Monday, August 31, 2015

Nugget of Pratchettology

A funny little article popped up in The Guardian today to say, "I haven't read any Terry Pratchett, but I know he's mediocre, not a genius. Everyone stop liking him!"


I don't think it's deliberate clickbait, really. It's more a sign of how saturated we are with clickbait: clickbait becomes a form through which you can channel a little temper-tantrum, whose shape would otherwise have been a harrumph, or going to wait in the car.

Anyway, if The Shepherd's Crown is one of the columnist's least favourite books he's never read, I thought I should share a listicle of my Top Ten Favourite Books I've Never Read:

1) Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
2) John Crowley, Little, Big
3) Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities
4) Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper
5) Flaubert, Bouvard et Pécuchet
6) Lydia Davis, The Collected Stories
7) Shea and Wilson, The Illuminatus! Trilogy
8) M. John Harrison, Nova Swing
9) Terry Pratchett, Going Postal
10) Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

I can recommend them all unreservedly. Really unreservedly. I know you'd love them and I know I would too.

If we read them, they would change our lives. Everything does.


I want to be fair to Jonathan Jones. For reasons I won't frighten you with now, I actually think there's a lot to be said for exceptionally-fleeting engagements with books. There is an art of not-reading, just as there is an art of reading. Maybe there should be poetics, polemic and literary criticism of not-reading too.

But the article's silliest assumption (and Jones knows he's being a doofus) is its broad-brush division between "mediocre" and "genius," as if most people wouldn't want to place Pratchett somewhere in the middle.

And even if we do place him somewhere in the middle, that's only as a shorthand. Because literary value doesn't exist on some kind of spectrum or leader-board. There isn't a top spot. There isn't really any such thing as "genius." (Except maybe getting a double-headed blackbird to live on your hat: that's pure genius).

In 2005 Pratchett declined a Hugo nomination for Going Postal. Maybe it was because he wanted the Hugo Awards to be run as efficiently as Ankh-Morpork's postal service. Pratchett loved a well-run institution, and he didn't need that Hugo.

Literally a knight?

Pratchett also didn't really need literary criticism, but literary criticism does need him. It's worth talking about Pratchett's writing in an academic mode and/or in a fannish mode -- just not in a pontificating arbiter-of-taste mode. It's important to go beyond merely evaluating, and to really explore and interpret Pratchett's writing qualitatively. So with that in mind, here are some pointers to finish with, suggestions for both Further Reading and maybe even Further Writing.

The Pratchett meta-text is enormous, and bits of it are watchable, wearable, playable, etc. I have been a little surprised by how scant the core academic literature on Pratchett actually is, although I bet that's going to change. A lot of what's out there so far is also a bit . . . odd, idiosyncratic, rough-around-the-edges, though I really don't mean that pejoratively. I think this has to do with: (a) an oddness which always crops up in any literary criticism on comic writing; (b) academics who aren't primarily literary scholars, but who are Pratchett fans and manage to find a bridge to his work; (c) quite a lot of theses put online rather than adapted for publication, and quite a lot of undergraduate work.

L-Space maintains a link list of essays and analysis (and the L-Space wiki is itself an unremittingly dope apparatus criticus. I think these people have read the books). Discworld and the Disciplines: Critical Approaches to the Terry Pratchett Works, ed. Alton and Spruiell (2014) is a recent edited collection where you could also go to for a fairly comprehensive bibliography. Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature (2008) ed. Andrew Butler seems to be currently the only other literary-critical collection on Pratchett, although there are useful books I think aimed at slightly more general audiences, including The Folklore of Discworld (2008) by Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson, The New Discworld Companion (2008) by Pratchett and Stephen Briggs, An Unofficial Companion to the Novels of Terry Pratchett (2007) by Andrew Butler, Philosophy and Terry Pratchett (2014) ed. Held and South, and Pratchett’s Women: The Unauthorized Essays, by Tansy Rayner Roberts (from these blog posts). There's also the excellent Science of the Discworld series (1999-2013) by Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen.  Pratchett's own 2000 article, "Imaginary Worlds, Real Stories," on the relationship of his writing to folklore, has some interesting critical reflection. Dorota Guttfeld's chapter in Ideological Battlegrounds: Constructions of Us and Them Before and After 9/11, ed. Joanna Witkowska and Uwe Zagratzki, feels like a much-needed examination of the politics of Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork strand. I don't think Discworld 'does' 9/11, does it? I also liked Janet Croft’s ‘The Golempunk Manifesto: Ownership of the Means of Production in Pratchett’s Discworld’ (2014), which you can read all of on Academia.edu. All these people are actually just getting on and having a conversation about Pratchett, not blustering about whether or not it's worthwhile having a conversation.

