-sum game. There's a wonderful system called Maslaw's Hirearchy of Needs which states that an individual is only capable of production in one area of their lives if their needs in other areas are met. It also states that this is a hirearchy, meaning that the potential of higher levels can only be reached if the lower levels are met in full. The fundamental basics--food, shelter, clothing, water, warmth--are necessary for the next level--security and a feeling of safety--which are necessary for the next level--relationships--which are necessary for the next level which involves creative production. An individual's inability to produce can be directly tied to a deficiancy in a preceeding level. In this case, Mom Rearden, Lillian and Philip are all incapable of producing on their own. This can be tied to a deficiancy in their sense of security--they feel that they can't trust anybody, even each other, otherwise they will lose something in that bottom tier--home, clothing, food, safety.

Altruism at the bottom level--making sure that no matter what you get your basics met--provides the security necessary to build good relationships and become a productive individual. But if any one level on the hirearchy--usually displayed as a pyrimid--is shaky, the whole damn thing is going to come down.

However, Rand only sees this system as a co-dependant one--in which the dependees aren't displaying their strengths. And while I absolutely agree--it is co-dependant and abusive--the issue isn't Hank's altruism. Rather, it's that for some reason--perhaps the fact that the world's in the process of collapse, perhaps the fact that Hank's a dick--the other Reardens don't feel secure in their fundamental needs.

The chapter ends with what is perhaps Lillian's best line:

“A chain,” she said. “Appropriate, isn’t it? It’s the chain by which he holds us all in bondage.”

Now, on to That Hideous Strength:

Last time we met Jane Studdock, who has an unhappy marrige and a history of visonary dreams. Now we will meet Mark, her husband. And let's start with the very, very, VERY obvious:


Mark is C.S. Lewis's self insert.

He's a don of a fictional college called Braxton in a town called Edgestow, and Lewis very obviously draws deeply upon his own history at Oxford's various facilities to build Braxton. How aware Lewis is of his self-insert is unknown, but it's kinda...there.

After a long peroid in which Lewis literally starts describing his fictional college in first person (A rather bizzare drop for somebody as precise as Lewis usually is) Mark takes center stage. He is relatively new to Braxton, and was recently accepted into the College's inner circle of leadership, and is currently enjoying the new, strange feeling of being the confidant of this inner circle's leader, a man named Curry. They're plotting something to be revealed shortly, and Curry tells Mark what a hell of a time "we" are going to have getting things done. Mark has a strong reaction to the "we".

You would never have guessed from the tone of Studdock’s reply what intense pleasure he derived from Curry’s use of the pronoun “we.” So very recently he had been an outsider, watching the proceedings of what he then called “Curry and his gang” with awe and with little understanding, and making at College meetings short, nervous speeches which never influenced the course of events. Now he was inside and “Curry and his gang” had become “we” or “the Progressive Element in College.” It had all happened quite suddenly and was still sweet in the mouth.

We get a rambling list of the people who are onboard with Curry for his whatever, and one of the names dropped is Lord Feverstone, Dick Devine.

I really cannot explain how huge a cognitive dissonance this book is from the other two in the trilogy. The other two books had a main character named Ransom--a Mary Sue of the first water, but one of the rather fun sort--who was an unapologetic Christian, and who, at one point, got into a literal fistfight with the Devil over the future of Venus's Eve. Dick Devine was involved in the first book, as Professor Weston's assistant and Ransom's kidnapper. So this mention here is the first connection we have to Ransom, and one I didn't mark at the time because Dick was kind of forgettable. Vastly forgettable. (His most significant contribution in Out of the Silent Planet was to wave beads in the face of the advanced-yet-dying races in charge of Mars) It'll be a LONG time before the primary connection to the previous books is made. Right now, we have to be happy with Dick.

Mark questions if Feverstone's fellowship at the college is secure, given that he's never in it. Curry laughs him off. Mark pushes in a very, very round-about way, and Curry tells him that Dick got Mark his fellowship. This translates to "drop it" so Mark does. Curry wants to make sure he gets the point, though, so he lets Mark know that the other contender--who was more qualified, was a man named Denniston. Curry is quick to point out, though, that Denniston's proven himself to be completely unsuitable because of his academic persuits, so Mark really was the best choice. Mark decides to take Curry out to drinks to smooth things over, and in the process we find out that Mark's spent a lot of money keeping Curry happy.

Lewis then drops out of Third Person again to describe the Bragdon Woods. They are very pretty woods, with a well that might date back to King Arthur. The language is a little purple-ish (A more forgivable sin than dropping into First Person for the second time in a chapter) but the sense of beauty, and better, history, comes through loud and clear. He manages to connect his fictional college and wood to most of British history, and then moves on to the key point in this chapter: Curry's scheme.

The title of this chapter, my lovelies, is "The Sale of Bragdon Woods". It's a mile of untamed wildness, and a valued part of the college, and if you're prone at all to enjoy purple prose and imaginary history, you're probably a bit attached to the wood now, too. Curry wants to sell it off to the N.I.C.E--the National Institute for Co-Ordinated Experiments. The NICE was created to cut through all the "red tape" and just fucking do science, which seems like a great idea to a sociologist like Mark. The NICE want to buy Bragdon Wood so they can put a skyscraper on it. A big one.

Curry assures the fellows of Bracton that the NICE won't be ripping up too much of the woods. Right.

