This morning, I was reading an interview with writer Svetlana Alexievich. In it, she writes,

We [Russians] are a word-centric country. It’s this Russian tendency to live in an idea or that people tend to live by the word and in the book. There has always been this ingrained idea in people’s minds that books are there to teach you how to live, that they create ideals for you to uphold. Especially in the Soviet times, when they were actually remaking a human being, remaking a person, literature was there as a major tool of support.

After reading that, I made the offhand comment that “You know, maybe part of the reason the United States is so fucked up is because we rejected the idea that literature is there to give us moral guidance and daily rituals. We rejected the idea that stories should be edifying.”

One of my readers responded that I wasn’t far off the mark.

My first reaction was a simple “Holy chao.” Because I was actually right. During the Cold War, the US government covertly sponsored creative writing workshops around the country with the explicit goal of teaching writers guidelines that would discourage “Communist” lines of thought. Since Russian literature was primarily critiques of social ills and didactic tales on how one lived a moral life, these were to be avoided. Personal, concrete, individualistic stories were what Americans writers were to write, and what American editors wanted to buy. Many of the standard mantras of writing, such as the now universal “show, don’t tell,” actually grew out of a conscious effort to teach people how to not Write Like a Communist™.

I thought I was kidding. I wasn’t. Mainstream literature and MFA programs grew out of a desire to spread American values without being seen as imposing an ideology.

The fascinating thing to me was that the guidelines had such weird contradictions. American literature must “Show the wholeness of the human being, one of irreducible and indivisible integrity. The character must be one with a sense of strict conduct.” Yet because the character’s integrity and conduct were so internalized, while the writer was constrained to a shallow showing of the character in action, it became impossible for writers to do more than casually handwave toward the sources of integrity and conduct.

So here’s where I think about fanfiction. I’ve read a lot of fanfiction. And one of my favorite AU (“alternate universe”) settings in the simple “Coffeshop AU.” The Coffeshop AU is simple: take two characters whose lives in the original work are complicated, busy, insane, and generally heroic or tragic, and have them meet in a modern-day coffeeshop. Let the story proceed from there.

I contend that the popularity of the Coffeeshop AU is because it has something modern literature lacks: examples and ruminations on how to be an adult. YA literature manifestly doesn’t do this. To a degree, it may want to show exemplary lives, or it may show the consequences of self-destructive decisions, or it may just show characters struggling to survive the day-to-day of life’s mundane degradations. But it doesn’t teach how one does that.

Fanfiction does. In fanfiction, characters ruminate a lot. They consider their options. Characters tell us what they’re going to do, why they’re going to do it, then they do it, and then they tell us what they did and what the consequences were. To a “modern” reader, these works seem trite and boring. But to a seventeen year old who’s trying to figure out how to date without getting hurt, how to find a job and survive the oncoming train of adult existence, how to deal with the world as it is, fanfiction is the lesson, the playground, and the experiment, all rolled into a cute tale about a Disney Princess, Sherlock Holmes, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. They explain how other people come to the conclusions they do. They get out of the rugged individual and try to come to universals about why human beings are the way they are.

Fanfic is literally an attempt to recover something that was lost: a literature that helps explain to us how we should live.

I’m seriously stalled on my writing.

Programming has been taking up an awful lot of my time recently. It might be the medication; I finally have the right meds to support my brain’s capacity to program like never before, and I’ve been coding my heart out, both professionally and as a hobby, and the results have been astounding.

But in writing, I’m stalled. Two years ago, I wrote a Frozen/Honor Harrington fanfic that I put up on Archive Of Our Own, and it was pretty well-received. As a joke, I mentioned on my Tumblr that I might write more of them, and got a surprising wave of cheerful requests for more Frozen stuff. So I opened up a new blank file and started typing. Just as the first story was very much a critique of space opera in general and David Weber in particular, the second was going to follow the same path but try to do something different and address the neoreactionary movement. I wanted to do another Captain Anna / Lost Colony Elsa kind of thing, but with a really different and darker theme. I started with the premise of a book called The Cleanest Race, which is about how North Korea’s internal civil religion centers on the idea that NorKor’s people have the cleanest, purest, “best” genetics in the world, while the rest of the world suffers from being “genetic mongrels.” According to the NorKor civil religion, we’re ultimately doomed to die in our uncleanliness, but in the meantime we have a stash of brutes, geniuses, and demagogues who threaten to overwhelm NorKor and wipe out their purity, and that’s why they’re so poor, and why they must fight so hard, and remain so insular.