Any other suggestions, recommendations? If I don't find a proper sympathetic-but-critical overview of race throughout the Discworld series soonish, I may just have REF up my own QED-bike. I pray to all the spirits (but not too hard) that nobody ever feels it necessary to write about the relation of Pratchett's narrativium to Baudrillard's hyperreal.

Finally, here's one big, blunt question. Pratchett is a satirist and a moralist, whose villains are usually fundamentalists, and whose heroes often show devotion to the rule of law. So are the politics of his work simply classical liberalism, perhaps with a special love for civil society? Does anything complicate that label -- "Pratchett is a classical liberal"?

*   *   *

Mansfield Park is my favourite Jane Austen. "Sir Thomas in the house!"

Earlier: posts about Pratchett.

Elsewhere:

In Response to Jonathan Jones and his Bullshit Article about Terry Pratchett
Sorry, Jonesy, But I Can Write for The Guardian and Love Terry Pratchett
Get Real. Jonathan Jones Is Just A Professional Troll
Terry Pratchett's books are the opposite of 'ordinary potboilers'
Jonathan Jones is a sneering priggish snob shocka
On Terry Pratchett and the art of comedy
Despite What Ignorant People Say, Terry Pratchett Is Destined For Enduring Fame

Where to start:

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stupid Obvious Hugo Question

Yo. The Puppies had a go at gaming the Hugo Awards but they lost resoundingly, and (I assume?) rules will change to make Hugo Awards a bit more resilient to gaming next time round. Let's see what happens next year! Yeah! ("Hi Sad Puppies 2016. Please roll 1d4 and vote only for the corresponding name ...")

Also, the full Hugo data came out and it became (mostly) obvious who was edged out of the shortlists by the Puppies slates. And some of those authors, and their friends & fans & whoever, are probably a little sad about that, though they're probably mostly looking on the funny side, or the bright side, or some other great side -- I don't know, the halloumi-flavoured side or something. Gah!

So, I'm wondering:

Would fandom be interested in holding a kind of one-off, informal, bolt-on prize, drawing on the same data? 

Kind of to see what would have happened? A special prize, just for this one weird year, where everyone who could vote in the Hugo Awards can vote again, but on short-lists where all the Puppies-slated nominees have been removed, and other authors bumped up to fill their spots?

(Or indeed, if possible, generating a set of shortlists for this year by running whatever rules will be used next year on the nomination data?)

Call these one-off awards the Hug0 Awards or something? Or Hugos Prime? Okay, probably those names are a bit close to the real thing, at least without some kind of official endorsement. So call them the Stalinist Disappearing Wrongthink Paint Happy Faces on Sad Puppies Awards? Whatever you called it, it might generate significant prestige! Or not! Yeah!

It would never be a perfect exercise. It's impossible to interpret and interact with the data as though the Puppies never happened at all. For instance, there's no way to figure out which Puppies-slated nominees might still have made it onto the ballot without the Puppies situation -- or at least, without full Puppies situation, with only discreet, informal bloc-building and virality effects -- and who knows, whether some of them might even have won if they hadn't withdrawn, or forged ahead all sticky and gross with Puppies licking, unable to draw love from a non-Puppies crowd. And there's also no way to be fair to whatever vaguely Puppies-friendly authors Puppies followers might have voted for who weren't included on the Puppies slates.

But you could do a pretty interesting approximation of an alternate timeline Hugos.

Is there appetite for that kind of thing? Is something like it already happening?

