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13 Jun 05:22

Showing vs telling

by aliette

So this is just a very small addendum to this great Ken Liu quote (which should just be framed in workshop rooms to be honest!). On showing vs telling: first off, that Kate Elliott article is definitely worth reading.

Second, a few additional thoughts. Like Ken says, showing works, among other things, because of shared frame of reference. We all assign, for instance, the same value to looking someone in the eye. So for instance, I can say that character A meets everybody’s gaze squarely and (unless I provide further context) the majority takeaway will be “honest, straightforward person”. In the Vietnamese culture I’m familiar with, that same behaviour means “rude person, lacking respect to elders”. But I can’t show that, because you can’t guess. I have to tell you. I have to explain, because otherwise it’s confusing if I merely show character B get very angry at character A when they keep looking people in the eye.

Similarly I could write something like this.

“Have you heard about the latest Metropolital exams results?”

“No, what happened?”

“They’re unusually good this year for the orbital.”


Now if you don’t know what Metropolitan exam is, I’m going to have to unpack this, and why the results are good, and something about what it means to the characters, otherwise you’re just going to be very very confused. It won’t have to be a long thing, necessarily. But it’s still way more words and more telling than a similar reference everyone would immediately get (like a high school getting their percentage of admission to Ivy League places, to take just one example off the top of my head).

And yes, if I were writing for an audience that knew all of this I could cut down on what I’m telling. But just think for a moment, will you, when asked to show not tell: “who’s getting shown things and how can they afford not to be told?”

(there’s other layers to show vs tell & other divergences of use and aspects to consider of course! I’m just unpacking this specific one)

The post Showing vs telling appeared first on Aliette de Bodard.

20 Feb 13:21

On Progress and Historical Change

by exurbe

shipmoonsmallIs progress inevitable? Is it natural?  Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place?  Many people are reexamining these kinds of questions as 2016 draws to a close, so I thought this would be a good moment to share the sort-of “zoomed out” discussions the subject that historians like myself are always having.

There is a strange doubleness to experiencing an historic moment while being a historian one’s self.  I feel the same shock, fear, overload, emotional exhaustion that so many are, but at the same time another me is analyzing, dredging up historical examples, bigger crises, smaller crises, elections that set the fuse to powder-kegs, elections that changed nothing.  I keep thinking about what it felt like during the Wars of the Roses, or the French Wars of Religion, during those little blips of peace, a decade long or so, that we, centuries later, call mere pauses, but which were long enough for a person to be born and grow to political maturity in seeming-peace, which only hindsight would label ‘dormant war.’  But then eventually the last flare ended and then the peace was real.  But on the ground it must have felt exactly the same, the real peace and those blips.  That’s why I don’t presume to predict — history is a lesson in complexity not predictability — but what I do feel I’ve learned to understand, thanks to my studies, are the mechanisms of historical change, the how of history’s dynamism rather than the what next. So, in the middle of so many discussions of the causes of this year’s events (economics, backlash, media, the not-so-sleeping dragon bigotry), and of how to respond to them (petitions, debate, fundraising, art, despair) I hope people will find it useful to zoom out with me, to talk about the causes of historical events and change in general.

Two threads, which I will later bring together.  Thread one: progress.  Thread two: historical agency.

Part 1: The Question of Progress As Historians Ask It

“How do you discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?” a colleague asked during a teaching discussion.  This is a historian’s succinct if somewhat technical way of asking a question which lies at the back of a lot of the questions people are wrestling with now. Progress — change for the better over historical time. The word has many uses (social progress, technological progress), but the reason it raises red flags for historians is the legacy of Whig history, a school of historical thought whose influence still percolates through many of our models of history. Wikipedia has an excellent opening definition of Whig history:

516xicub3rl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Whig history… presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms, and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment… Whig history has many similarities with the Marxist-Leninist theory of history, which presupposes that humanity is moving through historical stages to the classless, egalitarian society to which communism aspires… Whig history is a form of liberalism, putting its faith in the power of human reason to reshape society for the better, regardless of past history and tradition. It proposes the inevitable progress of mankind.

In other words, this approach presumes a teleology to history, that human societies have always been developing toward some pre-set end state: apple seeds into apple trees, humans into enlightened humans, human societies into liberal democratic paradises.

Some of the problems with this approach are transparent, others familiar to those of my readers who have been engaging with current discourse about the problems/failures/weaknesses of liberalism.  But let me unpack some of the other problems, the ones historians in particular worry about.

Developed in the earlier the 20th century, Whig history presents a particular set of values and political and social outcomes as the (A) inevitable and (B) superior end-points of all historical change — political and social outcomes that arise from the Western European tradition.  The Eurocentric distortions this introduces are obvious, devaluing all other cultures.  But even for a Europeanist like myself, who’s already studying Europe, this approach has a distorting effect by focusing our attentions onto historical moments or changes or people that were “right” or “correct,” that took a step “forward.”  When one attempts to write a history using this kind of reasoning, the heroes of this process (the statesman who founded a more liberal-democratic-ish state, the scientist whose invention we still use today, the poet whose pamphlet forwards the cause) loom overlarge in history, receiving too much attention. On the one hand, yes, we need to understand those past figures who are keystones of our present — I teach Plato, and Descartes, and Machiavelli with good reason — but if we study only the keystones, and not the other less conspicuous bricks, we wind up with a very distorted idea of the whole edifice.

Whig history also makes it dangerously easy to stray into placing moral value on those things which advanced  the teleologicaly-predetermined future. Such things seem to be “correct” thus “good” thus “better” while those whose elements which did not contribute to this teleological development were “dead ends” or “mistakes” or “wrong” which quickly becomes “bad.”  In such a history whole eras can be dismissed as unworthy of study for failing to forward progress (The Middle Ages did great stuff, guys!) while other eras can be disproportionately celebrated for advancing it (The Renaissance did a lot of dumb stuff too!). And, of course, whole regions can be dismissed for “failing” to progress (Africa, Asia) as can sub-regions (Poland, Spain).

519c24aawxl-_sx321_bo1204203200_To give an example within the realm of intellectual history, teleological intellectual histories very often create the false impression that the only figures involved in a period’s intellectual world were heroes and villains, i.e. thinkers we venerate today, or their nasty bad backwards-looking enemies.  This makes it seem as if the time period in question was already just previewing the big debates we have today.  Such histories don’t know what to do with thinkers whose ideas were orthogonal to such debates, and if one characterizes the Renaissance as “Faith!” vs. “Reason!” and Marsilio Ficino comes along and says “Let’s use Platonic Reason to heal the soul!” a Whig history doesn’t know what to do with that, and reads it as a “dead end” or “detour.”  Only heroes or villains fit the narrative, so Ficino must either become one or the other, or be left out.  Teleological intellectual histories also tend to give the false impression that the figures we think are important now were always considered important, and if you bring up the fact that Aristotle was hardly read at all in antiquity and only revived in the Middle Ages, or that the most widely owned author in the Enlightenment was the now-obscure fideist encyclopedist Pierre Bayle, the narrative has to scramble to adopt.

Teleological history is also prone to “presentism” <= a bad thing, but a very useful term! Presentism is when one’s reading of history is distorted by one’s modern perspective, often through projecting modern values onto past events, and especially past people.  An essay about the Magna Carta which projects Enlightenment values onto its Medieval authors would be presentist. So are histories of the Renaissance which want to portray it as a battle between Reason and religion, or say that only Florence and/or Venice had the real Renaissance because they were republics, and only the democratic spirit of republics could foster fruitful, modern, forward-thinking people.  Presentism is also rearing its head when, in the opening episodes of the new Medici: Masters of Florence TV series, Cosimo de Medici talks about bankers as the masterminds of society, and describes himself as a job-creator, not the conceptual space banking was in in 1420.  Presentism is sometimes conscious, but often unconscious, so mindful historians will pause whenever we see something that feels revolutionary, or progressive, or proto-modern, or too comfortable, to check for other readings, and make triple sure we have real evidence. Sometimes things in the past really were more modern than what surrounded them.  I spent many dissertation years assembling vast grids of data which eventually painstakingly proved that Machaivelli’s interest in radical Epicurean materialism was exceptional for his day, and more similar to the interests of peers seventy years in his future than his own generation — that Machiavelli was exceptional and forward-thinking may be the least surprising conclusion a Renaissance historian can come to, but we have to prove such things very, very meticulously, to avoid spawning yet another distorted biography which says that Galileo was fundamentally an oppressed Bill Nye. Hint: Galileo was not Bill Nye; he was Galileo.

These problems, in brief, are why discussions of progress, and of teleology, are red flags now for any historian.

Unfortunately, the bathwater here is very difficult to separate from an important baby.  Teleological thinking distorts our understanding of the past, but the Whig approach was developed for a reason.  (A) It is important to have ways to discuss historical change over time, to talk about the question of progress as a component of that change. (B) It is important to retain some way to compare societies, or at least to assess when people try to compare societies, so we can talk about how different institutions, laws, or social mores might be better or worse than others on various metrics, and how some historical changes might be positive or negative.  While avoiding dangerous narratives of triumphant [insert Western phenomenon here] sweeping through and bringing light to a superstitious and backwards [era/people/place], we also want to be able to talk about things like the eradication of smallpox, and our efforts against malaria and HIV, which are undeniably interconnected steps in a process of change over time — a process which is difficult to call by any name but progress.

So how do historians discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?

And how do I, as a science fiction writer, as a science fiction reader, as someone who tears up every time NASA or ESA posts a new picture of our baby space probes preparing to take the next step in our journey to the stars, how do I discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?

I, at least, begin by being a historian, and talking about the history of progress itself.

Part 2: A Brief History of Progress

In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.

Let me unpack that.


Ideas of social change over time had existed in European thought since antiquity. Early Greek sources talk about a Golden Age of peaceful, pastoral abundance, followed by a Silver Age, when jewels and luxuries made life more opulent but also more complicated.  There followed a Bronze Age, when weapons and guards appeared, and also the hierarchy of have and have-nots, and finally an Iron Age of blood and war and Troy. Some ancients added more detail to this narrative, notably Lucretius in his Epicurean epic On the Nature of Things.  In his version the transition from simple, rural living to luxury-hungry urbanized hierarchy was explicitly developmental, caused, not by divine planning or celestial influences, but by human invention: as people invented more luxuries they then needed more equipment–technological and social — to produce, defend, control, and war over said luxuries, and so, step-by-step, tranquil simplicity degenerated into sophistication and its discontents.

Lucretius’s developmental model of society has several important components of the concept of progress, but not all of them. It has the state of things vary over the course of human history. It also has humanity as the agent of that change, primarily through technological innovation and social changes which arise in reaction to said innovation.  It does not have (A) intentionality behind this change, (B) a positive arc to this change, (C) an infinite or unlimited arc to this change, or–perhaps most critically–(D) the expectation that any more change will occur in the future.  Lucretius accounts for how society reached its present, and the mythological eras of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron do the same.  None of these ancient thinkers speculate — as we do every day — about how the experiences of future generations might continue to change and be fundamentally different from their own. Quantitatively things might be different — Rome’s empire might grow or shrink, or fall entirely to be replaced by another — but fundamentally cities will be cities, plows will be plows, empires will be empires, and in a thousand years bread will still be bread.  Even if Lucan or Lucretius speculate, they do not live in our world where bread is already poptarts, and will be something even more outlandish in the next generation.

Dante learning about the causes and effects of history... by leaving the Earth entirely and talking to theologians in Heaven.

Dante learning about the causes and effects of history… by leaving the Earth entirely and talking to theologians in Heaven about God’s plan. (Spot-the-Saint fans should recognize members of a certain monastic order.)

Medieval Europe came to the realization — and if you grant their starting premises they’re absolutely right — that if the entire world is a temporary construct designed by an omnipotent, omniscient Creator God for the purpose of leading humans through their many trials toward eternal salvation or damnation, then it’s madness to look to Earth history for any cause-to-effect chains, there is one Cause of all effects.  Medieval thought is no more monolithic than modern, but many excellent examples discuss the material world as a sort of pageant play being performed for us by God to communicate his moral lessons, and if one stage of history flows into another — an empire rises, prospers, falls — that is because God had a moral message to relate through its progression.  Take Dante’s obsession with the Emperor Tiberius, for example.  According to Dante, God planned the Crucifixion and wanted His Son to be lawfully executed by all humanity, so the sin and guilt and salvation would be universal, so He created the Roman Empire in order to have there be one government large enough to rule and represent the whole world (remember Dante’s maps have nothing south of Egypt except the Mountain of Purgatory).  The empire didn’t develop, it was crafted for God’s purposes, Act II scene iii the Roman Empire Rises, scene v it fulfills its purpose, scene vi it falls.  Applause.

Did the Renaissance have progress?  No.  Not conceptually, though, as in all eras of history, constant change was happening.  But the Renaissance did suddenly get closer to the concept too.  The Renaissance invented the Dark Ages. Specifically the Florentine Leonardo Bruni invented the Dark Ages in the 1420s-1430s.  Following on Petrarch’s idea that Italy was in a dark and fallen age and could rise from it again by reviving the lost arts that had made Rome glorious, Bruni divided history into three sections, good Antiquity, bad Dark Ages, and good Renaissance, when the good things lost in antiquity returned. Humans and God were both agents in this, God who planned it and humans who actually translated the Greek, and measured the aqueducts, and memorized the speeches, and built the new golden age.  Renaissance thinkers, fusing ideas from Greece and Rome with those of the Middle Ages, added to old ideas of development the first suggestion of a positive trajectory, but not an infinite one, and not a fundamental one.  The change the Renaissance believed in lay in reacquiring excellent things the past had already had and lost, climbing out of a pit back to ground level.  That change would be fundamental, but finite, and when Renaissance people talk about “surpassing the ancients” (which they do) they talk about painting more realistic paintings, sculpting more elaborate sculptures, perhaps building more stunning temples/cathedrals, or inventing new clever devices like Leonardo’s heated underground pipes to let you keep your potted lemon tree roots warm in winter (just like ancient Roman underfloor heating!) But cities would be cities, plows would be maybe slightly better plows, and empires would be empires.  Surpassing the ancients lay in skill, art, artistry, not fundamentals.

Then in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.


Bacon visualized the scientific project as the launching of a ship.

If we work together — said he — if we observe the world around us, study, share our findings, collaborate, uncover as a human team the secret causes of things hidden in nature, we can base new inventions on our new knowledge which will, in small ways, little by little, make human life just a little easier, just a little better, warm us in winter, shield us in storm, make our crops fail a little less, give us some way to heal the child on his bed.  We can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own.  There are — he said — three kinds of scholar.  There is the ant, who ranges the Earth and gathers crumbs of knowledge and piles them, raising his ant-mound, higher and higher, competing to have the greatest pile to sit and gloat upon–he is the encyclopedist, who gathers but adds nothing.  There is the spider, who spins elaborate webs of theory from the stuff of his own mind, spinning beautiful, intricate patterns in which it is so easy to become entwined — he is the theorist, the system-weaver.  And then there is the honeybee, who gathers from the fruits of nature and, processing them through the organ of his own being, produces something good and useful for the world.  Let us be honeybees, give to the world, learning and learning’s fruits.  Let us found a new method — the Scientific Method — and with it dedicate ourselves to the advancement of knowledge of the secret causes of things, and the expansion of the bounds of human empire to the achievement of all things possible.

Bacon is a gifted wordsmith, and he knows how to make you ache to be the noble thing he paints you as.

“How, Chancellor Bacon, do we know that we can change the world with this new scientific method thing, since no one has ever tried it before so you have no evidence that knowledge will yield anything good and useful, or that each generation’s experience might be better than the previous?”

It is not an easy thing to prove science works when you have no examples of science working yet.

Bacon’s answer — the answer which made kingdom and crown stream passionate support and birthed the Academy of Sciences–may surprise the 21st-century reader, accustomed as we are to hearing science and religion framed as enemies.  We know science will work–Bacon replied–because of God.  There are a hundred thousand things in this world which cause us pain and suffering, but God is Good. He gave the cheetah speed, the lion claws. He would not have sent humanity out into this wilderness without some way to meet our needs.  He would not have given us the desire for a better world without the means to make it so.  He gave us Reason.  So, from His Goodness, we know that Reason must be able to achieve all He has us desire.  God gave us science, and it is an act of Christian charity, an infinite charity toward all posterity, to use it.

They believed him.

And that is the first thing which, in my view, fits every modern definition of progress. Francis Bacon died from pneumonia contracted while experimenting with using snow to preserve chickens, attempting to give us refrigeration, by which food could be stored and spread across a hungry world. Bacon envisioned technological progress, medical progress, but also the small social progresses those would create, not just Renaissance glories for the prince and the cathedral, but food for the shepherd, rest for the farmer, little by little, progress. As Bacon’s followers reexamined medicine from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing…

An immensely sophisticated (and expensive) 18th-century electrostatic generator.

An immensely sophisticated (and expensive) early 19th-century electrostatic generator. It sure does… demonstrate electrostatics.

I’m going to tangent for a moment.  It really took two hundred years for Bacon’s academy to develop anything useful.  There was a lot of dissecting animals, and exploding metal spheres, and refracting light, and describing gravity, and it was very, very exciting, and a lot of it was correct, but–as the eloquent James Hankins put it–it was actually the nineteenth century that finally paid Francis Bacon’s I.O.U., his promise that, if you channel an unfathomable research budget, and feed the smartest youths of your society into science, someday we’ll be able to do things we can’t do now, like refrigerate chickens, or cure rabies, or anesthetize. There were a few useful advances (better navigational instruments, Franklin’s lightning rod) but for two hundred years most of science’s fruits were devices with no function beyond demonstrating scientific principles.  Two hundred years is a long time for a vastly-complex society-wide project to keep getting support and enthusiasm, fed by nothing but pure confidence that these discoveries streaming out of the Royal Society papers will eventually someday actually do something.  I just think… I just think that keeping it up for two hundred years before it paid off, that’s… that’s really cool.

