A/Political (and a deferral on Doomsday)

(I should be writing about the latest Doomsday Report from the IPCC. It’s not often that such an august scientific body concludes that massive and devastating changes to the planet constitutes our best-case scenario, that even that best-case depends on the deployment of unicorn tech that hasn’t been developed yet. But there’s a lot to digest here. I’ll need some time to get my shit together.  Also, I’m waiting to see how the usual political suspects respond to a report that leaves so very little wiggle room.

So, while I’m doing that, here’s an extended director’s cut of a recent NF column.)

*

A reader review of The Freeze-Frame Revolution, grabbed off Amazon:

“An interesting idea and it is well developed. However, I almost gave it zero stars as 1/2 way into the novella Watts inexplicably begins to use idiotic “words” such as xe, xir, se and other such embarrassing verbal atrocities. This kind of PC wordsmithing/social engineering must be utterly destroyed root and branch. It is a verbal abomination. It is a giant middle finger to every literate person who speaks or reads the English language. I threw my copy in the trash. It was the only appropriate response.”

This is not the only review to take exception to my choice of pronouns, although it is perhaps the most vehement. Beyond the usual nitpicks about factual inaccuracy (nowhere does “xe” or “xir” appear anywhere in FFR), my immediate gut reaction to this is Fuck you, buddy. I imagine most of you would sympathize.

But at the same time, there are these reviews from the opposite end of the scale—

“there are so many more great ideas inside this novella. Take for example Kaden, who is referred to as ‘se’ and ‘hir’.” ;

“There are many examples of Watts’s inventive writing, perhaps most noticeably the use of the gender-neutral pronouns “se” and “hir” throughout the book”;

“there was some awesome diversity casually thrown into the storyline”

—and you might be a bit less sympathetic to see me say Fuck you, too.

Because I did not introduce “se” and “hir” to make any kind of political point. I wasn’t being politically correct, and I wasn’t trying to sneak in any pro-fluid diversity subtext. I used those terms because it’s a statistical certainty that out of a crew thirty thousand, some are going to live off the peaks of the bimodal distribution. It just makes sense to have a pronoun for that. To draw explicit attention to those pronouns— to cite it as “inventiveness” or a “great idea”— is like praising someone for describing a character’s height or eye color.

It gets worse. In his review of Blindsight, Resolute Reader remarks that

“In this future Earth many social problems have been solved (women are now on an equal footing socially and economically with men)…”

In fact, the subject of gender equality never passed through my mind when I was writing that book. Some of the cast were male; some were female; they had jobs. This is a remarkable scenario? (Others take a dimmer view of my gender portrayals; a couple of readers have grumbled that Sunday Ahzmundin doesn’t “seem particularly female” or “sound like a woman”. I’d be curious to know what “a woman” is supposed to sound like. Maybe, moving forward, I should insert a couple of “Goodness, Ah do declare“s into Sunday’s dialog.)

The gender stuff is only the tip of the iceberg, though. I’ve lost count of the people who assume I’m writing “about” environmental collapse, “about” the way the brain stem overrides the neocortex “about” free will.[1] (At least a few have grumpily wondered if I’m capable of writing “about” anything else.) I’ve been called everything from a flaming liberal to a full-on reactionary despite repeatedly denying that I write “about” any of this stuff. I do write stories in which environmental collapse and physics and human biology exist as elements— not because they’re the subject of the exercise, but because they’re an undeniable part of the world. It would be  unrealistic not to have these elements as part of the backdrop— so why assume that I’m writing about them? How many times have you heard someone say “Those Coen Brothers— man, couldn’t they just once give us a movie that wasn’t about cars? Every single movie they’ve ever made has cars in it!”

Almost a decade ago, “The Island” made offhanded reference to a mutiny which the Chimp put down when he “cut off our life support”. I never really thought much about the details at the time, but as the years went by it started to sink in that you can’t just “have a mutiny” under those conditions. Given the panoptical power imbalance aboard Eriophora, any uprising would have to take the definition of “conspiracy” to a whole new level. That’s why The Freeze-Frame Revolution exists, that’s what was in my mind when I was writing it: not “what does it mean” but “how would it work”?

And yet you’ve got this guy over here opining that FFR is

“centrally political. In spite of the obvious amenity of Chimp, more than of a tutelary State, it is a real Leviathan that we are talking about here. … It is power and cold state reason that Watts speaks of in this text.”

And over here on Infinite Text:

“I do have a tendency to read into social criticisms as hidden between the lines of every work, but in all seriousness Watts wrote a book here that is really fun and sprinkled with philosophical questions.”

That last bit, there: “a tendency to read into social criticisms as hidden between the lines of every work”. Is that all that’s at work here? Fiction as Rorschach blot, always a political act but only to political readers? I like to think my stories emerge from the data: Here is the science— these are the ramifications— this is the tale to illustrate them. Sometimes the result may look ideological but that doesn’t mean it is, not if it was derived empirically.