Three years ago, if Mark Studdock had come to a College Meeting at which such a question was to be decided, he would have expected to hear the claims of sentiment against progress and beauty against utility openly debated. Today, as he took his seat in the Soler, the long upper room on the south of Lady Alice, he expected no such matter. He knew now that that was not the way things are done..

What follows is an incredibly dry passage that describes Curry manipulating the everloving fuck out of the fellows of Bracton. First he talks about how much trouble it is to keep the woods in shape, and then drops the subject. Now he talks about how much money the college needs, and how, if they cut the salary of some of the more junior Fellows, they might even be able to pay for the upkeep of the wood. Then Curry reminds everybody that Merlin's Well, while being of some historical value, is a magnet for the kind of people a modern skeptic would call "Woo". There's lots of woo around the Well, and there are filmmakers who want to shoot a documentary about the woo, and as the college has a severe woo allergy, somebody proposes putting a barbed wire fence around it, to which all the old hats who love the wood declare they'd rather chop all the trees down. Thus having firmly established that 1. the Wood is a woo magnet, 2. its upkeep is expensive and 3. taking care of it means most of the people in this room will not get a raise, Curry goes for the kill:

It was not till six o’clock that all the converging lines of thought and feeling aroused by the earlier business came together upon the question of selling Bragdon Wood. It was not called, “the sale of Bragdon Wood.” The Bursar called it the “sale of the area colored pink on the plan which, with the Warden’s permission, I will now pass round the table.”...The advantages of the sale discovered themselves one by one like ripe fruit dropping into the hand. It solved the problem of the wall; it solved the problem of protecting ancient monuments; it solved the financial problem; it looked like solving the problem of the junior Fellows’ stipends.
There are a few hold-outs, most notably a man named Jewel, and another man with the moniker "Bill the Blizzard" attempt to protest. Unfortunately for them, the vote goes through and the Wood is sold to the NICE.

We're still in the set-up process of both books, and the comparisons between Hank and Mark are actually rather fun to make. Hank is a strong, forceful man with a pretty decent altruistic instinct--something that, I am sure, Rand included as a flaw. Mark, on the other hand, comes off much more like Philip, Hank's brother. Later on, there's a line that goes "There was a lot of the spaniel in Mark" and that's probably the best summery of his character. Hank is a steamroller, and Mark is the thing that gets rolled.

We've also been introduced to the two things-behind-the-scenes for both books: The State Science Institute in Atlas, and the NICE in Strength. That both books chose to have a primary force be a state-founded place of scientific study is really interesting. The NICE will play a bigger role than the SSI will for Atlas, but both play key functions.

Next time: We meet Jane's maid; James and Orrin Boyle hate Hank Rearden a lot.



Thursday, August 27, 2015

Atlas Shrugged/THS Pt 1

So my original plan was to double up on AS chapters so that things would come out even. Then I realized that even the chapters are twice the size of THS's. Good fucking god this book is a brick. So instead, we're breaking THS chapters in half.

Atlas starts with what is probably the single most appropriete phrase possible for this book.

“Who is John Galt?”
Gee I hope you like that stupid, stupid sentence.  You know how about three, four years ago, Drake did that song "Motto"? You Only Live Once? YOLO? And how EVERY SINGLE FUCKING PERSON ON PLANET EARTH was doing "YOLO" for the longest time? And how every single rapper in existence tried to cash in on this by coming up with their own YOLO? Only it worked exactly the way bricks fly and most of the rappers just sounded really, really stupid? Yeah. That's what this phrase is. It's Rand's attempt to come up with a meme. And really, it's cool that she put a meme into her novel way back in 57, when memes were not a thing. It is. She was kinda ahead of her time there.

THAT SAID. The thing about memes? Something about them is catchy. Rick-rolling, the V for Vendetta mask, the Badger Song, Troll Face, YOLO--there's something about them that makes it easy for them to catch on. Easy to say, easy to remember. Something in them is either ear-worm material--Badgerbadgerbadgerbadger--OR, more frequently, it's a single, powerful image that sticks in your head so hard even an Exorcist couldn't get it out. The Guy Fawkes mask is Anonymous symbol because it's easy, it's catchy, its' somewhat intimidating, and it's powerful because of what Anon attached to it

Now. Does ANY of that apply to that stupid sentence up there? "Who is John Galt?" sounds more like the speaker is clearing their throat. GALT. Oh, I'm sorry, let me pass you the cough medicine. This would not be a big deal if the ENTIRE FUCKING GODDAMN NOVEL did not hang on this one fucking, stupid sentence.

 Anyway, the speaker is a bum, speaking to Eddie Willers. We know nothing about Eddie, right now, except that he gets accosted by bums and has "causeless uneasiness" within him. Eddie asks the bum what he means. The conversation that follows is kinda precious:

 “Why does it bother you?” he asked. 
“It doesn’t,” snapped Eddie Willers.
It doesn't bother Eddie SO MUCH that Eddie gasp GIVES THE BUM MONEY. Because this is a big, sacrificial gesture, apparently. Then Eddie walks off and starts thinking about how much he...doesn't feel anything about his life and is really apathetic, and how very much this bothers him.

It’s the twilight, he thought; I hate the twilight.
So do I, Eds. So do I.