So I was going for a Star Trek Anna and a Warhammer: 40K Elsa, where the latter learns that her peoples’ view of the Federation is about as eff’d up as you can imagine. I started to get down into the weeds about how white racism has evolved a “white separatist” movement whose central arguments echo the NorKor propaganda— purity isn’t necessarily strength, but there is a strain of “pure whiteness” and it deserves its own “safe space” protected from the mongrels and brutes. It worked for a while because, you know, Elsa is really, really pale.

But now the story’s a mess and I don’t have an ending. And I really need to strip out anything that feels too much of the mallet-to-the-head.


The Off Switch

“What is that?” Sorroh said, pointing to an object on the professors’ shoulder. It looked like a switch. It was slightly buried, as if to prevent an accidental toggling, but it was otherwise exposed. Anyone with a finger could have toggled it.

“Don’t touch that!” he said, flinching. “That’s my off switch.”

“Your what?

“My off switch. Everyone has one. It’s built into every sentient being on Goanra when they’re manufactured.”

“You mean, anyone could just flip that switch and… turn you off?”

“Well, yes,” Professor Johna said. “It’s very important to Goanra civil society. If you know anyone could flip your switch at any moment, it encourages you to be polite, you know.”

“But it’s just… exposed,” Sorroh protested. “Aren’t there accidents?”

“Oh, of course. Children flip each other’s now and then. Or their parents. Tragic, really.” He paused, letting his manipulators sag. “Every once in a rare while, someone gets exposed to one of those old self-reinforcing memetic virus and their defenses fail them. When that happens, they go into a crowded, public space and start attacking people, flipping their switches as fast as possible. People flee, of course, and the then authorities surround him. Typically they end up flipping their own switch.”

“But…” Sorroh stared at him. Posthuman civilizations were supposed to be civilized. The idea that one world was full of people with their activation core exposed with a simply binary toggle, subject to the casual whim of others, shocked her. “In most of civilized space, nobody walks around with the notion that someone else could just casually reach over and turn her off, professor!”

“Maybe they should!” he snapped. “It might help them be polite!”

Sorroh immediately calibrated her response. She suddenly didn’t want him, or anyone on this Artilect-forsaken world, angry at her. “Other worlds manage to be polite along a range,” she said soothingly. “A range that permits dissent, disagreement. How do scholars on a world like Goanra achieve the principle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis if… if everyone is so terrified they’re polite about their disagreements?”

“That’s true,” he admitted, his signals surrounded with the emoji for frustration. “We aren’t as innovative as others. We like our past. We like not moving forward too quickly, my dear Sorroh.” He paused for a moment, the holograms of his internal state shifting down to an orangish-red color. “The ones who seem most subject to memetic failure are the ones most attached to the past as well. But this is beside the point. It a world without switches, surely these problems are just as commonplace? What’s to stop someone attacking you with a welder? Or a neutrino box?”

“Well,” Sorroh said. “Welders are hard to carry or conceal, and you’d have to get to someone’s core to do permanent damage. It’s a very slow means of murder, professor. And a neutrino box is very hard to come by. There aren’t many good reasons for someone to have one unless you’re a major repair facility or a starship. They’re very strongly regulated here, aren’t they?”

“But they can still do the same amount of damage, agreed?”

“Not at the same rate, professor, and not with the same ease.”

“Criminals will always find a way.”

“Is the politeness really worth the accidents, the deaths, and the ease of suicide?”

“Who said anything about suicide?”

Sorroh’s own holograms banked into dusk-blue. “Professor, if anyone can flip their own switch, suicide is a nightmarish problem. It prevents the kind of delay that might let someone seek help. Even I can see that.”

