In Contempt of Contemplation

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: All authors feel sorry for the characters in their novels, which is what makes self-pity inevitable when they begin blogging.

I received a ping-back for a Black Gate review of The Prince of Nothing by none other than Theo, that ultra-conservative blogger I debated on the issue of nihilism in contemporary fantasy quite a few months back.

One thing you can say about my books is that they get reviewed–way out of proportion to their sales, if you ask me. I’ve long since abandoned any attempt to keep track, let alone archive, the new ones I invariably find when my masochism gets the best of me and I troll the web. But this one is special, partly because it’s written by Theo–or Vox Day, as he is better known–and partly because it falls into a ‘special’ class.

I remembering wondering what Theo would make of my books back when we were debating, since it seemed that many of the things he and Leo Grin were bemoaning in 21st Century epic fantasy–heroism, moral clarity, mythic depth–were things that I happened to be self-consciously tackling. Forgive me for waxing Don Cherry, but I remember thinking that he would actually like the books, and that he would make a flag of the sexually related material as way to trash it. I shit you not.

And Bingo was his name-o…

Reading Theo’s review, and you would think someone was being raped every other page (rather than every other other page)! Not only did the sex really, really, really stand out for him, but it really, really, really offended him as well, apparently enough to overpower what he did like about the books. Fair enough, I suppose, but given that the first book is called The Darkness that Comes Before (!), and given that the irrational springs of human action are a primary focus of the book, and given that sex is one of those springs (history and appetite are everywhere: if anything there’s far more ‘history porn’ in the books than sexual porn), you would at least think that he would reference this connection…

I guess he missed it.

This brings me to what I was most curious about, back when: What would Theo make of the thematics of the trilogy. To be honest, I thought this was where he would spill the most pixilated ink. Why? Because reading his blog, I realized that in many respects I had written the trilogy for him, for people who really, really, really think they’ve won the Magical Belief-and-Identity Lottery.

And this, if Vox Day is to be believed, is Theo in a nutshell. The Grand Prize Winner. Reading his blog, I had the impression of drawing circles inside of circles:

Fiscal conservatives…

Social and fiscal conservatives…

White, social and fiscal conservatives…

White, male, social and fiscal conservatives…

White, male, English-descended, social and fiscal conservatives…

White, male, English-descended, Anglican, social and fiscal conservatives…

I’m sure the list goes on, but this was as far as I was able to go. What began as snobbish hilarity quickly turned into consternation and a kind of baffled, dare I say? disgust. Discussions of partitioning America along more ‘rational’ identity-driven lines, of the ‘behavioural profile of African-Americans,’ of the ‘proper place of women,’ of the forced resettlement of immigrants, of the ‘flaws of democracy’ made me realize that Theo had more than a few fascistic leanings. I’m still shaking my head.

Parochialism is part of the human floor plan: we’re hardwired to continually draw ‘identity circles,’ to parse our social environments into myriad shades of us and them. But some of us, unfortunately, find ourselves on the extremes of this instinctual continuum. On the one hand, there are those who are utterly oblivious to social difference, and on the other hand, you have those who are obsessive about it. Where the one tends to rationalize from a “we’re all in this together” standpoint, the other tends to rationalize from a “dog eats dog” perspective.

Of course, both groups claim the moral and rational high ground. Theo literally believes that he is made of better stuff (‘superintelligence,’ I think, is the term he uses to describe his intellect). He literally thinks his gender is the apple of the Creator’s eye. He literally believes his little corner of the human gene pool is the only one that doesn’t smell of pee. He literally thinks that reason is his friend and his friend alone (because lord knows it makes idiots out of everyone who disagrees with him).

And he knows he just has to be right because everywhere he turns he finds confirmation of his views, as well as affirmation of his identifications. It couldn’t just be coincidence, now, could it?

Well, it’s not coincidence. Humans are cognitive and identity egoists, which is why you find versions of Theo no matter what the in-group happens to be: African, Asian, Arabic, Norwegian. Our brains aren’t simply primed to generate patterns out of noisy social environments, they’re primed to generate happy patterns, ones that confirm preexisting views and affirm our self-identifications.

If anything dwarfs the references to history and appetite in The Prince of Nothing, it’s vanity and stupidity. Despite apparently recognizing “thinly disguised references to philosophers,” despite his superintelligence, despite all those readers who complain that I’m too obvious with this particular theme, Theo genuinely seems to have no clue that this is what The Prince of Nothing is about: the comic folly and the tragic consequence of thinking–like most everyone else–that you are the winner of the belief-and-identity game show–only like, for real.

Here’s the quote I would like to leave him:

 

Moenghus.

White-skinned. Still young enough to clutch its toes. Eyes at once vacant and lucid, in the way only an infant’s could be. The penetrating white-blue of the Steppe.

My son.

Cnaiür reached out two fingers, saw the scars banding the length of his forearm. The babe waved his hands, and as though by accident, caught Cnaiür’s fingertip, his grip firm, like that of a father or friend in miniature. Without warning, its face flushed, became wizened with anguished wrinkles. It sputtered, began wailing.

Why, Cnaiür wondered, would the D nyain keep this child? What did he see when he looked upon it? What use was there in a child?

There was no interval between the world and an infant soul. No deception. No language. An infant’s wail simply was its hunger. And it occurred to Cnaiür that if he abandoned this child, it would become an Inrithi, but if he took it, stole away and rode hard for the Steppe, it would become a Scylvendi. And his hair prickled across his scalp, for there was magic in that–even doom.

This wail would not always be one with its hunger. The interval would lengthen, and the tracks between its soul and its expression would multiply, become more and more unfathomable. This singular need would be unbraided into a thousand strands of lust and hope, bound into a thousand knots of fear and shame…And it would wince beneath the upraised hand of the father, sigh at the soft touch of the mother.

It would become what circumstance demanded. Inrithi or Scylvendi…

It did not matter.

 

I’m sure this comes off as peevish and thin-skinned to those of you unfamiliar with the previous debate. It’s generally bad form for authors to respond to reviews. Why? Because we instinctively understand that authors are ‘too close’ to their work to have anything impartial to say.

But part of the reason we invest so much passion in books lies in the fact that they judge us well. Our readings can say a frightful number of things about our values, our beliefs, our abilities, our sensitivities, our education, as well as our social identifications. As far as The Prince of Nothing is concerned, Theo is at once comic and tragic, a small man–like the rest of us–convinced he is the measure of us all. He is, in a sense, the true anti-hero of the books.

In creative writing workshops I always spend time talking about ‘critiquing critiques,’ teaching freshman writers how to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to feedback. I talk about the problem of ambiguity, and how readers are prone to manufacture problems, especially when they think it’s their job to find them. The ability to sort representative problems from idiosyncratic ones is as crucial to an author’s overall development as it is to the success of any one book. In order to learn from your mistakes you have to be able to identify them.

I’m still trying to puzzle through the lesson of this one.

Nothing happy, I’m guessing.