Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Permanent Wave of the Future

Two other recent reads:

Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel, Raising Steam, just appeared, and I read it on the bus en route to Chicago last month.  One of Pratchett's standard devices is to imagine Sphereworld (if I can call it that) technology translated to a vaguely late-Medieval / early-Renaissance environment with real magic and a variety of sentient species in addition to human beings.  It used to mean primarily magical means to parallel mechanical ones, so that Discworld cameras house tiny demons that draw pictures.  This always makes me remember the Flintstones, which used dinosaurs and stone tools for the same kind of satirical effect.  More recently Pratchett has been relying more on technology and cultural changes, as with the "clacks," a steampunk version of the telegraph crossed with semaphore.  In Raising Steam he has a young inventor develop the steam engine and the locomotive, which he parlays (with the help of a tycoon in the city of Ankh-Morpork) into railways.  This goes along with Pratchett's long-running plotline of the emancipation and integration of various non-human people: trolls, goblins, vampires, dwarfs, golems, and others.
In short, the citizens of Ankh-Morpork who might be expected to fill the heavy-lifting trades, such as the golems and the trolls, were increasingly realizing that just because they were big and tough did not mean they had to do a big tough job if they didn’t want to.  This was, after all, Ankh-Morpork, where a man walked free even if he was not, strictly speaking, a man.

The problem, if you could call it that, had been building up for some time.  Moist had first noticed what was happening when Adora Belle said that her new hairdresser was a troll, Mr. Teasy-Weasy Fornacite, and as it turned out, a pretty good hairdresser, according to Adora Belle and her friends.  And there it was: the new reality.  If all sapient species were equal, that’s what you got: golem housekeepers and goblin maids and, he thought, troll lawyers [92-3].
Don't get any funny ideas about Mr. Teasy-Weasy Fornacite, though.  Pratchett may be able to imagine the full citizenship of dwarves, trolls, goblins, et al., but his imagination still balks at queers.  That's not to say that he's homophobic -- I don't get that impression, and he has tried bravely to inject some same-sex loving and gender-variant characters into his world, but they haven't taken.  Everybody has their blind spots, and this is apparently one of Pratchett's.  I only began to notice it as the Discworld series extended to two and then three dozen books, and the paucity of non-heterosexual characters became more noticeable to me.

Tied to this is Pratchett's insistence that the locomotive is somehow female.  I guess that is okay in a magical world, but it doesn't make much sense.  Pratchett's gender mysticism in the novel sits oddly with his personal atheism and science-cultism, but maybe it makes for better fantasy fiction if he doesn't resolve it.

Mostly I don't mind this, because Pratchett is such a good storyteller, his imagined world so involving.  It's his broader politics that bother me more, particularly a persistent theme in Raising Steam: the inevitability of The Future.  For example:
It was as if there had been a space waiting to be filled.  It was steam-engine time, and the steam engine had arrived, like a raindrop, dripping precisely into its puddle, and Moist and Dick and Harry and Vetinari and the rest of them were simply splashes in the storm [212].

“Even the goblins know that you were one of the first who signed up for goblin emancipation.  They, whether we like it or not, are becoming the future, Rhys” [222].
These are from later in the book because I didn't start taking notes till then, but the theme runs throughout.

Against this triumphalism are the villains in the book, the terrorist Grags, reactionary dwarves who want to return a purer, more truly dwarfish past.  "The watchwords were 'restoring order and 'going back to the basics of true dwarfishness'" [235].  Obvious counterparts of Islamism and Christian fundamentalism, they're easy cardboard meanies.  But Pratchett stumbles a bit in sketching them out:
“Nobody has to be hurt,” they said, and it may have been too that people would murmur, “After all, it’s in his best interests,” and there were other little giveaways such as “It’s time for fresh blood,” and such things as “We must preserve our most hallowed ordinances,” and if you were susceptible to atmospheres, you could see that dwarfs, perfectly sensible dwarfs, dwarfs who would consider themselves dwarfs of repute and fair dealing, were nevertheless slowly betraying allegiances they had formerly undertaken with great solemnity, because the hive was buzzing and they didn’t want to be the ones that got stung [235-6].
After all, the railway and the progress it represents are in Discworld's best interests, and it's time for the fresh blood represented by the locomotive's technogeek inventor (let alone Moist von Lipwig, a recent arrival in Ankh-Morpork whose antics have driven several recent installments) to infuse the atmosphere.  If you're susceptible to atmospheres.