…okay, I was in the middle of a sentence: As Bacon’s followers reexamined science from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing new correct ones which would eventually enable effective advances, it didn’t take long for his followers to apply his principle (that we should attack everything with Reason’s razor and keep only what stands) to social questions: legal systems, laws, judicial practices, customs, social mores, social classes, religion, government… treason, heresy… hello, Thomas Hobbes.  In fact the scientific method that Bacon pitched, the idea of progress, proved effective in causing social change a lot faster than genuinely useful technology.  Effectively the call was: “Hey, science will improve our technology!  It’s… it’s not doing anything yet, so… let’s try it out on society?  Yeah, that’s doing… something… and — Oh! — now the technology’s doing stuff too!”  Except that sentence took three hundred years.


We know now, as Bacon’s successors learned, with harsher and harsher vividness in successive generations, that attempts at progress can also cause negative effects, atrocious ones.  Like Thomas Hobbes.  And the Terror phase of the French Revolution.  And the life-expectancy in cities plummeting as industrialization spread soot, and pollutants, and cholera, and mercury-impregnated wallpaper, and lead-whitened bread, Mmmmm lead-whitened bread…  And just as technological discoveries had their monstrous offspring, like lead-whitened bread, the horrors of colonization were some of the monstrous offspring of the social applications of Reason. Monstrous offspring we are still wrestling with today.

Part 3: Progresses

bigstock-back-view-image-of-businessman-45911515We now use the word “progress” in many senses, many more than Bacon and his peers did.  There is “technological progress.” There is “social progress.” There is “economic progress.”  We sometimes lump these together, and sometimes separate them.

Thus the general question “Has progress failed?” can mean several things.  It can mean, “Have our collective efforts toward the improvement of the human condition failed to achieve their desired results?”  This is being asked frequently these days in the context of social progress, as efforts toward equality and tolerance are facing backlash.

But “Has progress failed?” can also mean “Has the development of science and technology, our application of Reason to things, failed to make the lived experience of people better/ happier/ less painful?  Have the changes been bad or neutral instead of good?”  In other words, was Bacon right that human’s using Reason and science can change our world, but wrong that we can make it better?

I want to stress that it is no small intellectual transformation that “progress” can now be used in a negative sense as well as a positive one.  The concept as Bacon crystallized it, and as the Enlightenment spread it, was inherently positive, and to use it in a negative sense would be nonsensical, like using “healing” in a negative sense.  But look at how we actually use “progress” in speech today. Sometimes it is positive (“Great progress this year!”) and sometimes negative (“Swallowed up by progress…”).  This is a revolutionary change from Bacon’s day, enabled by two differences between ourselves and Bacon.

First we have watched the last several centuries.  For us, progress is sometimes the first heart transplant and the footprints on the Moon, and sometimes it’s the Belgian Congo with its Heart of Darkness.  Sometimes it’s the annihilation of smallpox and sometimes it’s polio becoming worse as a result of sanitation instead of better.  Sometimes it’s Geraldine Roman, the Phillipines’ first transgender congresswoman, and sometimes it’s Cristina Calderón, the last living speaker of the Yaghan language.  Progress has yielded fruits much more complex than honey, which makes sentences like “The prison of progress” sensical to us.

main-qimg-d6897a0683ff024256df21c0489f9d30We have also broadened progress.  For Bacon, progress was the honey and the honeybees, hard, systematic, intentional human action creating something sweet and useful for mankind.  It was good.  It was new.  And it was intentional. In its nascent form, Bacon’s progress did not differentiate between progress the phenomenon and progress the concept.  If you asked Bacon “Was there progress in the Middle Ages?” he would have answered, “No.  We’re starting to have progress right now.”  And he’s correct about the concept being new, about intentional or self-aware progress, progress as a conscious effort, being new.  But if we turn to Wikipedia it defines “Progress (historical)” as “the idea that the world can become increasingly better in terms of science, technology, modernization, liberty, democracy, quality of life, etc.”  Notice how agency and intentionality are absent from this.  Because there was technological and social change before 1600, there were even technological and social changes that undeniably made things better, even if they came less frequently than they do in the modern world.  So the phenomenon we study through the whole of history, far before the maturation of the concept.

As “progress” broadened to include unsystematic progress as well as the modern project of progress, that was the moment we acquired the questions “Is progress natural?” and “Is progress inevitable?”  Because those questions require progress to be something that happens whether people intend it or not.  In a sense, Bacon’s notion of progress wasn’t as teleological as Whig history.  Bacon believed that human action could begin the process of progress, and that God gave Reason to humanity with this end in mind, but Bacon thought humans had to use a system, act intentionally, gather the pollen to make the honey, he didn’t think they honey just flowed.  Not until progress is broadened to include pre-modern progress, and non-systematic, non-intentional modern progress, can the fully teleological idea of an inescapable momentum, an inevitability, join the manifold implications of the word “progress.”

Now I’m going to show you two maps.


This is map of global population, rendered to look like a terrain. It shows the jagged mountain ranges of south and east Asia, the vast, sweeping valleys of forest and wilderness.  The most jagged spikes may be a little jarring, the intensity of India and China, but even those are rich brown mountains, while the whole thing has the mood of a semi-untouched world, much more pastoral wilderness than city, and almost everywhere a healthy green.  This makes progress, or at least the spread of population, feel like a natural phenomenon, a neutral phenomenon.



This is the Human Ooze Map. This map shows exactly the same data, reoriented to drip down instead of spiking up, and to be a pus-like yellow against an ominous black background. Instantly the human metropolises are not natural spikes within a healthy terrain, but an infection clinging to every oozing coastline, with the densest mega-cities seeming to bleed out amidst the goop, like open pustules.

Both these maps show one aspect of ‘progress’. Whether the teeming cities of our modern day are an apocalyptic infection, or a force as natural as the meandering of shores and tree-lines, depends on how we present the narrative, and the moral assumptions that underlie that presentation.  Presentism and the progress narrative in general have very similar distorting effects. When we examine past phenomena, institutions, events, people, ideas, some feel viscerally good or viscerally bad, right or wrong, forward-moving or backward-moving, values they acquire from narratives which we ourselves have created, and which orient how we analyze history, just as these mapmakers have oriented population up, or down, resulting in radically different feelings.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s model of the Noble Savage, happier the rural simplicity of Lucretius’s Golden Age rather than in the stressful ever-changing urban world of progress, is itself an image progress presented like the Human Ooze Map, reversing the moral presentation of the same facts.

Realizing that the ways we present data about progress are themselves morally charged can help us clarify questions that are being asked right now about liberalism, and nationalism, and social change, and opposition to social change.  Because when we ask whether the world is experiencing a “failure” or a “revolution” or a “regression” or a “backlash” or a “last gasp” or a “pendulum swing” or a “prelude to triumph” etc., all these characterizations reorient data around different facets of the concept of progress, positive or negative, natural or intentional, just as these two maps reorient population around different morally-charged visualizations.

In sum: post colonialism, post industrialization, post Hobbes, we can no longer talk about progress as a unilateral, uncomplicated, good, not without distorting history, and ignoring the terrible facets of the last several centuries.  Bacon thought there would be only honey, he was wrong.  But we can’t not discuss progress because, during these same centuries, each generation’s experience has been increasingly different from the last generation, and science and human action are propelling this change.  And there has been some honey.  We need ways to talk about that.

But not without bearing in mind how we invest progress with different kinds of moral weight (the terrain or the ooze…)

And not without a question Bacon never thought to ask, because he did not realize (as we do) that technological and social change had been going on for many centuries before he made the action conscious. So Bacon never thought to ask: Do we have any power over progress?


Part 4: Do Individuals Have the Power to Change History?

Feelings of helplessness and despair have also been big parts of the shock of 2016.  Helplessness and despair are questions, as well as feelings.  They ask:  Am I powerless?  Can I personally do anything to change this?  Do individuals have any power to shape history?  Are we just swept along by the vast tides of social forces?  Are we just cogs in the machine?  What changes history?

Within a history department this divide often manifests methodologically.

Economic historians, and social historians, write masterful examinations of how vast social and economic forces, and their changes, whether incremental or rapid, have shaped history.  Let’s call that Great Forces history.  Whenever you hear people comparing our current wealth gap to the eve of the French Revolution, that is Great Forces history.  When a Marxist talks about the inevitable interactions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, or when a Whig historian talks about the inevitable march of progress, those are also kinds of Great Forces history.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the most infamous of the many bouts of urban violence which characterized the French Wars of Religion

Great Forces history is wonderful, invaluable.  It lets us draw illuminating comparisons, and helps us predict, not what will happen but what could happen, by looking at what has happened in similar circumstances. I mentioned earlier the French Wars of Religion, with their intermittent blips of peace. My excellent colleague Brian Sandberg of NIU (a brilliant historian of violence) recently pointed out to me that France during the Catholic-Protestant religious wars was about 10% Protestant, somewhat comparable to the African American population of the USA today which is around 13%. A striking comparison, though with stark differences.  In particular, France’s Protestant/Calvinist population fell disproportionately in the wealthy, politically-empowered aristocratic class (comprising 30% of the ruling class), in contrast with African Americans today who fall disproportionately in the poorer, politically-disempowered classes.  These similarities and differences make it very fruitful to look at the mechanisms of civil violence in 16th and 17th century France (how outbreaks of violence started, how they ended, who against whom) to help us understand the similar-yet-different ways civil violence might operate around us now.  That kind of comparison is, in my view, Great Forces history at its most fruitful. (You can read more by Brian Sandberg on this issue in his book, on his blog, and on the Center for the Study of Religious Violence blog; more citations at the end of this article.)

But are we all, then, helpless water droplets, with no power beyond our infinitesimal contribution to the tidal forces of our history? Is there room for human agency?

hamilton-the-musical-official-broadway-posterHistory departments also have biographers, and intellectual historians, and micro-historians, who churn out brilliant histories of how one town, one woman, one invention, one idea reshaped our world.  Readers have seen me do this here on Ex Urbe, describing how Beccaria persuaded Europe to discontinue torture, how Petrarch sparked the Renaissance, how Machiavelli gave us so much.  Histories of agents, of people who changed the world.  Such histories are absolutely true — just as the Great Forces histories are — but if Great Forces histories tell us we are helpless droplets in a great wave, these histories give us hope that human agency, our power to act meaningfully upon our world, is real.  I am quite certain that one of the causes of the explosive response to the Hamilton musical right now is its firm, optimistic message that, yes, individuals can, and in fact did, reshape this world — and so can we.

This kind of history, inspiring as it is, is also dangerous.  The antiquated/old-fashioned/bad version of this kind of history is Great Man history, the model epitomized by Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (a gorgeous read) which presents humanity as a kind of inert but rich medium, like agar ready for a bacterial culture.  Onto this great and ready stage, Nature (or God or Providence) periodically sends a Great Man, a leader, inventor, revolutionary, firebrand, who makes empires rise, or fall, or leads us out of the black of ignorance.  Great Man history is very prone to erasing everyone outside a narrow elite, erasing women, erasing the negative consequences of the actions of Great Men, justifying atrocities as the collateral damage of greatness, and other problems which I hope are familiar to my readers.

But when done well, histories of human agency are valuable. Are true.  Are hope.

So if Great Forces history is correct, and useful, and Human Agency history is also correct, and useful… how do we balance that? They are, after all, contradictory.


Part 5: The Papal Election of 2016

Every year in my Italian Renaissance class, here at the University of Chicago, I run a simulation of a Renaissance papal election, circa 1490-1500. Each student is a different participant in the process, and they negotiate, form coalitions, and, eventually, elect a pope.  And then they have a war, and destroy some chunk of Europe.  Each student receives a packet describing that students’ character’s goals, background, personality, allies and enemies, and a packet of resources, cards representing money, titles, treasures, armies, nieces and nephews one can marry off, contracts one can sign, artists or scholars one can use to boost one’s influence, or trade to others as commodities: “I’ll give you Leonardo if you send three armies to guard my city from the French.”

Our newly-elected pope crowns the Holy Roman Emperor

Our newly-elected pope crowns the Holy Roman Emperor

Some students in the simulation play powerful Cardinals wielding vast economic resources and power networks, with clients and subordinates, complicated political agendas, and a strong shot at the papacy.  Others are minor Cardinals, with debts, vulnerabilities, short-term needs to some personal crisis in their home cities, or long-term hopes of rising on the coattails of others and perhaps being elected three or four popes from now.  Others, locked in a secret chamber in the basement, are the Crowned Heads of Europe — the King of France, the Queen of Castile, the Holy Roman Emperor — who smuggle secret orders (text messages) to their agents in the conclave, attempting to forge alliances with Italian powers, and gain influence over the papacy so they can use Church power to strengthen their plans to launch invasions or lay claim to distant thrones.  And others are not Cardinals at all but functionaries who count the votes, distribute the food, the guard who keeps watch, the choir director who entertains the churchmen locked in the Sistine, who have no votes but can hear, and watch, and whisper.

There are many aspects to this simulation, which I may someday to discuss here at greater length (for now you can read a bit about it on our History Department blog), but for the moment I just want to talk about the outcomes, and what structures the outcomes.  I designed this simulation not to have any pre-set outcome.  I looked into the period as best I could, and gave each historical figure the resources and goals that I felt accurately reflected that person’s real historical resources and actions.  I also intentionally moved some characters in time, including some Cardinals and political issues which do not quite overlap with each other, in order to make this an alternate history, not a mechanical reconstruction, so that students who already knew what happened to Italy in this period would know they couldn’t have the “correct” outcome even if they tried, which frees everyone to pursue goals, not “correct” choices, and to genuinely explore the range of what could happen without being too locked in to what did.  I set up the tensions and the actors to simulate what I felt the situation was when the election begin, then left it free to flow.

I have now run the simulation four times.  Each time some outcomes are similar, similar enough that they are clearly locked in by the greater political webs and economic forces.  The same few powerful Cardinals are always leading candidates for the throne. There is usually also a wildcard candidate, someone who has never before been one of the top contenders, but circumstances bring a coalition together.  And, usually, perhaps inevitably, a juggernaut wins, one of the Cardinals who began with a strong power-base, but it’s usually very, very close.  And the efforts of the wildcard candidate, and the coalition that formed around that wildcard, always have a powerful effect on the new pope’s policies and first actions, who’s in the inner circle and who’s out, what opposition parties form, and that determines which city-states rise and which city-states burn as Italy erupts in war.

And the war is Always. Totally. Different.

The newly-elected pope holds a secret meeting with his inner circle to plan the conquest of Italy

The new pope meets in secret with his inner circle to plan the conquest of Italy

Because as the monarchies race to make alliances and team up against their enemies, they get pulled back-and-forth by the ricocheting consequences of small actions: a marriage, an insult, a bribe traded for a whisper, someone paying off someone else’s debts, someone taking a shine to a bright young thing.  Sometimes France invades Spain.  Sometimes France and Spain unite to invade the Holy Roman Empire.  Sometimes England and Spain unite to keep the French out of Italy.  Sometimes France and the Empire unite to keep Spain out of Italy.  Once they made a giant pan-European peace treaty, with a set of marriage alliances which looked likely to permanently unify all four great Crowns, but it was shattered by the sudden assassination of a crown prince.

So when I tell people about this election, and they ask me “Does it always have the same outcome?” the answer is yes and no.  Because the Great Forces always push the same way.  The strong factions are strong.  Money is power.  Blood is thicker than promises.  Virtue is manipulable.  In the end, a bad man will be pope.  And he will do bad things.   The war is coming, and the land — some land somewhere — will burn.  But the details are always different.  A Cardinal needs to gather fourteen votes to get the throne, but it’s never the same fourteen votes, so it’s never the same fourteen people who get papal favor, whose agendas are strengthened, whose homelands prosper while their enemies fall.  And I have never once seen a pope elected in this simulation who did not owe his victory, not only to those who voted, but to one or more of the humble functionaries, who repeated just the right whisper at just the right moment, and genuinely handed the throne to Monster A instead of Monster B.  And from that functionary flow the consequences. There are always several kingmakers in the election, who often do more than the candidate himself to get him on the throne, but what they do, who they help, and which kingmaker ends up most favored, most influential, can change a small war in Genoa into a huge war in Burgundy, a union of thrones between France and England into another century of guns and steel, or determine which decrees the new pope signs.  That sometimes matters more than whether war is in Burgundy or Genoa, since papal signatures resolve questions such as: Who gets the New World? Will there be another crusade?  Will the Inquisition grow more tolerant or less toward new philosophies?  Who gets to be King of Naples?  These things are different every time, though shaped by the same forces.

After the war, cardinals petition the pope for final favors

As war wracks Italy and Spain, Cardinals petition the pope to forgive their offenses and condemn their enemies.

Frequently the most explosive action is right after the pope is elected, after the Great Forces have thrust a bad man onto Saint Peter’s throne, and set the great and somber stage for war, often that’s the moment that I see human action do most.  That’s when I get the after-midnight message on the day before the war begins: “Secret meeting. 9AM. Economics cafe. Make sure no one sees you. Sforza, Medici, D’Este, Dominicans. Borgia has the throne but he will not be master of Italy.”  And together, these brave and haste-born allies, they… faicceed? Fail and succeed?  They give it all they have: diplomacy, force, wealth, guile, all woven together.  They strike.  The bad pope rages, sends forces out to smite these enemies.  The kings and great thrones take advantage, launch invasions.  The armies clash.  One of the rebel cities burns, but the other five survive, and Borgia (that year at least) is not Master of Italy.

