Sunday, May 3, 2015

Consideration of Works Present: Station Eleven

(Picture from here.)

This is the first of a new set of Considerations: contemporary works. Why I'm doing this is discussed here. On with it:

It’s a curious thing to feel alone in the wilderness for so long and then find a companion.

Let me explain.

We all have favorite authors. People we can always turn to and read for enjoyment or understanding or technique. I have those: Mark Twain, Alfred Bester, Clifford Simak, William Faulkner, Earnest Hemingway.

Still, years ago, when I was first forming an idea of how stories worked and how I wanted to make them, I ran into John Dos Passos’ Manhatten Transfer. It made a huge impact on me though it was some time before I could articulate it.

I’m one of those people that rip through an author when I find them and Dos Passos was no exception. This culminated in reading ChosenCountry, which I’ve talked about in great length here.

Chosen Country was the book I read that finally formed the core of what I wanted to do with longer works.
John Dos Passos used a technique that is not terribly in fashion these days. He used multiple points of view to explore something larger than any combination of characters could explore on his own. This meant that the reader was an accomplice in the act of the novel. Kurt Vonnegut said it succinctly, if somewhat disparagingly, on the first page of God Bless You Mister Rosewater: "A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees."

John Brunner tried this technique in Stand on Zanzibar but I don’t think he fully captured it.

I’ve written several books but only two have seen print: Caliban Landing and Slow Lightning. Both take little swats at the technique in that the larger story is intended to be in the mind of the reader but only partially grasped by the characters in the work. Nearly every novel I’ve written since has been an attempt to grasp this nettle. This might have something to do with why they aren’t published.

So I picked up StationEleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

This is a novel about a disease driven apocalypse. It plots the course of its characters from just before the apocalyptic event, through its aftermath to a relatively calm point later in time. It's a little cozy, I admit. It gets through the rough part and stops just before the left over relics of the past civilization begin to decay. It's an interesting apocalyptic arc-- not the one I'm most interested in, myself. I like somewhat later, after all the crash and fury when the relics themselves are becoming useless and people must come up with new solutions. But that's not the point and not the reason this novel is interesting. She has brought the Dos Passos technique into the 21st century.

Somewhere about half way through the novel I realized what she was attempting. My first thought at the end was: My God. She did it.

The problem in adapting the Dos Passos technique to a more modern audience is character. Dos Passos did a good job painting the environment his people worked in, what they did, the social environment they worked in and their motivations. But the style of the times did not delve deeply into psychological presentation the same way modern fiction does. Dos Passos largely wrote before Norman Mailer, Philip K Dick or Margaret Atwood.

Not to say he didn’t do good characterization. He did. But the nature of characterization has changed since then.
There has been an attempt over the years to attempt something called a braided novel. This looks similar to the Dos Passos technique but is not quite the same thing. The difference lies in the larger story. In a braided novel, a common story is told across common points of view. In a Dos Passos novel, there is no common story. There is a telling, to be sure. But it’s about something other than a story. Manhatten Transfer is about New York City. U.S.A. is about America. Chosen Country is about the nature of love. But there is no common story linking the characters in any of the novels.

For example, one might tell the story of the American revolution through the eyes of multiple characters. The revolution itself has a story: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. The characters are different perspectives on the story of the revolution. That’s a braided novel.

But stories are not the only kind of organizing principle around which people collect. Cities, countries, theoretical physics, also collect people. Refusing to push the organizing principle into story form and letting the characters follow their own path and then letting those paths speak to some larger issue is a different kettle of fish.

As I said before, Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel where the population of the world is devastated. It begins with a death on stage a couple of weeks prior to the disaster and ends thirty years later. It follows about a dozen or so characters through the process. Some characters interact. Some have common history. Some do not. Some disappear mysteriously like so many other dying people in the book. Some never realize their connections. They do not know the story. Only the reader knows the story.

Mandel is talking about loss and recovery, disaster and adaptation, but none of the characters knows more than their own slice of the tale. After all, most of it happens after the loss of any possible distance communication between them. Consequently, their connections must remain mysterious to one another.

But not to the reader.

This was the Dos Passos genius that Mandel seems to be channeling. To tell individual stories that, through the braiding speaks to the larger idea. The threads are disconnected from one another and broken in time. Some directly tend to reflect what Mandel’s interested in. Some reflections are harder to see.

Go read it.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Minority Politics of Puppies

I haven't had a blog show up for a bit. I've written more than one post but discarded it. Either it didn't say what I wanted to say or it said it with too much vitriol or it didn't make the situation better. Finally, I decided to just flounder on-- which is sort of a pattern of my life.