After Rand slathers on some...rather effective purple prose re: New York at dusk, Eddie walks past the gigantic projector-run calendar that somebody installed in Times Square. This calendar is a really, really big deal, and it's just one factor in ten million that firmly date this novel in the fucking fifties. We've got LED lights running real time stock exchange ticker tape, but apparently we also have a date calendar that works kind of like the hotel clock from Groundhog Day. 

 It was the calendar that the mayor of New York had erected last year on the top of a building, so that citizens might tell the day of the month as they told the hours of the day, by glancing up at a public tower. A white rectangle hung over the city, imparting the date to the men in the streets below. In the rusty light of this evening’s sunset, the rectangle said: September 2.
WOW WHAT A TECHNOLOGICAL MARVEL.

 Eddie is scared of the calendar. So scared that it makes him think of an oak tree.

No. I don't know either.

Eventually he makes it to Taggart Transcontinental, his place of employment as...it is never exactly clear what Eddie does, and the movies are even less clear. He does something for the President and Vice President of Operations at TT, which appears to be relaying bad news, staring in horror at various things, and blabbing company secrets to a mysterious stranger every three or four chapters. His title might get mentioned eventually, but it's really, REALLY unimportant. Eds here is basically a plot vehicle--he's there to make sure that characters have the information they need when there's no other possible way for them to know shit. He's basically Rand's Deus ex Machina on a stick.

He goes into James Taggart's office. This is Rand's subtle description of Taggart:

He had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of his tall, slender body, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled, with a glance that moved slowly, never quite stopping, gliding off and past things in eternal resentment of their existence.

Yeah. Rand makes the standard ableism of your average romance novel look fucking tame by comparison. The good guys are GORGEOUS, intelligent, physically fit, energetic and otherwise fucking perfect. The bad guys are short, fat, balding, homely, ect. ect. and so forth. Basically, if somebody is pretty, they're gonna be a good guy. If somebody has even one single negative physical quality, they're fucking evil and will burn in Communist Hell.

James greets Eddie with the following:

“Don’t bother me, don’t bother me, don’t bother me,” said James Taggart.

DUDE. YOU ARE THE MOTHERFUCKING PRESIDENT OF THE MOTHERFUCKING RAILROAD WHAT THE HELL.

I am not even three pages in. HELP ME.

Eds tells James that they've had a wreck on the Rio Norte Line. James replies that wrecks happen every day, this is nothing new. Points get battered back and forth until we finally understand what's going on. The Rio Norte line needs new track. James ordered the new track from his buddy Orran Boyle, who is about as reliable as a Ford Pinto when it comes to delivering orders on time. Or at all.

Eddie points out that they are losing money. James says "Yeah, but we're not the only ones" because OF COURSE that's how a President would talk. Eddie says they need to fix shit on that line before they lose all their customers and James replies with what is possibly one of the strangest non-sequiters I've read in a while"

“You’re a pessimist, Eddie. You lack faith. That’s what undermines the morale of an organization.”

Uh...that is not how faith works. Or business. Or...anything, really.

 Eddies tells James they need to order from a different supplier. They dance around the issue for a minute before finally revealing that the dreaded other supplier is Rearden Steel, who is...a competitor of Orran Boyle, who is James's good friend, and therefore the order can't be placed and basically all I'm hearing is a couple of puppies whining at each other. Basically, this only exists to make sure we know the following:

1. Taggart Transcontinental is in trouble
2. Rearden Steel is a really cool company
3. Orran Boyle is not a cool company.
4. The Phoenix Durango line is also real cool--cooler than TT anyway.
5. Wyatt Erp Ellis is the MOST IMPORTANT HUMAN IN COLORADO
and
6. James is frighteningly dependent on his sister.

You know, I get that Rand is trying to make a point that James isn't suitable for leading a company, at all, ever, and that the only reason he's got one is (SPOILERS REDACTED) but for the love of fucking God. I wouldn't trust James with a company. I wouldn't trust this idiot with a potato gun.  Afterwards the dude in the desk outside James's office goes on a long rant ending with "Who is John Galt?"

Damn is that going to get old.

We switch scenes and have an unnamed woman who is so awesome that her leg--not her body, mind, just her leg--gets a whole fucking paragraph.

Her leg, sculptured by the tight sheen of the stocking, its long line running straight, over an arched instep, to the tip of a foot in a high-heeled pump, had a feminine elegance that seemed out of place in the dusty train car and oddly incongruous with the rest of her.

We then get a description that includes her coat collar, her hat brim,  her face and her posture.
This is Dagny, though she isn't named for a couple more pages, and she's listening to gorgeous, spiraling, triumphant music...that is being whistled by a random dude outside her door.

Hey. When was the last time you found random whistling to be inspiring and transcendent?

 She intuits by how AWESOME this whistling is that the song is by a composer named Richard Halley, who wrote a bunch of other things that were cool but really depressing-- and was apparently really obsessed with how nobody REALLY APPRECIATED HIS MUSIC. Note: We still don't have Dagny's name at this point, but we do have the name of some unknown random dude who plays the piano. Also:

She thought dimly that there had been premonitory echoes of this theme in all of Richard Halley’s work, through all the years of his long struggle, to the day, in his middle-age, when fame struck him suddenly and knocked him out.
Fame is a random bus, my lovelies. Be advised.

One thing I noticed is that a running theme for this book is an utter lack of appreciation for shit like musicians and writers who are the Best Things In the Universe. Having spent several years writing books that nobody reads, and having read this book more than once? Yeah, I think Rand had issues

She gives the whistler the ninth degree and is told that it's Halley's Fifth Concerto. Which is weird, 'cause he only wrote four...and the kid bolts as soon and as fast as he can, and we're supposed to just file this away for a later payoff because FREE MARKET CAPITALISM.

