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November 30, 2006

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

It was just a suggestion

Dear Orson "Scott" Card,

When I joked that your upcoming novel about a war between the red and blue states would be a rehash of the Turner Diaries, I was only kidding. But clearly, based on the excerpts you've made available, you were too crafty for me, and you went ahead and did it anyway.

My own words fail, sir. But yours speak pretty well:

Princeton University was just what Reuben expected it to be -- hostile to everything he valued, smug and superior and utterly closed-minded. In fact, exactly what they thought the military was.

He kept thinking, the first couple of semesters, that maybe his attitude toward them was just as short-sighted and bigoted and wrong as theirs was of him. But in class after class, seminar after seminar, he learned that far too many students were determined to remain ignorant of any real-world data that didn't fit their preconceived notions. And even those who tried to remain genuinely open-minded simply did not realize the magnitude of the lies they had been told about history, about values, about religion, about everything. So they took the facts of history and averaged them with the dogmas of the leftist university professors and thought that the truth lay somewhere in the middle.

Well as far as Reuben could tell, the middle they found was still far from any useful information about the real world.

Am I like them, just a bigot learning only what fits my worldview? That's what he kept asking himself. But finally he reached the conclusion: No, he was not. He faced every piece of information as it came. He questioned his own assumptions whenever the information seemed to violate it. Above all, he changed his mind -- and often. Sometimes only by increments; sometimes completely. Heroes he had once admired -- Douglas MacArthur, for instance -- he now regarded with something akin to horror: How could a commander be so vain, with so little justification for it? Others that he had disdained -- that great clerk, Eisenhower, or that woeful incompetent, Burnside -- he had learned to appreciate for their considerable virtues.

And now he knew that this was much of what the Army had sent him here to learn. Yes, a doctorate in history would be useful. But he was really getting a doctorate in self-doubt and skepticism, a Ph.D. in the rhetoric and beliefs of the insane Left. He would be able to sit in a room with a far-left Senator and hear it all with a straight face, without having to argue any points, and with complete comprehension of everything he was saying and everything he meant by it.

In other words, he was being embedded with the enemy as surely as when he was on a deep Special Ops assignment inside a foreign country that did not (officially at least) know that he was there.

Princeton University as an alien planet. Reuben Malich as the astronaut who somehow lost his helmet -- and spent day after day gasping for air.

He had to acquire the iron discipline of the soldier who works with the government -- the ability to stand in the same room with stupidity and say nothing, show nothing.

The real danger was not losing his temper, however. For in the second year of his studies, he realized that he was beginning to treat some of the most absurd ideas as if they had some basis in truth. It was Goebbels in practice: If you tell the same lies long enough and loudly enough, even people who know better will despair and concede the point.

We are tribal animals. We cannot long stand against the tribe.

Thank heaven he could go home to Cecily every day. She was his reality check. Unlike the ersatz Left of the university, Cessy was a genuine old-fashioned liberal, a Democrat of the tradition that reached its peak with Truman and blew its last trumpet with Moynihan.

Oh, and this one's proving a big hit with various parts of the liberal blog community, for obvious reasons:

"You look pissed off," said Malich.

"Yeah," said Cole. "The terrorists are crazy and scary, but what really pisses me off is knowing that this will make a whole bunch of European intellectuals very happy."

"They won't be so happy when they see where it leads. They've already forgotten Sarajevo and the killing fields of Flanders."

"I bet they're already 'advising' Americans that this is where our military 'aggression' inevitably leads, so we should take this as a sign that we need to change our policies and retreat from the world."

"And maybe we will," said Malich. "A lot of Americans would love to slam the doors shut and let the rest of the world go hang."

"And if we did," said Cole, "who would save Europe then? How long before they find out that negotiations only work if the other guy is scared of the consequences of not negotiating? Everybody hates America till they need us to liberate them."

"You're forgetting that nobody cares what Europeans think except a handful of American intellectuals who are every bit as anti-American as the French," said Malich.

"You think we'll do it?" said Cole. "Bottle ourselves up and let the world go to hell?"

"Would it be any better for us to get really pissed off and declare war on all of Islam?" said Malich. "Because we've got plenty of Americans who want to do that, too, and we don't have the President anymore to hold them back."

