Zounds, Gadzooks, and Fucking Sisyphus.

“Those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves.”
—Neil Peart, 1981

 

Did you know that Blindsight contains 73 instances of the word “fuck” and its variants? I’ve recently been informed of this fact by a high-school teacher down in a part of the US that— well, in the name of protecting the identities of the innocent, let’s just call it JesusLand.

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The ubiquity of “Fuck”— not just in Blindsight but in other contexts as well— carries a number of ramifications. For one thing, it implies that the characters who use it have better vocabularies and language skills than those whose mouths are squeaky clean. It also means that they probably have a greater tolerance to pain.

And in the case of this particular teacher— here in the Twenty First Century, for chrissake— it means she could lose her job if she taught Blindsight, unexpurgated, to her advanced English class. Apparently high school students in her part of the world are blissfully unfamiliar with this word. Apparently all sorts of calamities might ensue should that precarious state of affairs ever change.

*

It’s a hard scenario to wrap my head around, even though I myself had a relatively genteel history with profanity back in childhood. Raised by Baptists, I must’ve been eleven or twelve before I even used words like “damn” or “hell” in conversation; even then, I could only live with such unChristian lapses by telling myself that at least I limited myself to “clean” swearing.  I never lowered myself to the truly dirty stuff like “fuck” or “cunt” or “asshole”.

It cut no ice with my mother, who— as First Lady of the Baptist Leadership Training School— had appearances to maintain. When I pointed out that my use of such mild expletives didn’t hurt anyone, her response was always the same: “I find it offensive. That’s all you need to know.” I suspect it was this idiotic response— that unthinking preference of gut over reason— that inspired my defiant and long-overdue upgrade to F-bombery shortly thereafter.

While I changed, though, my parents never did. When my first novel came out decades later, there was Fanshun, sadly shaking her head— not angry, just very, very disappointed—  wondering why her son, who had such a way with words, had to ruin a perfectly good book with all that profanity. Especially since she had, in years past, gone so far as to suggest non-offensive alternatives for me to use.

One of them, believe it or not, was “zounds”.

Neither of us knew back then that “Zounds” was the “fuck” of its day— a contraction of “God’s wounds“, referring to the stigmata of Christ and purged from yesteryear’s polite literature the same way “fuck” is purged from mainstream outlets today (by spelling it “Z— ds!” and leaving readers to figure out the fucking omissions for themselves). Gadzooks— a similar contraction of “God’s hooks” (i.e., the nails of the crucifix)— was apparently considered equally vulgar, back before it ended up as a common expletive in Saturday comics and Bugs Bunny cartoons.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that taking offense at the word “fuck” is, rationally, no less nonsensical than objecting to “gadzooks” or “zounds”— in fact, those latter words should by rights be more offensive, since they hew closer to “taking the Lord’s name in vain”. (As far as I know, no part of scripture forbids taking the name of sex in vain.)  Should be case closed. Case shouldn’t have even been opened in the first place, in any rational universe.

*

 .

.

Cut to the present, and here we were: me, author of a book I’m pretty damn proud of in hindsight; she, a teacher who wanted to share that book with a gang of unusually bright students. Standing in our way— reluctantly, I’ve been told— was a department head who quailed at the prospect of teaching a novel that gave so very many fucks. Apparently there’d been trouble in the past. Jobs lost. Parents throwing shit-fits over course material they might have described as progressive, if such folks had ever been able work their way up to three syllables. So, this teacher asked, would it be okay if her students read a bowdlerised version of Blindsight? One from with all the f-bombs had been expunged?

It was a tougher question than you might think.

On one hand, it’s not as though I hammered out the novel thinking Oh boy, I’m gonna introduce fuck to a whole new generation! That’s what this book will be remembered for! I didn’t even think about the use of profanity, beyond the obvious need to ensure that my characters had consistent speech patterns.  Blindsight‘s essential themes could have been conveyed in language pure as the driven snowand it’s those themes that matter, not idioms of dialog.  Here was someone who wanted to introduce her students to riffs on evolution and neurology and human nature that a lot of post-grads never dip their toes into. Here was someone who not only wanted to educate, but challenge. Christ knows I would have benefited from more teachers like that during my own slog through the educational process.  I’m not seriously gonna throw a monkey wrench into her aspirations over a few expurgated curses, am I?  Am I?

And yet.

It’s not so much the change itself that rankles. It’s the demand for that change.  Where it comes from. Where it leads.

Because my work— whether you regard it as art, literature, or florid pulpy hackwork— is my work. You may love a painting or revile it, but you don’t walk into an art gallery and demand that the curator put duct tape over all the yellow bits in various paintings— no matter how easy it would be to do that, no matter if the basic theme of those paintings survives the mutilation. If the sight of yellow elements in paintings offends you, the solution’s simple: don’t go to the fucking gallery.

But these vocal Jesusland parents, who have the staff of this school so terrified: they are evidently not the kind who say I find this book offensive so I will not read it. They are not even the kind who say I do not want my children exposed to this so they will not read it. (If they were, students whose parents objected could simply be excused from that part of the class— problem solved— but this was never presented as a option.)  These parents— these hysterical, brain-dead dipshits with the room-temperature IQs— would say instead I find the profanity in this book offensive so I will have it removed from the curriculum. I will have it removed from the library.  I will have it removed from whatever parts of the world I can intimidate into bowing to my demands.