The train stops, and she steps off to question the staff as to why, and they just bullshit her until she reveals that she is Dagny Taggart, their boss's boss's boss.

So...these guys didn't know she was on the train? She's riding in her private car, which is noticeably different from the rest of the train, and they didn't notice? Nobody in the office called down and said "UH GUYS WE NEED TO BE CAREFUL BECAUSE MS. TAGGART IS ON BOARD TONIGHT"? NOBODY told the engineer that he had the fucking VICE PRESIDENT OF HIS FUCKING RAILROAD on board tonight? REALLY?

Again, I get that we're actually trying to have incompetent characters, but you could at least make them halfway decent ass kissers. Seriously, putting in a good job because the boss is present is kind of a no brainer. Having your strawshirts do a shit job in front of the boss is not telling me they suck at their job. It's telling me that you really do not get how slackers work. Literally.

She orders them to move on through a red light. Which is supposed to be cool and decisive and show how awesome Dagny is... except that red lights are, you know, the universal signal for bad. Her order to creep along the line until they get to the next signal is...kind of reckless and stupid, you know? For all they know, half the track could have fallen into a sink-hole, a train could have derailed and spilled clorine gas all over the place, shit could be on fire--literally anything could happen and the only thing keeping them from being right up against a potential disaster is a fucking red light.

But Dagny is the COOLEST WOMAN THAT EVER COOLED so of course its just a short and the train continues on.

This is an example of one of the many, many fatal flaws in this book. See, that light? Was there for a REASON. That reason is to let you know that continuing down this track is a MASSIVELY FUCKING STUPID IDEA. ESPECIALLY when you're riding on a track notorious for split rails, mangled curbs and chewed up engines. The "good guys" ignore warning signs, scientific studies, legal rulings and basic good sense because they want to, and the power of their wanting--literally, it's the fact that these people actually want things that makes them good guys. Not the fact that they do things. The fact that they want things--makes everything work out. Meanwhile the bad guys do LITERALLY THE EXACT SAME FUCKING THINGS and are demonized because...FREE MARKET CAPITALISM, I guess.

Anyhoo, the train makes it back to the station without crashing, and Dagny lays out her plan to salvage the Rio Norte line. She lays out a plan that is way too aggressive for James' buddy to meet, and then casually drops that she's ordered the rail from Hank Rearden, who is good because he ignores politics and never went to college, as opposed to Orren Boyle who loves both politics and college.

Note: The college comparison is one the book actually makes. Repeatedly.

James flips his shit.

Dagny tells him to call Rearden and cancel.

James continues to flip his shit while refusing to cancel because "I didn't say that."

So now it is time for OUR FIRST POLITICAL STATEMENT which...dear fucking God makes no sense at all.

“That we always give all our business to Rearden. It seems to me we should give somebody else a chance, too. Rearden doesn’t need us; he’s plenty big enough. We ought to help the smaller fellows to develop. Otherwise, we’re just encouraging a monopoly.”
And they put this guy in charge of an entire company. Somebody who has all the brains and charisma of a sack of oatmeal.

You guys remember my Gor review, right? This is a book with a cast of Elinors. ALL OF THEM ARE STRAWCHICK.

Meanwhile, brave and beautiful Dagny just keeps on trucking and talking about STEEL. Specifically the new kind of steel called Rearden Metal, which is based on a brand new formula that is completely untested.

She wants to build an entire railroad out of something that hasn't even been used in a toaster yet.

What follows is one of the strangest conversations, given the purpose of this book. Let's see if you can spot the exact moment when the book shoots itself in the foot:

“Well, whose opinion did you take?”
 “I don’t ask for opinions.” 
“What do you go by?”
 “Judgment.” 
“Well, whose judgment did you take?”
 “Mine.” 
“But whom did you consult about it?”
 “Nobody.” 
“Then what on earth do you know about Rearden Metal?”
 “That it’s the greatest thing ever put on the market.”
 ” “But who says so?”
 “Jim, I studied engineering in college. When I see things, I see them.”
 “What did you see?" 
“Rearden’s formula and the tests he showed me.”
Okay. There is a lot to be said for basing decisions on your own judgement. But unless Dagny has a Ph.D. in metallurgy and did the tests herself, this is not one of them. Also, sometimes you see things wrong. Sometimes you get bad information. Sometimes your attempts at P-then-Q logic breaks down. Sometimes people lie. That's why basing your judgement on the facts, tests, and opinions of an uninterested third party is important.

The creator and sole manufacturer of a new substance is not the person you depend on as a source. If anybody has a reason to lie about the magical metal, it's Hank.

Also: for a philosophy based on the stupidity of going by how you feel, that "See things" line REALLY looks like you're going by a feeling there, Dag.

They argue about Ellis Wyatt for a little while, and then Dagny drops that she's reduced their Mexican traffic as far down as she can, and James proceeds to flip his shit because apparently there's going to be a big bonanza in copper and he'll make a mint. Dagny, however, figures that the Mexicans are going to nationalize the railroad any minute and she doesn't want to leave anything valuable behind when that happens. 

James says a few cutting remarks that I'll get into later, then Dagny attempts to promote one of her few remaining good employees, only for the guy to quit on the spot while replying "Who is John Galt."