"I have a terrible feeling," said Cole, "that some turban-wearing Sikhs are going to die today in America, and they've got nothing to do with this."

They reached the end of the bridge.

"It's weird," said Cole. "I always feel like when I get to Virginia, I'm back in the United States. Like DC is a separate country. And not just DC. Maryland along with it. Like the Potomac is the boundary line between the country I love and a foreign country where they hate me because of this uniform."

And when I say your words speak for themselves, what I mean is that they speak crazy, fluently, with no trace of accent.

Addendum: Just a note for anyone who might have thought that Card has--despite a chronic lack of writing ability and creativity--a modicum of expertise on the topic of the American government and culture, I'd like to draw your attention to that last paragraph. Most liberal blogs have been cutting it off after the French slur, but I think his passage about Virginia is telling. Because as anyone who lives near DC knows, the Northern Virginia area is about as blue as it's possible to get. It was a significant force in swinging the vote for Jim Webb this time around. Walking over the T.R. Roosevelt Bridge from DC takes you into Arlington, where I live--and it is definitely not some sort of red state stronghold.

So let's be clear: when Card's soldier crosses over the river and then claims that entering Virginia is like being "back in the United States," compared to the heavily-Democratic DC and Maryland, he's actually revealing just how thin a cardboard construct created by a Utah-based Mormon fanatic he really is.

There's also an echo of George Allen's "Welcome to the Real America" about Card's choice of words. I wonder if he's self-aware enough to realize it?

November 15, 2006

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

The Folly of Empire

Orson Scott Card is writing a book/video game/movie about war between red and blue states. He says:

What the good guys are fighting for is to get the war stopped before it's fully started. To enable the country to bind its wounds and end this horrible division, so one of the key decisions I made was having Maj. Reuben "Rube" Malek be a true-blue, red-state soldier, but he's married to a committed blue-stater who is politically active and involved in Congress but is able to speak the language of both sides. She's a conciliator. In the novel, her sensibility becomes vital to establishing the nature of the resolution, so that we have a happy ending no matter which camp you're in.

Call me crazy, but somehow I have my doubts that he's really going for a fair and happy ending for both sides here. And how bad of a writer do you have to be to write "true-blue, red-state soldier?"

Previously, people alleged that Card was writing apologias for Hitler. I wonder if this is his version of the Turner Diaries.

November 7, 2006

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Sympathy for the Superman

Although I couldn't say why, this weekend I started thinking about Orson Scott Card--maybe because I saw shades of him in a barely coherent stem-cell debate, maybe because I was reminded of Mormon theology by Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. Either way, while I try to catch up on the Bank's Human Development Week videos, you may be amused by this article on how "Orson Scott Card Has Always Been An Asshat." I've personally never been able to read him the same way, especially after reading the first linked essay there. And one day I am going to make it to a library and dig up Radford's review, "Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman."

June 22, 2006

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Down the Mountain

This month's book for discussion by the Coterie of Frustrated Intellectuals is Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. I admit to being conflicted about this book, which is why I picked it. As is customary for our book club, I'm asking the other readers to keep in mind, and be prepared to answer, the following questions:

  1. For the odd family at the center of the book, "Alan" and his brothers, their names are fluid and unfixed (Adam, Andy, Alex, Arthur...). Why? And what is the importance of the alphabet?
  2. A significant portion of Someone Comes to Town is taken up with a hair-brained wireless networking scheme--the kind of thing that, in real life, Cory Doctorow spent a lot of time championing. Does the network fulfill a non-gratuitous story purpose? If so, what is it?
  3. Although it's set in a very contemporary scene, this book would seem to fall more into the genre of magical realism. There are many unbelievable events and characters largely treated as if they were unremarkable or mundane. What are the parallels between this book and the folklore tradition to which it sometimes returns?
  4. Precognition and destiny play a role in the resolution of Someone Comes to Town, but how big a role?
  5. Compared to many of the other characters, Alan seems pretty normal. Is he really? What sets him apart?

More questions will probably be ready by the time we meet, but these seem like good starting places for someone to explore the themes of Someone Comes to Town.