I find it offensive.  That’s all you need to know.

But isn’t that always the way it is? The line is rarely Abortion’s not for me but rather Abortion should be outlawed. Fundamentalists who demand that their creation myths be inserted into science classes tend to look at you funny when you suggest that likewise, we could insert passages from On the Origin of Species into the book of Genesis. The Ayatollah did not simply opine that The Satanic Verses wasn’t his cup of tea: he literally put out a hit on Salman Rushdie.

Maybe I’m going off the deep end here.  Maybe I’m being a self-important dipshit myself, grandiosely equating a bit of petty bleeping with homicidal fatwas and the bombing of abortion clinics. Certainly there’s no denying that Blindsight‘s troubles down in Jesusland don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to these other things, conflicts where lives are all too often at stake. But that’s kind of my point: I’d hoped that we’d won this small battle at least, that we could move on to bigger fights. It’s been a while since Catcher In the Rye was in the news. A few years back I read something about the fundies raising a stink over The Handmaid’s Tale— but that article left me with the sense that those protesters were some kind of relic population, kept alive only because of a captive-breeding program (sponsored by the Smithsonian, perhaps). PEN still has its work cut out for it but they focus overseas, on third-world totalitarian  regimes that imprison or murder writers of “offensive” or “subversive” material.

I’d hoped  that over here, we’d won on the profanity front at the very least. It’s hard to imagine a smaller victory. There’s still the ongoing war to be fought against the creationists and the racists and homophobes and the trans— hell, let’s just save ourselves a few lines and call them phobics, generic— but by all that’s holy, swear words? We haven’t even come this far, here in 21st-Century N’Am?

Evidently not. Educators in this place literally fear for their jobs, because they want to teach a book containing the word “fuck”.

I’m not claiming that Blindsight, stripped of profanity, would lose something essential. In fact, it’s the very triviality of this censorship that bothers me; it seems like such a ludicrous thing to get worked up about, such a high price to pay for something that really doesn’t matter. Such a little thing to risk one’s livelihood over. So let’s give in, and save ourselves the tantrum. Let’s pay this small, unimportant price. And Nineteen Eighty Four‘s Newspeak dictionary will have one fewer word in it, and Fahrenheit 451‘s grass-roots dystopia will burn one more book that someone considers offensive (That’s all you need to know). Only next time it will be the ideas and not the slang, it’ll be the political statement you have to cut if you want to keep your job, and it’ll be even easier this time because we’ve already taken the first step down that slope.

But that’s okay. After a few more iterations the problem will solve itself— because none of us will have the vocabulary to express dissent any more.

Back here in the present I suggested some workarounds. Maybe they could run the bowdlerized edition off on a Gestetner that blurred the words unto illegibility (I figured, given the outmoded attitudes at play in that part of the world, maybe their educational equipment might be equally antique)— at which point the teacher could simply point them to my website where the original text lay in wait. I seized upon the the department head’s reported objection to teaching a “non-classic” book containing profanity; did this imply that books regarded as “classics” got a pass? (I’m pretty sure To Kill a Mockingbird gets taught without having been purged of the word “nigger”, for instance.) As it happened, Omni had recently stuck my name on a list of “Greatest Sci-Fi Writers of All Time”, right up there with  Orwell, Wolfe, and Le Guin. It was completely bogus, of course— my name doesn’t belong anywhere near those folks, not yet at least— but somehow it had slipped in, and maybe that would be enough to classify Blindsight as a “classic”? No?

Okay, then. Maybe she could replace every instance of the word “fuck” with the name of some local personality, evil and/or corrupt in some way— someone whose name could be used as a common epithet in some dystopian future. I didn’t know who that might be— “Cheney”, “Harper”, and “Trump” would all be candidates on the federal scale, but I didn’t know anything about the local one. Since the teacher knew the locals, though, I figured I could trust her expertise.

That’s the option she went for.

And that, as far as I know, is where things stand. She says she’s cool with me blogging about this (I’ve filed off the serial numbers), and I’m told the students themselves are privy to our email conversation. (She’s also bringing “Mr. Robot” and the BSG reboot into the discussion, to illustrate various strategies by which one might get profanity past Standards & Practices; for this and other reasons, I think she’s pretty cool.)  I expect I’ll be Skyping with the class somewhere along the line. There’s little chance that any of those students will go home thinking that the characters in Blindsight used word like “heck” or “fudgemuffin”. No one will be fooled; in that sense, nothing will be censored.

And yet, I still don’t know quite how to feel about this. Some part of me still thinks I should’ve climbed onto some higher horse and refused to budge, out of sheer ornery principle. There’s not much chance the book will read smoother without the fucks than with them; in that sense, the reading experience has probably been compromised. On the other hand, Blindsight is hardly the smoothest reading experience anyway, even for people with a degree or two under their belt. (I’ve told you all about the smart-ass who asked me when it was going to get translated into English, yuk yuk yuk, right?). I don’t care how “advanced” this class is;  if the biggest problem they have with Blindsight is the rhythm of its curses, I’ll consider myself insanely lucky.