Probably not, I'm guessing? Better to move forward not back? Better to move left not right? Better to move mercy not nostalgia? Better to dwell in a floaty bittersweet ethereal Schrödinger's Hugos, where everyone who might have won in a way has won, and everyone on the long-list just shares in the ectoplasmic superpositioned rocket, with Noah Ward as the trustee, better that than NAIL EVERYTHING DOWN EXACTLY WITH ROCKETS? Better that than have most nominees wind up sad about losing in two timelines, and even the winners a bit disappointed that they won only on the wrong timeline?

Or maybe it'd be fun. Thought I'd ask.

*   *   *

Earlier posts: Quick Hugo Thought (in a very similar vein). Happy Puppies > ideas for reforming Hugos (which might also work for a kind of bolt-on award layer run on Hugo data).

Elsewhere: File 770. Wired on Hugos. We've Always Been Here Storify about that Wired article (which I think maybe has led to it being a bit amended?).

PS: There's a super-quick way of doing something a bit similar, which is just to assume the winner is whoever gets the most nominations but avoids being included on a Puppies slate. Or a variation: the winner is whoever the winner was except the No Awards are replaced with whoever got the most nominations but avoided being included on a Puppies slate.

PPS: Update! Doing an ickle bit of research, I come across GRRM's Alfie Awards, and the poor ol' Paranoiappies who have doxxed them as the SECRET REAL SJW HUGO AWARDS. Because, you know, a secret Hugo you can't tell anybody about would definitely be as good as a normal one. Better. Shhhhh. Also, I come across Jay Maynard's proposal for a Trust Level Trophy.

PPPS: Update! A Kickstarted anthology. Yeah that's a better idea.

Monday, August 17, 2015

SFF names #7: Shevek

Wickes: How do you choose your names? it seems to me you have a hodgepodge, or is that deliberate? 
Le Guin: I don't think you'll find too much hodgepodge in the phonemes of any language that is implied by the names in a certain island or a certain country in my books. I tried to have fairly clearly in mind what pool of sounds they used because it bothers me very much in other people's fantasies when they have a hodgepodge of sounds that don't go together. 
(Conversations with Ursula Le Guin, ed. Carl Freedman, p. 23)
Ursula Le Guin is sometimes given as an example of a SFF author with a rare skill for naming. (Anne McCaffrey is supposedly the other end of the spectrum. The Evil Overlady solved a pressing problem in 2007: all apostrophes in the middle of fantasy names are to be pronounced "boing").

It is interesting, therefore, that the founders of Le Guin's ambiguous syndicalist anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed (1974) seem to care so little for names. Parents do not give names. Names are randomly generated and assigned by a computer:
“Shevek,” he said mildly. “No ‘doctor.’”
“Is that your whole name — first and last?”
He nodded, smiling. [...]
“Is it true that you get your names from a computer?”
“Yes.”
“How dreary, to be named by a machine!”
“Why dreary?”
“It’s so mechanical, so impersonal.”
“But what is more personal than a name no other living person bears?”
“No one else? You’re the only Shevek?”
“While I live. There were others, before me.”
“Relatives, you mean?”
“We don’t count relatives much; we are all relatives, you see. I don’t know who they were, except for one, in the early years of the Settlement. She designed a kind of bearing they use in heavy machines, they still call it a ‘shevek.’” He smiled again, more broadly. “There is a good immortality!”
Vea shook her head. “Good Lord!” she said. “How do you tell men from women?”
“Well, we have discovered methods...”
After a moment her soft, heavy laugh broke out. She wiped her eyes, which watered in the cold air. “Yes, perhaps you are uncouth! ... Did they all take made-up names, then, and learn a made-up language — everything new?”
‘The Settlers of Anarres? Yes. They were romantic people, I suppose.”
“And you’re not?”
“No. We are very pragmatic.”
“You can be both,” she said.
He had not expected any subtlety of mind from her. “Yes, that’s true,” he said.
(Chapter 7)
This isn't really indifference, of course. The founding utopians were very interested in linguistic determinism, the idea that language enables and constrains the possibilities of thought and experience.