“The Things”— one of my most popular stories— is, among other things, a commentary on the missionary impulse. That makes it political pretty much by definition. And yet it didn’t start that way; it started as a piece of unabashed fanfic, informed by a paper I’d read on intrasomatic cellular competition. I was two thirds of the way through writing the damn thing before the missionary angle even occurred to me. It just— emerged from the plot, without deliberate intent.

Is it political? Ideological? Empirical? Can a story be “political” if it’s derived speculempirically? Can a story be apolitical, ever?

If so, how do you tell?

*

Maybe it has to do with set-up.

Consider “The Screwfly Solution”, by Alice Sheldon; a short story in which unseen aliens use ecofriendly pest-control techniques to wipe out Humanity. They edit the intertwined pathways of sex and violence in the Human brain, amping up male misogyny to the point where— using the justification offered by a fundamentalist religious cult— we simply kill all the women.

Now consider Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: social and political instability allow religious extremists to take over the US government and reshape society according to fundamentalist, Old-Testament rules in which women fare very poorly.

Both tales have been hailed as feminist masterpieces. Both are chilling and compelling (the plausibility with which the gynocidal imperative is gradually justified and accepted as a societal norm is one reason I regard Screwfly as one of the finest biological-SF stories ever written). And both, I daresay, were written to make a political point.

But only Handmaid’s had to be. It’s hard to see how that novel could have come into existence by any means other than Atwood thinking Someone should really point out where this whole fundamentalism thing leads. In contrast, I can see— at least in theory— how “The Screwfly Solution” could have arisen by asking a completely apolitical question: Aliens want to take over the planet without damaging the biosphere. How might they do that?

Compare also the recent TV series “Humans” and “Westworld”. Both deal with AI and consciousness— but the world of “Humans” seems configured solely to hammer home the tired, utterly safe political point that Slavery Is Wrong. Westworld covers so much more than that, because Westworld is an actual rumination on consciousness and free will (they even brought neuroscientist David Eagleman on board as an adviser). It doesn’t create a world that’s designed to force a predetermined conclusion; it creates a world that asks questions, lets the conclusions emerge from them.

Ursula Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness— hailed as feminist because of its exploration of gender roles in a gender-fluid society. But that exploration doesn’t emerge from an overtly political starting point (“Patriarchy Is Bad”) but rather from a biological question: What would society look like if Humans were sequential hermaphrodites, like oysters or clownfish? It’s a much more interesting kernel to build a story around— and while it lends itself to political commentary, it isn’t rooted in it. (Le Guin herself seemed pretty contemptuous of “message stories” in general.)

The difference, I think, comes down not so much to what a given story says, but to how it gets there: does it interrogate, or does it preach? Do political conclusions emerge from the plot or are they built into the premise, as intrinsic and unavoidable as gravity?

Does the story follow the data to a (possibly political) conclusion, or does it start with the conclusion and cherry-pick the data to get there?

I’m not entirely sure. I think the first approach carries way more potential for surprise and enlightenment, while the second merely reinforces pre-existing bias— but only an idiot would pretend that we don’t all come with bias preinstalled. Maybe the difference is, some of us are better than others at hiding that fact. Maybe this whole rigorously-objective argument is just an eloquent retcon to defend my own bias against preachy stories, and to deny that I’d ever let such cooties infest my own work even if appearances say otherwise.

I expect my thinking on this subject will evolve over time. In the meantime, though, I’d implore you not to project too much ideology onto my writing, no matter how tempting it may seem. I have political opinions, for sure, but I don’t write to force them on you.

Matter of fact, the stories I’ve written have actually challenged my own political opinions once or twice.

I consider that a good sign.


[1] Despite the fact that in the end notes to Echopraxia, I explicity state “I don‘t have much to say about [free will] because the arguments seem so clear-cut as to be almost uninteresting.”

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday October 10 2018at 10:10 am , filed under Uncategorized . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

44 Responses to “A/Political (and a deferral on Doomsday)”

  1. Unless it is otherwise stated by the author themselves I assume their intent was a paycheck and hopefully enjoyment by the reader. The latter promotes the first. I am simple in this way.

  2. I really hate to see you get worked up over anonymous user reviews. Not only is there no telling what is on the other side of that with whatever agenda, or if they really even read the book–it lends them a legitimacy they shouldn’t have. Wait til someone gets in your face about it on the ‘Crawl or when you’re slumming at Facebook before you give greater than zero fucks.

    As for this:

    The difference, I think, comes down not so much to what a given story says, but to how it gets there: does it interrogate, or does it preach? Do political conclusions emerge from the plot or are they built into the premise, as intrinsic and unavoidable as gravity?