We feel it, the students as myself, coming out of the simulation.  The Great Forces were real, and were unstoppable.  The dam was about to break.  No one could stop it.  But the human agents — even the tiniest junior clerk who does the paperwork — the human agents shaped what happened, and every action had its consequences, imperfect, entwined, but real.  The dam was about to break, but every person there got to dig a channel to try to direct the waters once they flowed, and that is what determined the real shape of the flood, its path, its damage.  No one controlled what happened, and no one could predict what happened, but those who worked hard and dug their channels, most of them succeeded in diverting most of the damage, achieving many of their goals, preventing the worst.  Not all, but most.

And what I see in the simulation I also see over and over in real historical sources.

This is how both kinds of history are true.  There are Great Forces.  Economics, class, wealth gaps, prosperity, stagnation, these Great Forces make particular historical moments ripe for change, ripe for war, ripe for wealth, ripe for crisis, ripe for healing, ripe for peace.  But individuals also have real agency, and our actions determine the actual consequences of these Great Forces as they reshape our world.  We have to understand both, and study both, and act on the world now remembering that both are real.

So, can human beings control progress?  Yes and no.

Part 6: Ways to Talk About Progress in the 21st Century

My favorite fish, Orochimaru. He has long since, as we say in my household "gone the way of all fish."

My favorite fish, Orochimaru, a beautiful black veil tale angel.  He has long since, as we say in my household “gone the way of all fish.”

Few things have taught me more about the world than keeping a fish tank.

You get some new fish, put them in your fish tank, everything’s fine.  You get some more new fish, the next morning one of them has killed almost all the others.  Another time you get a new fish and it’s all gaspy and pumping its gills desperately, because it’s from alkeline waters and your tank is too acidic for it. So you put in a little pH adjusting powder and… all the other fish get sick from the Ammonia that releases and die.  Another time you get a new fish and it’s sick!  So you put fish antibiotics in the water, aaaand… they kill all the symbiotic bacteria in your filter system and the water gets filled with rotting bacteria, and the fish die.  Another time you do absolutely nothing, and the fish die.

What’s happening?  The same thing that happened in the first two centuries after Francis Bacon, when the science was learning tons, but achieving little that actually improved daily life.  The system is more complex than it seems.  A change which achieves its intended purpose also throws out-of-whack vital forces you did not realize were connected to it.  The acidity buffer in the fish tank increases the nutrients in the water, which causes an algae bloom, which uses up the oxygen and suffocates the catfish.  The marriage alliance between Milan and Ferrara makes Venice friends with Milan, which makes Venice’s rival Genoa side with Spain, which makes Spain reluctant to anger Portugal, which makes them agree to a marriage alliance, and then Spain is out of princesses and can’t marry the Prince of Wales, and the next thing you know there are soldiers from Scotland attacking Bologna.  A seventeenth-century surgeon realizes that cataracts are caused by something white and opaque appearing at the front of the eye so removes it, not yet understanding that it’s the lens and you really need it.


The One Laptop Per Child program may be the single initiative in Earth’s history-so-far which will trigger the most cultural change. We have no idea what the real effects will be, only that they will be massive. Will they be good? Yes. Bad? Realistically also yes — a mixture, as with all great changes.

So when I hear people ask “Has social progress has failed?” or “Has liberalism failed?” or “Has the Civil Rights Movement failed?” my zoomed-in self, my scared self, the self living in this crisis feels afraid and uncertain, but my zoomed-out self, my historian self answers very easily.   No.  These movements have done wonders, achieved tons!  But they have also done what all movements do in a dynamic historical system: they have had large, complicated consequences.  They have added something to the fish tank.  Because the same Enlightenment impulse to make a better, more rational world, where everyone would have education and equal political empowerment BOTH caused the brutalities of the Belgian Congo AND gave me the vote.  And that’s the sort of thing historians look at, all day.

Medieval bloodletting. Something we genuinely have improved on!

Medieval bloodletting. Something we have genuinely, usefully improved on!

But if the consequences of our actions are completely unpredictable, would it be better to say that change is real but progress controlled by humans is just an idea which turned out to be wrong?  No.  I say no. Because I gradually got better at understanding the fish tank.  Because the doctors gradually figured out how the eye really does function. Because some of our civil rights have come by blood and war, and others have come through negotiation and agreement.  Because we as humans are gradually learning more about how our world is interconnected, and how we can take action within that interconnected system.  And by doing so we really have achieve some of what Francis Bacon and his followers waited for through those long centuries: we have made the next generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own.  Not smoothly, and not quickly, but actually.  Because, in my mock papal election, the dam did break, but those students who worked hard to dig their channels did direct the flood, and most of them managed to achieve some of what they aimed at, though they always caused some other effects too.

Is it still blowing up in our faces?
Is it going to keep blowing up in our faces, over and over?
Is it going to blow up so much, sometimes, that it doesn’t seem like it’s actually any better?
Is that still progress?


Map of the world by increases in life expectancy since 1972. One of many attempts to create new, better metrics for discussing progress.

Because there was a baby in the bathwater of Whig history.  If we work hard at it, we can find metrics for comparing times and places which don’t privilege particular ideologies.  Metrics like infant mortality.  Metrics like malnutrition.  Metrics like the frequency of massacres.  We can even find metrics for social progress which don’t irrevocably privilege a particular Western value system.  One of my favorite social progress metrics is: “What portion of the population of this society can be murdered by a different portion of the population and have the murderer suffer no meaningful consequences?”  The answer, for America in 2017, is not 0%.  But it’s also not 90%.  That number has gone down, and is now far below the geohistorical norm.  That is progress.  That, and infant mortality, and the conquest of smallpox. These are genuine improvements to the human condition, of the sort that Bacon and his followers believed would come if they kept working to learn the causes and secret motions of things.  And they were right.  While Whig history privileges a very narrow set of values, metrics which track things like infant mortality, or murder with impunity, still privilege particular values — life, justice, equality — but aim to be compatible with as many different cultures, and even time periods, as possible.  They are metrics which stranded time travelers would find it fairly easy to explain, no matter where they were dumped in Earth’s broad timeline.  At least that’s our aim.  And such metrics are the best tool we have at present to make the comparisons, and have the discussions about progress, that we need to have to grapple with our changing world.

Because progress is both a concept and a phenomenon.

The concept is the hope that collective human effort can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than the previous generation’s.  That concept has itself become a mighty force shaping the human experience, like communism, iron, or the wheel.  It is valuable thing to look at the effects that concept has had, to talk about how some have been destructive and others constructive, and to study, from a zoomed-out perspective, the consequences, successes, and failures of different movements or individuals who have acted in the name of progress.

progress-003The phenomenon is also real.  My own personal assessment of it is just that, a personal assessment, with no authority beyond some years spent studying history.  I hope to keep reexamining and improving this assessment all the days of my life.  But here at the beginning of 2017 I would say this:

Progress is not inevitable, but it is happening.
It is not transparent, but it is visible.
It is not safe, but it is beneficial.
It is not linear, but it is directional.
It is not controllable, but it is us.  In fact, it is nothing but us.

Progress is also natural, in my view, not in the sense that it will inevitably triumph over its doomed opposition, but in the sense that the human animal is part of nature, so the Declaration of the Rights of Man is as natural as a bird’s nest or a beaver dam. There is no teleology, no inevitable correct ending locked in from time immemorial. But I personally think there is a certain outcome to progress, gradual but certain: the decrease of pain in the human condition over time. Because there is so much desire in this world to make a better one. Bacon was right that we ache for it. And the real measurable changes we have made show that he was also right that we can use Reason and collective effort to meet our desires, even if the process is agonizingly slow, imperfect, and dangerous. But we know now how to go about learning the causes and secret motions of things. And how to use that knowledge.

We are also learning to understand the accidental negative consequences of progress, looking out for them, mitigating them, preventing them, creating safety nets. We’re getting better at it. Slowly, but we are.

Sisyphus, depicted on a classical urn. We are still using and improving on the Sisyphus image too, finding new ways it can help us understand our world.

Sisyphus, depicted on a classical urn. Still a very useful way of describing how progress often feels.

Zooming back in hurts.  It’s easy to say “the French Wars of Religion” and erase the little blips of peace, but it’s hard to feel fear and pain, or watch a friend feel fear and pain. Sometimes I hear people say they think that things today are worse than they’ve ever been, especially the hate, or the race relations in the USA, that they’re worse now than ever. That we’ve made no progress, quite the opposite. Similarly, I think a person who grew up during one of the peaceful pauses in the French Wars of Religion might say, when the violence restarted, that the wars were worse now than they had ever been, and farther than ever from real peace. They aren’t actually worse now. They genuinely were worse before. But they are really, really bad right now, and it does really, really hurt.

The slowness of social progress is painful, I think especially because it’s the aspect of progress that seemed it would come fastest. During that first century, when Bacon’s followers were waiting in maddening impatience for their better medical knowledge to result in any actual increase in their ability to save lives, social progress was already working wonders.  The Enlightenment did extend franchise, end torture on an entire continent, achieved much, and had this great, heady, explosive feeling of victory and momentum. It seemed like social progress was already half-way-done before tech even got started.  But Charles Babbage kicked off programmable computing in 1833 and now my pocket contains 100x the computing power needed to get Apollo XI to the Moon, so why, if Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen in 1791, do we still not have equal pay?

Because society is a very complicated fish tank.  Because we still have a lot to learn about the causes and secret motions of society.

But if there is a dam right now, ready to break and usher in a change, Great Forces are still shaped by human action. Our action.

Studying history has proved to me, over and over, that things used to be worse.  That they are better now.  Progress is real.  That’s a consolation, but a hollow one while we’re still here facing the pain. What fills its hollowness, for me at least, is remembering that secret meeting in the Economics cafe, that hasty plan, diplomacy, quick action — not a second chance after the disaster, but a next chance.  And a next.  And a next, to take actions that really did achieve things, even if not everything. Human action combining with the flood is not powerlessness.  And that’s how I think progress really works.


Map of the Earth showing online social interaction between cities, 2016.

And as promised, more citations on the demographics of religious violence in France, with thanks to Brian Sandberg:

  • Brian Sandberg, Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
  • Philip Benedict, “The Huguenot Population of France, 1600-85,” in The Faith and Fortunes of France’s Huguenots, 1600-85 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 39-42, 92-95.
  • Arlette Jouanna, La France du XVIe siècle, 1483-1598 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996), 325-340.
  • Jacques Dupâquier, ed., De la Renaissance à 1789, vol. 2 of Histoire de la population française (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988), 81-94.
  • Historical Perspectives – Brian Sandberg’s blog
  • Center for the Study of Religious Violence blog


20 Feb 11:44

The Antiheroine Unveiled

by Sonya Mann

The antihero is exciting because he is transgressive. Most of us color within the lines, but antiheroes rip pages out of the book. (Villains do that too, but then they set the pages on fire. Antiheroes make paper airplanes.) The antihero’s behavior upsets staid assumptions about virtue — he muddies “good” and “bad” in a way that mimics real life.

Antiheroine essay feature image, a sketch of a girl crying based on Lana Del Rey.

Drawing by the author.

Despite their troublesome ways, antiheroes are performances, safe for audiences to enjoy. We can relish morally complex characters without having to bring mess and conflict into our own lives (or without having to admit the mess and conflict that we don’t know how to handle). Antiheroes allow us to externalize our own grapplings with selfishness, loyalty, and altruistic bravery. They give us a relatable avatar, complete with id as well as superego. Watching the antihero’s antics can even be cathartic.

So, given that women are roughly 50% of the human race, where are the antiheroines? Why are they so outnumbered? Could they be hiding in plain sight?

The antiheroine is not just a simple mirror image of the antihero. She must be derived from the traditional female protagonist the way the antihero is derived from the hero. To complicate matters, we’ve reached an era in which we see male versions of female character archetypes, and vice versa. For the purposes of this essay, any of these character archetypes can be either male or female:

  • Hero
  • Antihero
  • Antiheroine
  • Damsel in distress
  • Villain

The archetypes are gendered, but they can be occupied by characters who don’t match that gender. Usually that’s not the case, but it’s possible. In my taxonomy, a heroine is just a female hero, but a female antihero is a different thing from an antiheroine. Don’t worry — there will be a chart later.

I also want to note that throughout this essay I’m working with Western culture and especially American culture. I can’t speak to other traditions.

The Shape of an Antihero

First we must analyze the original male antihero.

What are the distinguishing characteristics of this creature? He’s not merely an unconventional hero; the formula is more specific than that. TV Tropes can tell you, but I’ll boil it down further. The antihero is two things above all else: subversive and likeable. The aesthetics lean toward gritty, but in terms of character the antihero must defy authority in a way that makes the audience sympathetic.

He is a dishonorable but lovable rogue, a mainstay of adventure and romance (and sometimes political drama). The line between anti-establishment hero and true antihero can be hard to define — where does Robin Hood fall, or Wesley from The Princess Bride? My rubric is that the antihero has to do genuinely bad things, to cause pain and suffering, as well as genuinely good and admirable things.

He’s Loki before Loki turns evil. Han Solo, especially in A New Hope. Gregory House from the eponymous TV show. We root for him, but we can’t wholeheartedly endorse his actions. He is torn between protecting and enriching himself, versus choosing to sacrifice for a cause outside of himself. A greater good — or a girl.

The antihero is a gender performance, just as anything associated with men over women, or vice versa, is a gender performance. Antiheroes are a particular type of masculine: rugged and gruff, usually laconic. There are exceptions — say, Michael Scott from The Office — but I’m not aware of a bubbly antihero with a slight build. (Venkat suggested Jack Sparrow, but even with the eyeliner and flamboyant hand gestures, I don’t read Sparrow as femme. YMMV.) Many antihero stories include a good girl who is tempted by this bad boy. Princess Leia’s attraction to Han Solo is emblematic.

The archetypal hero, and thus also the antihero, is a virile man in his twenties, thirties, or forties at a stretch. Like a classic hero, the antihero is willful and active. He doesn’t wait around. But unlike the hero, his own interests are foremost. The antihero has to struggle with his self-preservation instincts. Often the antihero’s character arc brings him closer to being a classic hero — he decides to value something or someone outside of himself above his own interests. For instance, Han Solo returns to help the Rebel Alliance assault the Death Star.

The character Mal from Firefly is another typical antihero. He mocks and belittles Inara for being a sex worker (probably mostly out of jealousy, but that doesn’t excuse it) while cherishing and protecting Kailey. Even if he doesn’t like someone, he’ll go to bat for them if they’re part of his crew. He never leaves a member of his team behind. He’s a stern, autocratic ruler who reigns in his constituents’ worst impulses, while occasionally letting his own fly.

The antihero is not the perfect opposite of the hero. The opposite of a hero is either a villain, if you consider goodness to be the dominant qualifier for heroes, or a passive layabout, if you consider action to be the dominant qualifier. A hero is fundamentally good, more selfless than not, and brave. Heroes are honest; they are honorable.

An antihero is morally complex and probably internally conflicted. The antihero can be selfish — but not sociopathic. He is connected to the world of virtue without being immersed in it. Villains are bad, usually selfish to the point of sociopathy. They are irredeemable.

Lack of Ladies’ Night

Some female antiheroes do exist. Twitter supplied a handful examples that buck the trend: Lisbeth Salander, Electra, Bonnie Parker, Bella Swan (debatable), Mindy Lahiri, Blair Waldorf, etc, etc. Here’s a list of books featuring female antiheroes. There are a few women on Wikipedia’s list of antiheroes, including Scarlett O’Hara and Madame Bovary. I just started watching Netflix’s Brazilian series 3%, and the main character is a female antihero. Still, they are definitely less common than the male rendition.

List of antiheroines — are you also looking for list of antiheroes? Screenshot of Google Search.

Screenshot of Google Search.

“Antihero” has a Merriam-Webster definition, but “antiheroine” is merely “a female antihero”. (I’ll dispute that definition later.) Granted, there are fewer prominent female protagonists in general. Using American movies as a proxy: “Females comprised 22% of protagonists featured in the top 100 domestic grossing films of 2015.” [PDF]

But maybe the difference in absolute numbers isn’t the only reason why we see fewer women occupying this character space.

Both society and individuals tend to think of men and women differently. Most men have a Y chromosome; most women have a double X. The genes express themselves, and we react to the results. There is a very long history of social roles being determined by a person’s phenotype. We’ve built up cultural structures to support that division of reproductive labor, and even now in the age of the self-determined individual, we can’t shake free of our instincts or cultural detritus.

Tradition persists. Useful frameworks continue shaping society until the resistance overcomes inertia, and that process takes centuries at least. Masculinity and femininity are deep-rooted memes (in the Richard Dawkins sense). Except when consciously repudiated — sometimes even then — they rear their heads in the stories we tell.

As Haley Thurston wrote in “The Heroine’s Journey”:

The Heroine’s Journey is about learning to suffer, endure, and be subjected to indignity while maintaining grace, composure, and patience. While most heroic stories involve some element of perseverance and strength of will, what makes Heroine’s Journey stories different is that a heroine’s perseverance is tested not to see whether she can persevere to achieve a separate goal, but rather simply to see if she can persevere, period. When you lay it out like that, it’s pretty hard to see the Heroine’s Journey as fundamentally heroic, to which I say: well yeah.

Thurston gives the apt example of Queen Penelope, Odysseus’ abandoned wife in The Odyssey. The long-suffering wife, damsel in distress, and evil queen are more familiar than what we might call a hero-type heroine. Katniss Everdeen, from the Hunger Games saga, is a hero-type heroine, or what I would simply call a female hero.

The closest traditional feminine analogue to an antihero is a femme fatale, the antihero’s foil in noir fiction. She’s too sexy for anyone’s good. She’s out for herself, just like the antihero, but conflicted by torturous loyalty. Self-preservation or self-sacrifice? This is the essential conflict of the antihero, and the subordinated femme fatale shares it.