So that's the first chapter of Atlas Shrugged. 

Let's compare it to That Hideous Strength, shall we? (Or at least to half of the first chapter)

We start off on...an extremely interesting note:
“Matrimony was ordained, thirdly,” said Jane Studdock to herself, “for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.” She had not been to church since her schooldays until she went there six months ago to be married, and the words of the service had stuck in her mind.
Okay. This is going to be a train wreck. It's a 1940s bachelor Oxford Don starting his novel about Spiritual Science Nazis with a commentary on marriage. Congratulations, we've set up one of our major themes in the first handful of seconds, and it's gonna stick to Jane's character like glue.

On the plus side, at least she gets a name within the first damn sentence.

Jane has only just recently married Mark. They met in college, where she had (gasp!) actual aspirations for a career, but...got married instead, and somehow this put her plans on hold while Mark went and got himself a job.

But really, this is a Christian novel by a very conservative man.Alright, hit me with how heavy-handed this is gonna get.

“Mutual society, help, and comfort,” said Jane bitterly. In reality marriage had proved to be the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do, into something like solitary confinement.

Damn.DAMN.  Well, it explains why Lewis was a confirmed and proud bachelor for most of his life.

Jane attempts to get back to work on her doctoral thesis on John Donne. Apparently, she's been having a lot of trouble with it--stress in your homelife tends to do that--and Today she absolutely has to get work done. Only while she's laying everything out she comes across the newspaper, at which point she has a flashback to her dream last night.

Apparently, Jane has been having bad dreams with increasing frequency, and has been hiding them from Mark by sitting in her living room while it's still dark and shivering until he wakes up...at which point she says absolutely nothing because it's the 1940s and we've only just gotten over clitoradectomies. Seriously, this is probably the best move she could have made, given the circumstances. This dream was of a meeting between two men--one of whom was french and in jail, the other of whom spoke french and had a pointed beard. They discuss something for a while, at which point the man with the pointed beard screws off the frenchman's head and tucks it under his arm. Jane then dreams about another man, asleep, in a fine robe on a medieval bier, but after watching somebody treat another man's head like a lightbulb, it's basically a non issue.

The reason this comes up is because the french man is in the paper. His name is Alcasan. He's a good scientist and has also killed several women, so he went to the Guillotine the day before.

Jane decides that she had to have seen this paper yesterday before she dreamed. Even though it's today's paper.

She blows it off and tries to focus on Donne, and comes to the conclusion that he's pretty sexist. She also comes to the slow, but pretty awful conclusion that she had no way of seeing Alcasan's picture before the French offed him, and rather than dealing with this she throws all of her books into a pile and decides to go for a walk. And that's the end of...our half of a chapter.

So how do the two compare?

At the moment, there really isn't much to compare, given that I'm working with half a chapter from Lewis and a MASSIVE chapter from Rand, but there's a couple things here worth looking at. Probably the first thing worth pointing out is the difference between Rand's characters and Lewis's. Technically, both of these stories are religious--or at least philosophical--narratives.

I find Lewis's start-point to be very, very interesting, and particularly atypical for the genre. Lewis's goal with his stories is usually transformative. He takes characters who are one type and, by the end of the novel, are another type entirely. It'd be easy to write this off as the standard redemption narrative--COME TO JESUS--and most of his characters do fit this perfectly. But usually stories in this genre don't start with characters this far in the emotional red. There's a mundane kind of misery both Jane and Mark have that is really atypical to most Christian narratives, and unlike most Christian stories the Come to Jesus moment doesn't really solve the problem. It's even unusual for Lewis--most of his characters are either idealized good, like Ransom and the Pevensie children, or overly negative, like Eustace or Orawel from Till we Have Faces, who become idealized good by the end of the book. Instead, you have Jane, who is in a miserable marriage and possibly suffering from some form of mental illness, and Mark, who we will meet next post. They're realistically negative people whose baseline problems (SPOILER ALERT) will not be solved during the primary narrative, and it's not something you see in this type of work often.

Rand...did not choose to do that. Rather than creating characters who are all baseline and developing them as the story goes, she created clear battlelines from the get-go. You've got Eddie Willers and Dagny, cast against a bum and her brother. Which is a really effective image, and is mostly what is being set up here. Rand is heavy-handed in her characterizations. Dagny and James Taggart may grow as characters, but they don't change. This is actually far more standard in your religious narratives, which is why I feel comfortable lumping a primarily atheistic story in with This Present Darkness and the Left Behind series. It's working off the same playbook. But when it comes to her symbolism and choice of imagery, it's effective. I might rag on the Times Square clock, but it's mostly because of how badly it dates the storyline. There are several images--some I could get to, some I couldn't--that are repeated in the book over and over and over again, as kind of touch stones to show you how far the story has progressed. The thing being developed isn't so much the characters involved as it is the world they're in, and their only role is to either prevent or advance the world's progression down whatever path Rand has for it.

In short, my lovelies:

The Studdocks are intended to be reader vehicles, and instead of shiny-eyed Skywalker enthusiasm, we're starting from a baseline of disillusioned depression, which I find completely fascinating.

Dagny and James are not intended as reader vehicles. Rather, they're a pair of symbols that we get to track through the course of the story. And...yeah, Dagny is a flaming Mary Sue of the first water.