I should consider myself insanely lucky anyway. There are whole libraries of books that any teacher could go to if they wanted to turn their kids on to the joy of reading or the challenge of SF; pretty much every one of those books would be more famous than Blindsight, easier to read, and way less work. And yet, this person has chosen to climb uphill, doing all the heavy lifting herself.  She has become Sisyphus, because she believes that something I wrote might matter to people she teaches.

How often does an author get to say that?

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday August 30 2016at 02:08 pm , filed under ink on art, politics, writing news . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

54 Responses to “Zounds, Gadzooks, and Fucking Sisyphus.”

  1. I have never had a problem with the “bleep” in a movie, or “f___” in Catcher in the Rye, or “n_____” in Tom Sawyer. I always knew what they were saying. But when The Knack substituted “get inside her pants” with “giving her a chance”, or when Smokey and the Bandit (OK, I liked the movie.) substituted “somebitch” with “scumbum”, that was just puritanical.

  2. Well, fuck.

  3. If the complaints here had been intellectual, eg, “stop trying to sell me sex and give me the fucking weather report,” I could have empathized. But it was calls for showing shoulders as inappropriate:

    http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/meterorlogist-forced-put-sweater-live-tv-article-1.2637891

    And that is from Los Angeles and environs, which Bibleland thinks God wants to knock off in the ocean cuz too liberal.

    Probably still the same root cause: Neurochem changes after having children reinforced by others with same fear resulting in the panic level rising to match the most fearful in the group. There probably ought to be a principle or law regarding that, how fear and human groups interact. They are the same fears that the NRA, once long ago actually a responsible organization, now uses for marketing for Smith&Wesson, et al. The disaster/”kill your neighbors so your family will survive it” somehow gets drilled into their heads. Ironically, Hollywood makes that easier by doing those kinds of narratives over and over on TV.

  4. Ah now. If these young people are as bright as you think, they most probably have already realised that getting the unabridged version of Blindsight e-book is just as easy as using the browser’s private mode to watch some porn on the intertubes. Or easier. Have hope.

  5. You are a kind man Mr. Watts, under that gruff exterior.

  6. FWIW, I think your solution was pretty reasonable. Maybe more if they actually used the department head’s name to really send the message home who’s responsible for the change, but, if she fears for her job anyway, well, poking that particular bear might not be the best approach.

    Though the I wonder how they’ll deal with the “”So why don’t you just suck my big fat hairy dick?” line. Same way, I presume, but it’d probably have to be a bit more creative.

    I recently participated in a reddit thread involving the possibility of an advanced class reading Blindsight, maybe even the same person (although the thread was one-person-removed from the actual teacher). I brought up the swearing issue there just as a caution (not because I think it’s an actual issue but because I know how pointy-headed people are out there) but also wished I could sit in and observe the class discussions on the text.

    I have a weird relationship with swearing myself. I almost always self-censor in public, and even in text, unless I’m directly quoting something that has profanity in it. There are people who’ve known me my whole life who’ve never heard me swear. But it doesn’t bother me when other people do it, I often don’t notice it when I’m reading or watching something. And, when I’m muttering to myself, I swear like a proverbial sailor. And I have written fiction with profanity in it. I just can’t seem to use it conversationally when people are around. I don’t know why, my parents both swear an average amount as do my other relatives.

  7. I had the great fortune to have a high school English teacher who taught The Giver by Lois Lowry alongside Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Ms. Lowry was gracious enough to answer questions from our class (this was pre-Internet and pre-digital-presence, so all questions were typed and sent via post). She offered some wonderful insights and stories about writing and encoding symbols and themes, as well as answering questions about her earlier, less YA-dystopic works and how they led directly to her latest work etc. It was truly an amazing experience, to have an adult author take a bunch of kids seriously. One of my classmates took Ms. Lowry’s advice to heart, and now has two YA novels published by Simon & Schuster.

    Point is: kudos to you for doing this. You–yes, you–could change a young person’s life completely.

  8. “…my name doesn’t belong anywhere near those folks, not yet at least”

    Uh, yeah.

    It kinda does.

  9. Anony Mouse,

    Or The Big Leboski’s “See what happens when you fight a stranger in the alps?”

  10. Robert Anton Wilson would have been proud. And the department head should go Potter-Stewart himself.

  11. Most hilarious substitution might be Buscemi’s “fruitful” in Fargo when it premiered on network TV and the more general Coen “froozing” for other films and uses. “I gave simple, fruitful instructions!”

    PS: I think of Cathy Bates in Misery when the subject of cursing comes up. “cockadoodie car” and her other line to Caan: “Here’s one big bastard of a check, give me some of your Christing money.” Until, of course, she has to deal with reality and then she curses like the best of ’em.

    Ah, double-dumbass on us all.

  12. I’m sure if you tried you could create some synthetic profanity that, given a few moments thought, is more deeply unsettling and offensive than ‘fuck’ could ever be. Think of it as your “I want to have your abortion” moment: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0137523/trivia?item=tr0755880.

  13. I’m reminded of the time (Some years ago) that the BBC wanted to show Alex Cox’s “Repo Man” on TV. As you probably know it does contain the occasional profanity and even, horror of horrors, what the BBC used to call “the Oedipal Profanity”. So Cox produced his own bowdlerised version containing such classic lines as, “Flip you, melon farmer”. It was hilarious.