However, femme fatales can range from disguised damsels to outright villains, so the character is not a perfect counterpart. The femme fatale is also a niche concern, better known for slinky dresses and Humphrey Bogart than active participation in the plot.

Yes, there are individual female antiheroes, who follow the same pattern as the male version. But there’s no independent antiheroine archetype. It’s just an echo.

Mimicking the Men

If we reach back into fairytales and mythology, examples of female protagonists abound. But the heroine hasn’t caught on the way the hero did. In terms of popularity, can Wonder Woman hold a candle to Superman, Batman, or Spider Man?

Dealing in archetypes means dealing in stereotypes. The thing that makes them useful — generality, a pattern that can be applied across many narratives — is also their flaw. I look at archetypes as interpretative rubrics, shortcuts for finding meaning. They exist because we indulge them and perpetuate their lifespans. Both ancient and contemporary stories hew to archetypes so often because they embody the essential values and conflicts that deeply fascinate and resonate with human nature.

The antihero is complication of the hero pattern, one whose popularity just keeps growing. To find an antiheroine, we could look to the standard heroine (a female hero). She’s gender transposition of the male version, touted as a symbol of feminist progress when she’s featured in a book or a movie. I think this is the wrong impulse. There’s nothing wrong with that character, but she doesn’t correspond to the “deep meme” of femininity.

We must find a complication of the female archetype that has persistently occupied our hearts and minds. Think of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. I say that the damsel in distress is the best candidate.

In the beginning of this essay I wrote:

We can relish morally complex characters without having to bring mess and conflict into our own lives (or without having to admit the mess and conflict that we don’t know how to handle). Antiheroes allow us to externalize our own grapplings with selfishness, loyalty, and altruistic bravery. They give us a relatable avatar, complete with id as well as superego. Watching the antihero’s antics can even be cathartic.

To solve for antiheroine, we should examine which feminine archetype serves this purpose when contrasted with the damsel in distress. The damsel in distress is passive and tragic; things happen to her. The true antiheroine must have passivity in her also. But the damsel in distress is wholly virtuous, often virginal. The antiheroine won’t conform to those standards. She will break the rules; betray the expectations set upon her.

I think the best match is the maladjusted party girl. You won’t find her in a fairytale, since she’s an innovated archetype. Unlike the femme fatale, her manner of seduction isn’t carefully controlled. She’s wild — too wild for anyone’s good. She consumes too much; she is open to the world beyond what is seemly. Drinking, smoking, possibly a stint as a sex worker, love affairs in which she wants more than the partner can give.

The moral complexity part is easy: she’s often manipulative, or emotionally abusive, and lets people down. As with the antihero, this conception of the antiheroine can teeter on the edge between “asshole” and “flawed but loveable”. And even more so, the antihero’s outwardly directed bitterness and self-prioritization are inverted in the antiheroine’s self-loathing and performative self-harm.

The antihero and antiheroine ecosystem.

A collection of popular musicians emblematize this type. Lana Del Rey is probably foremost among them, but Tove Lo, Ke$ha, post-Disney Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen, certain Lady Gaga sub-personas, and Melanie Martinez also qualify. These are women who peddle a glamorized depiction of their angst. (Oddly enough, there’s a male version too — not an antihero, but a masculine version of the twisted damsel in distress. A male antiheroine. Lately he’s been calling himself Starboy. Drake has dabbled in this territory as well.)

Two years ago, I wrote an essay called “Crazy Girl Chic” for Bustle. It was about a type of woman who is different from the typical femme fatale, that mistress of crafted artifice, and different from a sincerely strong female hero like Katniss Everdeen. It was about the “don’t stick it in crazy” kind of woman. In this passage, I tried to encapsulate what I meant:

Oblivion is the ideal aesthetic. It’s like the tragic self-awareness of Lana Del Rey’s “Carmen”: “She says, ‘You don’t wanna be like me, working for fun, gettin’ high for free.’” And, “Darlin’, darlin’, doesn’t have a problem. Lying to herself ‘cause her liquor’s top shelf.” Daisy Buchanan in a nutshell, no? Glorifying mental illness is supposed to be bad, or so I hear from Tumblr, but it keeps me alive. I have to believe that there’s something glamorous about being depressed because otherwise it’s that much more depressing.

I cited Edie Sedgwick, Zelda Fitzgerald, Cat Marnell, and so on, as examples. This is the woman who builds up momentum and falls apart at full speed. Like Sylvia Plath, but more manic. Unlike the typical demure damsel, she participates in her own distress. We can’t approve of her coping methods, but we sympathize with her pain.

The redemption, when there is one, is figuring out how to change mindsets into happiness, or into a place of being okay with something short of that.

I called this woman too open to the world — too hungry. She has to find herself, within herself. She has to become self-contained, able to sustain her own needs. The antihero, who begins the story in a closed-off state, opens up to a quest that he sincerely cares about, that he’s willing to prioritize over his own well-being. The antiheroine is used to prioritizing anything over her own well-being, and she must recalibrate. The antihero learns to love the world; the antiheroine learns to love herself.

20 Feb 07:43

I read Charlotte Bronte's >Villette for the first time last week. I don't know why I didn't anticipate how wildly entertaining I would find it, given how much I love Jane Eyre, but in fact it was a delightful surprise which I did not anticipate at all.

Also, there ... are gayer nineteenth-century novels? But NOT MANY.

Villette is narrated by Lucy Snowe, a quiet and responsible young woman with hobbies that include staring creepily at the people around her, stuffing her own expectations into a tiny box labeled 'REALISTIC', and being an incredibly weird and unreliable narrator.

Due to an unspecified catastrophe, Lucy finds herself nearly penniless and short on options. In her one great risk-taking adventure of her life, she decides she's going to blow all her remaining cash on a trip across the Channel on the off-chance someone in France needs an English governess.

It turns out, someone in France does need an English teacher! Her name is Madame Beck and she runs a school...with CONSTANT SURVEILLANCE AND ESPIONAGE.

Lucy Snowe takes the fact that someone is constantly searching through her stuff and reading her letters pretty much in stride.

LUCY SNOWE: Had she creased one solitary article [while secretly searching my possessions], I own I should have felt much greater difficulty in forgiving her; but finding all straight and orderly, I said, 'Let bygones be bygones.'

Lucy does not exactly approve of the police-state school system, but nonetheless she spends paragraphs waxing rhapsodic about how great and capable Madame Beck is and how her powers are honestly wasted in a school system; she should have run a real police state! She would have been amazing at it!

LUCY SNOWE: Wise, firm, faithless; secret, crafty, passionless; watchful and inscrutable; acute and insensate--withal perfectly decorous--what more could be desired? ... I will not deny that it was with a secret glee I watched her. Had I been a gentleman I believe Madame would have found favour in my eyes...

Have I mentioned that Lucy drops a lot of comments that could be construed as incredibly gay? Lucy is very gay.

LUCY SNOWE: Each of the teachers in turn made me overtures of special intimacy; I tried them all...

Yes, Lucy does in fact date every female teacher in the school before discarding them one by one as boring, awful, etc. Sorry you're so picky, Lucy Snowe?!

The person in school that Lucy ACTUALLY spends the most time with is Ginevra Fanshawe, a sixteen-year-old student that Lucy accidentally sort-of befriended on the way to France, and who dropped Lucy the tip that led her to Madame Beck's.

Lucy thinks Ginevra is selfish, vain, mercenary, and incredibly hot. She goes on and on AND ON about how awful (and beautiful) she is. Out loud. All the time. To her face.

Ginevra Fanshawe, meanwhile, is just like 'let me tell you all about my devoted suitors and how boring they are and how I would much rather hang out here and be insulted by you, my very favorite cranky meanypants!'

GINEVRA FANSHAWE: "I am far more at my ease with you, old lady--you, you dear crosspatch--who take me at my lowest and know me to be coquettish, and ignorant, and flirting, and fickle, and silly, and selfish, and all the other sweet things you and I have agreed to be a part of my character."

LUCY SNOWE: I don't know why I chose to give my bread rather to Ginevra than to another; nor why, if two had to share the convenience of one drinking-vessel, as sometimes happened, I always contrived that she should be my convive, and rather liked to let her take the lion's share...

Don't you know, Lucy? DON'T YOU?

Lucy's like 'honestly I think you're a bit pathetic' and Ginevra's like 'you don't think so IN YOUR HEART' and Lucy's like 'in my heart you have not the OUTLINE of a place, I just turn you over in my BRAIN is all' and Ginevra's like 'really? REALLY? LET'S STAND IN FRONT OF A MIRROR AND TALK ABOUT HOW ATTRACTIVE I AM AND SEE IF I DON'T HAVE AN OUTLINE OF A PLACE IN YOUR HEART.' So, I mean. It's not ... a healthy relationship, and yet .....

LUCY SNOWE: Ginevra Fanshawe made no scruple of catching me as I was crossing the carre, whirling me round in a compulsory waltz, and heartily enjoying the mental and physical discomfiture her proceeding induced...

This is sexual harassment and Lucy Snowe doesn't have to take it, is what I'm saying, AND YET SHE DOES.

And then of course there's the school play -- but to introduce the school play we also must introduce the leading male characters, Dr. John and M. Paul.

Dr. John, Lucy wishes us to know, is a dreamboat. Lucy spends many, many paragraphs telling us how Dr. John is just objectively a dreamboat, it's not like she has a personal interest, this is a DISINTERESTED ASSESSMENT of Dr. John's features and character is all.

Dr. John is also a devoted suitor to Ginevra, who as established thinks devoted suitors are dull as ditchwater. Nonetheless, Dr. John spends many, many paragraphs telling Lucy how innocent and sweet and pure Ginevra is, while Lucy attempts not to laugh in his face.

M. Paul, meanwhile, is a tiny, cranky professor who appears to be the one male teacher at the school. His first big scene is when he decides that Lucy needs to have a role in the school play, so he grabs her away from a party and locks her in an attic, with rats, to learn her lines. He does not remember to bring her food or water.

(At this point, I'm like, well, NOW I know who Lucy is actually supposed to end up with, Brontes think a man is not even worth their time until they've locked somebody in an attic!)

SO. The school play, aka the best scene in the entire book. In this play, Lucy is supposed to be playing the foppish secondary love interest, to be rejected by the beautiful heroine (Ginevra, of course.)

The first thing that happens is one of the other teachers flips her shit because Lucy decides not to cross-dress. Lucy's attitude appears to be: why would you cross-dress when you could just MAKE IT GAYER?

OTHER TEACHER: How must it be, then? How accept a man's part, and go on the stage dressed as a woman?
LUCY SNOWE: I could not help turning upon her and saying that if she were not a lady and I a gentleman, I should feel disposed to call her out.

NOBODY TELLS LUCY SNOWE WHAT TO WEAR. (I'm not even going to talk about a hilarious bit later on when she freaks out over being given a pink dress for an event. Pink? PINK??? WHO EXPECTS LUCY SNOWE TO WEAR PINK. "I THOUGHT NO HUMAN FORCE SHOULD AVAIL TO PUT ME INTO IT.")

Anyway, Lucy and Ginevra get on stage together, with lovelorn Dr. John in the audience. Lucy pretty soon notices that despite the fact that Ginevra's supposed to fall in love with the other fellow on stage she is making a great point of demonstrating her attraction to Lucy; Lucy responds by ENTHUSIASTICALLY SEDUCING HER.

LUCY SNOWE: I knew not what possessed me either; but somehow, my longing was to eclipse the [romantic hero], i.e. Dr. John. Ginevra was tender; how could I be otherwise than chivalric?


Tragically, it only happens the once; Lucy, unnerved by the capability for passion revealed in herself during this play, took a firm resolution, never to be drawn into a a similar affair.

Other notably gay moments in Lucy's life: that time that she's at a museum inspecting a mediocre naked Cleopatra painting while a DEEPLY SCANDALIZED M. Paul clutches his pearls --

M. PAUL: How dare you, a young person, sit coolly down, with the self-possession of a garcon, and look at that picture?
LUCY SNOWE: It is a very ugly picture, but I cannot at all see why I should not look at it.

-- that time she goes to the Opera and has an orgasmic reaction to the opera singer playing Vashti --

LUCY SNOWE: The strong magnetism of genius drew my heart out of its wonted orbit, the sunflower turned from the south to a fierce light, not solar -- a rushing, red, cometary light, hot on vision and to sensation.

-- that time she befriends Dr. John's other love interest, Paulina, who will not stop asking her to move in and be her companion!

PAULINA: Do you care for me, Lucy?
LUCY SNOWE: Yes, I do, Paulina.
PAULINA: And I love you.

In fact Paulina has this lovely idea that when she and Dr. John are married, Lucy is just going to move in with them and live with them forever in some sort of permanent arrangement.

However, by this point, Lucy has discovered the infinite joys of trolling Mr. Paul and is fully occupied with that. And I'm not going to lie, M. Paul is a weird pompous hyperbolic little dude -- let's not forget the scene where he cheerfully admits that he rented a room over the school just so he can spend his days spying on all the women in the garden; Lucy, to her credit, reacts with a justifiable WTF??? -- but there clearly is a certain joy to be found in trolling him. The scene where she accidentally-on-purpose breaks his glasses? PRICELESS.

"But," you may be asking, "all this is well and good, but what actually happens in Villette? Like, plot-wise?" Honestly .... not much. But sometimes things happen! For example, there's the time that Lucy, overcome with loneliness after six weeks alone, accidentally almost converts to Catholicism and then faints dramatically in the street! And the time that Madame Beck drugs Lucy to stop her from having a romantic meeting with M. Paul, and Lucy staggers out into the street and has a hallucinogenic episode in an Egyptian-themed carnival!

AND ALSO THERE'S THE GHOST NUN. Have I mentioned the ghost nun? There's a ghost nun. M. Paul and Lucy both see the ghost nun and M. Paul is like "this means we're destined to be together!"

Then Ginevra Fanshawe leaves a fake ghost nun in Lucy's bed, because Ginevra Fanshawe never met a plot element of this book she didn't want to make weirdly gay. I could go on, but I should probably stop. TALK TO ME ABOUT VILLETTE.</i>

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
25 Nov 09:22

15 years! Here’s what our anniversary plans are.

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Wedding photo for Mary and Robert KowalRob and I have been married for fifteen years now and I remain as happily in love as ever. The nature of the way that love expresses itself changes over the years. Our first anniversary was spent at a resort where we met up during the middle of a puppet theater tour I was on.

This year, we’re taking the cat to the vet. Romantic, I know. But the beautiful thing about a marriage is that even the mundane details of life can be acts that reaffirm commitment and love. We’re taking Marlowe to the vet (he’s 17, this is just a check-up) because we knew that it was a day when we were both available. In the evening, after apologies to the cat for indignities suffered, we’re going out for cocktails at Violet Hour.

I had to ask Rob to order his own present this year (martini glasses, because it’s the crystal anniversary) because I couldn’t find glasses that weren’t the size of your head, and we wanted 4 oz. ones. He works for a winery and they have access to amazing stemware catalogs. The fact that he has to do the work to procure them? Not important. He wouldn’t have thought of it on his own, and is pleased that I did.

This is a marriage. It’s teamwork. And I love it.

I love him.

The post 15 years! Here’s what our anniversary plans are. appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

26 Jun 07:37

Ben Young @BenjaminDYoung

by BenjaminDYoung
RT @mocost: Maverick scientist thinks he has discovered magnetic sense in humans via @NewsfromScience…
26 Jun 07:34

.@Mr_M_Johnston Yes - I helped design the Space Shuttle cockpit, Soyuz procedures and Space Station components. It's a big team, together.

by Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield)

.@Mr_M_Johnston Yes - I helped design the Space Shuttle cockpit, Soyuz procedures and Space Station components. It's a big team, together.

26 Jun 07:13

Kyla @Kycola

by Kycola
21 Jun 01:03

Sugiyama, old merchant house in Tondabayashi Jinaimachi

by Muza-chan

Built approximately 450 years ago, during the middle of the Edo period, by one of the founders of the Jinaimachi town, the Sugiyama family residence is the oldest merchant house in the town. Its current look dates from 1747, when the second floor was added together with several more rooms.

Since it represents the typical architecture of a merchant house, it was purchased by the Tondabayashi city and it was designated an important cultural property. If you have time for a side trip from Osaka or Kyoto, the Tondabayashi Jinaimachi town is well worth a visit.

Click on photo for higher resolution:
If you want to license my photos for commercial use, please contact me

EXIF Info:

Nikon Df
Lens: 24-70mm F/2.8G
Focal Length: 24mm
Aperture: F/5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/160s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 250
Japanese tea room
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

Japanese tea room

20 Jun 21:00

If you are looking for an action to take, about Orlando, write a letter.

by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is a small thing. You can write a letter.

It’s also a huge thing. You can write a letter.

See, our government representatives still respond more to letters than the do to emails, Facebook, or Twitter hashtags. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do those, too, but there’s this other thing you can do. You can write a letter.

Over at Month of Letters, I’ve put together a set of resources to make it easy for you to do this. There’s stationery, a template, a list of addresses… heck, I’ve even got a discount on postage for you. Just please… please write a letter.

Your thoughts and prayers aren’t enough. We have work to do. Can you write a letter?

The post If you are looking for an action to take, about Orlando, write a letter. appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

19 Jun 21:31

Things Jesus Didn't Say: "Hate Gays and Be Glad When Someone Kills Them."

Just to be perfectly clear about this, and the easiest way to check up on what I'm saying:  Read the Gospels, in a good translation (avoid the so-called "Conservative Bibles" that are not accurate to the existing oldest texts.)  King James is OK, not the best, but OK.  My desk Bble is The New English Bible, the New Testament part coming out first in 1961, benefitting from additional scholarly study and the discovery of older texts than were available to those working in the 17th century.