The founding utopians knew that names were a special kind of language, and they recognised the danger of names. Unless names are constantly redistributed, they start to accumulate reputations. Names become markers of status or faction. Shevek marvels at Dr. Atro, a hawkish conservative from the neighbouring capitalist society of A-Io:
Atro could trace his genealogy back for eleven hundred years, through generals, princes, great landowners. The family still owned an estate of seven thousand acres and fourteen villages in Sie Province, the most rural region of A-Io. He had provincial turns of speech, archaisms to which he clung with pride. Wealth impressed him not at all, and he referred to the entire government of his country as “demagogues and crawling politicians.” His respect was not to be bought. Yet he gave it, freely, to any fool with what he called “the right name.” In some ways he was totally incomprehensible to Shevek — an enigma: the aristocrat. And yet his genuine contempt for both money and power made Shevek feel closer to him than to anyone else he had met on Unas. 
(Chapter 5)
So how many bi-syllable, non-hodgepodge, non-bong! names are possible? Well it all depends, but let's assume a monosyllable can have one of about 80 onset phonemes, one of 12 vowel phonemes, and one of 100 coda phonemes. That might work out to about 9.2 billion, which is interestingly where some demographers see world population peaking some time this century. I'm sure my math is at least as dodgy as theirs.

But the proposition is not only mathematical: it is also cultural. The preoccupation with scale and boundary is inscribed into all Annareans names. Every new Annarean you meet reminds you of the permutational plenitude, the almost -- but not quite -- endless diversity contained within certain inflexible shared limits. Shevek meets a Shevet: they fight. How would Shevet have felt had he met a Shevet?

Despite the huge number of possible names, and despite the Millennium Bug style fixes we can imagine for Annareans's naming computer, this utopia (in sharp contrast for instance to the constitutively imperialist utopia dreamed up by Iain M. Banks a decade later) has an inner commitment to the enclave form. It is a utopia that doesn't think it can be endlessly scalable. Okay, maybe this is a utopia that could be for everyone. But perhaps only for certain values of "everyone."

Earlier:
SFF names #6: Buhle
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Sad Chess


I made a weird little pamphlet called TEN LAWS which comes free with, like, the first 25 or so copies of Sam Walton's poetry pamphlet Strange House. Get 'em at Sad Press.

UPDATE: all out!

Monday, August 10, 2015

SFF names #6: Buhle

From the Department of Caffeine & Overthinking: Cory Doctorow's "Chicken Little" is explicitly a response to Frederick Pohl, but I wonder if he ever read Larry Niven's short story "Convergent Series." Because the two tales are vibrating pretty hard in my head.

Then again, so is everything else.

"Convergent Series" is a breezy, no-frills story, built around its twist. Besides that twist, the most memorable thing about it is (another kind of twist) the rotation of appearing demons by 90 degrees. Pentagrams are supposed to be drawn on walls, not on the floor!
A pentagram was a prison for demons. Why? I'd thought of the five points of a pentagram, and the five points of a spread-eagled man ...



The Quadrillionaire

Cory Doctorow's "Chicken Little" is the story of an intrapreneur, Leon, who struggles to do business with a quadrillionaire person-in-a-vat, Buhle.  Buhle is practically immortal, and a special kind of stinking rich: the kind that starts to stink less like a person, more like a corporation, or like a state, or like money itself. What could Buhle possibly want that Leon has to give?

Well, that corpus of Buhle suspended in his vat (see note) is very suggestive of Niven's profane flesh affixed to the network nodes in "Convergent Series." Perhaps Leon could have progressed the deal more quickly, if he'd noticed that he was actually in a pact-with-the-devil story.

Buhle thirsts for Leon's soul or, in more properly Satanic fashion, he thirsts for everybody's souls. "I am Leon, for we are many." Yes, it's been Buhle seducing Leon all along: Buhle wants Leon's help with mass soul-ectomy, reprogramming humankind via a bioweapon to give us the narrow preference-realizing rationality of homo economicus.

