Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: August 2010

Triptych of Ideologies

John Clute on Cory Doctorow. The Heinlein comparison is significant and important in tracing the mainline of science-fiction.

One good way to detect the secret handshake hidden in plain view in tales by Heinlein or Doctorow is to follow the italics. Both writers—and I suspect a lot of hard SF writers as well—use italics as a kind of decoder ring, as a mechanism designed to shake the truth of a phrase free of the accidents of language. So if Heinlein says “What are the facts? Again and again and again—what are the facts?” (Time Enough for Love, (1973), we know that he is asking us a question heavy with agenda. What he is asking us to understand, clearly enough, is not only that truth can be comprehended and problems solved through what remains when a sensible disciple of Alfred Korzybski has cleared the semantic air, but that facts are the only truth of the matter: and that once the facts are known a Competent Man can clear the road ahead of kipple. And when Doctorow says “Most times, they were too shocked to do anything“—I select almost at random from hundreds of sentences festooned with decoder ring emphases in For the Win—he too is saying that though the truth is still obscure, it remains obtainable, and the truth will make you free.

You can feel story pounding through the arteries of For the Win. What you mainly miss is a villain, perhaps because the book is all too polished a render, all too transparently engineered for victory. There can be no genuine villain here (the manga-derived Chinese boss is simply silly, and Doctorow makes it clear we know he knows he’s silly), because a genuine villain would track bits of realworld all over the speedlines pointing to victory. An author who has a character realize that “Inheritances were handier than he’d suspected” is one) not Charles Dickens, and two) not about to waste any time moongazing at the haecceity of the whatsit.

Penny Rimbaud of Crass on the intraband lawsuit. Much less nasty than the Dead Kennedys, though.

To my mind, the dispute has its root in ideological differences that existed between the individual members of the band. In my understanding, Pete [Wright] was fundamentally a socialist, and socialists like wagging their fingers at anyone except themselves.

He claims to be an anarchist. Well, I claim to be an anarchist, but I’m fundamentally a libertarian and a fierce individualist. I think that does fit into an arena of anarchistic thought. I certainly draw a line at all this stupid anarchistic organization of industry and that sort of stuff, because I’m just not interested. If people want to do that, then I’m not going to criticize them. But frankly, it’s not my thing. My thing is rising with the angels and flying in the sky.

Matt Yglesias on supporting the Iraq War:

When Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Joe Biden, John Edwards, etc. told me they thought invading Iraq was a good idea I took them very seriously. I knew that Carl Levin & Nancy Pelosi were on the other side, but the bulk of the leading Democratic voices on national security and foreign policy issues were in favor of the war. So was Tony Blair. These were credible people whose views I took seriously.

I was 21 years old and kind of a jerk. Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite. My observation is that this kind of fake-dissident posture is one that always has a lot of appeal to people. The point is that this wasn’t really a series of erroneous judgments about Iraq, it was a series of erroneous judgments about how to think about the world and who deserves to be taken seriously and under which circumstances.

[Commenter Susan says: In other words you were a kid who had no business being given any position of any intellectual import since you didn’t know your ass from a hole in the ground and you were conned by a bunch of conmen and conwomen.]

Gene Wolfe Challenge Won!

I’ve been tardy in mentioning it, but a reader going by the sobriquet “Dave Tallman” has posted a very convincing explanation of Gene Wolfe’s cryptic Seven American Nights, and in doing so has answered the challenge I made nearly a year ago. Bravo, Dave Tallman! In doing so, not only has he made the story far more enjoyable for me without my needing to expend more effort than I wanted, but he has also given the lie to those who say, as one commenter did, that “There are no true clues or false clues; the mystery is the point of the exercise.” For your work, I am proud to award you the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary:

On the Wolfe wiki, there is his detailed explanation of the ending, as well as a timeline. Some of the minor points are disputable, but for the crucial questions, I can’t imagine a better explanation.

The crucial points of the explanation: there is no hallucinogen and Nadan certainly doesn’t take one, Nadan is dead by the end of the story or shortly thereafter, and the last few entries of the journal are forged by some US governmental agency trying to cover up their killing of Nadan.

The explanation does indeed give shape to the story where I could not find any before. It sounds like Mr. Tallman was led to these conclusions by looking at the Biblical Jesus parallel, which in retrospect makes great sense, but which I wouldn’t have considered, not having that background myself. The whole “play” business clearly matches up with the passion play, but oh well, my mind just didn’t work that way. I should have figured out the “Sunday we will be great again” business in connection with Easter, however, so there I’ll chide myself. I’ll chide Wolfe, however, for inserting the red herring of the supposed presence of the hallucinogen, which serves thematic purposes but, to use a timely analogy, makes the story NP-hard: you can verify a solution very quickly, but finding one is damn near impossible because of the multiplication of possibilities involved. And one key clue, that the quality of the journal’s prose decreases once the forgery machine is writing, is amusing to me because I don’t find Nadan’s prose particularly high-quality.

Still, the ultimate plot details are yet again interesting in revealing Wolfe’s seemingly strong anti-colonial attitudes once again. America looks even worse than it does on initial reading now that their evil plot is revealed, and Islam comes off as positively tolerant. At least in recent years, Wolfe has been something of a Catholic populist right-winger, and so I find it hard to believe he would write this story today. I would say the same of Fifth Head of Cerberus, but here he goes even further and seems to hold up today’s third world as a better model for humanity than Ugly America. Post-Vietnam syndrome?

There were others who claimed knowledge of the story’s plot (and therefore meaning) without giving it. Since all the explanations I found online and elsewhere (including several academic texts, which do their best to fudge the fact that their authors do not have an explanation for the story) fell far short of the satisfaction of Mr. Tallman’s, I’m inclined to be skeptical.

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