Falling Into the Cracks of Identity

by Ruthanna Emrys on March 13, 2017

The hive system invites casual games of identity. The common meme of the multiple choice internet quiz: “Which Hive Are You?” Do you value loyalty, science, personal excellence, or obedience? Would you rather paint a masterpiece, or write science fiction? Do you approve of the death penalty? Where does power come from? If you wrote a poem titled ‘The Source,’ what would be its subject?

The questions quickly grow deep. Yet just as with the blandest quiz about Star Trek captains, some people will fit their assigned answer better than others—and all must be made to fit somewhere. Such quizzes shape our real lives, too. What’s Your MBTI Category (early and untrustworthy ancestor to the Brillist numbers)? What Political Party Do You Belong To? What’s Your Gender?

Two choices or sixty-two, the full range of human variation is never represented, and some people suffer for it. And as Palmer points out, unspoken categories—class in modern America, for example—can shape and constrain as much as those shouted from the rooftops. Our oldest and sharpest divisions, defended by pseudo-invisibility, deserve more open examination.

Palmer’s world has buried the gender binary and offered in its place a new septary, very nearly as constraining. When Heloise announces that it’s impossible to articulate the values of caregiving, hospitality, affection, and nurture, without modifying them with the feminine association, she revives a half-truth that fosters toxic masculinity in our own time. Yet even without the binding cords of gender role, the hive system does the same thing. The Cousins claim caregiving and parental affection—and run all the hospitals. What place is there for someone drawn to the medical profession, yet desperate for the sort of strong ruler that only the Masons provide? For a Brillist who wants to use their psychological training to heal rather than merely understand? [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: building and wires, Pézenas

by Chris Bertram on March 12, 2017

Pézenas: wires

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On Saturday, a state election was held in Western Australia, resulting in a big win for the Labor party, after two terms out of office. The election turned in part on declining economic conditions and in part on the incumbent government’s proposal to privatise the electricity industry, an idea that has almost invariably proved electoral poison (it keeps coming up because of the massive financial and career benefits to those who can push it through). But the biggest factor was a deal done between two Trumpist political parties (a guide to our many versions of Trumpism here), the governing Liberal party (selling a combination of Trumpism and neoliberalism in the manner of the US Republicans) and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. (The Liberals cut out their current coalition partners, the National Party, which had only one representative).

The result has been a disaster for both Trumpist groups. After polling near 10 per cent, One Nation got less than 5 per cent of the vote, and Hanson repeatedly made a fool of herself. The Liberals dropped 16 per cent, the biggest swing in WA history.
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Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders tell the story of beautiful, brilliant, compassionate people who are also terribly vulnerable. They are Eloi who have convinced themselves Morlocks do not exist; they are victim-beneficiaries of two hundred years of willful ignorance of growing rot. Like the dragon Smaug, they’ve rested on their hoard for centuries, adding layer after layer to their invulnerable bejeweled armor—but they cannot see the armor’s chink, the soft space waiting for Bard the Bowman’s arrow.

The arrow is shaped like God. [click to continue…]

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Future’s Past

by Neville Morley on March 9, 2017

In the five million years following the Great Nebula Burst, our people were one people. But then came the Zactor Migration, and then the Melosian Shift and a dark period of discontent spread through the land. Fighting among Treeb sects and Largoths. The foolishness! And it was in this time of dissension … *

Almost all science fiction, as J.G. Ballard remarked in the introduction to Vermilion Sands, is really about the present day. This is certainly less true today than it was in 1971, but it is still often the case that the relationship between our present and the future world that is depicted – or between the present of the imagined world and that future’s past, when anyone inside the story decides to look back – is oddly straightforward and uninteresting. This is certainly not something that can be said of Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota books.