What I'm speaking of is the gaming of the Hugos by Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies. To describe it briefly, a group of people who feel recent Hugos either overrepresent people who aren't white and male or are too literary bought a bunch of WorldCon pre-memberships and dominated the nomination process with books they feel need to be nominated. If you want to read more about it, see here, here, here and here. I find it dispiriting to read about.

For my own part, as a writer I want to be invisible. The facts of my race, gender, sexual orientation and political point of view should have no bearing on the reader's appreciation of my work. That my heritage and point of view informs my work is unarguable. That it be used to judge my work is unconscionable. If a person of color writes a bad book, it's a bad book. If a white person writes a bad book, it's a bad book. If a literary person writes a bad book, it's a bad book. If a hard SF engineer writes a bad book, it's a bad book. Ideology does not drive my nominations or my vote. If my inclination results in a literary nomination, then it should be the nomination of a work I admire.

So the Hugo nominations were gamed. It's sad but not surprising. It's no different from what the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (locally and fondly known as the Bagworm) tried to do to Antelope, Oregon. It's not a lot different from the way people of an ideological persuasion try to game political primaries.

This process is not new. Part of it goes back to Bidwell Wheeler and the Prohibition Movement. Wheeler realized that elections were usually very close: 49-51 sorts of things. That meant if you controlled enough votes to swing elections you possessed far more power than your numbers would suggest. Once Wheeler showed how this worked, it was taken up by many groups. In recent times, as the number of participating voters declined this mechanism has become far more effective.

Enter the internet.

One of the things instant and vast communication triggers is the ability to electronically mobilize quickly. This has a corollary that marginal groups (such as the puppies) can get their act together and pool resources. No one needs to have an in-person meeting in order to mobilize money and effect.

One does need not to attend a worldcon for the Hugo nomination to go forward. Consequently, those who have an axe to grind can do so with just the spending of a small sum and an investment of a paltry bit of time online. Since the goal is nomination and not winning, and the nominating mechanism is based on the numbers of submitted nominations, it's fairly easy to game the system and nominate what a marginal group desires. Investment is low and return is high.

And it completely defeats the purpose of the Hugos-- or any such nominating procedure. It gets worse as barriers are placed into the process. Most primary nominations are done in a polling place. American primaries don't get nearly the press that full elections do in the same way off year  elections don't get the same press that presidential elections do. So if one compares voter participation for presidential elections to off year elections to primaries, then it starts with the max and whittles down to the primaries. Since the primaries determine who is standing for the actual election (as the Hugo nominations stand for the election of the award) the candidates are often in the position of representing the more radical base that vote in primaries than the electorate as a hole. As we see happening now in the Hugos.

The voting statistics for Hugo nominations look suspiciously like American voting statistics (See here.) in that significantly fewer people nominate than vote. Consequently, it is ripe for the sort of marginal politics I've been describing.

Any democratic system can be rigged this way. You can argue political parties are just means by which like minded people can game the system-- which is often a comment made by small political parties. And they are right. We see some of it with niche politics but more on the right than the left. One wonders what the world would look like if some of the parties I like (such as the Greens and others) took the Wheeler lesson and started running with it.

To paraphrase Edmund Burke, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for the good to do nothing.

The problem then becomes what is the right thing to do about this.

I'm not going to Spokane so I won't see the outcome in real time. Many have said they'll vote no award. The perpetrator of Sad Puppies says that a no award process will result in repercussions from his group. To me this lays bare his motivations. He set up a situation within a democratic framework and is unwilling to abide by a possible result. I only wish elections had the same possibility.

Regardless, a no award solution might work this year but it won't work in the future. If this continues we'll see different groups trying similar techniques and then we have War of the Splinter Groups-- which pretty much is the national sate of America right now. I suppose it's not surprising that an American worldcon reflect America but it's still sad.

As I understand it, it takes two successive worldcons to implement a voting change. So I expect significant political machinations and rhetoric over the next two years. A couple of solutions have suggested themselves to me:
  1. Nominations be only by memberships that imply actual attendance.
  2. Nominations be determined to be valid only if the nominators actually end up registering at the convention. (This would have the effect of delaying the ballot until the actual worldcon, but so what?)
  3. Decreasing the barrier entry so that anyone can nominate easily. But then confirm the nominations by attendees. (Again, delaying final ballot but so what?)
I'm not a regular con attendee so I need to find another way to not do nothing. My plan is to start talking about more recent books. Books I think deserve an award nomination. Some have gotten them already-- Mandel's Station Eleven has been nominated for the Clarke Award.

The idea is if I put out what I think are legitimate award nominees, perhaps I can in some small way combat the evil I'm seeing.

I dearly hope the Hugos are salvaged lest they become as devalued as American political elections.