    Personally, I tend to check out whenever I become more aware of the writer than the story. I doesn’t matter if I agree or disagree with the point of view. When I become aware it’s the writer speaking through a character rather than a story unfolding, something has gone wrong and I bounce right out of the book.

  3. > “Goodness, Ah do declare“

    “Well, bless your heart” also works.

  4. Here’s a question to consider as you ponder the latest climate report: how big a disaster would it take to drive dramatic action against global warming? My own pet theory is that we’ll need to lose a city. And that city may be Miami: it’s low-lying, prone to severe weather, and built on porous stone which means usual flood-control measures like dikes and seawalls won’t work.

  5. Maybe, moving forward, I should insert a couple of “Goodness, Ah do declare“s into Sunday’s dialog.

    If you decide to make her sound like Senator Lindsey Graham.

  6. You can write for us, but you can’t read for us.

  7. Johan Larson: how big a disaster would it take to drive dramatic action against global warming? My own pet theory is that we’ll need to lose a city.

    Been there. Done that. Didn’t matter.

    The lethally intransigent sack gibbons running the show dont see anything but an unfortunate act of god. Unless of course the destroyed city has a sizeable population of the wrong skin color, in which case they don’t see anything at all.

  8. Samuel Delany gave an interesting interview about Triton that discusses how the political ought to come about.
    https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/interviews/delany52interview.htm

    “By and large, utopian thinking starts with a general political idea, in the service of some large and overarching notion such as “freedom,” “happiness,” or “equality”; the writer of a utopia then works down and in, to determine what the texture of life might be for the individual in a world run according to such ideas. But what practice often reveals is that, when we start from full scale politics, the resultant life texture ends up as far away from the ideal as it can possibly get.

    By and large today, in SF, you start with the texture of life around some character. Nor is that texture necessarily conceived of as “the good life.” Rather, you say, what would be an interesting life texture. If you have to have bad things, what bad things might you be able to stand? You look at the specific texture of the character’s everyday world—not the greater political structure his or her bit of life is enmeshed in. Then, in the course of the fictive interrogation of the material that makes up the rest of the book or story, you move—fundamentally—up and out…towards the political.

    What larger structures, you begin asking as you move outward, might produce such a life texture? But the wise SF writer doesn’t try to answer those rigorously. Rather, she or he decides: What ballpark would those structures lie in?”

  9. What are you talking about, -DA-? We haven’t lost any modern cities because of climate change that I’m aware of. Some ancient settlements, sure, such as the Viking colony on Greenland. But you’re not expecting us to learn lessons from ancient history, are you?

  10. Johan Larson: What are you talking about, -DA-? We haven’t lost any modern cities because of climate change that I’m aware of.

    Cities like New Orleans and Houston in the US were effectively destroyed by hurricanes, and still haven’t fully recovered. Haiti is still struggling as far as Im aware.

    If your standard for destruction requires them to be completely wiped off that map, I guarantee you it still wouldn’t matter. It wont matter because even if we have major hurricanes every week, they will still only see a series of tough luck storms, not the effects of climate change. It would cost them way too much, cognitively speaking.

    You really want to make a difference? There’s never been a better time. The President of the United States has the mind of a child, and has shown us exactly how he receives information and makes decisions. Just seize control of one of the state propaganda broadcasters he favors, and craft a nice narrative about him saving the world, maybe with laser guns and ladies in sequined swimsuits.

    He just wants to be loved. Give him what he wants. Taking control of Fox News has to be more plausible a solution than voting green.

  11. Is it political? Ideological? Empirical? Can a story be “political” if it’s derived speculempirically? Can a story be apolitical, ever?

    To answer the last question first, it depends on the reader. For some readers, the answer is clearly “no.” And who are you to call them wrong? (Not saying that you’re calling them wrong!)

    As to the penultimate question, again this depends on the reader. For many readers who have strong political convictions, empirical inquiries rapidly lead to uncomfortable places… reality does have a well-known liberal bias, after all, and one major political party in the US has made it a requirement for all Presidential candidates to ritually disavow various scientific findings as an early step in the nomination process. Which is not to say that liberals, or progressives, or leftists (or whatever label they prefer) come off as committed realists, if the subject is something like evolutionary psychology.

  12. Aardvark Cheeselog: Which is not to say that liberals, or progressives, or leftists (or whatever label they prefer) come off as committed realists, if the subject is something like evolutionary psychology.

    In the wake of psychology becoming the poster boy for the replication crisis, any branch of psychology not receiving extra helpings of skepticism is not the mark of realism. We’ve done surprisingly well for the most part, given time, at studying the physical laws of the universe, but we are shit at studying ourselves. Any realist will acknowledge this.

  13. Personally, one of the most compelling and effective qualities of Freeze-Frame was that–without any prior knowledge of “The Island”–it’s difficult (if not impossible) to tell what gender Sunday is. I haven’t re-read it, so there may be revealing details I’m not recalling; but the novel is quite naturally gender-neutral, and not in any way that feels forced or inorganic. The gender-neutral pronouns simply felt like a reasonable extrapolation based on the behavioral and cognitive patterns of the characters.