Why look back to the past when we’re interested in the future, or spend any time considering the less developed form of that future? Sometimes, especially in the case of film franchises desperate to keep an existing audience happy with something that’s new but not too different, it’s just a matter of expanding the known universe by answering some questions that weren’t actually in need of answering – how did humanity come to develop the warp drive and conquer the stars, why did the Rebellion start? – with varying degrees of success. The resultant products offer their consumers the usual fare of time travel stories or historical novels: the thrill of recognising the germ of a familiar artefact or institution, or the ancestor of a familiar character, or other nuggets of intertextuality. In most cases there is little or nothing at stake; we know where things are going, so this is just a matter of filling in the gaps between then and now. [click to continue…]

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De Sade, war, civil society

by Henry on March 8, 2017

The trouble with writing about the first two Terra Ignota books is knowing quite where to begin. They’re dense in ways that much modern science fiction is not. They engage with the existing literature and traditions, but quite unashamedly demand that readers abandon the usual reading protocols. If Gene Wolfe is one obvious point of reference (not only the New Sun books – Bridger seems to have stepped right out of The Eyeflash Miracles), the books are not in the Wolfeian tradition – they’re something of their own – counter, original, spare and strange. Not all of it worked for me, but what did work, worked very well indeed.

Palmer is an intellectual historian. It is a truism of historiography (more precisely – it was a truism when I studied it in graduate school two decades ago, and I hope it still is) that the ambition of studying history wie es eigentlich gewesen, as it actually happened, is both impossible and undesirable. Every age puts the travails of its predecessors to its own uses, taking up those parts that seem handy, wrenching them as needs be to fit into new machineries, and abandoning those pieces that cannot be made work. What seems to me entirely original in Palmer’s books is how she uses these processes of historical appropriations to build a bridge to a fictional future. Science fiction needs to build worlds that are sufficiently strange to seem alienating, but not so alienating as to be incomprehensible. As I read her (everything I say below may of course be wrong!) Palmer uses parallel misprisions of the Enlightenment to sustain the connection between the imagined 25th century she wants her readers to explore, and the actual 21st century that they inhabit. Both ages interpret and misinterpret the ideas of the Enlightenment to justify and explain a myriad of social institutions. However, they take up quite different parts of the Enlightenment and use them to quite different ends. Most obviously, Providence is far more important to Mycroft Canner (and his peers ??) than it is to us today. Carlyle is taken up for his Great Man theory, while his racism and curdled conservatism are forgotten. Canner’s role as a historian provides another bridge held up by misunderstandings – he explains more than he might explain to a contemporary, because he fancies himself to be writing for future generations, though in point of fact he is writing for the past.

There are many questions I’d like answers to. There are also aspects of the book that I had difficulties with – the plot – all elaborate machinations among a very few people who combine vast power with extreme ability – sometimes seems more a fiction composed by the Humanists of the book than the structure that should contain that fiction. Some, or all, of this is surely intentional – in the second book, one of the characters suggests that his story is as extravagant as that of the Count of Monte Cristo. Palmer – or Palmer’s narrator seems to be subjecting the matter of science fiction to older narrative forms. She also signals that the narrator, while seductive (Canner’s voice is extraordinary, especially when it is digressive) is not at all to be trusted. We’re left, Carlo Ginzburg-like, trying to decipher an entire and complex world whose existence we know of only through the deranged subjectivity of a decidedly odd individual. For me at least, a guide as to why Palmer has written the kind of story she has written would be extremely helpful. [click to continue…]

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The UK’s spousal visa regime, some reflections

by Chris Bertram on March 8, 2017

I have a blog piece with Helena Wray and Devyani Prabhat at the University of Bristol Law School Blog. The final para:

Family and spousal migration is only one part of migration policy, and there is the broader issue of what values migration policy should serve generally. In recent political argument in the UK, three sets of voices have been prominent, virtually to the exclusion of all others. First, the proverbial “taxpayer”, the net contributor to government spending. Second, the needs of “business” for skilled and not-so-skilled workers. Third, the “legitimate concerns” of so-called “ordinary people”, constructed as the “white working-class” worried about cultural and demographic change. Largely absent from the discussion have been the autonomy interests that all citizens have in being able to have a valuable set of life-choices available to them, about being able to live, work and settle where they wish, and in being able to make their life with a partner of their choice and maybe start a family. Rather, those interests – that ought to be of central political concern for a liberal society – have been crowded out of the migration debate. This has meant that many of our fellow citizens and their partners have been thwarted in their pursuit of central life goals or forced to pursue those aims through compliance with arcane rules and at the mercy of an unfathomable bureaucracy. If we aspire to the values of a liberal society – as is the official consensus position of all major political parties – our policies ought to reflect them.