  14. At least it matches some of the themes of the book – Siri’s whole gig of being a concept translator. The fact that the crew’s actual speech would be unintelligible to us without it already being “rotated” for our convenience. Out there in platonic space is a 3D full immersion version of Blindsight where we get to hear and see all the grunts and clicks and unfiltered slang. :)

  15. Anony Mouse,

    The melon farmers!

  16. That seems like a reasonable compromise Peter. Although, I also cringe at pre-censoring, I am very bemused at the thought that some of the Jesusland parents might actually try to read the text. If they do bother and actually pay attention, the range of concepts may cause their little heads to explode.
    Or, just maybe, their heads might increase in size and new ideas take hold. It is probably too late for the said parents, but much more hopefully, some of the kids may find their worlds getting a little larger. That would be very cool.

  17. Deseret: Probably still the same root cause: Neurochem changes after having children reinforced by others with same fear resulting in the panic level rising to match the most fearful in the group.

    Then you’ve got the opposite reaction where Steven Spielberg, newly sensitized after having sired children, decided to gut the home invasion scene by digitizing the weapons out of the hands of the stormtroopers and replacing them with walkie talkies.

    Equally idiotic.

    Tom:
    You are a kind man Mr. Watts, under that gruff exterior.

    Even the exterior can be kind of soft and gooshy if you catch me in the right mood.

    Peter D: I recently participated in a reddit thread involving the possibility of an advanced class reading Blindsight, maybe even the same person (although the thread was one-person-removed from the actual teacher).

    Yeah. That was her SO.

    Apparently the class just started in on my short story “Ambassador”. Apparently some of the kids were completely mystified even by that simple, straightforward little piece. As for Blindsight, well…

    I’ve got a bad feeling about this…

    ken: It kinda does.

    Oh! Great! I’ll just retire now, then, and live in luxury on my vast LeGuinian savings, lemme just check my bank balance and…

    Oh.

    Deseret: I think of Cathy Bates in Misery when the subject of cursing comes up.

    That was a great performance. She totally deserved her Oscar for that.

    pkinsky: Think of it as your “I want to have your abortion” moment:

    I can’t believe Laura Ziskin would agree to those terms, line unseen. I can’t believe anyone would. But Yay Fincher for pulling it off.

  18. Peter D: Maybe more if they actually used the department head’s name to really send the message home who’s responsible for the change, but, if she fears for her job anyway, well, poking that particular bear might not be the best approach.

    Actually, as I understand it the Department head is a good egg, just stuck in a bad place. And understandably worried about losing their job, since it’s happened before.

  19. “I’m pretty sure To Kill a Mockingbird gets taught without having been purged of the word “nigger”, for instance.”

    They do purge Huckelberry Finn of the word, though. I don’t think that’s a good idea, but at least the reasons they have for that are better than those for removing “fuck” from books.

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jan/05/huckleberry-finn-edition-censors-n-word

  20. It isn’t just you, the pupils of that teacher are very lucky too. Teachers who care this much are usually only found at universities.

    Definitely ask her for highlights of the discussion that ensued.

    And alright, if you don’t want to be compared to Le Guin and Orwell, fine. You still compare favorably to Metzinger.

  21. I grew up not swearing and ever since wonder if I’ll be stuck unable to communicate if I get aphasia due to the separate language pathway for swears. I don’t know if I can catch up.

  22. Are you sure the school and teacher exist? I couldn’t help thinking that it read like a scenario for a study, what would be required for an author to accept modification of their work, even in a limited context. Or maybe just something for a piece in jesus-news-daily how even hardline evolutionists bow to the “wisdom” of the anointed.

    Maybe I’m just being cynical, but assuming everything is on the up it is a tough one. I spent the afternoon thinking about it and I couldn’t reach a conclusion on how I would have handled it had I been in your shoes. Telling them to fuck off would have been my reflexive move, and with a bit more afterthought I might have gotten some ways towards the view you present. But still not sure…

    Oh! Great! I’ll just retire now, then, and live in luxury on my vast LeGuinian savings, lemme just check my bank balance and…
    Well, it could have been worse,
    https://mic.com/articles/62651/9-incredible-writers-who-only-became-famous-after-death

  23. Peter Watts: “Apparently high school students in her part of the world are blissfully unfamiliar with this word. Apparently all sorts of calamities might ensue should that precarious state of affairs ever change.”

    I came here locked and loaded to go off on you for this introductory paragraph, thinking it unfair to the students and teachers involved. However, you went on to correctly identify the problem as the parents, and beyond that that, the conservative politicians in some areas that seize upon these things out of context to slash budgets and impose their will upon curriculum. It’s never as simple “Oh well, people are prudish”. But things like this can be cherry-picked to stir up controversy in order to advance a political agenda, and teachers and school administrators often find themselves needing to capitulate to not suffer a larger loss. So apologies for that.