Jesus did not say (or, if you're not convinced the Gospels come remotely close to what the historical Jesus said, Jesus has not been claimed to say) that homosexuals were sinful and deserved death.  Jesus did not say to hate homosexuals.  Jesus did not say to attack homosexuals.  Jesus did not mention homosexuals male or female.  The only types of people whose sexual behavior Jesus commented on were 1) men who divorced their wives, and 2) men and women who committed adultery (that is, they were married and they willingly had sex with someone other than their spouse.   And that is why I think so-called Christians (individuals, church leaders, entire congregations) who say that some sexual identities (gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, whatever) are totally evil and deserve death and it's OK to rejoice at a massacre in a nightclub...are wrong, and not acting as  Christians at all.  Because the essence of Christianity is following Christ and that's not where Christ went.

So where did all the anti-gay rhetoric come from?   Not from Jesus Christ, the person on whom Christianity is founded, and the Person Christians are told to emulate....but from the Old Testament strictures on male/male sex (where female/female sex isn't mentioned) and from other people, specifically Paul in the various Letters to this and that group of Christians.  And from an attempt to separate Christians from pagans, some of whom were "openly" gay because only Jews and Christians (some Christians) cared.   Yes, there are passages in the Old Testament declaring that sexual acts between men are wrong and God will smite (them, a city, a nation) for doing it. 

There are also passages in the Old Testament that define clean and unclean foods and required rules for living a holy life than 99.999% of Christians never even think about.  Including some of the most gay-hating.  (Chicken-fried steak with cream gravy...not OK.   Hamburger and milkshake, not OK.   Baby back ribs, pork chops, pork sausage, ham:  not OK.   Crawfish  and crab boils, not OK.  And lots more.) 

In the New Testament, we mostly have Paul, formerly Saul, who converted from a self-righteous Pharisee persecuting the early Church--a well-educated, high-ranking religious lawyer, thoroughly familiar with Jewish law--a group most eager to destroy this (to them perverted and disgusting) new branch of their religion.   He had a religious experience on the road to Damascus, he changed his mind...but he carried with him all the scholarship and deeply engrained beliefs of his former occupation--rooting out heretics.  So OK, now he believed Jesus had been the Messiah, and had been raised from the dead...but he hung onto a lot of things familiar to him (not surprising) and added them in, from his own certainty (which never wavered) that Jesus would have said that if only Jesus had thought of it, or had time.  Including a lot of his own certainty that God was more concerned with sexual behavior than with all those things Jesus actually said.

So if Jesus didn't say anything about homosexuality in the Gospels, what was he spending time talking about and teaching about?   The abuse of worldly power by judges, priests, tax collectors, soldiers, rich people, proud people...and the connections between worldly power and money, the way money corrupts human interactions, warping them and leads to abuses of power.  Greed, cruelty, scoffing and ridicule (verbal bullying), dishonesty and cheating (especially the poor), quarreling and fighting.   The duty of everyone to love not just friends, not just the person next door, but strangers, people outside the family, neighborhood, village, town.  That love isn't just a word, but a series of acts: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, visiting the sick and imprisoned, noticing people in need (any need) and providing it.   Not labeling people as evil (not judging) because human judgments are skewed by human faults that those who have them often don't recognize. 

Parable after parable.  Sermon after sermon.   One on one, one on a group, one to a vast audience: the same basic messages: don't be greedy, don't be cruel, don't value money, clothes, jewels over the life that comes with living in the spirit of love, don't huddle up in safety and let others suffer, don't spend all your time criticizing others when you're imperfect yourself.  Make your life of value by  investing in generosity, kindness, gentleness, love, using the talents you've been given to make things better for others as well as yourself.  Feed, clothe, house, heal, visit, encourage,  That's what love is.  And love casts out fear.

It's not easy.  He knew it wasn't easy; he flat said it wasn't easy and his followers could expect persecution because they would be going against the flow.   It's easy to be scared--it was easy then and it's easy now and it's always been easy to be scared.  And scared people curl in on themselves, huddle up, form tight little groups to keep others out, to keep the resources for themselves.   They make up reasonable sounding reasons not to share, not to help others ("It teaches them to be dependent.  It's bad for their character.  They don't deserve it.")   Fear convinces them there are more enemies, more dangers, than they can handle, so they must be hard, cruel, selfish, and show anger and hatred to anyone who's not in their group.

They "love" only their own, but their love isn't the free-flowing love Jesus was talking about.   Love cannot take away fear unless it is allowed to grow, and push fear out because there's no room for it--and to grow,  it must be acted out as Jesus said to act it out. Now some hate-preaching churches do have outreach--but it does not extend past their familiar comfort zone.  They will feed the deserving hungry.   They will house the deserving homeless.   They may at the same time be turning away those they feel aren't deserving (I've run across churches unwilling to help alcoholics or drug addicts or people not of their denomination or gays, just to start with.)

So...when a church says gays are evil and against God and deserve death....they are teaching hatred, not love, and that's not Christian.  Same if they say that about any group.  They're wrong.   And yes, that's a judgment.  And I am, God and I both know, fallible and biased.  But for those who care about Scripture, I have Scripture on my side, and a whole lot of better scholars than I am in my denomination.   I am not trying to make new doctrine: I am sticking to what Jesus taught.  "I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you."
19 Jun 21:20

Coincidentally I've been reading a bunch of stuff lately that is somehow related to the Opium Wars. I was not expecting Courtney Milan's latest series to join the collection, but I am excited by the discovery!

Taken by itself, Once Upon A Marquess is cute but not the strongest of Milan's romances. Our Heroine Judith is the daughter of a disgraced former member of the nobility who was convicted of treason in China, along with her beloved brother, and has spent the last nine years desperately trying to support her younger siblings and achieve for them the opportunities they've lost; also she makes clockwork. Our Hero Christian is her former suitor, who also happens to have been her brother's best friend, who also happens to be the person whose testimony got her father and brother convicted of treason; also he has a history of opium addiction and what seems to be some form of OCD; also he's incapable of not making jokes.

(I spent the entire book hearing the voice of Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins doing all Christian's dialog. I don't know if there's any evidence that Courtney Milan has played Dragon Age but if she does I refuse to believe there wasn't an influence.)

Christian and Judith, as mentioned above, are reasonably cute, and I tend to find romances with significant emotional backstory more plausible than lust at first sight. But honestly the weight of the book is not really on their dynamic so much as it is on Judith's relationships with her siblings (as we all know sibling stuff is my favorite stuff!) and on setting up SIGNIFICANTLY MORE ONGOING PLOT, and specifically geopolitical/worldbuilding/history plot, than I think Milan has ever really done in her romance series before.

This is probably in large part due to Amitav Ghosh, but the timing is really perfect, because right now I am SO INTO a 'let's go AU and fix the Opium Wars!' plot. YES OK LET'S. LET'S DO IT. I'M HERE FOR IT.

(I was also really into the whole 'Anthony is too moral to have betrayed his country!' 'um the thing is I think he is too moral NOT to betray his country if his country is morally ... the worst .....' thing. Bless Courtney Milan's anti-colonialist agenda.)

I am also very excited for a.) lots and lots of ongoing complex sibling stuff, MY KRYPTONITE, b.) what covers (and dropped hints) suggest will be at least one book with a Chinese protagonist, and c.) what covers suggest will be at least one book with a black protagonist. Basically I am ready to give Courtney Milan money for this series.)

Also I read Her Every Wish, the companion novella about Judith's friend Daisy, a flower-shop girl who's entered a competition for seed funds to open her own business, and Daisy's ex Crash, a mixed-race bisexual bicyclist and numbers man. I liked everything about the outlines of this plot, which is about how layers of toxic assumptions can work at cross-directions to hurt people who care about each other, and thought it needed about four times the page space to actually do the emotional arc justice -- like, there were enough real issues in Daisy and Crash's initial split that fixing all of their internalized prejudices and insecurities with one or two mildly anvilicious clue-bat conversations didn't quite feel believable or satisfying to me.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
04 Jun 04:19

Everything That's Wrong With Your Story -- Sight Unseen

by (Michael Swanwick)

Last weekend, at Balticon, I got into a discussion with Connie Willis about teaching new writers. She told of the time she addressed a group of such and said, "I'm going to tell you everything that's wrong with your stories."

They all eagerly began pulling out typescripts. But Connie stopped them, saying, "No, I don't need to see them. Because you all make the same mistakes." And proceeded to run down the list of Universal Newbie Mistakes.

Then Connie laughed and said, "Boy, I never did that again."

We didn't discuss what those mistakes were, because anybody with experience teaching already knows. But it occurred to me that it might benefit some gonnabe writers if I spelled out the mistakes you're making that are so obvious that I don't even have to look at your story to know you're making them.

1. Starting before the beginning of the story.

The first thing I do with a student story is to cross out all the scene-setting that new writers think is necessary before the story can begin. Somewhere on page 3 or page 8 or page 32, I'll finally write: BEGIN HERE.

2. Overwriting.

Even after that opening has been pruned, up to half the words in your story are unnecessary. Once you start describing something you keep on describing it and describing it and describing it until there are so many words in the way it's impossible to see.

Poul Anderson observed that three evocations of the senses are sufficient to make any scene vivid. A man walking along the beach hears the crash of waves and cries of gulls. He smells the salt air. He feels the seaweed popping underfoot. You've nailed it. No need to go on describing the beach. Move on to what's happening.

Similarly, you only need two well-chosen details to bring a locale to life. In John Cheever's notebooks, he described a Sunday morning when he was hung-over and in a friend's living room, while the friend chain-smoked and talked about his impending divorce and the attendant heartbreak. Cheever wondered how to capture the scene on paper. His glance kept going from the ashtray, overflowing with cigarette butts to the agonizingly blue sky outside the picture window. Blue sky, ashtray. Ashtray, blue sky. Nothing more is needed.

3. Not trusting the reader.

Technically, number 2 belongs under this heading, but I thought that it needed spelling out. The new writer is prone to lecturing, hectoring, underlining, repetition, condescending, and above all repetition simply because he or she does not trust the reader to "get it."

Your readers are on your side. They want your story to be good. And they're surprisingly perceptive -- chiefly because they've read a lot of fiction before yours. You can trust them.

Those rare exceptions who are complete idiots? Forget 'em. You can't win them over anyway.

4. Being afraid of emotion.

Yes, emotions -- particularly negative emotions -- can be scary. Embarrassing too. But they're a good part of the reason we read fiction. If the logic of your story insists that your protagonist would throw herself in front of a train, then it's a violence to the story not to let her do so. Tolstoy understood this. So should you.

5. Having too few characters.

Your characters live in human society. The reader cannot see that society without a representative sampling of its citizenry. And your protagonist needs to express a variety of emotions in order to feel well-rounded.

Also -- and I speak from experience here -- while it's possible to write a story with three characters, which is usually considered the minimum, or even fewer, which usually involves the environment serving as an uncredited character -- pulling it off is hard work. Not many new writers have the craft to do that.

6. Letting the ending trail off.

When the story's over, it's over. Get off the stage. You don't need to let everybody know what came next or how the characters felt about it. You don't have to end with the story's climax. But what comes after shouldn't sap away all the energy of the climax.

7. Not having a good ending.

Back when I was on the Nebula Jury, which is a long story and one I won't go into here, I read pretty close to all the genre short fiction published over several years. From this, I learned two things: First, that no story that starts out badly ever turns into a good story later. Second, that nine times out of ten, when a story that starts out well turns out badly, it happens in the final pages.

This set of failings applies to pretty much all writers, whatever they're trying to accomplish. But there's one that's specific to writers of fantasy and science friction and that's this: 8. Your ideas are too small and derivative.

But that's a big topic and one I'll tackle some other day.


And as always...

I'm on the road again. Tomorrow I'll be at the Mercer County Library in Lawrenceville, New Jersey for the very first Laffcon. This celebration of the life and work of R. A. Lafferty is a one-day free event, and will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The doors open at 9:30.

Lafferty was the single most original science fiction writer ever -- and I don't make that claim lightly. It promises to be a fun day. If you're in the area, you should consider attending.

31 May 11:21

Entering Politics

by skzb

mom and dad

I remember when my mother died, we read the obituaries in the local newspapers. One of these obituaries (so far, I haven’t managed to unearth it) mentioned something about her run for Congress as a member of the Workers League (precursor to the Socialist Equality Party) and in the course of it, there was this reference to my father’s run for governor, and something about how Mom had “entered politics” several years before Dad did.

I was croggled. Of course, on reflection it made perfect sense, and clearly no disrespect was intended. But . . . “entered politics.” I mean, my parents had devoted their lives to building a revolutionary party, but, to the reporter, only when they ran for office had they “entered politics.” A revolutionary socialist believes that the ruling class will never surrender power and privileges through an election, hence, the value of running for office is purely to make the party more visible and to generate discussion. It is a tactic, suitable at a certain moments, always subordinated to the understanding that only the working class can liberate itself.

That “entered politics” was, in some measure, a revelation. It felt like, “Wow, I’m seeing a message from another world.” Such a concept had so little to do with anything in my experience. It was like reading a good book about an ancient culture and, at some point, having the epiphany, “They really were different from us.”

I think of this, of my own amazement at seeing the phrase “entered politics,” every time someone says something like, “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about what the country does,” or some similar nonsense. To believe that voting or working for the election of this or that bourgeois candidate can help the oppressed—much less is the only way to help the oppressed—is to take a definite political position. It happens to be a position I disagree with.

31 May 11:05

Some Disjointed Thoughts About The Clinton-Sanders Acrimony

by skzb

1. That the Democratic Party is in such a crisis (not since ’68 have I seen anything like conflict so bitter) at the same time as the Republican Party is ripping itself apart, is not an accident. It is a product of wide-spread perception, and accurate perception in my opinion, that there are problems that the capitalist parties simply cannot solve.

2. There is no question that the Sanders campaign has pulled in large numbers of people who had not previously been involved in party politics. They perceive that the forces (ie, Wall Street) that have caused most of the problems in their lives are the same forces, personified by Clinton, that are preventing them from having a voice.

3. The “liberal elite” (the upper middle class and white collar urban liberal) that has been the foundation of the Democratic Party for the last two generations, with its focus on identity politics and its open disdain for the worker, is directly clashing with the those forces that are still trapped in the idea of party politics but are angry that the Democratic Party has nothing to say to the millions of poor and working class people whose lives have been shattered by capitalism.

4. I doubt there is a single billionaire, a single Wall Street banker, a single oil executive, a single Washington power broker or politician, a single media mogule, a single Halliburtan executive, a single general, who is pleased about how furious people are at the two parties.  None of them are happy about the general hatred of both Trump and Clinton, at seeing the Democrats squabbling like unruly fourth graders while the Republicans stare at Trump like a smallpox patient looks into a mirror trying to convince himself it doesn’t look so bad after all. And if they don’t like it, and they can’t fix it, that indicates the problem is the capitalist system itself, not who happens to be running it at any given moment.

5. The mutual frustration and hostility between Clinton and Sanders supporters can be reduced to one group that wants business as usual under conditions where business as usual is a dead-end, and another group that wants to change the Democratic Party into something that it is fundamentally incapable of being.

6. Bottom line: Both political parties are in crisis because the ruling elite are in crisis about what to do about the tremendous anger and resentment directed at the out-of-control juggernaut called American capitalism.

31 May 10:58

A Dwarf, A Gnome, a Humod, a Thief…

by Elizabeth

and a paladin…walk into a bar.   Wait, I hear you say.   This is supposed to be an all-SF blog site.  No fluffy unicorns (I never wrote a fluffy unicorn) and no fantasy stuff.   Yeah, but, this is Universes, where different things meet that can’t usually, and tonight (it’s pouring rain and I can’t sleep, largely because of the irrational belief that just as I lie down and close my eyes, the lightning will start)–tonight I’m in the mood to see what happens.


“Just once, I’d like more than a walk-on part.”  The humod, most recently a customs inspector on Lastway’s big commercial station, sips from his frosted glass and grimaces.  “Too much ginger extract again.”

“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” the dwarf says.    “She gave you humods all sorts of interesting modifications, but we’re just the standard legendary dwarf model.   Yes, she gave me some lines in the book, and a proper name, but now she can’t remember it and I’ve faded–she probably doesn’t even remember what color my beard is.”

IT’S BLACK.   They all stare at the middle of the table, carefully not looking up, except for the paladin, who grins at nothing high overhead.

“Welcome,” says the paladin.  “You can stay awhile, can’t you?”

Emptiness fills the space from which the voice spoke.   The paladin shrugs.  “Well,  she’s very busy.  Perhaps she’s–”

“Writing about somebody else,” the dwarf says.  “THOSE people.”  He looks across to a long table where the entire cast of the new book is celebrating its completion, still in their makeup and costumes.  Loud talk, loud singing, loud, loud, loud.

“Never mind,” the paladin says.  “They’ll be gone soon.”

“Thank you,” the humod says in a stifled voice.  “If that’s how you feel–”  He pushes back his chair and stands up.   Behind him now is a tall, broad man with a face full of trouble.  A large, meaty hand lands on the humod’s left shoulder.

“Sit down.”

“Who–”  the humod stops there.  Blinks.  Retracts two of his appendages.   He sits down.

The newcomer  pulls up a chair and sits beside him.  “We Siffies have to stick together, don’t we?  The name’s Gary.”

“We…uh, yes, of course.”

Gary looks across the table at the paladin, giving her a menacing stare.  She returns a sunny smile.   “Hey, sweetheart,” he says.  “I’m a dangerous man.”

Her grin widens.  “You’re really trying to frighten me?   Just because I’m wearing a fantasy costume?”

Gary blinks.   She’s hard to stare at, actually; his eyes are beginning to burn as if she were too bright.

“Don’t worry,” she says.  “I won’t hurt you unless you try to hurt us.”