  14. […] A/Political (and a deferral on Doomsday) https://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=8415 – […]

  15. Other authors, and in other languages as well, were doing the pronoun/evolved grammar thing without comment other than “it’s creative” on pro, “it’s painful to read” on con side, but apparently there are more idiots with this particular flag to wave nowadays…

  16. My own take on the Climate Change thing is that we won’t notice until we lose Florida, then we’ll begin a massive, WWII level campaign to change things and that will be “too little, too late.” On the subject of New Orleans, we’re talking about a city that’s already massively below sea level, with the initial problem happening in 2005. It looks a lot more like an ordinary hurricane, as does even Michael. What will make people feel that we’ve “lost a city” will be for that city to be underwater all them time.

  17. Troutwaxer: It looks a lot more like an ordinary hurricane, as does even Michael. What will make people feel that we’ve “lost a city” will be for that city to be underwater all them time.

    Yeah, my all of two minutes of internet research indicate that many experts think hurricane activity is related to climate change and expected to intensify the power, if not the frequency of storms, especially in regard to rainfall totals. In other words, exactly like Harvey, by some estimates the costliest storm ever to hit the US. But my point was this is what a city “destroyed ” by climate change will look like, and they don’t seem to give too much of a shit. They will only ever see an “ordinary” hurricane no matter how much of a city is underwater, and that only if the area affected is comprised of more than just the poor.

  18. “a couple of readers have grumbled that Sunday Ahzmundin doesn’t “seem particularly female” or “sound like a woman””

    Makes you think how deeply ingrained literary stereotypes must be for people to make such fundamentally stupid comments. Old-school science-fictioneers were notoriously dismal at writing women, which probably compounded the problem.

    “This is not the only review to take exception to my choice of pronouns, although it is perhaps the most vehement.”

    New words provoke strong negative reactions from people with learning difficulties, since they take effort to master. I still don’t get why someone would object to xe or xir, though. Ain’t but the one syllable, therefore should be right up this guy/gal’s alley.

    -DA-: Personally, I tend to check out whenever I become more aware of the writer than the story.

    This is sound advice.

    I can think of a few writers who shall remain unnamed whose work has suffered greatly from realizing they had A Message to convey and deciding to beat the hapless readership over the head with it ad nauseam. I usually agree with the message (can’t say I’ve come across many authors I disagree with politically), but if I wanted to read a pamphlet, I wouldn’t have to pay for it.

    That said, I haven’t noticed any such abominations in OGH’s work. May be just my preinstalled bias.

  19. This is not the only review to take exception to my choice of pronouns, although it is perhaps the most vehement.

    People with learning difficulties struggle with new words. Nothing unusual there. Although it’s hard to see why this guy/gal would complain about xe and xir. Ain’t but the one syllable, so should be right up their alley.

    a couple of readers have grumbled that Sunday Ahzmundin doesn’t “seem particularly female” or “sound like a woman”.

    Amazing to think how deeply literary stereotypes must be ingrained for people to make stupid comments like these. Old-school science-fictioneers were notoriously (and hilariously) dismal at writing women, so maybe expectations are different (dumber) among SFers?

  20. -DA-: I really hate to see you get worked up over anonymous user reviews. Not only is there no telling what is on the other side of that with whatever agenda, or if they really even read the book–it lends them a legitimacy they shouldn’t have.

    Eh. Not really “worked up”— I’d be very surprised if these comments had any impact at all on my sales figures— but they are representative of an extant mindset, and it’s good to be aware of these things even as background phenomena because you never know when something might take off (which is why I check Twitter every now and then even though I myself do not Twit).

    Don Reba: If you decide to make her sound like Senator Lindsey Graham.

    Oooh. Snap.

    Mikael Gueck:
    You can write for us, but you can’t read for us.

    Point. More’s the pity.

    Isaac Ross: Samuel Delany gave an interesting interview about Triton that discusses how the political ought to come about.

    Thanks for that link. Every time I read that man’s thoughts I come away more impressed.

    This time around, among other things, he made me realize the (in hindsight really obvious) fact that even the asking of questions can be profoundly political in nature. So I gotta stir in some nuance there.

  21. -DA-: He just wants to be loved. Give him what he wants. Taking control of Fox News has to be more plausible a solution than voting green.

    That actually may be less absurd that you may have intended. I seem to recall a study showing that people are far more receptive to heretical views when provided by respected members of their own tribe (If Glenn beck tells you Climate Change is a Thing, your average Fox viewer will believe him even though they’d spit on Neil Degrasse Tyson for saying the same thing). Which is completely consistent with the idea that we evolved the ability to reason and argue not as a means of arriving at Truth, but simply as a way to gain social status in the tribe.