    As for my own tolerance for coarse language, it tends to fluctuate wildly with how much alcohol I’ve consumed at a given time. As a general rule though, and perhaps contrary to the way you’re portraying it here, I don’t happen to see gratuitous vulgarity in fiction in any way as more sophisticated, realistic, or “adult”. If anything, it makes me feel uncomfortable because it smacks of pandering or a sort of contrived titillation, and skews a work towards the adolescent in my mind. It makes me feel like I’m reading (or viewing) beneath my level. I’d be lying if I said I never wondered why the impossibly intelligent trans-humans in your brilliant novels so frequently sounded like teenagers.

    Sometimes, you just have to drop an F Bomb–there is no substitute for a properly and judiciously placed Father Uncle Charlie Katie. But when you’re bludgeoned with repeated (or worse—mundane) profanity, it begins to feel more like a lack of imagination or articulation. This is as true in life as it is in fiction. If someone is casually inserting F-bombs in place of punctuation even for mundane statements, I’d be lying if it it didn’t involuntarily lower their IQ in my estimation. Or it comes off like a Tarantino movie, where characters are speaking with such artificially inflated profanity in impossible dialogue, the characters stop existing in any recognizable world and feel like they’re speaking in a world written entirely by 20-year olds who *think* this is what serious adults sound like. Sometimes I think the line between Tarantino and a professional adolescent Kevin Smith is defined solely on on the cinematography level.

    The most intelligent adults I know personally would be mortified if they were ever caught dropping more than a single “shit” or “fuck” in close proximity, at least when they were sober. Not that they’re prudish about the language, but as you get older, you want to *earn* those words more, and not use them as a shortcut or a lazy expression. They loose their power if applied scattershot. There’s also the issue with how boring those ubiquitous “fucks” and “shits” have become. There are too many lazy “fucks” and not nearly enough “Fuckity-fuckballs” or “Jism-Licking-Cunt-Nuggets”.

    So as far as profanity in fiction goes, my stance is that it should feel earned, and natural, but purchased on a budget. Not because I have the mind of a child and feel those things are “naughty”, but because they rapidly lose their punch, and risk lowering the material and limiting your audience.
    .

  24. *In further defense of American teachers:

    When I was in high school, I was singled out by my Lit teacher for my (at that time) advanced verbal and written language ability (which I’ve gone on to do absolutely nothing with, and can no longer remember how to properly place a comma for lack of use). I was clearly ahead of, and bored by, most of the stuff being taught, and he wanted to know what I’d read. I told him I preferred science fiction and had read Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, and Herbert. He nodded, but when I started going on about Asimov at the time as being my favorite, he said, “No. Heinlein.” I’m like, “The Strarship Troopers Guy?”, and he’s says, “no”, and gave me a copy of (controversial at the time) Stranger in a Strange Land and recommended several others, as well as Vonnegut, and got me started on more “literate” Sci-Fi.

    I still don’t believe that “literate” science fiction is superior to my first loves in the dry, big thinkers vein, but he really opened things up for me, went off-curriculum to do it, and offered me credit for projects based on that material.

    Now for the twist: This was a Catholic (religion!–oh my god–the backward victorian prudes!) school. In fact, I’m pretty sure at least Fahrenheit 451 was a curriculum standard at that time. Good teachers are out there–everywhere–but the intrusion of my country’s ideological battles into every facet of civil management means that it’s not what’s best for the students, but what can stand the public scrutiny when some politician starts cherry-picking aspects of a curriculum to repeat ad nauseam in the media to poke the hornets nest.

    Just don’t for a second believe that this kind of material is exotic for either American teachers or the students.
    .

  25. re intelligent adults being mortified: I fondly remember a lecture by an eminent authority in quantum physics who explained about a particular experiment “and then you whack that fucker with a big-ass laser”. So .. not sure about your assertion there? He certainly was _very_ intelligent ..

  26. Michael: re intelligent adults being mortified: I fondly remember a lecture by an eminent authority in quantum physics who explained about a particular experiment “and then you whack that fucker with a big-ass laser”. So .. not sure about your assertion there? He certainly was _very_ intelligent ..

    (Quote) (Reply)

    But did he go on dropping F-Bombs in every subsequent sentence after that one, or was that statement a big hook, and he wanted to emphasize it with the profanity that he had avoided casually using elsewhere so as not to dilute its affect?

    This was my point. It was not “smart people don’t cuss”.
    .

  27. Dumb American: “…so as not to dilute its affect?”

    * “affect” = effect

  28. Dumb American: But did he go on dropping F-Bombs in every subsequent sentence after that one, or was that statement a big hook, and he wanted to emphasize it with the profanity that he had avoided casually using elsewhere so as not to dilute its affect?

    actually, he had an overall very colloquial style. Not that I’d be a good judge of that as a German native speaker (meaning “American English” to me is what ppl speak in TV shows and movies), but there was definitely more thatn one swear word in the lecture. Also, that sentence wasn’t a hook because it wasn’t at the start, it came kinda late in the lecture.

  29. Michael: actually, he had an overall very colloquial style. Not that I’d be a good judge of that as a German native speaker (meaning “American English” to me is what ppl speak in TV shows and movies), but there was definitely more thatn one swear word in the lecture. Also, that sentence wasn’t a hook because it wasn’t at the start, it came kinda late in the lecture.

    Well, I certainly don’t want to quibble with you on semantics, especially when your English as a native German speaker is so excellent, and my German as a native English speaker is so…how do you say? Non-existent.