One meaning of Buhle (in German) -- admittedly, probably not the meaning that is behind the surname, etymologically -- may be relevant here. Buhle can mean the paramour, the illicit lover, the one who does not publicly declare desire. "The Leon shall lie down with the goat": Buhle as devil-lover recalls one described in 17Cth France, whose penis "was of two parts, half of iron, half of flesh, and similarly his testicles" (De Lancre, Tableau de l'inconstance des mauvais anges et démons, 1612).

There are so many smart conceits in "Chicken Little," you could almost miss the one at the end where Leon and Ria outwit the devil. That's where the comparison with Niven's story really helps to clarify things.

Niven imagines some fairly arbitrary demonic bureaucracy to make his twist possible. The fiend grants a wish, vanishes back to Hell to get a stamp from his supervisor, then rematerializes inside the pentagram to scoop up the nameless narrator's soul. But Niven's narrator foxes his fiend by wishing to freeze time, and then re-inscribing the pentagram somewhere special:
A cheery bass voice spoke out of the air. "I knew you'd move the pentagram. Made it too small for me, didn't you? Tsk, tsk. Couldn't you guess I'd change my size?"
[...] 
He was a small red star.
A buzzing red housefly.
Gone. 
[...]
Eventually he'd look down and see the pentagram. Part of it was in plain sight. But it wouldn't help him. Spread-eagled like that, he couldn't reach it to wipe it away. He was trapped for eternity, shrinking toward the infinitesimal but doomed never to reach it, forever trying to appear inside a pentagram which was forever too small. I had drawn it on his bulging belly.
"Chicken Little" apparently ends on a cliffhanger, but I think we get pretty heavy hints that Buhle will never roll out his brain-rewiring bioweapon. Buhle's comeuppance is of the same flavour as Niven's demon's: his spurious omnipotence can be defeated only by a kind of iterative move.

Buhle is persuaded to try a version of his own bioweapon on himself. Leon thereby inscribes the market logic in which Buhle is embedded into Buhle himself, and Buhle starts to shrink away to zilch. As Ria has already explained, homo economicus is not homo entreprenaurus:
“Evolutionarily, bad risk assessment is advantageous.”
Leon nodded slowly. “Okay, I’ll buy that. Makes you entrepreneurial—”
“Drives you to colonize new lands, to ask out the beautiful monkey in the next tree, to have a baby you can’t imagine how you’ll afford.”
Buhle has always been the quintessential entrepreneur, because he can stomach two contradictory ideas: that the market knows best, and that the thing to do with the market is to endlessly disrupt it.

Disrupt: no matter how many baby monkeys die in the process! Disrupt: no matter how many entrepreneurial monkeys following similar high-risk strategies have perished (along with all their genes)!

Why does Buhle agrees to reprogram himself as someone who will never want to reprogram anybody? Leon exploits his blind spot, his survivorship bias. We are all a little prone. But a quintessentially entrepreneurial monkey like Buhle can't help but attribute his repeated successes to something other than chance. He cannot believe that there are countless others who have taken similar stupid gambles, and that he just happens to be the tail end of the bell curve.

Or the 'Buhle curve.' Which brings us to the word that is behind the surname Buhle, etymologically speaking. The name Buhle. It probably signifies a rising of the land, a hill, butte or knoll. Like a belly. A demon's bulging belly.

*

Note: Or, like I suggested earlier, Buhle Inc. suspended in its VAT.

Elsewhere: Jeff Lint's belly fiction.

Earlier:
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Gold Touch

ONCE upon a time, there lived a very rich man, and a king besides, whose name was King Midas; and he had a little daughter, whom nobody but myself ever heard of, and whose name I either never knew, or have entirely forgotten. So, because I love odd names for little girls, I choose to call her DANG!-ADJUTANCY!-CLOTH!-LATTICE!-REAL-TALK!-NOCTAMBULIST!-LIGHTNING-STRIKE!-DOOGY-WOOFY-YOOYY-MISSY-GIRL-NAME-ENVELOPE-TRICE-ANKLES-NNNOW!-NOW!-ALICE!-ARABRONCHIUM!-THE-ENVIRONMENTAL-HUMANITIES!-ONLY-FANCIER!-SPARAH!-PRECEPTORY!-MOUNTWEAZELS!

This King Midas was fonder of gold than of anything else in the world.

THE END