His joints whined in a sigh. “Yes, you’re right. It’s not a big deal. Suicides are defective anyway. It’s a net benefit. Only the cheerful ones remain, you see, and the defectives go to the recycler without spending too much time using up resources.”

Sorroh let her holograms roll forward without interference, keeping her reaction entirely internal. She had to get off this world. She shook her sensor platform. “Well, professor, this has been enlightening.” In the background she ordered a co-processor to start booking an elevator off this world, soon. A second processor began negotiating with a slowboat to the edge of the system. The sooner the better. Before they demanded she get an off-switch installed.

I ought to be a Sad Puppy.

No, I’m not a supporter of snot-nosed Vox Day’s ridiculous and stupid campaign to overwrite the will of Hugo voters. I’m not going to say that he and his ilk deserve anything othen than public opprobrium in the face of their self-serving and malign campaign to deprive the science fiction community of its next level up.

When it comes to what I like to read, well… I generally like what Baen has to offer. Sad, but true. I bounce off women writers more often than I do men, I like bad space opera and ridiculous tales of derring-do, and I cheer when the hero gets laid. One of my favorite writers is David Friggin Weber, which is about as silly as its sounds.

I’m a little more sensitive now that I was in my 20s. Admittedly, in my 20s I was living through the early Cyberpunk era and its post-New Wave backlash, which both embraced and attacked the mores and ethics of New Wave feminist SF 1970s. These days I wince if the story is too obviously written by a an old white guy who thinks a homogeneous, conservative version of Southern California in space!, where the men are men and the women are pliant bubble-breasted double-jointed vixens with no gag reflex, is paradise. But the truth is I’m an old white guy who likes reading stories written by other old white guys.

Which is why I really can’t stand the Sad Puppy / Rabid Puppy thing at all. Look, boys, we’re old. Like, really old. Kids these days are going to forge their own worlds, with their own stories, and there ain’t a damn thing we can do about it. You can poison some awards processes and wreck a fine time you could have otherwise enjoyed. The kids will have this world long after we’re gone, and the only thing we can do is try to hand off a world of faith, hope and caritas… or, in the case of the SP/RP crowd, a burning cinder, a hellscape fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred.

Nobody is stopping you from writing. No one is preventing you from buying John C. Wright’s books. (I wouldn’t encourage anyone to give Wright money, though; his hackneyed, ridiculous style would disqualify him long before we start discussing his manifest personal cruelty.)

Go ahead, write the swash and the buckle. Just remember that you’re outnumbered. Your niche rose to prominence because of the privileges we white, English-speaking guys had in the early 20th century. But in the age of the Internet, you are outnumbered, you are a minority, and you are an embarrassment if you continue to write with the kind of deft wit and narrative grace that brought Ken Robeson or Victor Appleton fame.

There is an ongoing kerfluffle over the (unsubtly hidden) Christian romance publish house “Clean Reads,” and its guidelines that it wants only “real stories” that don’t require sex, violence, or profanity. The guidelines are pretty strict; the characters shouldn’t even have premarital sex, or discuss having had premarital sex, unless “consequences” are outlined. Rick Reed’s post stirred up a bit of a nest, and he’s since closed down comments.

Clean Reads replied to the controversy by saying that you could have GLBTQA+ characters in your stories, just not as the main characters. They could be props, but any romantic arc to their characters was pretty much not allowed.

In academic queer studies, there’s an existing line of though that goes all the way back to Fear of a Queer Planet (1991), that straight people are “people who have sexual bodies,” while gay people are “sexual bodies that have people.” The default when listening to someone is to assume humanity first and be comfortable that their sexuality is probably conventional; when gayness is thrust upon the listener, suddenly what the speaker does in bed is likewise thrust to the forefront of the listener’s mind.

The gay body is, by default, a sexualized body first and a human being later. Clean Reads falls into this line of thinking almost by default. American Christianity is not interested in God’s children who can’t or won’t belong to the Church of No-Homo. “Jesus consorted with lepers, prostitutes, and the destitute, but he drew a line and shouted, ‘No Homo.'”

It’s unfair. And sadly it will be a few generations before it goes away. The best we can do is not give Clean Reads our money or manuscripts.

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