“Us?” he says, looking down.   “And you couldn’t hurt me; all you have is a stupid sword.”

Her laugh turns heads at every table.  Not scornful, but full of joy.   Almost but not quite too late, Gary recognizes what she is.   That one.   The one who almost never shows up here, the one who is untouchable by anyone on this side of the Divide, but who can reach across it.  He can feel the hairs standing up on his arms, his neck.

The tip of the sword moves into his field of vision.  Flat on the table.  It looks like a sword.  Like a very sharp sword.  He cannot help looking along it, to where her hand, in a gray glove stained by sweat and wear, has hold of he hilt.

“It’s not a stupid sword,” she says.  “It’s a Model XII SmartSword that she got for me specially.  It says you’re not as bad as you try to look.”


And sure enough, thunder just rumbled.   Radar reveals the storms are propagating into a new band, and it’s time to turn off the machine and lie down and watching the lightning flash through the curtains.



31 May 10:55

The Naming of People, Places, Things

by Elizabeth

Without looking up the source (bad scholar, but it’s that kind of day)  I think it was Owen Barfield in an essay about language, corporations, and legal fictions who suggested that language itself is rooted  in the ability to abstract and name a concept, and that is itself a form of fiction (or lie, if you prefer.)   The word is a symbol for, not the reality of, the thing.  That seems obvious, but it’s the kind of obvious that’s a tangled web of fractal philosophy when you dig into it.  And naming things–especially things that are *already* fictions, not existing in the real world except the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader who interprets  what the writer wrote–is especially fraught with opportunities for unintended complications.

But also with opportunities for intentional (and mostly secret) wit.   Those of you who like both fantasy and science fiction, and also read more conventional fiction, will have noticed that the SFF type of writing involves a lot more invention of names than other genres.  Historical novels already have names of people and places (real people, real places, real weapons, real food, etc.) handed to them.   Contemporary novels usually involve familiar places on this planet and names that suggest contemporary cultures, classes, occupations.   The transportation, housing, technology are all a given.

SFF, though…we can stay within familiar bounds, but why?   Why would the name for an unidentified corpse on a distant planet a thousand years in the future be called a John or Jane Doe?   Aren’t we past naming new places for old places with “New” tacked on?  At least sometimes?  Sure, there will be some New Iberias and  New Kenyas  and New Indonesias (in whatever language is chosen then) but  why not more interesting names, names that carry a feel just by the sound?   Why not characters with all sorts of exotic names from every corner of a large metropolitan telephone directory, or from the lists of authors of scientific papers, or from the news?   Mix & match.  Turn them inside out.   (And if you’re unwise, pepper them with apostrophes, suggesting that the spelling is NOT a hint to the pronunciation…)  Name them for pets or famous racehorses or a failed invention from fifty years ago.

But one important thing:  make sure the average reader can see the word and imagine how to say it easily.   In my experience, from asking people who don’t read SFF what about it puts them off…it’s the names.  (Some of them also won’t read contemporary fiction if the names look hard to say.)   They can’t remember the characters if they can’t say the names–hear them in their heads.   Important (but less so than having pronounceable names) is not having very similar names for different characters.  If they must start with the same letter, have them different lengths, with different vowels in them.   If they must be the same for some story-reason, give one of them a nickname: Tall Bill, Red Tom, Sally and Sal, Kentucky Joe (known often as “Tucky” or “Kentuck.”)  I should’ve learned this in fourth grade, when our teacher, faced with five little girls named Susan, insisted we had to have different names in her class…but I didn’t.   Now I have.

A more subtle consideration:  every invented name in a story should help create the ambiance of that story.   A fantasy tale, where the entire fabric is made up, is particularly likely to suffer from a mismatch of name to story-verse.   (Tolkein’s choosing to name a pony “Bill” was dangerously near the edge, but redeemed by having some low-life humans with more mundane names.)   Terry Pratchett was a master at naming (and many other things, but this is about naming.)  The Discworld geography, races, tribes, cities, towns…all of it, wonderfully named to create its particular feel.

So, dragging this into the present, what kind of little secrets might lurk in the Vatta universe, with regard to the names handed out so far?   Well…I sometimes name characters for horses I’ve had (or those horses’ barn names.)  Ky, for instance, the first horse I ever owned.  Mac, for instance, a horse I own now.   Kuincey (who became Quincy, the elderly engineer in the first Vatta book.)   (Some horses’ names are unhandy for characters and are unlikely to show up, except possibly as ship names or something like that:  Illusion, Cricket, Jezz.)   Names of characters need to fit the character if not in obvious opposition, a name the character fights against) and fit not only in the expectations it raises about personality, but in culture.   In a multi-cultural story, each culture needs a grab-bag of names that will then help create that culture’s sound identity in the story.

For instance, in this story, there’s a person named Bernard Greyhaus, a military officer–not a POV character, existing mostly via the journal he kept.  That name already suggests a certain kind of military officer.  The spelling of his last name suggests a mix of linguistic input; his first name suggests another possible input, and–in an SF story set far in the future–suggests a predominantly north European Terran ancestry.   Vatta is not a north European name…Ky’s ancestry includes inputs from, predominantly, the long trade routes from Greece/Turkey to India.  Ky has a flag captain, last name Pordre, and an aide, last name Bentik, neither from Slotter Key.   Early in the book she meets the pilot and co-pilot of the shuttle she’s on:  Hansen and Sunyavarta.  Already the last names are cueing the reader that there’s a complexity to the culture.

Two people in the book are using aliases.  Why would someone pick a name like Hilarion Bancroft for an alias?   Or Edvard Simeon Teague?   Why not commoner names (whatever those might be) that wouldn’t call attention to themselves.    Well, because an unusual name doesn’t look as though you’re trying to hide from attention.   (And also because one of those is rhyming slang for a composer if you ignore the middle name, which I threw in to make it less likely.  I could not resist.)

What about land masses?    Slotter Key was settled by humans less than a thousand years ago, under a corporate license agreement: the stakeholders, all from one culture, named the larger land masses they were entitled to for some version (or shortened version) of their name, plus “land.”  Hence Arland, Forland, Voruksland, etc.  Other place names were contributed by later immigrants, and some are descriptive while others are banal at best.  Luckily, the story doesn’t drag you around too much.   Slotter Key has smallish continents and lots and lots of islands of various types.    (Oh–you’re wondering about Slotter Key’s own name?  That’s…interesting, actually.  Key because of all the reefs and islands.  Slotter’s argued about.   It might originally have been Slaughter, and that might originally have involved a massacre OR simply the last name Slaughter.  I knew people named Slaughter way back when.  Lots of names on this planet are obscure in origin unless you know someone who was there at the start.  Weslaco, Texas, for instance.  W.E. Stewart Land Company…yup, that’s where its name came from.  Sounded good, was unique, so…there it is.)

The Vatta family, as mentioned, are an amalgam of Turkish, Syrian, Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, and Indian background, plus additions of others here and there.   In some centuries and places, they tried assimilating at least a little.  But their history is largely one of family closeness in trade, buying and selling, with more or less brief periods of owning land and cultivating it, often for exotic crops they can sell at a higher profit than basic foodstuffs.   E.g., the tik plantations on Corleigh, where Ky grew up.

And now it’s time to take a break and try to get the exercise requirement done before the next round of storms hits.






31 May 10:52

Culture-building: Virtues & Vices

by Elizabeth

See, there’s a bonus to the previous post–today you get two new posts.   Today’s topic is culture-building–some thoughts on creating cultures-not-like-ours-exactly (or at all) and specifically some thoughts on how cultures differentiate along the fault lines of, well, faults.  What’s right.  What’s wrong.  What the people in that culture think about the “why” behind what’s right and what’s wrong.

We can start with something obvious and simple: food.  Humans are omnivores who have no physical barrier to eating a wide variety of foods that are not directly toxic:  the range of foods eaten by all the human cultures now existing is greater than the range eaten by any one culture.   If you look back in history, where we have data, even more things were consumed in the past.  Cultures may not only exclude some foods entirely, they may limit some foods to certain groups within the culture, whether by age, gender, or social rank.

I’m in a culture that–though expanding some of its earlier limits–still considers eating insects and their larvae, and some animals (dogs, cats, horses), and some plants (algae), as well as fellow humans, to be disgusting.   On the other hand, as heir both biologically and culturally to North European diets, I’m fine with meat of most other kinds, seafood, dairy, and gluten-containing grains, as well as most (but not all) of those vegetables.   Other cultures may be disgusted by the consumption of pork, or lobsters, or all mammal-meat, or  dairy, or all animal food.

So food is one place to start when considering culture-building.   Culture A, for instance, may have an absolute prohibition against eating tree nuts.  Why?   I can think of multiple reasons (including tree worship, protection of animals that rely on tree nuts,  the periodic infestation of tree nuts with a disease that makes those who eat the nuts very sick,  the limitation of tree nut access to royalty: the king eats a sacred number of tree nuts once a year, to preserve the land, and nobody else can, the animals that eat tree nuts are considered contemptible and that makes the nuts contaminated by association, etc.)

Culture B, on the other hand, grows tree nuts to eat and to trade.  B has orchards of nut trees, and a good chunk of B’s economy comes from the tree nuts.   B families give  tree nuts (sometimes raw in the shell, sometimes toasted with honey and salt) to friends and those they want to befriend.  Tree nuts are a garnish on some dishes, and sometimes ground into a flour used in special holiday pastries.  Most members of B eat some tree nuts, in some form, most of the year.  A person who doesn’t like tree nuts is considered to have poor taste…how could anyone NOT like tree nuts?  How can you cook without tree nuts?   Tree nuts are part of the ration for soldiers and sailors; tree nuts are part of the common speech:  “Sound as a nut,”  “a liar is like a weevil in a nut, spoiling the whole,” “she’s trustworthy–every nut in the basket sound,”  “poor old X, he’s short a handful of nuts in his bowl.”

Cultures A and B, when they come into contact (perhaps in a third location) are appalled at each other’s disgusting food habits.  And on that basis alone may distrust each other.   A members are shocked at the B’s nut consumption  (“How can you trust a man–a grown man–who eats tree nuts??  Have these people no shame?  No doubt they will cheat you, try to steal your daughters, rape your wives…they’re hardly human, picking up tree nuts from the ground and…eating them.  Eeeuw!”)  And A’s women are just as appalled….”They’ll try to feed nuts to our children, contaminating them with forbidden food.   Can you imagine a mother who loves her children actually feeding her child a tree nut?  I’ll bet they grind them up and put them in all their food…it’s not safe to eat anything they offer you, because it’s probably contaminated and even addictive.  I’m not letting MY children anywhere near THEIR children!”)   B members are equally shocked and disapproving.  “There’s nothing wrong with our trees, OR our nuts!  Perfectly good food, nutritious…what kind of idiots won’t eat nuts?  Or bread because there’s some chopped nuts in the dough?  I gave that man a gift of roasted honey-nuts and he threw it on the ground!  How’s that for rudeness?”

Humans are capable of attaching meaning to any random sensory input: colors (even shade of color) acquire a meaning over than a certain wavelength of light.  Wearing a color, painting a house or a business-location a color,  all signal something in most cultures but not the same in all.  Clothes and personal grooming–down to the smallest detail–can signal political or religious adherence, or social rank, or gender identity, or moral standing, or a combination of any of these, and the same detail can mean opposite things to different people.   (Do ragged jeans mean poverty or rebellion against authority? )   Music is a common divide between cultures…instruments v. no instruments (voice alone),  which instruments alone or combined, which style of music, etc.   Tones of voice–how often women, in our culture, are censured for having voices pitched higher, or for speaking loudly (compared to how the complainer wants them to speak.)

Since groups of humans forming a culture or subculture can choose from a wide variety of sensory inputs to create cultural meanings, so the writer can invent believable cultures by using the same sorts of inputs to bring an invented culture alive.  Consider different diets,  different choices of personal grooming (long hair, short hair, facial hair as decoration, ideas about gender identity in relation to hair choices and the meaning of hair that is not a choice, such as visible/noticeable hair on other parts of the body.  Teeth “natural” or filed, or dyed, to produce a particular look.  Tattoos applied to the skin, or scarification, as markers for a given culture), different choices of material, color, style for clothing, different choices of material, color, style for both exterior and interior of buildings: hard v. soft textures, saturated v. dilute colors, etc.

Beyond that, consider the abstractions cultures use to define themselves and the Others, and how those interact with the sensory inputs to which they’ve assigned meaning.   They all consider some things intrinsically Good and others intrinsically Bad.  What are those things?   And why does that culture think they are Good or Bad?   Always?  Only in some contexts?   (In some cultures, it’s Bad to lie to a family member about the health of a cow you’re selling, but perfectly all right to lie to a stranger–in fact it’s Good, if it brings more profit to the family.   In ours it’s Bad for a citizen to lie to a police officer, but it’s legal for the police officer to lie to the citizen–in fact, it’s Good if the lie leads to information that closes a case.)    Most cultures have loopholes in at least some of their rules of Good and Bad, because humans are complicated and look for, and find, ways to make the rules work in their favor at least part of the time.   Some years back, for instance, research showed that about 30% of the women seeking an abortion were opposed to abortion (some actively compaigning against it, in fact)…except they were convinced their case was different.  The *other* women were sluts who just wanted to have sex without responsibility, but they had *legitimate* reasons for their own abortions.   The same is true of men who are all for sexual purity except that they have “needs” or “weak wills”  or “made a mistake.”

No rule survives contact with human nature in significant numbers.  The decision on which rules to enforce–and on whom–is always a source of cultural differences…and makes for good stories, too.  Cultures, like the individuals within them, have specific strengths and weaknesses–they were born out of a specific historical context, of parental cultures from which they derived ideas and beliefs and practices that in the story-present make them more or less viable in a universe filled with other cultures.   (I think both Bujold, with her Barrayar stories, and Lee & Miller with their Liaden stories, do an excellent job of showing how cultures and individuals influence each other, and cope with culture contact and culture conflict.   These authors’ ability to recognize and show the depth and complexity of cultures adds a lot to my enjoyment of their work.)

So–a few of the many approaches to creating new cultures for your fiction.  I like to start with the sensory, because it’s concrete, and work from that to the abstract, but you could do it the other way.






31 May 10:36

When Police Misbehave

An Austin Police Department officer, who lives in a nearby town, got into an argument with an older female neighbor--he was off duty, out of uniform, not in his jurisdiction, you will note.  He came into her yard to confront her.   She told him to get out of her yard.  He didn't.  From the images of both shown on  TV last night, he is markedly bigger than she is--heavier and taller.   She said if he didn't get out of her yard she would spray him with a garden hose.   He continued to stay in her yard and argue with her.  She sprayed him with the garden hose.  He then physically attacked her, picking her up and throwing her onto the ground (I think it was the driveway, but am not certain) causing injuries for which she needed medical treatment.

An internal investigation by the Austin PD did not find he had done anything wrong, but the chief fired him.  Now the police officers' association is mad at the chief, claiming that the officer did nothing wrong, didn't break any laws, and shouldn't have been fired.  They claim he acted "in self defense."  (Against being sprayed with a garden hose...while trespassing.  Yeah, that really calls for a physical slam-down.  NOT.)

It's bad enough that a police officer who is not in his jurisdiction, not on duty, and is not in the process of apprehending a criminal--just having an argument with a neighbor who is older, smaller, and on her own property--would trespass, refuse to get off her property, and then pick up and throw down this citizen because she got him wet.

It is worse that his fellow officers--and supposedly his entire chain of command except the police chief--see nothing wrong in what he did and accept the trespass, the refusal to leave, and the injury to the property owner as justified by "self-defense."

Because if it had been two other neighbors--big younger man, small older woman--and the man had invaded the woman's yard to yell at her more effectively, and refused to leave when asked, and she had sprayed him with a hose (getting his clothes wet, I suppose--it was a garden hose, not a fire hose)  and he'd slammed her to the ground, injuring her, and she'd called the police...I will bet you that man would have been found to have committed the criminal offense of assault and battery, as well as trespass, as well as disturbing the peace (especially if he had been black and she had been white.   She had a reasonable fear of injury when a larger man came onto her property and yelled at her.  I believe police officers would see that if the perp had not been a police officer.   I believe that the police officer in this case simply lost his temper (something police officers do, with the excuse that theirs is a hard life) and threw her down because he could and expected to get away with it, because BADGE.

Routinely, internal investigations find no fault in situations like this where the reasonable and educated citizen knows that the same act committed by anyone else is a crime.  Routinely, law enforcement "stands behind" acts that are morally wrong, legally culpable, and indefensible except by those who, in their arrogance, claim the right to do anything they want any time they want no matter what.

And thereby are losing, steadily and inexorably, the respect of the populace.  The bad apples--the ones who do these things and the ones in the force who support what they've done--destroy the reputation of the whole.  Which is sad because there are still a lot of good, honest, law officers who are not like this fellow.  Not like the man in Ohio who shot a 12 year old without giving him time to obey and then lied about what happened.  Not like their chief and commissioner who suggested that the family should spend the settlement money on a program to teach black kids about the danger of having toy guns that look too real.  Not like the Texas state troopers who performed a roadside cavity search on young girls...right out there in full view of everyone...because I guess they wanted to cop a feel.   Not like the cops in New Mexico who--when a cavity search for drugs by a doctor came up with nothing ordered the hospital to give the man enema after enema just because they could...and then tried to lie about it.   Or the ones in New Orleans and elsewhere who kept a "ham sandwich" in the car so they could plant a gun in someone's car or apartment...or the DAs who hide exculpatory evidence from the jury in order to get a conviction of an innocent citizen.