Next time: We meet Mark Studdock; Dagny takes her toys and goes to Colorado.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My Next Project: Atlas Shrugged. The Books. The Movies. All of it.

So one thing I've become absolutely facinated by is Atlas Shrugged.

For those of you who don't know, Atlas Shrugged is the foundational tome for Objectivism, a philosophy best summed up by the phrase "Fuck you, Got Mine." Essentially in Objectivism, altruism is bad, religion is bad, emotions are bad, faith is bad, general friendship is bad, taking care of the poor is bad, attempting to keep capatalistic markets from eating themselves is bad, basically everything is bad!

...except for free markets, ice cold realism and being an utter dick.

Now, there are a lot of arguements to be said in favor of altruism. Long before I read AS, I understood (mostly) what it was and considered it to be the ideological synthesis of garden-variety capitalism and communism--Namely, Rand's attempt to smother the latter with what she felt was the best of the former. Which is completely understandable. Rand grew up in communism and hated every single thing about it, so much so that when she was exposed to alternatives she went in the absolute fucking opposite direction. A-MURICA became her ideal, and she latched on to...archetecture and railroads as the absolute symbols of both.

It's an emotional reaction. It doesn't have to make sense.

But remember how I said that Objectivism holds that feelings are bad? Yeah. The greatest thing about Objectivism, as laid out in Atlas Shrugged AND as followed by most of its adherants is at a certain point it swivels around and shoots itself in the face. Everything about it, from its foundational ideas to its every day functionality, eventually collapses under its own weight. Basically, it's an idea that was created in opposition to another set of ideas, and thus once the opposing ideology is removed it turns on itself like a fox chewing off its own limb. I'm not sure that communism is a functioning ideology either, but Objectivism's sole purpose in life is to defeat both communism and altruism as concepts. Which means that it does not exist as a concept in and of itself. In essence, its entire function is to reject the qualities the founder (Rand) feels threatened by. However, it replaces these items with...nothing whatsoever. Really. All it has to offer is the free market which...cannot replace anything. Seriously, it's the "Let them Eat Cake" of ideologies, and not even Marie Antwonette ever said that.

Which doesn't mean that Atlas is not entertaining. It's a facinating mixture of bad and good writing, something that manages to be exciting and interesting even though your brain is screaming "THINGS DO NOT WORK LIKE THAT". And while her characters are about as deep as a water drop on a windsheild, Rand is extremely consistent in her characterizations. Now, when she fails it's on really fucking big points, and I'm not going to lie, there are segments where the plot pancakes down on itself and traps the characters inside...but these are usually the points where Rand lets her ideology overcome her writing skill. If anything, it's far superior to its derivative works, as anyone who has ever sat through the Sword of Truth series can testify (And oh, you know I'm getting to that someday) where the ideology rules the characters from the beginning. 

However, she falls victim to, interestingly enough, the pitfalls more common to religious fiction. There is a reason, my lovelies, why I usually hate Christian fiction, and it' ain't cause I don't identify with the religion. While this is best demonstrated by authors like Frank Peretti and Jerry B. Jenkins, probably the best book to compare Atlas Shrugged to is That Hideous Streingth, the final and most hated of C.S. Lewis's Perelandra books and a novel that I absolutely adore. The books are...similar. So much so that I just looked up the publication dates, absolutely sure that THS was published after AS as a reaction to AS's shitty quasi-religious politics (Because C.S. Lewis did that. A lot.) In fact, the exact opposite is true. That Hideous Strength is a 1945 book--hence the Satanist Science Nazis--while Atlas Shrugged is from 1957. Which means if anybody cribbed from anybody it was Rand, and not the other way around.


Seriously, the simularities between these books are amazing. They both feature hapless, gifted (and somewhat dense) female protagonists, a nebulous evil force that is slowly and progressively (no pun intended) taking over all of the world, and a cluster of Ultimate Goodness centered around ONE MAN WHO CAN SAVE US ALL. And while the Messianic undertones are kinda par for the course with That Hideous Strength--it being kind of Lewis' magnum opus--they are utterly damning in Atlas Shrugged, to the point that they completely destroy every single thing Rand is trying to build.

The books are also very unique in how poorly they translate into modern cultural views. Atlas Shrugged is very much a product of the Cold War, and as the horrible trilogy of movies shows (Which I will eventually cover) trying to bring its plot into modern day without updating its characters, technology or events one iota fails catastrophically. That Hideous Strength fails more on a cultural front, with dated sexual dynamics, poor focus on woman's issues--beyond a half-hearted effort in the early chapters to address Jane's shitty marrige, she's just kind of there--and what is quite possibly the most diabolical lesbian character I have ever read in my life. Probably the ONLY major difference is that while THS is a svelte seventeen chapters, Atlas clocks in at exactly THIRTY. These books are so strikingly similar, in fact, that personally I think a comparison between the two will display exactly what kind of issues the book has, and why writing a homage to your personal ideology is a bad, bad, bad idea.

It will also make me hammer one of my favorite novels, which is going to really hurt.

 Strap in, my lovelies. It's gonna be one hell of a train wreck.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

In which terrible people do not win the Hugos

So I have not been mantaining le blog because Real Life came along and I started a new (awesome) job. Basically I get to make cookies all day, feed people and then clean up after myself. It's fantastic.

Anyhoo, I did not intend to ever comment on the fucking Sad Puppies fiasco with the Hugo Awards. This was a thing I cared about, but in the way that you care about, IDK, contracting flesh eating disease.