    Aardvark Cheeselog: To answer the last question first, it depends on the reader. For some readers, the answer is clearly “no.” And who are you to call them wrong? (Not saying that you’re calling them wrong!)

    Except I kind of am, sometimes.

    Delany has some interesting insights about authorial perspective in that link Isaac presented above, insights which do give the reader a more “outside in” view of a given work than the author can experience. I don’t dismiss them, but I absolutely disagree with the more extreme claim (which even my friends have made on occasion) that the reader of a work has as much or more authority to judge authorial intent and subtext than the author does. I find that absurd. I mean, sure, outside observer and all that— but goddammit, I wrote the fucking thing. I know why I made explicit choices of plot or metaphor because I consciously considered them, tried out alternatives. So my explanation for why I chose to attribute a certain gender to an awakening AI, for example, or why I used a particular scriptural image— these are fucking definitive. There’s no shortage of third parties willing to expound at length as to why I really made such choices, but if those explanations contradict my own they’re mistaken at best (and maybe being downright disingenuous for ideological reasons).

    Patrick: I haven’t re-read it, so there may be revealing details I’m not recalling; but the novel is quite naturally gender-neutral, and not in any way that feels forced or inorganic.

    That was kind of my intention. Sunday’s gender is absolutely irrelevant to the story; you could flip it 20, 90, or 180 degrees and it would’t change the plot— or her behavior— one iota. (She does become a mother in “The Island”, but only in a purely genetic sense. Chimp splices her code with others’ offstage, and even then there’s a bit of uncertainty over how many “parents” ultimately went into the mix.)

    Fatman: Makes you think how deeply ingrained literary stereotypes must be for people to make such fundamentally stupid comments. Old-school science-fictioneers were notoriously dismal at writing women, which probably compounded the problem.

    Actually, I got the sense that at least one of the critics of Sunday’s “voice” regarded themselves as feminist. Kind of a hint of “men can’t/shouldn’t write women” vibe. But maybe I’m just being sensitive.

  22. -DA-: They will only ever see an “ordinary” hurricane no matter how much of a city is underwater, and that only if the area affected is comprised of more than just the poor.

    I’m in complete agreement with you. I’m only commenting on people’s perceptions.

  23. Do political conclusions emerge from the plot or are they built into the premise, as intrinsic and unavoidable as gravity?

    I may be re-iterating what others have said more capably above, but there are those (plenty of ’em, worse luck) these days who would say that any commitment to empiricism is itself a political statement, and betrays an interest in hegemony rather than any commitment to anything like “truth” (which is un-knowable, anyway – true enough but not in the sense these people mean).
    It’s not just reality-challenged right-wingers who have chicken-and-egg difficulties with ideology and any apprehension of reality.

  24. You can keep the politics out of your writing, but in today’s age of advanced incoherence, good luck keeping your writing out of politics!

    Not to taking a position only guarantees someone, somewhere will assign you one.

    (To some, I am now an “alt-right” writer. It’s a hard life stayin’ liminal)

  25. Peter Watts,

    Peter Watts: That actually may be less absurd that you may have intended. I seem to recall a study showing that people are far more receptive to heretical views when provided by respected members of their own tribe

    It was actually only intended to be semi-absurd. In addition to everything you mention, which is a great general observation about normal people, Trump has demonstrated a shocking openness to let people see where the words that come out of his mouth come from. You can often chart a very short line from where an idea is mentioned on FN to where he regurgitates it on twitter. We know which pundits he regularly communicates with. He is shockingly open to suggestion, as long as it comes from the right place.

    In as much as it should be terrifying for world leader to so clearly call attention to their marionette strings, it also suggests opportunity. Motherfucker has a big wind up key, and likes to wave it around. I mean given the decade long doomsday clock of recent prognostication, is trying to fight an uphill battle through the electoral system *less* absurd?

  26. I just write non-fiction for education and tabletop gaming, but still every so often someone will read what I’ve written and come up with an interpretation which I find baffling and terrifying. Where did I write that …? How could you think I meant …?

    Used to think I could fix it with better writing … but I’ve come to accept that a certain number of people will just Get It Wrong no matter how hard I try. And I’m not even trying to be creative.

    I suggest looking on the bright side, it’s better to be read and misunderstood than not read at all.

    Maybe you should collect the best comments and put them into a table on the site, like your collection of interesting reviews for the Rifters trilogy.

  27. I made this meme, Peter
    https://imgoat.com/uploads/a79ea27c27/154244.png

    I’ll also say as politely as possible that freeze frame’s pronouns annoyed me, but I look past it, and it’s otherwise a good book. I’m sure if you had ‘failed to include pronouns’ (and there’s really no pleasing them, it’s never enough), then at some point you’d be forced to apologize to the far left or piss them off. It’s tough to be neutral in such a political climate.