April 11, 2006

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Cool Hunting

This month's book for Belle's book club is William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, by my suggestion. A few thoughts:

It is safe to say, at this point, that a major focus point of Gibson's writing has been information and information flows. He's fascinated by it. In part, this is a product of his time--while at many points in history we have only vaguely been able to recognize that information is a technology in the artifacts it creates, it has now literally become the technology itself. That's a powerful change in how we commonly view the world. It almost requires a kind of Cartesian dualism, only instead of a spiritual world beyond, you have to think in terms of networks and metadata.

And if you're going to explore that kind of duality, you need a character that can bridge it for the reader, and this is in fact a common feature of Gibson's work. His first novel, Neuromancer, starred a hacker (or "console cowboy") named Henry Case, giving the readers a closer viewpoint on how Gibson's virtual space could affect the physical world--or vice-versa, as Case also met some characters who were either people downloaded into a ROM construct, or even completely artificial AI. Idoru introduced Colin Laney, who could instinctively read and understand the data trail produced by consumption due to childhood medical experimentation. Laney wasn't just a exposition device--by this point, we were all familiar with the dangers of living in a digitally documented world--but a way of personalizing the techniques we now know as data mining. He gave the reader a person through which we could think about our relationship to our data shadow.

In Pattern Recognition, our Virgil figure is Cayce Pollard. She is allergic to brands. More specifically (although Gibson never really comes right out to say this), she's allergic to brands that carry a lot of extra semantic baggage. This is really interesting in conjunction with the fact that it's Gibson's first present-day novel. Through this allergy, he can highlight the level of branding that surrounds us nowadays, as well as making some interesting observations about the information carried through advertising (perhaps our most studied symbolic industry).

For example, Cayce has to grind off all of the rivets on her jeans. She tears off tags from her clothing and her accessories. Tommy Hilfigger just about triggers a breakdown (Gibson, again, isn't clear why, but perhaps the brand's reinvention as an "urban" label has something to do with it). Hello Kitty, on the other hand, doesn't trip her condition at all: Sanrio exists only as a set of empty logos and designs, nothing other than "cute." The specifics are really fairly irrelevant. What's important is that Cayce is alert to the same messages that we either suppress or can't consciously see. She is a window to the careful manipulation of marketers in an ad-supported world. She's also, in a visceral way, affected and controlled by it. Are we really that far off, just because we don't all have a panic attack at the Gap? How much control do we have over our impulses?

The logo allergy also gives Cayce a job as cool-hunter, and that opens up a whole other dimension to Gibson's exploration. I think what he may be trying to show us is a blurring between content and commercial. The product has become the pitch, and the pitch is everywhere. In reaction to the increasing guile and cynicism of the audience, Cayce's employers are trying to reach out and subvert her hobby--a slowly-released piece of movie footage being released slowly through unknown sources. The footage may represent the only artifact left that's not created to sell something. It's pure creativity, and as such people like Cayce are drawn to it. Of course, corporations also hunger for something with that genuine appeal. And the paradox is that anything that they can co-opt will lose its credibility in becoming just another marketing scheme. Again, it's a conflict of control and freedom under capitalism.

Which is not far from how the system works now. Gibson is more subtle than this, and leaves quite a bit open for interpretation. Moreover, as usual, all this is suspended in the middle of many other plots and threads, including an unsettlingly well-crafted portrayal of the modern e-life (much of the book is deftly woven through online forums and e-mail exchanges). Yet for the implications noted above, it's Cayce's peculiar ability that may stick with the reader the longest, and should prove most disturbing. At the most basic level, the question raised by Pattern Recognition will be whether or not human creativity can survive the interference of capitalism, or if it will become just another part of a machine, feeding on itself. Looking at the celebration of Remix Culture on the Internet some days, I'm not so sure how I could answer that.

January 18, 2006

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Mieville Seminar

Crooked Timber's seminar on China Mieville, including his response to the essays.

This is posted for the members of my book club, since we're reading Perdido Street Station this month. Good reading for anyone who's enjoyed Mieville's fiction, though. It contains spoilers, so don't read if you haven't finished the book yet.

Future - Present - Past