If you do not know what the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies are, these were a group of people--by their own admission, mostly white and male, and by my personal judgement call, universally terrible--who decided to hijack the extremely byzantine Hugo nomination process and vote for all their friends, fellow ideologues and a couple of folk who got mixed in by mistake (these people promptly ID'd themselves by declining the nom). Their issue was that the books, stories and things getting Hugos were too socially consious and they wanted to go back to spaceships and an absense of politics. You know, like Star Trek!

Because that show totally supported the dominant paradigm in every possible way, right?
What's sad is that it worked. The Puppies ballot, with few exceptions, made it into every category, demonstrating both the apathy of most voters (Frankly I'm amazed a fan-driven award system even HAS an editor category) and the Puppies total misunderstanding of what science fiction is. And a lot of the nominees, and I mean a LOT of them, were connected to a truely awful human with the internet handle Vox Day.

I do not like Vox Day. I do not like his politics, which I would call neanderthal-ish if that weren't an insult to hunter-gatherer cultures everywhere. I do not like his books, which is a dislike wholly separate from his politics (Dude. You are not GRR Martin.). He identifies as a Christian with all the accuracy of an actor in blackface, and his nom-de-plume literally translates to "God Speaks", which I think says everything we need to know about the person. There are few human beings who can make me go from zero to "Nuke it" as quickly as Vox Day. Being nommed for a Hugo by Vox Day is somewhat akin to contracting syphilis. It means you need to re-evaluate your life choices.

However, there was good news: No Puppies nom won. This meant that several of the more esoteric awards (IE that editor award) went to No Award rather than a Puppy, but sci-fi fans in general made it clear that we might squabble over particulars, but we don't do bullshit.

Pictured: Unicorn rainbows for all. Not pictured: Bullshit.

What motivated me to write this, however, was an article obviously written by a Puppy supporter (I'm not linking, but the website starts with a B and rhymes with "Wal-Mart") in which the author proclaimed that by refusing to allow a Puppy to win a Hugo, Social Justice Warriors were "burning down the house".


This indicates that not only do the Puppies (or at least, this particular Pup) not understand science fiction, they also don't understand people.

First off, they make the mistake of assuming the backlash against them is Social Justice Warriors not wanting Good Books with Bad Politics to win things, and that by refusing to let GBwBP win things, we are somehow destroying society. That is not what this is. What this is are a bunch of literate nerds going "You want to manipulate us? Seriously? Oh fuck you." It's backfired like Uncle Buck's car, is what I'm saying here. It's not the politics that killed their ballot, my darlings. It's the dick move of making that ballot in the first place. People are celebrating that the Puppies screwed the pooch, so to speak, but it's a sick kind of celebration, relief instead of joy. You can't celebrate victory over something that should never have happened in the first place. This is the kind of celebration you have when your stalker ex finally violates the restraining order enough to go to jail. It'll be gone a while, but you know it'll be back. Nobody is happy about this. And the only person who set fire to something was the Puppies. 

But that's not the biggest error the Puppies made. No, that big error was to choose science-fiction as their last stand and final defense. It might look good on paper, but from an ideological standpoint, that's kind of Custer's Last Stand, if Little Bighorn had happened to have an unguarded storm drain running right up the middle of the 7th Cavalry, packed full of defensive Lakota.



See, science fiction is, has been, and always will be, a forward-thinking medium. Its nature demands a certain amount of agnosticism if you want it to be an observation and not a manifesto, but that's the science part talking. Science Fiction at its foundation is just as questioning as, well, science itself. In its earliest forms, everything was a what if. What if we had space ships? What if we made it to the moon? What if we were invaded by things from another planet? You can even see the development of the term Science-fiction by the early authors who knew they were doing SOMETHING, but had no idea what--in explaining his vision of Heaven as being initially painful for souls, C.S. Lewis uses the word scientifiction in an attempt to describe the body of literature he was drawing on as a source. These were questions that the then-modern science and culture couldn't answer, so the authors tried to. Here's what time travel would be like. Here's how thoroughly fucked we'd be if space invaders happened.

But the thing about asking what ifs is that eventually we start questioning assumptions that scare people. Like what if there was a society entirely without women? (Ethan of Athos, Lois McMaster Bujold, go read it it is awesome). Or what if the dominant paradigm stops being white men? And that's where science-ficiton goes from being a day-dreamy genre to being something possibly dangerous--which it is, and has been, from day one. The heavy-handed colonialism of early sci-fi is the result of white men just starting to dip their toes into the great, untested sea that is Equality and going, "gee that water's really fucking cold." What made that dangerous was the fact that their what if admitted, for some micro-fraction of a second, that maybe, just maybe, the universe wouldn't always belong to them. The argument can be made that every Alien Invasion narrative is just white culture's dormant fear of immigration finding a safe, subconscious expression--combined with the fact that hey, we did this to every other culture on the planet so why should we get off easy?

I think it says something that Alien Invasion stories were never really that popular. It's a tiny part of the genre, not the genre itself. And that kind of tells you that science-fiction is not, and never was, a friend of dominant paradigms. Any dominant paradigm.