  28. Peter Watts,

    I absolutely disagree with the more extreme claim (which even my friends have made on occasion) that the reader of a work has as much or more authority to judge authorial intent and subtext than the author does.
    Ernest Hemingway’s comment to the critic Leslie Fiedler, on Fiedler’s interpretation of someone else’s novel: “Do you really believe all that stuff?”

  29. Communication is procreation: You encode your information into seductive paper sperm, inject it into other people’s heads, where it combines with their information into new thought babies. From such a monstrous swinger gang bang in the dark, you get a lot of weird offspring, some you’ll hate, some you’ll love. But in the end, you have to let the kids go and live their own lives.
    My own stories are fun to write but crap to read, but after subjecting myself to this horror once or twice, I’ve realized: I’m so cut off from my own emotions that I don’t actually feel much. But the mechanisms are still working in the subconscious, so I can understand myself better by analyzing my stories, just like you do at school.
    Writing stabilizes chunks of code drifting through your subconscious, resonating between your brain and the words on the page strengthens them enough to gain more control of brain resources, libraries, computing power. The written word is additional memory, additional RAM, storing ideas that are too weak to survive long in your head. The vague can become solid, chunks of information can combine and form new thought babies…
    So if someone tells you: “write a book”, it means: “screw yourself”.

  30. sblind,

    I wouldn’t consider myself far left (or far anything), but I think we need gender neutral pronouns. It bugs me to see feminine pronouns used to describe things that apply to both sexes (I’m male, so why the fuck are you excluding me), so I expect females must feel similarly pissy on some level to have neutral things described using male pronouns.

    And the work-arounds are either fucking awkward, or grammatically incorrect. Things have evolved the way they have language-wise because England was a patriarchal society, but I see no problem with the language evolving to make talking and writing just a little bit easier. I’m not a fan of pronouns starting with “x” because I find they interrupt the flow, but “se” and “hir” allow me to focus on other things beside the sex of people in situations where their sex is not relevant.

  31. Phil,

    Because England was a patriarchal society? So were 99% of all the others before the 20thC.

    If you don’t like English pronouns, you’ll hate European languages. In French everything is male or female, there are no gender neutral singular pronouns. And the rule for a mix of male and female people/things is to use the male plural pronoun. (Although since this is a human language, not logic, there are some cases where a gender neutral plural is used.)

    Language helps shape the way we think, but people can still express horrific ideas in Esperanto.

  32. Anonymous,

    “So were 99% of all the others before the 20thC.” ——Yes, but the conversation is about English and English pronouns.

    Re. the French language: Because their language is more confusing and less open to change than English we should…? Not sure what your point is.

    “people can still express horrific ideas in Esperanto.” ——- People can use a knife to slice bread, or kill someone. Again, not sure what your point is.

  33. “So were 99% of all the others before the 20thC.” — Yes, but the conversation is about English and English pronouns.

    Re. the French language: Because their language is more confusing and less open to change than English we should…? Not sure what your point is.

    “people can still express horrific ideas in Esperanto.” — People can use a knife to slice bread, or kill someone. Again, not sure what your point is.

  34. Wasn’t the English pronoun “it” invented within the last 500 years or so? Before that, “he” was also neuter. Or so I heard. This stuff is fluid. Best not to get too attached to any one form.

  35. “To draw explicit attention to those pronouns— to cite it as “inventiveness” or a “great idea”— is like praising someone for describing a character’s height or eye color.”

    I think you’re unnecessarily harsh on the commenters. But you’re also correct in your background assumption regarding the bimodal distro, and how many SF/F writers bothered to consider that before the current century? Your intent is not ‘political’ as you say (and you are the definitive judge of what you wanted to do, yes) but you can’t avoid the fact that this makes an implicit political point. Variation from the bimodal is built in to our biology, but you chose, as an author, to incorporate social acceptance of that variance into your story. You didn’t have to. You could have ignored non-binary orientations completely, treated everyone as cis/het. Or treated non-binary as something shameful and secret. You could have tried a Forever War script-flip and made homosexuality the norm and heterosexuality a social perversity (I’m glad you didn’t, although I think you’d have handled it better than Haldeman). The point is that, even if you weren’t thinking about those choices, even if you wanted sexuality and gender to be the least important elements of Freeze Frame Revolution, you still had to choose. Readers are going to react those choices because they aren’t walking in to the story with the same sets of assumptions.

    Hell, hardly any of us who cut our teeth on the mainly white patriarchal cis/het SF/F of the early-to-mid 20th century can help but notice when a writer doesn’t assume that’s the norm. We notice; we comment. Some of the comments are as revanchist as that first Amazon review, but a lot of them are going to be positive. We’re seeing something we like and want to see more of. Why should’t we point it out with praise?

  36. Gordon M:
    Wasn’t the English pronoun “it” invented within the last 500 years or so?

    Er, no. Neuter nouns and pronouns go back a long way, actually the High German neuter pronoun would be “es”, which is quite similar.

