A Dirge for the Troubling and the New

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day I: Apology is the most common way to weaponize humility—short of flattery and prayer.

Aphorism of the Day II: I hate patterns. Almost as much as I love habits.


A storm is coming.

Sometimes storms are good things. The world gets cluttered, contaminants build up, and a good scrub and rinse seems to be the very thing. The storm passes. The air has that chill edge, makes you feel like the first human to exhale. The streets are glazed black. The leaves click for being so turgid green.

Sometimes storms are bad, like the spinning finger of God, enough to turn history around.

But this one is different. This one, you see, has no end.

‘Storm’ is merely a ‘metaphor,’ of course, a way to connote turbulence, upheaval, chaotic transformation. A storm, you could say, is just more weather crowded into less time—concentrated change. And this is the storm that I’m talking about: the concentration of technological and social change.

As John von Neumann predicted over half a century ago, we are “approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” As the past decade has demonstrated more profoundly than any other, technological change means social change. Accelerating technological change, then, means accelerating social change. And this, I think, means big trouble.

Why? Simply because our capacity for social change is a product of the Pleistocene. As much as we love novelty, we humans tend to fear genuine social change—and when we fear, we hate.

If you check out websites like the Singularity Institute, you will find endless papers on the prospects and consequences of AI, the post-human, and so on. If you read someone like Ray Kurzweil, you will find a kind of Hegelian optimism, arguments that say good riddance to ‘human affairs as we know them.’ If you follow Three Pound Brain or read my novels you will find one, overriding question repeated in hundreds of different guises: Do humans have what it takes? Biologically? Culturally? Individually or collectively?

Because make no mistake, the storm is coming…

Last weekend National Geographic channel had a marathon day of Apocalypse: The Rise of Adolf Hitler, and I ended up getting sucked right in. The first question of the Holocaust really is a question of how? How could the most scientifically, culturally, and industrially advanced nation on the planet slip so effortlessly into the barbarity of Nazism? The second question is a question of that. What does it mean that the pinnacle of Western civilization could so quickly and so tragically become the gutter?

There really is something wrong with us. We’ve pretty much known all along, but we were always quick to project our flaws onto our precious ‘Others,’ perceived outgroup competitors, lest it interfere with the serious business of tribal/gender/racial/national self-glorification—a business that every totalitarian regime knows all too well. Now, after millennia of witless brilliance and folly, we have detailed scientific knowledge of our cognitive and affective flaws, or a good number of them anyway. Enough. We have a good sense of the kinds of mechanisms that predispose us to chauvinistic barbarism, to scapegoat the Other. And the picture is… well, ugly.

I’m the bad news guy. All my novels are bent on exploring the tangle of thematics that arise from this. Why, because fucking empty identity affirmation and belief confirmation has become the oxygen of our culture. Everywhere you turn, you are urged to celebrate who you are and to believe in yourself—or worse yet, simply ‘believe.’ Everywhere!

The problem is that you don’t know who you are, and you really are the last person you should be believing in! As the evolutionary product of ancestral social ecosystems, the brain is literally designed to defend and enhance your social standing: to self-promote. And it plays dirty. It edits, cherry-picks, fabricates, denigrates, insinuates, exculpates and more, even as it convinces you that you’re the most open and fair-minded monkey in the room.

So for instance, not one of you reading this thinks you could be verbally browbeaten into confessing to a murder you didn’t commit, or convinced by a unknown phone caller into sexually abusing one or your employees, or bullied by a lab technician into applying lethal electrical doses to another human being, or gulled by power and camaraderie into torturing those you have power over. Not one of you.

And yet, plant you in these social circumstances and there’s a very good chance you would. We are situational, anything but the strong-willed monads we take ourselves to be. And this is a fact, even though I would bet my royalty check that you think the notion preposterous. As David Dunning so wonderfully illustrates, one of our most pernicious cognitive shortcomings is our inability to acknowledge our cognitive shortcomings.