These two threads crash into each other like stray locomotives in this speech by Commander of the Watch Vimes, who has become Pratchett's equivalent to Robert A. Heinlein's Heinlein Individual: brilliant, tough, omnicompetent, and always right.
Vimes said to Moist [after interrogating some prisoners], “ … You know, I almost feel sorry for them.  Grags, delvers, whatever they call themselves, the modus operandi is to find some innocent dwarf with the right connections and let it be known to him or her that if they do not toe the line and do what they are told, then perhaps all of their family will simply disappear into the Gap.”
He smiled and said, “Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I do, but I’m a teddy bear by comparison and on the right side.” 
I'm not sure Pratchett realizes what a hole he's dug himself into here.  But hey, you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, and the future takes no prisoners.  Those who resist will find themselves in the dustbin of history!  (Ironically, Pratchett addressed the pitfalls of being "on the right side" better in Witches Abroad, where two characters fight over which is "the good one."  That was the twelfth Discworld novel, two decades ago; Raising Steam is the fortieth.)

As I read Raising Steam I kept thinking that Pratchett has become as preachy as Heinlein was, though in a less interesting way.  Heinlein delivered lectures in his fiction from the start of his career, and become more expansive as he went along.  This could be and often was annoying, even infuriating, but I learned a lot from them, especially when I learned how to argue with them.  Pratchett keeps his preaching impulses under better control, and in a way that's part of the problem: all those references to "the future" fly by just quickly enough to annoy me, without giving me a foothold for disagreement.  Eventually they piled up to the point where I reacted, but a good old-fashioned Shavian disquisition would have been better: here's why you'd better get with the Future's program, for your own good and the good of the Life Force!

The other recent read I want to mention here also deals with time: The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, originally published by Ballantine Books in 1992.  It's an alternate-history story in which the Confederate General Robert E. Lee is visited by mysterious men who offer him new weapons to use against the Union.  They identify themselves as part of an organization called "America Will Break," and the weapons are AK-47s.  They offer not only the guns but an ample supply of ammunition for them, and also advise Lee on Union troop movements.  With this aid, the tide of the war is turned, Lee captures Washington, and the Confederate States of America proceeds along its own path.  But the men from America Will Break, who turn out to be Afrikaaner nationalists who have traveled in time from the year 2014 using a stolen time machine, are displeased by some new Confederate policies which they consider too soft on blacks, and try to overthrow the Confederacy.

I enjoyed The Guns of the South, though I don't consider it a great book by any means.  Turtledove writes vividly about life and war in the 1860s.  It was instructive to look at customer reviews on Amazon, which offered a range of views.  Some argued, probably fairly, that even thousands of AK47s would not have been enough to change the course of the war; I can't evaluate that argument.  Others complained that Turtledove agreed with the Confederate claim that the CSA seceded purely on principle, for states' rights, and not simply to preserve slavery or white supremacy.  This seemed a misconceived criticism to me.  First, Turtledove after all was writing mostly from the Confederates' perspective, so of course his characters shared its apologetics; second, the characters themselves question the official line -- I believe Lee himself points out that as soon as the Confederacy constituted itself, it found it necessary to overrule states' rights.  Only a careless reading could ignore the debate on such issues that runs throughout the book, but a careless reading is what just what many commenters seem to have done.  Some praised the vividness of the battle scenes, but objected when the war ended and Lee and other characters had to deal with politics, the running of a state as opposed to the conduct of a war.  I think Turtledove did as good a job on the politics as he did on the battles. Some of these reviewers were happy once the men from America Will Break tried to dictate policy to the CSA, and the ultraviolence ramped up once more.  I was reminded of fans who loved Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game but hated the sequels because they weren't about interstellar war conceived as a vast videogame.  To each his or her own.

Some claimed that Turtledove did a better job with the same premise -- the CSA winning independence -- without the time-travel device, in some later novels.  Might be.  Turtledove himself wrote in an afterword that The Guns of the South originated in a very unserious way, when another sf writer complained that the cover art for one of her books was as anachronistic as Robert E. Lee holding an Uzi.  Turtledove began musing on how Lee might get access to such weapons, and went from there.  The book might be best approached as a tour de force, but then the same is true of most alternate-history fiction, or of science fiction in general.

The comparison to Raising Steam, for me, lies in the argument offered by some characters in The Guns of the South that the time for slavery had passed.  I'm not sure there was ever a time when slavery was an acceptable institution, but at least some reasons are given why slavery could no longer be sustained -- these are practical and prudential reasons, not moral ones.  At the same time, Turtledove gives his characters experiences which lead them to question the incapacity and inferiority of black Africans compared to European whites, offering a moral argument as well.  It's not great philosophy, but of course many white Americans still haven't caught up with these radical ideas.  In any case, the very notion of alternate history undermines claims for the inevitability of the future.  What if this had happened, instead of that?

I enjoyed The Guns of the South a lot more than I enjoyed Raising Steam, though like Heinlein, Pratchett is a smooth, professional storyteller who rarely bores the reader -- this reader, anyway.  But I'm less likely actually to buy Pratchett's work than I used to be.