  30. Dumb American: I still don’t believe that “literate” science fiction is superior to my first loves in the dry, big thinkers vein, but he really opened things up for me, went off-curriculum to do it, and offered me credit for projects based on that material.

    If I were a teacher Stateside in JesusLand, and it was my intention to broaden every student intellectual horizon which could possibly be broadened while also assuring that I would be seeking employment elsewhere, I would be teaching Dr Watt’s “A Word for Heathens”. Despite the fact that my search bar cannot find a single “fsck” in it, many people who have been accepting their faith, well, on faith, will find this probably considerably more profane than any amount of mere profanity. Yet, if one of the purposes of science-fiction is to get people to thinking about how our understanding of the universe affects our cultures, or perhaps how circumstances we didn’t understand nor think about, could have immense “knock on” effects, this would probably be the piece to have some students read. It might also help explain how some people can barely be dragged out to Church on Sundays, and how other people just get more and more fanatical and seem increasingly crazed by all who don’t do the same.

    For teachers not trying to get in line at the unemployment-benefits office, they could probably just point at Our Gracious Host’s backlist of short stories and say “pick one”. Extra-credit summer reading, along the same lines as teachers who rightly advise their departing high-school graduates to read Kerouac’s On the Road. That novel has an epiphany in it that has to be at least as famous as the one Salinger gave us. The censors down in JesusLand might think that they’ve erased a few hundred instances of “fuck” if they forbid students to read Peter Watts, but they should realize that hundreds of thousands more instances will pop up just that fast. Sadly those probably won’t be as interesting as the ones in Watts’s short-story backlist… so if the profanity is inevitable, why not aim the kids at profanity bracketed by high-quality and very imaginative writing.

    Having read the material, above, I am not sure if Peter Watts would feel comfortable adding a “not intended for children” warning blurb to any of his stories, as if it would have any effect on said children. Maybe this is all just more of the universe conspiring to get him to writing Nellie the Nephron and a variety of twisty and fiendish profanity-free little mind-wreckers aimed at corrupting er ahem uh entertaining the tween and young-teen market.

  31. Compare using harsh language with gun, war, rape, and drunken-post-bar-fight culture and I think the appeal to smart people, assuming that is a thing, becomes apparent. Baser human instincts finding an outlet that does not involve anything physical apart from rewiring neurons of the listeners via a words.

    I’m actually surprised how often I hear cursing these days from parents in front of their kids. I find it refreshing and a more comfortable atmosphere than stick-up-the-ass perfect-pretending.

  32. Tourettes. The existence of this disease says there’s something neuroanatomical about swearing. There is an issue of mental control.

    A person who swears uncontrollably is in a sad condition.

    but

    To ensure someone is overly sensitive to swearing is a means of control.

  33. Anony Mouse:
    I have never had a problem with the “bleep” in a movie, or “f___” in Catcher in the Rye,or “n_____” in Tom Sawyer. I always knew what they were saying.

    It’s funny, but the “bleep” sound is always filthier-sounding than whatever it replaces. The “unbleeped” version usually sounds tame by comparison. Many comedians have mined this phenomenon for yuks.

  34. blog where linguists and other folks talk about swears. https://stronglang.wordpress.com/about/

  35. Maybe too late to the party, but another workaround would be to get your publisher to offer the school a class set of paperbacks for free – Del Rey did this for me with a school somewhere in the mid-west whose lit teacher wanted to do Altered Carbon with his class. The issue of profanity (or other dodgy content) never arose in this case, he clearly had a pretty laid back departmental head and – maybe – an equally laid back set of parents to work with; but the way funding is for US state schools generally, the directorate would probably be so delighted to be getting free class sets of books that they wouldn’t give a Cheney about any profanity contained within…….

  36. Richard Morgan:
    Maybe too late to the party, but another workaround would be to get your publisher to offer the school a class set of paperbacks for free – Del Rey did this for me with a school somewhere in the mid-west whose lit teacher wanted to do Altered Carbon with his class.The issue of profanity (or other dodgy content) never arose in this case [snip]

    Wow. From what I remember of the top notch porn in AC, that is surprising. I have to believe that one flew under somebody’s radar. Lucky kids! Er, not because of the sex, but getting exposed to such a great sci-fi book like that in high school.

  37. Deseret:
    Compare using harsh language with gun, war, rape, and drunken-post-bar-fight culture and I think the appeal to smart people, assuming that is a thing, becomes apparent.

    I’m unsure if this was aimed in my direction, but I regret the way I phrased some things in that post. My intention was not to imply in any way that “smart people” don’t use coarse language. They are obviously the ones most capable of using it effectively and creatively.

    My (overstated in that post) disdain for the lazy use of profanity doesn’t come into play unless one is frequently substituting profanity for punctuation, nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. If someone doesn’t regularly use sentences like, “Every fuckin time those fuckers fuckin come around here, it’s the same fuckin shit”, then they aren’t what I’m referring to.