    AFAIK the prevalent theory is Proto-Indo European also had 3 genders, since those are extant on most daughter languages. The Anatolian languages are somewhat of an exception, e.g. Hittite has only 2 genders, animate and inanimate, so there is some discussion if masculine and feminine developed from the animate class after the Anatolian branch got seperated.

    Another possibility is the Anatolian branch merging masculine and feminine, it’s known to happen, e.g. in some Northern Germanic languages. The same problem applies to the dual forms.

    BTW, some Romance languages lost the neuter.

    As it is, more than 3 genders is not that uncommony, e.g in Bantu alnguages.

  37. sblind: I’m sure if you had ‘failed to include pronouns’ (and there’s really no pleasing them, it’s never enough), then at some point you’d be forced to apologize to the far left or piss them off.

    Too late. I’ve already pissed off the far left on more than one occasion (see “Requires Hate” for one such instance). I don’t know if I’ve pissed off the far right over specific issues, but judging by the manner in which they weighed in over Squidgate I’m pretty sure they loathe me just on general principles. Which leads only one part of the axis unaccounted for.

    Sadly, these days I find myself pretty contemptuous of the center, too.

    Jack Dominey: I think you’re unnecessarily harsh on the commenters. … Readers are going to react those choices because they aren’t walking in to the story with the same sets of assumptions.

    I take your point. I guess that mine, though, is not so much that people are focusing on trivial elements of my particular story; it’s that I think this reflects a similar focus in the broader societal context. We’ve got a soft-totalitarian state running on moron-power just across the lake, half the GDP seems to be going into state and corporate surveillance (and another 5% to hired mouthpieces saying that It’s Really Not That Bad), and— dwarfing all these merely human-scale depravities into insignificance— we’re killing the fucking planet. All this and so much more is going down, and what are people fighting over? Gender pronouns.

    I’ll admit it. It makes me cranky.

  38. When I read the freeze frame revolution and ‘xirs’ started appearing, I sighed and thought ‘another author surrendering and shoehorning social justice terms, how disappointing’ and moved on.
    Gender neutral terms make sense for true gender neutral beings. AIs, posthumans/transhumans and similar. The test is simple and functional: remove social signals (clothes, makeup) and ask random people to classify the entity as either male or female. Truly agender entities would get totally random results (ie. ~50%/50%) on statistically significant samples.
    How someone self-identifies is irrelevant – reality exists independently from beliefs. Btw if you disagree, you just legalized pedophilia – no logical reason to single age self-identification out.
    I could imagine a humanoid entity with no genitals at all (barbie like) passing the test, or somehow both a vagina and a penis at the same time + a totally ambiguous body frame and face.

    It’s at best possible to change genders, but with current technology only transitions that begin before pubescence sort-of work.

    Until then, ‘xir’ etc. used referring to ~vanilla humans is nothing more than a signal of either adherence, or fealty to the far left. You did the latter, whether you remember making the choice or not. In the current political climate it’s probably a smart short-term choice – at the cost of making the book cringeworthy in the future.

  39. Wow. I hardly know where to begin.

    ppp: The test is simple and functional: remove social signals (clothes, makeup) and ask random people to classify the entity as either male or female. Truly agender entities would get totally random results (ie. ~50%/50%) on statistically significant samples.
    How someone self-identifies is irrelevant – reality exists independently from beliefs.

    So, truth by consensus, huh? I guess that means the Earth was flat until the ancient Greeks, then it was round for a while, then it was flat again until just a few hundred years ago.

    ppp: Btw if you disagree, you just legalized pedophilia – no logical reason to single age self-identification out.

    And indeed, if a middle-aged man identified as an infant— or if, to follow your reasoning, if the local community all identified said person as an infant— then why should pedophilia be a crime? (It’s not so hypothetical a case as you might think; Donald Trump, after all, is widely regarded as emotionally infantile at least, and I’m pretty sure ol’ Stormy had sex with him.) But in any case, that only follows if you subscribe to the whole Truth By Consensus thing. Which most sane people probably wouldn’t.

    As tempting as it may be to ascertain sex or gender by conducting Thing-In-The-Street interviews, I’d prefer to take a more biological approach. (Empiricism: try it sometime.) Look at the genitals, sure; but look at the genes as well. Look at the size of the sexually-dimorphic nucleus in the brain. Most of them do match up along straight-ahead binary distinctions; but then you’ve got those cases where genetic males have smaller SDNs than normal, or females with larger ones. You’ve got mutations like yer Klinefelters and Turner and Adrogen-Insensitivity Syndromes. You got weird-ass enzymes like SRD5A2, and pseudohermaphroditism. To name but a few. Hell, these days you’ve even got hormone disrupters in the drinking water.