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Alternate history: Kerensky edition

by John Quiggin on March 8, 2017

Between SF and Trump, it’s hard to avoid alternate histories and futures here at CT. Most of my attempts focus on the Great War, and I’ve just had one published in the New York Times, leading off a series they plan on the centenary of the Russian Revolution(s). My question: What if Kerensky had responded positively to the resolution of the German Reichstag, calling for peace without annexations or indemnities?

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Complicity and the Reader

by Jo Walton on March 7, 2017

In the genres of science fiction and fantasy, when a book is written in an unusual mode, it’s usually either a gimmick or window-dressing. Window-dressing is when for instance a Victorian feeling book has a faux Victorian style as part of that feel. An example of this would be Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where Heinlein doesn’t have to tell us that the English spoken on the moon is heavily influenced by Australian and Russian, he gives us a first person narrative devoid of articles and peppered with Russian borrowings and Australian slang. It’s great, but really it’s just scenery, everything else would be the same if he’d chosen to write the book in third with just the dialogue like that. It’s quite unusual to read something where the mode is absolutely integral to what the book is doing. In Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, the decaying grammar and vocabulary of the first person narrator, Lola, mirrors the disintegration of society around her, and we the reader slowly move from a near future with a near normal text to a complete understanding of sentences that would have been incomprehensible on page one, in a world that has also changed that much.

In Palmer’s Terra Ignota, after a page of (amazingly clever) permissions that locate us solidly in a future world with both censorship and trigger warnings (though we may not yet be aware we should take those trigger warnings very seriously) we meet not a normal Twenty-First century “1” or even “Chapter 1” but an Eighteenth Century style “Chapter the First: A Prayer to the Reader.” Then we are addressed directly:

You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you come to me for an explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. [click to continue…]

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Ada Palmer seminar begins

by Henry on March 7, 2017

Ada Palmer’s new book – Seven Surrenders – is out today. So too is our seminar on Seven Surrenders and its prequel, Too Like the Lightning. The participants:

  • Henry Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • Maria Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • Max Gladstone is the author of the Craft Sequence books (see here for his interview on how James Scott’s Seeing Like a State can be a great starting point for a f/sf series).
  • John Holbo blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • Lee Konstantinou is an assistant professor of English Literature at the University of Maryland, College Park.
  • Belle Waring blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • Ada Palmer is an Assistant Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Chicago.

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Frosty morning, St Michael's Hill

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Forthcoming seminars

by Henry on March 3, 2017

We’re publishing two book seminars in the very near future. The first is on Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders. That’ll be starting next week, on Seven Surrenders’ launch day. The second is on Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway – that will be happening in April, again when the book is launched. They should both be fun.

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In praise of credentialism

by John Quiggin on March 1, 2017

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story. The crucial para

The term “credentialism” is used in many different ways, some of them contradictory, but the implication is consistent: too many young people are getting too much formal education, at too high a level. This implication was spelt out recently by Dean Ashenden, who contends that “education has not just grown to meet the expanding needs of the post-industrial economy, but has exploded like an airbag.” The claim that young people are getting too much education, and the supporting critique of credentialism, is pernicious and false.

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Pézenas, street

by Chris Bertram on February 26, 2017

Pézenas: street

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Decent conservatives

by John Quiggin on February 26, 2017

Since Trump’s election victory, there’s been a lot of concern trolling (and maybe some genuine concern) that resistance to Trump will alienate decent conservatives who held their noses while voting for Trump, but might be attracted away from him by a suitably respectful presentation of a centre-right Democratic agenda. A notable recent entry is a piece in the New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise, which profiles three such voters, only one of whom has any criticism to make of Trump. The others complain that liberals have been mean to them, but make it pretty clear they would vote for Trump regardless. As is inevitable in such a piece, Jonathan Haidt gets a run – he’s the only expert quoted by name.
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