See, I picked that picture of Kirk kissing Uhura for a reason. Gene Roddenberry could have just said "What if people got spaceships?" and left it at that. He did not. Having a 1960s culture in a far-future spaceship makes about as much sense as imagining Victorian England maintaining its inhibitions re: sex in the presence of a fully functioning internet and he kinda got that. Instead, he applied the same what if that gave us the Enterprise to people. What if we make it to the stars. What will that do to us? And then instead of rehashing all of human history, he decided to break fucking everything. Sticking a black woman on the bridge of the Enterprise in a starfleet officer's uniform meant a whole lot more back then, when women weren't officers and black women weren't there at all, and most people were actively working to keep things that way. (There's a story about Woopi Goldberg watching Star Trek as a child and running in to her parents yelling "Mamma, mamma, there's a black lady on TV and she ain't no maid!" and whenever I start evaluating my cast's racial balance, I remember that story and break out all the other flesh colored crayons. Because we need about six billion more of those moments)

Gene Roddenbury asked "What if we worked through our sexism, racism and other assorted -isms?" and put Uhura on the bridge. And it scared people. Maybe not as vocally as we'd like, but it says a lot that when that kiss was scripted, everybody who didn't work directly on Star Trek told Roddenbury to turn it into a hug (and William Shatner basically made his O face for every take other than the one with the actual kiss, which is why that still shot exists) so that an interracial relationship could not be acknowledged or even implied. And it says a lot about Roddenbury and his cast that they actively sabotaged their own show to get that kiss on air. It says that they knew how important it was going to be, and they knew it needed to happen. Objectively, a kiss isn't a big deal. But neither is a bus seat, or a water fountain. Sometimes the only way we can say I matter is by taking a stand on the little things; it gives us footholds to step up to the big ones.

Star Trek had a lot of goofy moments, oddball plots and terrible, terrible special effects. But it held on in a way that Battlestar Galactica and other space-ship 70s shows didn't, and that was, IMHO, because it wasn't just applying the what ifs to tech, but also to people. It began to demand that science-fiction take a hollistic approach to storytelling--that it is not enough to tell your story, to ask your what ifs, from a single perspective, especially if that perspective belongs to the dominant paradigm. If you want your what ifs to be accurate, or at least realistic, you have to include everybody. Every gender, every race, every religion. Everything. If you don't, you might as well just pull a Plan 9 From Outer Space and dangle a hubcap in front of the camera. It's gonna be about that realistic.

Science-fiction challenges us to look forward and project the universe we want to see in terms of nature, technology and culture--a task that also challenges us to question our current reality. If this is what we want, and we don't have it now...why? Why don't we have spaceships? Why don't we have hoverboards? Why don't we have equality? Why do we believe that it takes a couple centuries to get a black woman in an officer's uniform onto the Enterprise? Why is true equality still considered science-fiction? And then it brings us to the ultimate what if, the point of the whole thing...what if we tried to change that right now? We want this future...what if we tried, as Captain Picard would say, to make it so?

And the thing is? These stories with non-binary genders, multicultural casts, full-spectrum relationships and inclusive narratives? Are. fucking. fun. It is as enthralling to play with the idea of a starship captain in a hijab as it is to toy with various ideas for the drives--possibly more, if you realize that a female Muslim captain will matter a whole lot more than your variation on Roddenbury's hyperdrive. Science-fiction is a game where nobody loses as long as everyone gets to play. Limiting yourself to a straight white story...you might as well just stay on Earth for the duration.

The pathetic fact about sci-fi is that the perspective is still not complete. We have Uhura and Mako Mori, but not much more than that. When we manage to include non-binary genders, we mainly use them as a joke, something for the hero to play off of, and usually the focus of that humor is one of disgust, as if a trans individual is something similar to a fart in an elevator. Homosexual relationships still haven't made it out of the support cast. In short: Science-fiction still treats a large percentage of humanity as non-existant and unimportant, as something unnecessary for the narrative. Like the rest of our culture, sci-fi is still telling people that they don't count.

But a lot of people--an awful, awful lot of people--are asking the question what if we did? What if we did matter, and our voice did get heard? What kind of stories would we get then? And, because they've imagined the stories, well, you might as well tell them. Progressive science-fiction is an oxymoron that shouldn't have to exist. There is no functional difference between imagining a space ship and imagining a progressive culture where everybody counts. Both are images that someone wants to see in the near future--and both are going to require a violent event--rocket launches for one, cultural change for the other--in order to exist.


The Sad Puppies, and their rabid cousins, fail to see this fundamental aspect because it scares them. They exist in a world where value is a zero-sum game--based, in part, on their own assumption that they are value-less. A coping skill for a poor self image is to go "I am garbage, but this person is less than garbage" and then hang the designation of "less than garbage" on an identifiable characteristic. Race. Gender. Preferences. Education. They build a ladder to stand on by knocking out everybody else and stacking the bodies. Equalizing the playing field isn't a chance to help others to them. It's a challenge to their sense of identity, to their own self-worth. And when that image is challenged as profoundly as it is today, they react defensively. Their image of the future is, unfortunately, static and unchanging, because its the only future in which their sense of value remains unchallenged. They want spaceships, but not the changes those spaceships will cause. They want the Enterprise, but they don't want Uhura on the bridge. They want to play in the sandbox, but only as long as nobody else gets admitted. In effect, they don't want the future. They want Christopher Columbus--the watered down Texas Textbook version, not the real deal--to discover the New World all over again. They just want him to do it in a spaceship this time. They want to erase the potential for any future but their own.

And because that isn't a future anybody else would want, let's hope the Sad Puppies are always going to lose.