One of the reasons policing is harder now is that law enforcement has repeatedly not only done bad things, but failed to admit that they were bad.  Coverups...excuses when the coverup is penetrated...the belief that sticking together, in a gang-like attitude, is more important than the oath they swore to serve and protect the population...all that has eroded citizens' trust in law enforcement, its willingness to work with them.   Precisely because law officers are allowed more leeway when on duty than ordinary citizens--to enter property, to order people around--abuse of those powers makes things worse for them in the long run.

Good police officers have got to quit protecting the bad ones.   They've got to start policing internally--seriously--telling jerks like the guy who threw an older woman down in "self-defense"  (a patently stupid claim)  that such behavior is wrong.  Trespassing on a neighbor's property is wrong, and if you're asked or told to leave--you leave.   Feeling girls up alongside the highway is wrong.   Raping girls at a traffic stop (as one county constable did here years ago) is wrong.  Planting evidence is wrong.   Hiding evidence is wrong.  Good officers need to be tough toward their own, and police chiefs are absolutely right to discipline or fire officers whose behavior brings the department into disrepute.  Departments need to be honest with each other when hiring from another department.  Police academies should flunk out, not keep in, cadets who--like the guy who shot Tamir Rice--are considered emotionally unstable and thus unsafe with firearms.

Additionally, officers need to have access to mental health care that will help them deal with the very real stresses of police work, and give them tools to manage their own problems--police officers have a higher rate of domestic violence than the average population, and often show signs of anger management  and control issues.  (A difficult shift before the current one is NOT a good reason to lose your temper, scream at a citizen, and beat on them.)   Mental health visits should be standard, required, for all personnel at regular intervals and after any incident where violence is used, be it on assignment or otherwise.
31 May 05:56

Charming Japanese shopping arcade

by Muza-chan

Whenever I have the chance, I select a hotel as close as possible to a shōtengai, the Japanese specific shopping arcade. Regardless the city or the prefecture, an evening stroll through such a commercial street is a pleasure by itself, even when I’m not in the mood for shopping…

Click on photo for higher resolution:
If you want to license my photos for commercial use, please contact me

EXIF Info:

Nikon D90
Lens: VR 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6G
Focal Length: 18mm
Aperture: F/5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/40s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 400
Osaka Castle
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

Osaka Castle

31 May 05:55

The white heron legend of Dogo Onsen

by Muza-chan

Legend says that more than 3000 years ago, the locals of Matsuyama noticed that a white heron with an injured leg healed by bathing daily in a hot spring. Then, they tried the hot spring for themselves, and thus was established the Dogo Onsen, the oldest hot spring in Japan.

Click on photo for higher resolution:
If you want to license my photos for commercial use, please contact me

EXIF Info:

Nikon Df
Lens: 24-70mm F/2.8G
Focal Length: 24mm
Aperture: F/3.2
Shutter Speed: 1/60s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 6400
Machiya townhouse design
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

Machiya townhouse design

21 May 09:34

Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Gunby Ursula K. Le Guin


Adina: I read your work over and over in sheer fascination at the lyricism you manage to put into everything, the descriptions, seemingly simple lines, characterizations. When I look at my own writing, no matter how hard I try, it feels flat. Simple question that feels a little silly, but how do you build that skill? I feel I don’t have enough words to manage the poetry in prose that I want to reach for. How do you suggest I build that?

UKL: The way we build up any skill is by doing something, thinking about it, doing it over, doing it, and again, singlemindedly, till it gets so deep in our whole mind and body that we can do it without rules, without recipes, without conscious thought. Playing the piano or playing soccer, dancing the tango or making soup, skill is the product of experience.

In the case of literary writing, the experience isn’t only that of writing. Reading is fully as important. Real writers read. They read a lot, and they read the best stuff they can find. You learn an art by doing it – and in the case of literature, doing it means reading it as well as writing it.

If you feel that you “don’t have enough words” to do what you want, the best way to get more words is by reading them – reading whatever you love to read – and writing them. Live with words, play with them, work with them, till they begin to do what you want them to do. You probably don’t really need any more words than you have. You just need to learn how to let them speak in your true voice.

It will take a while. And there is ALWAYS more to learn.

Nicole: I have a question about world-building in fantasy/sci-fi (that is, using cultures and worlds of your own invention):

How do you determine which aspects of a world/culture are best described overtly and which should be implied?

It seems to me, broadly speaking, that finding a good balance between those two approaches is what helps immerse readers in the world of a story, but I find I often struggle with world-building.

I have been writing seriously for about five years, and I have had about ten short stories published, mostly in nonpaying markets. I am a beginner looking for ways to improve my writing.

Bayla: I’ve been writing fantasy for a number of years, and I consistently feel that my world-building falls short. I tend to world-build in pieces — culture, money, religion, maps — and yet there always seems to be some piece that feels like it might not fit. Any tips on creating rich, believable worlds? How do you go about doing it? How much do you rely on the way cultures in our world actually work? Do you spend a lot of time building the world before trying to write the story set within it? I never seem to stop worrying that my world will feel “wrong” in some of the details, even if it’s in a wholly created universe.

UKL: I put your questions together, Nicole and Bayla, because they’re pretty similar. Unfortunately, like Adina’s question, they are very general. Generalities about writing are – generally – either platitudes or hokum.

So I’ll try to answer your questions by inventing a planet called Teg and a place in it called Horb to use as examples of world-building.

How to find the balance between how much to describe and how much to imply?

Well, consider how much you can imply in a description.

“Horb is on the coast of the southernmost of the nine continents of Teg” — This general description implies very little.

“The traders take their windships out of the ports of Horb as soon as the ice barrier melts in the austral spring, carrying voor-pelts and diamonds to Veu and other continents” — We learn, as we did from the first sentence, that Horb is on the coast of a southern continent and that there are several continents; we also learn that it’s icebound in winter, that it has a long-established trading economy, that there are creatures called voor whose pelts are valued elsewhere, that diamonds are also valued, etc…

The difference is in specificity. What’s important is to know what you want to tell about Horb, and then tell it by “embodying” it in concrete, vivid details – packing your sentences with specifics, not with generalities.

How much to rely on the way cultures in our world work?

This largely depends on whether you want your readers to be comfortable on Teg, or challenged by it.

“Vig spurred his horse through the narrow streets of Horb at a gallop, drawing rein only at the Palace gate.” – Well, here we are in Horb in the European Middle Ages, all very cozy and feudal. Nobody has to do any thinking about it at all.

“Vig argued with his reinsteed for a while at the entry-fold of Horb, but it was useless; Hul hated the city, she would wait here, and Vig would have to walk.” – This can’t be fully understood by easy reference to any Earthly society. A disagreement between a man and an animal is understandable, but an equality, perhaps an actual discussion, between them is implied that is not familiar on Earth. And what is an “entry-fold”? The reader will learn what it is, but may have to wait a while. Lazy readers find waiting uncomfortable. Fortunately, a lot of sf readers expect to be challenged, and will suspend comprehension in hopes of a good pay-off. Just be sure they get the pay-off.

Do you spend a lot of time building the world before writing the story?

Yes. I do.

If Teg or Horb differ in any important way from the world-as-we-know-it, the implications of that difference have to be thought through pretty carefully beforehand. If not, anomalies and huge inconsistencies will multiply, visible cracks will appear in your Secondary World, and your story will fall into one of them.

Reading around for pleasure in anthropology and travel books can raise your consciousness of of how vastly human societies differ (let alone alien ones), and what a vast difference just one element of a culture can make – the existence or non-existence of a technology, or an assumption, or a gender….

But, having thought out your society and technology and all, don’t worry too much. You can fake quite a lot or leave it unsaid, so long as your world looks and smells and tastes real, so long as it has complexity, emotional weight, and integrity. If it is real to you and grows more real as you write it, if you’re living there as you write — you’re well on the way to making it real to your reader.


21 Apr 10:05

The Characters Discuss Their Author

by Elizabeth

Conversations about the author–the characters being conceived almost as actors in a green room, let’s say–are not unknown in the writing world.   (A thunderstorm just popped up on top of us.   Blame all typos on my instinctive twitch when a close strike hits.)   So here’s a conversation between characters from some of my stuff…all of them already know one another, because they all live in my head, where they can move from series to series, book to book, kibitz on the writing process and then go find their favorite watering hole to dissect “What that woman is doing now!”

Since this is the Universes blog,  they’re actually on the station, and their end of the restaurant bar always has a few of them hanging out in it.  Today, it’s predominantly science fiction characters; the fantasy ones have taken an excursion trip to someplace where they feel more at home.   The Universal Eavesdropped App is working; you don’t have to crowd up close (and I wouldn’t advise it.)


“She’s always had a mean streak, you know.”  Heris Serrano leans back.  “She showed it even before I woke up as a disgraced officer in Hunting Party.  Every single book, she finds someone to pick on.   It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how ethical you are–”

“You?  You’re claiming you’re a perfect straight arrow?”  Livadhi glares at her.  “You forget, I’ve known you before she picked you–you of all people–as protagonist.   If she’d picked me–”

“You’d still have been a traitor.   She’d never have picked you.   Her protagonists are at least ethical, or on their way to being.”

“She picked that idiot Luap, in that other universe.”  Rafe Dunbarger tosses back the rest of his drink and sets the glass down hard.  “If you want to talk about character FAIL.”

“Other universe different rules.”  Everyone draws back a little from the scarred veteran of one of Author’s lesser works, Vargas.  He doesn’t come in often, but he exudes danger at a level that means he will never be anyone’s buddy.   The bouncers across the room are watching, their shoulders tight.  He’s caused trouble before.   Over by the door his former captain  shows up, a little translucent, the way the characters who die are, when they come into this place.   Everyone hopes Major Sewell won’t come before the captain talks Vargas into going somewhere else.  Vargas and Sewell in the same place mean a fight.

“Making my point,” Heris Serrano says.   “What are you here for, Vargas?”  As always, her voice is a little too clipped, a little too sure that she has a right to be in charge.

“Reminding you officer types who really does the fighting,” Vargas says.  “Reminding you that you don’t own this place or that woman’s mind, and the stuff she writes, though complete garbage, is our pay.  I lived through my story; you lived through your story; your whining makes me puke.”

“You like her?” Rafe asked.  His arm twitches; everybody there knows a blade just dropped into his hand.   Everybody knows he’s been itching to try knife-fighting with Vargas and nobody wants to be in the spatter zone.

Vargas shrugs.   “Doesn’t matter, though frankly I wouldn’t waste time with her in person.  Too old, too plain,  not my type at all.  Classical music, ye gods.  Horse riding.   Reading all those thick books about stuff that probably never happened.  Swords–well, all right, though a machete’s more practical.  But for me, a skirt that’s experienced enough but not wrinkly.  And smells good.”  He leans back, arms on the back of the settee, taking up more space on purpose.  “But as a writer, she’s OK for me.  I been in other stories, the dumb mean NCO with the criminal background, written down below the real me, and she’s given me a way to be as dark as I am and yet–I’m telling the story.  And I look way better than Sewell.    I keep hoping she’ll pick me up for another one, without him–” He stops in mid-sentence.

Carl has come to the table, bringing a chill.  “C’mon, Gunny, let’s go look for some real entertainment.”

Vargas shrinks, bringing his arms down, sitting up straighter.  “Captain.  Just having a little chat…”

“I know,  but we need to go now.”    In an instant, the completely substantial Vargas and the almost completely insubstantial captain are gone.

The others settle back into their seats.  “It’s not ever going to happen,” Rafe says.  He has put the knife away.  “She’s not going back to that setting again.”

“She should come back to ours,”  Heris Serrano says.   “There’s a lot more she could do.  Sure, the younger ones might find another series to transfer into, but what about the older ones?”

“Like you?”  Livadhi sneers.  He often sneers now, with no need to disguise his true nature.

“Like Lady Cecelia,” Heris says, not looking at him.  “She still likes horses, but she hasn’t made a place for people like Cecelia in the new series.”

“Thank all the gods,” Rafe says.  “I rode a horse at summer camp once.   They smell, they can hurt you badly, and they’re ecologically unsound.”

“I don’t know,” Ky says, settling into the chair beside him.   “I had fun on horses.  I tried to talk her into including horses in this new book, but she’s really stubborn.   Does not listen to characters.”  Around the tables, nodding heads.    Mutters of “Right” and “That’s the truth!”

“Is it finally done, Ky?”  Heris asks.

Ky shakes her head.  “Not quite.  Editor hasn’t approved it.  Got my fingers crossed one particular scene won’t be edited out.  Vargas would like it; she has that mean streak and I got to make use of it this time.”

“You did last time, when you killed Osman.”

“Yeah, but this time she had a different twist to it.  You’ll see.  I hope.”

“Have you ever wanted to do something she wouldn’t let you do?  Or is it more she pushes you into doing what you don’t want to do?”   The man they know as “the Professor” is now at one end of the table with a tankard of beer.  He looks like he should be with the fantasy characters, but he’s firmly in the SF group and hasn’t been cast in the others.

The answers come thick and fast, tumbling over each other and it boils down to “Both” but more “pushing” than “stopping.”

“She threatened me with losing the lead,” Ky says.  It’s the first time she’s admitted this; until she was cast again in the new book, she wasn’t about to admit that blot (even if only potential) so early in her career.   “Said I wasn’t putting all of myself into it, and she had to know my worst secret.”

“She does that,” Heris said.  “And she won’t let you off the hook.”  More nods around the table and then everyone is looking at Ky expectantly.

“What?  You think I’ll tell you ghouls?  So you can ruin my next contract?  Forget it.”  She turns to Rafe.   “I think I hear her calling us.”

“Chicken!” the others chorus as Ky and Rafe vanish.





21 Apr 10:01


by Elizabeth

Well, probably. Sortakinda done. At 1:30 this afternoon, I made my final staggering plunge through the muck and mire to the finish line, having untangled various tangles and discovered yet more typos. I’d been up until 2:30 am Friday morning (NOT, mutter mutter, going out to photograph peak bluebonnets and plains nipple cactus, mutter mutter) and was back up before 8, unwillingly settling in to work again. Yesterday was gorgeous, clear and just cool enough. Today was mostly cloudy, so less temptation to go out, but a lot of stiffness and temptation to go back to bed. Which I did after coming to the end for the umpteenth time.

For those who think they’d really like to see all the drafts, especially the stuff thrown out…no, you really wouldn’t. OK, some of you, the kind who would be glad to be handed the kitchen waste cans after dinner so you could decide if the chef cut off a millimeter too much or too little of the fat on the rack of lamb, and whether the nubs of the carrots looked fresh…you might enjoy it. But most of us are far better off not knowing, so the story itself can come onstage, twirl about, do some high kicks and leaps, and disappear again without being encumbered by the “mistakes and accidents of surgery” (book type, at least.) (And yes, I have a real book titled Mistakes and Accidents of Surgery, written by a surgeon for the education of medical students, so they can avoid being in the next edition.)

I’ve had a nap. I’m going to eat supper–leisurely. I am not staying up late to work on the book, which is what I’ve been doing night after night until after midnight. Tomorrow, if it’s not pouring rain, I’ll be out in the field with binoculars and camera. If it’s pouring rain, I’ll be knitting and cooking. And another nap will be taken.

So now, what bits of science-y stuff can I add to your end-of-week reading? Well, there’s the report in this week’s NATURE that Daylight Savings Time isn’t good for most people, that we are neurologically wired to _not_ adjust to the twice-yearly demands to change our circadian rhythms. I’ve been saying that for years. It gets harder every year to recover from the process. Someday when I’m old and crankier, I’m going to quit paying attention to it at all. (Who cares when an 80 year old gets up, eats breakfast, etc? As long as you stay out of a medical facility, which I have every intention of doing.

There’s a fairly stupid (my term) gleeful commentary by one Adam Briggs, who not only favors the “sugar tax” now being imposed in some countries, but thinks the next target should be red meat, because red meat has a big carbon footprint. As a grassland ecology citizen scientist doing prairie restoration, this is taking an H-bomb to a mosquito. There are people who tout a vegetarian, if not vegan, diet for all as being the solution to feeding a global population. Those people are not ecologists. In terms of red meat, those people are not grassland ecologists.   (As it turns out the “cut” function doesn’t work as well in this theme as it did in my earlier themes, you’re stuck with the rest of the rant…but I will put in a visual barrier, though it’s not an actual cut: TO AVOID THE REST OF THE LONG BUT INFORMATIVE RANT, STOP READING HERE. )

Grassland is a valuable biome for many, many reasons: it’s sustainable with minimal fossil fuel use in management, it is excellent at erosion prevention and control, it transports rainwater into groundwater better than other soils, providing well-filtered springwater and thus cleaner streams, and it sustains its herbivores at levels that provide quality protein for human use. Converting natural grassland to cropping risks increasing soil erosion, nutrient dumping into water courses, removal of groundwater for irrigation, and desertification with encroachment of shrub species as a transition before full desertification. This happened in the United States, leading to the Dust Bowl. This has happened in Africa and Asia; the disappearance of the valuable mid-continental surface waters in Asia (Caspian and Aral seas) is due to the conversion of native grassland to agriculture using irrigation. Converting natural grassland to heavily populated cities, suburbs, industrial parks, etc. destroys all the ecosystem benefits that the natural grassland provides (lawn grass requires supplemental water and does not move rainwater into the groundwater.)

Natural grasslands–especially mid and short-grass–should be maintained for their many region-wide ecological services, and to do that…you need grazers. Grazers fertilize the grassland at a healthy level (low intensity, infrequent in a well-managed grassland.) Grassland needs to be grazed at a sustainable level to keep it grass land. You can attempt to mimic the effect with mowing, but mowing requires the use of fossil fuels, which contributes to global warming, and leaves more plant debris on the ground, rather than converted into fertilizer. Grazers need their population managed to prevent overgrazing (which is injurious)…which means either a size range of predators (some for the mice, some for the large herbivores) or human intervention. Hence: grass-fed grazers, which provide quality protein for humans as well as wolves, foxes, various wild cats. Whether wild or domestic, these animals can be managed for the health of the grassland ecosystem and their innate reproductive rate means that harvesting meat is both necessary and sustainable.