The Second Apocalypse began as an experimental exploration of fantasy as ‘scripture otherwise,’ as a form of ‘anti-modernism.’ Part of the idea was to exaggerate the very things that epic fantasies generally idealized, to show readers the ‘wages of their wonder.’ One of the things that makes epic fantasy so bizarre as a genre is its status as the most fictional of all fictions. It’s not just fictional, it’s fantastically so. The crazy thing is that the very thing that identifies it as super fictional, its prescientific, anthropomorphic ‘secondary world,’ is the very thing that it shares with traditional scripture. Structurally speaking, fantasy worlds are scriptural worlds.

And I don’t know how many of you still peruse your Illiads or your Bibles, but, man, those are some pretty scary worlds.

Daniel Abraham has recently argued against the Realism Defence of representations of sexism and racism in fantasy novels. He begins by taking a ‘It wasn’t as bad as all that,’ line, providing a brief list of historical facts that contradict the notion that the Middle Ages were characterized by chauvinistic brutality. The Middle Ages were a boisterous and exceedingly complicated period of human history. Given this, he claims, the Realism Defence amounts to cherry-picking. If ‘realism’ is what you’re after, then you had better make sure your representations are proportional.

But this doesn’t matter that much, simply because Abraham thinks it mistakes What Fantasy Is. Realism is irrelevant, because fantasy literature isn’t about the past at all; it’s about previous works of fantasy literature.

In other words, he shifts from a Middle Ages were more complicated than you know argument to a Fantasy Literature is more simple than you know argument.

The first argument has merit, and should certainly sting those who think women universally lived in conditions of abject misery and oppression. I just don’t know anyone who thinks that.

The second argument simply runs afoul of the first. It turns out that fantasy is more complicated than Abraham seems to know. Like all fiction, it is about many things. And like authors of other types of fiction, fantasy authors actually get to choose what their books are ‘about.’ That’s what makes each fantasy series so unique.

If I want to write a fantasy that replaces nostalgia, sentimentalism, and idealization with historical realism, I will.

Abraham presents the Realism Defence as an attempt to trump one form of ‘representational propriety’ with another. It boils down to pitting honesty against harm reduction. Cut the cord between fantasy and history (by arguing first, What History Is, and then second, What Fantasy Is), then honesty no longer seems proof against harm reduction. Politically correct representation seems to sweep the table.

Unconsciously we all understand the power of representations: we’re hardwired for censoriousness for damn good reason! Loose lips, as they say. This, paradoxically, is why we place such a premium both on honesty and on harm reduction—and why we find ourselves at such loggerheads when these two seem to conflict.

This conundrum is most frequently debated in television, where the sheer size of the audiences involved makes the issue of reinforcing negative stereotypes a pressing one. Here, the tendency is usually to see the Realism Defense as a little more than rhetorical fig-leaf when the show is deemed to be more commercially oriented than otherwise. Art actually has a claim to make in this debate, and few would dispute that saddling creators with representational obligations compromises their artistic integrity.

As Abraham acknowledges, “there are legitimate reasons for racism, sexism, and sexual violence to be part of a fantasy project,” he just doesn’t think that historical realism is one of them. But he’s wrong. The Realism Defence you might say, only rings true when it doesn’t stand alone, when the author actually has something to say about premodern history and our relation to it. Otherwise, it’s probably just a post hoc rationale.

How can you tell whether an author has a genuine artistic vision? Nowadays, you just check out their bloody blog. The more wank and contemplation you find, the more evidence you have of a genuine artistic vision. You may not like that vision, but nevertheless, you have wandered onto the intractable ground of trying to sort the ‘moral’ art from the ‘immoral.’ The further argument, that different rules should apply to each, is even more treacherous.

Despite what Abraham says, the Middle Ages were chauvinistic through and through. Research shows that our contemporary conception of morality in the West is very peculiar—and quite unnatural, in fact. The ‘live and let live’ logic that informs so much of our moral reasoning simply did not exist before the Enlightenment. Where most of us acknowledge a certain degree of moral uncertainty, our prescientific ancestors did not. Your ‘place’ was your place no matter how brutally unfair or oppressive it might seem to some disinterested observer. You played the role allotted, and if you refused out of some sense of outrage, well then, your goose was pretty much cooked.