    I completely agree that some nimrods have taken it over the edge (when people start referring to genders like “pizza” and “ice cream” they’ve lost me), but there’s no denying a whole shitload of genetic, epigenetic, and developmental variables that smear sex and gender off the binary and into the merely bimodal. (At least, anyone who does deny them either hasn’t been paying attention, or just has their head up their ass.)

    ppp: In the current political climate it’s probably a smart short-term choice – at the cost of making the book cringeworthy in the future.

    On the contrary, given current trends in body mod and DIY biohacking, I’m pretty sure such terms will only get more relevant in the future. Today we’re just talking mutations and other disrupters; in the future we’ll be talking about not just gender, but biological sex as a matter of fashion statement.

    Or we would be, if there was any future worth considering. The way things are going now, I’m pretty sure we’ll be killing each other over the last can of spam long before History gets a chance to cringe at FFR.

  40. Well, they call it death of the author, so I guess it’s natural to struggle on your way to the slaughterhouse if you’re not actually dead yet.

    Not too keen on neo-pronouns on aesthetic grounds, artificial neologisms never work properly. Let’s see what the street comes up with.

    As for transgenderism, while it’s true there’s various genuine genetic syndromes, guevedoces, kinefelters and what have you, they are very rare, and I suspect the current wave is mostly a fashionable identity riding on people with psychological problems, low self esteem, etc… much like the gluten free industry is being supported by 99% people who don’t have any actual digestive issues with gluten whatsoever.

    Not that this should be interpreted as any sort of disapproval, I’m a sci-fi fan. If in 50 years they’ve ironed out all the glitches and Aubrey de Grey has kept me looking pretty I might signup for a sex change myself, see what it’s like.

  41. ppp: How someone self-identifies is irrelevant – reality exists independently from beliefs. Btw if you disagree, you just legalized pedophilia – no logical reason to single age self-identification out.

    Let’s see, put two unrelated statements next to each other, assert they are the same thing, and presto, you have a “rational” argument. Specious arguments for the win. I blame Twitter.

    Also pathetic troglodytes with low self-esteem cringing at something they read in a book does not make said book universally “cringeworthy”. Historically speaking, it’s the kind of reaction literature has always provoked, no?

    Nestor: I suspect the current wave is mostly a fashionable identity riding on people with psychological problems, low self esteem, etc

    So are religion and nationalism, but I don’t see those becoming irrelevant or “unfashionable” anytime soon.

  42. When I worked at the Johns Hopkins University Press, way back in the 1990s, I remember checking out our old back-catalog of John Money books, like “Sex Errors of the Body” and “Man & Woman, Boy & Girl”, and being amazed at how far ahead he was with so many of his ideas back in the 1980s and ’70s (and even the 1960s). Today, I guess he might be considered a conservative reactionary. It’s pretty wild how far and fast public opinions have changed on gender and trans issues (at least among the left).

    On one hand, I’m really happy that much of the modern world is getting better at trying to understand these issues. On the other hand, because things have changed so much in such a short period of time, I can’t help but think we’re going to end up somewhere very different than where we think we’re going. Certainly somewhere more interesting than simply “All gender is just a social construct”. There’s just too much science left to be understood.

    Anyhow, while I’m not a fan of most of these new pronouns that people keep trying out, I’d like to think I’m enough of an adult not to lose my shit over it either. It took me maybe 17 seconds to come to terms with how you were using pronouns in FFR. Silly for people to get all bent out of shape over your choices.

    As for questions of authorial intent, generally I side with the author, but sometimes it is clear that ideas and issues evolved totally unintended. Like when an author writes a story with a woman or minority character that he clearly thinks is a positive and progressive portrayal, but in fact so is not. Or when someone says “I didn’t think about gender at all!”, but then you realize all the female characters are dishonest harpies and all the men heroes or more complex people. (I don’t mean you … That was just an example). Clearly biases and other issues can seep into anyone’s writing.

  43. “It’s pretty wild how far and fast public opinions have changed on gender and trans issues.”

    IMO, its driven a lot by technology. In the last couple of decades we’ve developed an ability that we never had before, to medically change a person’s sex. At this point, the procedure is still very expensive and complicated, but its very existence has to make people think about how immutable sex really is. And over time, as the medical part gets cheaper and easier, there will be more and more people who aren’t quite sure, just want to try it out. And shifting back and forth. This seems inevitable to me.

  44. Mark Russell,

    Please keep in mind Money was responsible for the castration and subsequent suicide of David Reimer. He basically performed human experimentation (forced feminization, specifically) on this guy from birth for no particular reason (he never displayed any sign of being transgender, the doctors just fucked up a circumcision and Money decided to mutilate him further to find out what would happen), the guy was unable to cope with the ensuing physical and mental trauma, and killed himself as a result. Money deserves to be remembered as a monster who ruined a person’s life for fame and fortune. He was also a pedophilia apologist.