Taxing red meat to drive up the price will make it harder for low-income people to get the good complete protein they and their children need, while putting more pressure on owners of existing permanent pasture to convert them to cropland or sell to developers.

Yes, there’s a lot wrong with how meat is produced: cutting down rainforest is a bad idea. Feeding cattle corn and soybeans instead of grass is a bad idea, both ecologically and for the animals and those who eat them. Soybeans and corn both use more water than native grass (as well as needing the use of fossil fuels during their cultivation for livestock feed.) And eating grain and beans instead of grass and forbs mixed produces meat with a different protein/fat composition, as well as non-natural gut flora that is more dangerous to humans. Cheap mass-produced meat from cattle fed unnatural feeds and crowded so they require antibiotics and hormones…a bad idea. But damning red meat because of how it’s currently produced is stupid, and risks losing more of the planet’s important grassland biome.

Instead, sustainable production on natural, existing grasslands should be promoted, from farmers in Cumbria and Wales in the UK feeding out lambs to ranchers in the US West selling beef direct off the prairie.   Production close to consumption is a better goal–and will lessen the carbon footprint more– than eliminating an entire category of food (and its supporting ecosystem.)   Two principles top the list: water resource management as the foundation of maintaining a health grassland ecosystem, and ensuring adequate food for the lowest income citizens first.


14 Mar 21:54

Umberto Eco, 1932-2016

I will never get over the time he managed to open a book with an untranslated, unglossed wall of text in Hebrew, for an English-language novel, and the book became a famous international bestseller.

He visited my college, way back when, and read from Baudolino, which was his work in progress at the time. He read the chapter first in Italian, which I do not really speak and faked less well then, and after the standing ovation had died down he read the chapter again in English, which was entirely unnecessary, because everyone there had understood every word he said. It was a bit in which there is a rockslide, and you could hear all of it in the language: the initial dropping boulders as the protagonists' feet set them off, the pauses as they tried to slow down and tiptoe and move through the area more carefully, the ominous crackings underneath the pack animals, the sliding overwhelming crashes and the overall roar as the land fell down into the valley and they all went with it... I mean here that if you played this chapter to somebody who didn't know it was speech, they would register the noises, the way the syllables work together, as being an onomatopoeic depiction of a rockslide, regardless of the actual semantics. It wasn't as good in English-- I don't think Eco translated it himself, because he wasn't really English-fluent-- though the translator had clearly known what was supposed to be happening and made a valiant attempt. In Italian it was one of the two or three best readings I have ever heard a person give, revelatory, the kind of thing that expands the possibilities of language itself.

Afterward we all stood in a line for autographs, and I attempted to express something of how impressed I was by that reading, mostly I think by waving my arms a lot, and then something happened which was even more memorable, and which I am probably not going to manage to express in a way that makes it make sense.

None of the words I can use to flatly describe this situation have any of the right connotations. None of them. Even when I just limit myself to physical descriptions of actions taken, you're not going to get it, because they sound completely wrong. But I am going to have to start there.

Umberto Eco grinned at my hand-waving enthusiasm and attempts to say something about Greek and Latin poetic meters (both of which he had used in the passage in question), shook my hand, kissed my hand, signed my book, looked intently and delightedly down the front of my shirt (I have a chest tattoo; my default shirts have a lot of cleavage) for at least thirty seconds, and moved on to the next person in line.

You now have the wrong impression.

Here is an attempt to unpack the situation:

Me: *is enthusiastic and delighted in a language Eco does not speak, using vocabulary which is international, because the names of Greek and Latin poetic meters are basically recognizable no matter which modern language you are speaking*

Eco: *understands that I am being enthusiastic and delighted in a language he does not speak, and recognizes the vocabulary which means that I have understood and am happy about a specific, honestly rather esoteric aspect of the complicated thing he is trying to do*

Eco: *shakes my hand, making eye contact, firmly, in a manner which emphasizes that he is pleased to meet me and happy to hear what I have to say, but which also indicates his inability to continue the conversation in the manner which he would like and which would be the logical followup*

Me: *realizes oh of course he doesn't speak enough English for this what was I thinking gah* *starts to feel and look slightly embarrassed*

Eco: *kisses my hand, maintaining eye contact, indicating firmly that no! no! you should absolutely have said that! I am so glad that somebody understood and took the time to comment on that aspect of my work, and I am genuinely grateful that we are interacting in this way! I respect you very much for bringing it up!*

Eco: *signs book* *hands book to me with air of 'now that required bit is over with'* *manages to communicate to me, as far as I can tell psychically, 'I do not want to stop interacting with you, but there are all these other people, and we have this language barrier! What can I do that will register as a continuation of genuine human contact, be fast, and indicate admiration for you and this situation? I know!'*

Eco: *looks down my shirt for at least thirty seconds*

Line: *moves on*

Me, internally: oh my lord he actually managed to do that in a way that indicated that he was genuinely doing it as a stand-in because he respected my intellect. I... I believe him. That was... that was actually what he meant. I have never been leered at so politely in all my life. How did he do that. How was that not creepy. That was... that was not creepy in any way (and this was back when my PTSD and general skittishness were way the hell worse, especially in public and when I didn't know people). How.

A friend, right afterwards: So how was meeting Eco?

Me: He looked down my shirt! It was--

Friend: HE WHAT.

Me: No! It wasn't like that, it-- I am never going to be able to adequately explain this to anybody, am I. *sighs*

And from that day to this, no one has ever leered at me in such a non-creepy, intensely affirming, intellectually welcoming, genuinely supportive and delightful manner. I wouldn't believe it myself if he hadn't done the thing with the Italian reading immediately previously. But anyone who can do that is some kind of ludicrous language wizard; I think he could have done that reading literally anywhere on the planet and they would have understood it. So him doing the wildly impossible again right afterwards somehow seemed, well, a bit more likely.

I have spent the rest of my life proud and delighted that I was once ogled by Umberto Eco. Truly, the world has lost something in this man.

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12 Mar 11:58

Five for Friday: Five Bits of My Art

I could use some happymaking things right now, and I have been looking back through my art for pieces to make into/make back into fridge magnets, so here's a tiny survey.

The Old King's Crown

I always wanted a version like this, that looked ancient with the rainbow the only spot of color. It took three programs but I did it.

My favorite of Wolf's songs is The Old King's Crown, and over the years I've drawn a bunch of versions of this sequel/illustration image. This is one of the earliest, edited years later to redo the rainbow crown. I like the combination of subtly shaded hand drawing and vibrant supernatural rainbow.

Metropolitan Girls

Metropolitan Girls, 2000 BCE (2004)

I sat down one day with, of all things, a piece of cardboard out of a pantyhose package, and made this, still one of my favorite drawings. I wanted to convey the intricate cultural and ethnic diversity of the Mediterranean Bronze Age, and I tend to draw women by default. SO I drew a bunch of pretty maidens in pretty clothes, because. :)

Minoan Youth


I included this as an example of my sketches meant never to be colored in. It's just a sketch of a vivacious boy bouncing along. (Also, note his body proportions, which are rather more feminine than they should be, strictly speaking. His waist is high, his arms are long, his jaw is narrow, etc. I just like drawing women.)

Iris upon the Rainbow


When I got back into drawing in 2012, after some years of drawing only infrequently, I downloaded a wonderful program called Paintbrush, basically MS Paint for Apple computers. I made this in that program. I mean, the basic shape of her was drawn by hand and scanned -- I can't draw such shapes with a mouse and I don't feel like I should buy a tablet. (Maybe when E gets a little older I'll get her a tablet...) If you look closely at the stripes on her dress you can see that they are 'spraypainted', dark colors speckling a ehite background. It took something like a month to draw all that. It's so worth it.

New Minoan Recursion Picture

destined to become a recursive artwork

As if I needed any more projects, but... the other day I was thinking about two of my obsessions, the Minoans and recusrive images. I really love the pictures of people holding pictures of themselves, ad infinitum, so I managed to draw this girl and, once I've cleaned up the image and added her jewelry, etc, I'm going to put a little version of her on her hand... then shrink the whole thing and put it onto her hand, twice over, for at least three if not four layers of recursion. (If I can I'll do more.) Maybe I'll make both a color and a B&W version of this.

(in my copious free time.)
11 Mar 07:54

"As a child of immigrants my cultural capital isn’t viewed as important, just exotic."

“As a child of immigrants my cultural capital isn’t viewed as important, just exotic.”

- Accidentally laid out what everything I write about is actually about in a short piece from ages ago. (via jasondike)
06 Mar 10:41

Concise History

by wjw

Hey, it’s Bill Wurtz’s History of Japan!  Which is concise and funny and, so far as I know, accurate.


23 Feb 11:12

Astronaut graffiti found in Apollo 11 command module

by livius drusus

Smithsonian staff have discovered graffiti written on the inside walls of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia. The command module, the only part of the Apollo 11 spacecraft to return to Earth after Neil Armstrong took that giant step for mankind on July 20th, 1969, was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1970. It is on display in the Milestones of Flight Hall but visitors and scholars can only see the outside of it. To allow people to explore the inside of the historic vessel, experts with the Smithsonian’s 3D Digitization Program have been 3D scanning the command module. It was during the scanning process that the notes left by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during the first manned lunar landing voyage were seen for the first time in 50 years.

The writings include numerical calculations, a calendar, labels and notes. One panel to left of the sextant and telescope has figures and other notes copied from Houston mission control audio transmissions. Researchers will compare the notes to recordings and transcripts of the voice transmissions to determine who took the notes, when and what the figures mean. Initial comparisons have already found that the notes on the right side of the lower panel are coordinates sent from mission control that were estimates (inaccurate ones, as it happens) of the Lunar Module’s location on the Moon. The main control panel is also peppered with notes, mainly numbers, which will also be compared to mission control records in order to figure out their meaning and author.

Some of the notes show how the astronauts had to think on their feet and improvise a little once they were in space. NASA had detailed lists of where everything was to be stored and there are stowage maps on the walls of the command module. The astronauts took liberties with the plans, however, and wrote their own labels on several of the lockers. One of the stowage lockers, for example, was meant to store equipment related to the waste management system, but the astronauts repurposed it to hold filled urine bags from launch day before the waste disposal system was operational. They wisely labeled the locker with its contents so there would be no nasty surprises.

The calendar is my favorite because it captures the very human excitement of the moment. It’s a small rectangle with two rows of seven boxes. Nine of the boxes have dates in them, the dates of the mission, July 16th through 24th. All of the dates are crossed out except for the last one. Splashdown day never did get crossed off.

“As curator of what is arguably one of the most iconic artifacts in the entire Smithsonian collection, it’s thrilling to know that we can still learn new things about Columbia,” said Allan Needell, curator of space history at the museum. “This isn’t just a piece of machinery, it’s a living artifact.”

Laser scanning the interior and exterior of this living artifact has not been an easy task. Made primarily of aluminum alloy, stainless steel and titanium, the Apollo 11 command module is one big reflective surface which the scanners have difficulty reading. Add to that the complexity of the dashboards with their multiple small, delicate switches and indicators and buttons and the standard 3D capture tools weren’t going to cut it.

Because of the complicated nature of this scan, the Smithsonian 3D team brought in its technology partner, Autodesk Inc. Autodesk, a leader in cloud-based design and engineering software, deployed specially designed equipment to scan the artifact, and its advanced Memento software was able to process complex data from multiple 3-D capture devices to create one highly detailed and accurate model.

The model is a work in progress at the moment. It’s scheduled to be completed in June when it will be uploaded to the Smithsonian’s excellent site. That same month a major renovation of the Milestones of Flight Hall will be finished and the Apollo 11 Command Module will be temporarily taken off view. It will go back on display in 2020 in the museum’s new, state-of-the-art Destination Moon exhibition. The 3D model will be used to create an interactive display for the new exhibition.

Here is an early preview of the 3D model still in progress.


23 Feb 11:11

Lost cantata by Mozart and Salieri found in Prague

by livius drusus

A long-lost composition co-written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri has been rediscovered in the Czech National Museum in Prague. German musicologist and composer Timo Jouko Herrmann found the piece last month while doing research on Antonio Salieri in the collection of the Czech Museum of Music. It’s a libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Venetian priest and poet who wrote the librettos for three of Mozarts most beloved operas — Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte — and published by printer to the Imperial court in Vienna Joseph von Kurzböck. Very unusually for a libretto, this one includes the sheet music in a simple piano arrangement. Mozart and Salieri’s names do not appear anywhere in the pamphlet, only their initials in the musical notation identifying which measures were written by which composer. There is also a third composer credited, one Cornetti, who is unknown under that name.

The piece is entitled Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia (“For the recovered health of Ophelia”) and was written in 1785. The Ophelia in question was Nancy Storace, an English coloratura soprano who was friends with and muse to both Mozart and Salieri. The daughter of Stefano Storace, an Italian double bass player and composer who would become the musical director of Vauxhall Gardens in London, and Elizabeth Trusler, daughter of the owner of the concert venue Marylebone Gardens, Nancy was a musical prodigy from a very young age. She gave her first public performance when she was eight years old and debuted at London’s Haymarket Theatre the next year. Her older brother Stephen was also a child prodigy, taught by his father to play violin so expertly that by the age of 10 he was performing the most complex, difficult pieces of the time.

Stefano sent Stephen to Naples to study composition and in 1778 Nancy and her parents joined him there. Nancy traveled to Venice to take voice lessons from composer Antonio Sacchini and began getting professional gigs, rapidly rising from minor parts to leads and becoming something of a sensation. While still a teenager in 1782 she performed the role of Dorina in the Milan premiere of Giuseppe Sarti’s opera Fra I Due Litiganti Il Terzo Gode, a part that Sarti wrote specifically for her, to great acclaim.

When in 1783 Austrian Emperor Joseph II decided to put together a company dedicated to performances of Italian opera buffa (comic opera), he snapped up the 18-year-old Nancy Storace for his prima donna. Her brother Stephen came on as a composer. The inaugural production of the emperor’s new Italian Opera company was La Scuola de’ Gelosi by Antonio Salieri. Nancy played the lead role of the Countess. She enchanted audiences and composers alike with her talent and beauty.

Stefano Storace had died in 1780 or 1781, so Nancy’s mother Elizabeth went with her children to Vienna in 1783. Elizabeth arranged for her daughter to marry composer John Abraham Fisher who was 22 years her senior, more than double her age. It was an unmitigated disaster. Within months after their wedding on March 24th, 1784, rumors were flying around Vienna that Fisher was physically abusing Nancy. Emperor Joseph banished Fisher from the city and that was the end of the marriage, but the consequences of this ill-fated match far outlasted it.

In June of 1785, Stephen Storace’s first opera, Gli Sposi Malcontenti premiered with Nancy in the lead. Suddenly, in the middle of an aria, Nancy lost her voice. The performance had to be cut short. A few weeks later she gave birth to a daughter, Josepha Fisher. Elizabeth Storace wanted nothing to do with the child. She left her with a foundling hospital and reportedly announced that neither she nor Nancy cared if Josepha lived or died. The baby girl only lived a month.

It took Nancy five months for her voice to recover enough for her to be able to perform again. On October 12th, 1785, she returned to the stage singing the part of Ofelia in Salieri’s opera La Grotta di Trofonio. To celebrate her return, Mozart, Salieri and the mysterious Cornetti (possibly Nancy’s brother Stephen) composed Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia. Unfortunately Nancy’s health was not fully recovered. It’s a testament to how beloved she was that Mozart and Salieri both tweaked their operas to accommodate her new vocal limitations. Mozart worked with her on the music for The Marriage of Figaro which debuted on May 1st, 1786, with Nancy as Susanna. He had to lower the pitch of certain parts to ensure Nancy’s voice would hold up.

Less than a year later, Nancy left Vienna to return to London. Mozart wrote the aria Ch’io mi scordi di te? (“You ask that I forget you?”) for her farewell concert in Vienna on February 23rd, 1787. Nancy Storace went on to have a very successful career in London, but her voice never was the same.

We know from period newspaper ads that copies of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia were printed and distributed in Vienna by music publishers Artaria & Co., but none were known to survive. Not even the text of Da Ponte’s libretto, a 30 stanza pastoral poem, could be found. The rediscovery of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia underscores that Mozart and Salieri were on good terms in 1785, even though a few years earlier Mozart had written in letters to his father of his frustration with the Italian cabal at the Viennese court. He thought Salieri, Da Ponte and other Italians who had the ear of the Emperor were blocking his ascent, but by 1785 Mozart was well-established and was working closely with said Italians. Salieri would go out of his way to express approval of Mozart’s work, even directing performances of several of his compositions.

Nonetheless, decades after Mozart’s premature death rumors were rife that Salieri had poisoned his rival. The rumor was immortalized in art when, six years after Salieri’s 1825 death, revered Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a verse drama Mozart and Salieri that posited Salieri as the bitterly jealous poisoner of the greater man. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov set the play to music in the opera Mozart and Salieri, and playwright Peter Shaffer based his 1979 play Amadeus on Pushkin’s drama. That in turn was adapted for film in the Oscar-winning movie of the same name directed by Miloš Forman. So now when people think of Mozart and Salieri they think of a rivalry unto the death, when in fact the two men were on quite good terms. When it came to Nancy Storace, they were even collaborators.

And now, possibly for the first time and certainly for the first time in centuries, here is Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia by Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri, played on the harpsichord by Lukas Vendl.

I can’t speak Czech and there are no functioning English subtitles, so I have no idea what this Czech National Museum curator is saying, but she flips through the pages of the rediscovered work very slowly and the quality of the film is good enough that you can get an excellent look at the libretto and the fold-out music.