    Of course, all criticism is autobiographical. I find it grating because that is precisely how my friends and I used to speak around each other when we were kids and enchanted by the novelty of using “forbidden” language. Even now, get some drinks into me and I’ll be talking like a sailor (apologies to any actual sailors for the stereotype). That’s because the alcohol is eroding my ability to articulate complex thoughts, and the gaps are being filled in lazy fashion by language my lowered inhibitions are letting through. I’m always embarrassed by it afterward. I value my ability to articulate, and the ways I’ve grown. When I let a “fuck” fly, I want it to be a glorious, perfectly placed “fuck” for maximum effect.

    That’s why some material feels regressive to me. I value different things now as a cranky old man, and simply don’t find casual coarse language as provocative or compelling as I once did, in life *or* media.
    .

  38. I’d say you did the right thing. In any creative work there’s stuff that’s essential and stuff that won’t be missed by the audience without diluting it either. Book cover art for example is not essential.

    You mentioned that the teacher was also going to show the students the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Would that have been better if the characters had all said “fuck” instead of “frack”? Or would the ending have sucked less?

  39. Dumb American: I’m unsure if this was aimed in my direction…

    Not aimed at you but partially prompted by what you wrote. This is one of the things I love about the commenters here, they make you think, challenge your assumptions.

  40. I live in the state of jesusland and i myself as a college student find that that is plain out stupid and retarded

  41. As much as I loathe censorship in all its forms… the ideas in Blindsight are so awesome (and, in their own way, subversive), that in this case, a bit of compromise on your part might actually be serving the greater good. Especially deep in the heart of Jesusland, I bet there are a few kids in that class that will find Blindsight truly inspiring. Great to know there are high school kids that will be reading it.

  42. Watched David Cross’ Make America Great Again standup last night. Definitely detect some compromises, or clever arrangement of material on his part to get to where he wanted to get later in the show. You’ll note the world peace solution comes pretty far in. Of course it’s Austin, which is a rather blue oasis in the country of red Texas {not that those colors mean much beyond packaging of similar policies}.

  43. Deseret: Texas will be purple by 2024 or 2028. That’s why the fighting has been so nasty for the last few years. This is the big putsch, I mean push to make one person one vote irrelevant before it turns against the “right” people. The Republicans losing Texas is like Byzantium losing Anatolia: Game over, dude. (Then of course, we will learn that the absence of a negative is not all that positive: blue vs red M&Ms. If we don’t have ecological collapse and if the alt-right fails in the short term (which I think it will), then that is where politics will really go off into waters unknown.)

    Wish I had to something to say on-topic, but Mr. Watts covered the whole map in the original post in my opinion.

  44. Privateiron: Not if we build-a-wall, which of course you’ve pointed out the real reason for.

    Cracked – What if the Donald Trump is just an elaborate prank?.

  45. Every so often I have this wild idea for a course called “Voices from the Fringes”. It would be taught in senior year the high school, and in it the students would be introduced to the ideas of major intellectuals who are well outside the mainstream. This would be a class where the students would encounter and discuss the ideas of Rand, Bork, and Friedman (on the right) and Chomsky, Dworkin, and Klein (on the left). I think that would be a good idea. Welcome to adult life, kids; we adults don’t always agree.

    The problem is that such a course would be an absolute lightning rod for criticism from all directions. All kinds of decent folk could find something in it to object to. So it’s probably not workable.

  46. (Wait… there was porn in Altered Carbon?!!
    OK… There really IS something wrong with how I remember written works / my story processing units are borked. I have problems even with remembering character names. And this is in books I’ve liked. Sigh…)

    You did the most-constructive-under-the-circumstances thing. Annoying as fuck to have had to do it, I’m sure. It may have been more satisfying to solicit (on an intentionally protracted basis) ideas on redactive edits from JesusLand parents themselves, until the point at which they deemed the work admissible to the school curriculum (if such a point ever arrives). The entire discourse then becomes the studied thing, by dint of which jesusLand parents would have been made to read a Wattsian work in its uncensored form, and the student body gets to study two things (blindsight for one, and the society they live in, for another).

    But yeah prolly too much work.

  47. Johan Larson: his would be a class where the students would encounter and discuss the ideas of Rand, Bork, and Friedman (on the right) and Chomsky, Dworkin, and Klein (on the left).

    Rand doesn’t quite fit in with Bork and Friedman. She was more of a semi-popular author than a “major intellectual” back in the day, although her work has been generating a lot of interest in recent years.

    The actual intellectuals listed are pretty mainstream IMO. For some real fringe flavor, maybe you could throw in Christopher Hitchens from the period before the brain tumor drove him batshit raving insane. One man, fringe ideas from BOTH ends of the spectrum.

  48. Leona:
    (Wait… there was porn in Altered Carbon?!!
    OK… There really IS something wrong with how I remember written works / my story processing units are borked. I have problems even with remembering character names. And this is in books I’ve liked. Sigh…)

    I recall a fairly substantial and , ah, descriptive sexual encounter between Kovacs and Miriam Bancroft while they’re tripping on consciousness-sharing narcotic, where she ends up adorned with his seminal fluid. Moreover, a running theme in the book is how the Meths (humans with a multi-century lifespan) make use of prostitutes or other lower class citizenry to purge their sado-masochistic, occasionally murderous, sexual urges rather than sully their other Meth relationships with it.