As Abraham says, some of those roles were relatively commodious, but most of them quite simply were not.

The notion of ethics we inherited from the Greeks, the notion that moral problems could resolved by recourse to reason as opposed to tradition, was not something Medieval Europeans cared about, although there were exceptions, to be sure. Chauvinism was the foundation, plain and simple, the arbitrary valuation of certain groups and identities over others. Sometimes that chauvinism was benign, as Abraham points out, but it was chauvinism all the same.

And chauvinism has a peculiar relationship to meaning. The modernist paradigm typically depicts a protagonist struggling to hold onto meaning in an apparently meaningless world (and all too often, that meaning is found in some saccharine or occult notion of romantic love). What makes a fantasy world fantastic, however, is that the world is given as meaningful. Fantasy worlds are psychological worlds, where nothing is ‘dead’ and everything is animate, filled with agency and intent.

My big idea, way back when, was to simply turn the modernist paradigm upside down, to follow a protagonist struggling to find meaninglessness in a meaningful world. Anasurimbor Kellhus. The paradox I wanted to explore was and is nothing other than the paradox you and I are living this very moment, what might be called the Big Swap: emancipation from disease, poverty, and oppression for the ‘Death of God’—or the nihilism incipient in contemporary consumer culture.

I chose patriarchy to explore and critique premodern chauvinism because I knew it would continually cut against the reader’s own baseline moral appraisals. On the one hand, it would give them a taste of the very moral certainty under the narrative microscope. On the other hand, it would make the reader’s moral intuitions a component of Kellhus’s ‘revelations,’ and so put them into a curious double-bind. Since Kellhus invariably manipulates, emancipation, in his hands, simply becomes another tool. What does it mean, when the truth itself deceives? When justice becomes subreptive? (I had Marx on the mind back then: The women’s liberation movement, it so happens, also ‘liberated’ tremendous pools of labour for capital to rationalize. Is emancipation even possible in a society designed to systematically exploit its every human resource? Was the women’s liberation movement the product of mass moral enlightenment or the economic obsolescence of traditional female roles?)

What I wanted to show was the way the escape from traditional chauvinism that Serwe and Esmenet find via Kellhus was a form of false escape, that the nihilistic system that Kellhus erects over the ruins of traditional Three Seas society was every bit as exploitative as the system it replaced—a world where the waif could no longer survive, and the harlot had to follow the forking ways of an even more devious labyrinth. A world, I would argue, not so very unlike our own.

And in each case, I wanted to be true to situational psychology, the fact that we rarely see beyond the facts of our immediate circumstances. The only way to be honest to the insidious difficulty faced by anyone who finds themselves within exploitative social environments was to represent overcoming as something long-drawn and fraught with reversals.

I knew this would be controversial. But play time is almost over. Think of the madness in Washington: mass institutional dysfunction driven by the way cultural and institutional transformation have incentivized our cognitive flaws. By the fact that people now, just like people a thousand years ago, buy their own bullshit–unto catastrophe.

A storm is coming and we need to get our shit squared.

The notion that I should have provided another female character to discharge some extrinsic representational obligation, either to better reflect the reality of premodern societies or to provide ‘positive role models,’ strikes me as preposterous. This is the difficult story I elected to tell. And, it happens to be a kind of story no one has ever told before. This in itself, I think, makes the project worthwhile, even if in the end the critical consensus is that The Second Apocalypse is a disastrous failure. “The distance between the old and new,” Dewey writes, “is the measure of the range and depth of thought required.” The problem is that this distance is always invisible. We look at the new, the different, and we see only the old, the same. So many read my books and see the same old representations of exploited and disempowered women, and so assume that I must be ‘just another’ misogynistic fantasy writer.

The degree to which you should trust those voices is the degree to which they actually engage, as opposed to simply dismiss, what I’ve discussed here.