    It’s the sort of aspect that if cherry-picked in the media by a political opportunist, would prove indefensible–not because it’s morally wrong, but simply because it wouldn’t be worth the fight politically speaking. The material in question isn’t politically trendy enough for progressives to want to risk it –it would require lesbians or transexuals for that. It would make feminists uncomfortable for hewing too closely to the typical female exploitation in male porn fantasy. At no point in the debate would any but a tiny minority actually be concerned with Jesus. It’s all political.

    So someone(s) would almost certainly lose their job(s) in order to preserve the budget and attempt to avoid further political scrutiny. The great speculative stuff in AC about digitized human consciousness and bodies as digital media would be lost in the shuffle.

    It would be totally worth it though, to hear some apoplectic soccer mom try to describe a “facial” to a PTA assembly. I’d pay money for that. Talk about some good porn.
    .

  49. Mark Russell:
    I bet there are a few kids in that class that will find Blindsight truly inspiring. Great to know there are high school kids that will be reading it.

    I don’t know. I think we run the risk of painting too idealistic a picture of school children as eager, empty vessels, just waiting for their heads to be filled with wonderful, big ideas. We forget that the fastest way to ruin a good book is to require someone to read it.

    I was a heavy reader outside of school, but I resented every single book I was forced to read for school, and worse, do homework on. This includes the stuff that passed for sci fi, like Harrison Bergeron, and Brave New World. In fact, I hated those especially, and to this day I resent overly preachy speculative fiction with some nominally dystopian setting used to make some sort of naked social commentary.

    Since most of the adult reading population would bounce off Blindsight either from the dense language, the “nerdy” sci-fi stigma, or rejection of theme, it seems optimistic to believe it would fare any better among kids with an even smaller chance of understanding it.

    While I want to believe that kids would find Blindsight more interesting than dreary old Steinbeck because it has space vampires and aliens, my experience suggests that far more of them would be put off by the fact that the vampires weren’t sparkly or engaged in soap opera romances, and the humans aren’t shooting the aliens with ray guns. It’s just the latest “weird-ass fucking book” forced on them by their “fucking asshole teacher”, interfering with their social lives.

    I almost don’t want to see a book like Blindsight forced on them, so they still have the chance to discover it on their own and love it. I’m afraid that the esoteric charms of good sci fi will ever be a niche reward for the lucky souls that appreciate it, and these people will find the worthwhile stuff eventually without anyone’s help. It’s in their nature to do so.

    .

  50. Dumb American: I recall a fairly substantial and , ah, descriptive sexual encounter between Kovacs and Miriam Bancroft while they’re tripping on consciousness-sharing narcotic, where she ends up adorned with his seminal fluid. Moreover, a running theme in the book is how the Meths (humans with a multi-century lifespan) make use of prostitutes or other lower class citizenry to purge their sado-masochistic, occasionally murderous, sexual urges rather than sully their other Meth relationships with it.

    It’s not even the only one in the series. Someone remarked on another forum that British SF authors have a preoccupation with weird and fairly descriptive sex scenes in their novels. Rather true in my experience but I don’t have enough overall data. Not that it matters to me as long there is some point to it story-wise.

  51. John Rodriguez: Someone remarked on another forum that British SF authors have a preoccupation with weird and fairly descriptive sex scenes in their novels.

    I knew there was a reason I liked British SF.

    I hope it didn’t seem like I was picking on Mr. Morgan. I like some hot sex in my books as much as the next guy, and Altered Carbon is a great novel that all hard…er, ambitious SF fans should read. I was just remarking that I couldn’t imagine it not being problematic, even in more enlightened districts.

  52. Oh, well, what the hell… I doubt it, Peter, that you’ve ever considered yourself a teacher of English philology – although I wouldn’t be surprised if you did. Joking aside, I guess you should know that there exist at least two Ukrainian geeks, for whom Blindsight and Rifters became ones of their first-ever-read English language books – and was that memorable! It’s funny that you found it necessary to say it never had been your intention to make Theseus carry a shipload of fucks – or is it sad that one has to provide such explanations of one’s writing style?
    I’ve read most of your books. What I saw is coherence, and clarity, and the language pretty damn poetic in its nature. I know that my reading buddy concurs with me on that (IDGFF that there has to be no less than six of them to make my opinion scientifically valuable). All in all, I deem this post the most appropriate place to express my gratitude. Thank you kindly, good sir Marine Biologist!

  53. Gadzooks, I owe you a belated congratulations. Over the past 3-4 years an equally small group of writers whose entire output I would automatically buy has shrunk to, well, you. You once pissed me off in the past, by putting up bits that, as it turned out, may have been a bit premature. IIRC, that involved a wait of a couple of years. Do not recall exactly when that was, save that it was after I read a Stross post alerting people to your run-in with my local (US) border-Gestapo.

    You can never tell in advance when someone will read a random post at that perfect time when it resonates with them. For reasons that are too tedious to go into, this post, and the responses to it, hit that mark.

  54. I always find a great joy when the topics of transhumanism and conciousness appear during my lectures on ethics at a local technical university. I can then suggest my students read “Blindsight” and quote often mindboggling facts I have learned both from it and this blog.

    I also find some sort of masochistic pleasure in admitting that Peter Watts is my favourite author, despite the fact I too am one of the religious dipshits he has so much disdain for…