Monday, November 30, 2015

Star Star Star Star Star

Interesting post by Natalie Luhrs: Conflation of Review and Critique, or How to Annoy Me.

There's a lot in that post that I agree with, and a few things I'd probably want to respond to by embroidering them with qualifications in my own baffling idiolect, each of which would then be followed by an "or you could say" or an "or to put it another way, more-or-less," and then some more readily-recognizable and not-unreasonable and perhaps slightly-equivocal sentiment, albeit one which actually would not very well capture whatever weird hair-splitting involution I originally registered in my own baffling idiolect, but rather comprise a tacit bottom-lip-trembling invitation to forget I said anything, okay? Waaaaaah!

Or in other words, there are a few things in that post that I might disagree with!

But instead of attempting anything mildly and/or misleadingly coherent today, let me offer twelve quick sets of semi-rhetorical questions, mostly about stars:

(1) Look at this four-and-a-half star consensus on a scraped PoD "book" of Wikipedia etc. content about Neal Stephenson. "Tough read, but rewarding," says one reviewer who, like almost all the other reviewers, thinks they're reviewing something else. It's not even clear what: the entire Baroque Cycle collected in one volume? A particular Baroque Cycle novel? Cryptonomicon? Damn, maybe I'm wrong and they really mean those Wikipedia or whatever articles. Question. What's up with that?

(2) Would you ever rate something you hadn't read?

(3) If you do a lot of star-type rating, do you implicitly create certain sub-categories within the materials that you're rating? Or is everything compared to everything else? Do you imagine a reader going through all your ratings, or just encountering each rating in the context of that book? That is, do you ever try to communicate things with your ratings as a whole gestalt, or do you think of each encounter in isolation? Or something in-between?

For instance, do you tacitly judge all the books by a particular author against each other, and try to put them in the right order as carefully discriminated as possible as your priority? In other words, in what ways are your evaluations transitive? If you are confronted with the decision between either (1) signalling that Book A is better than Book B by Author X, or (2) signalling that Author X is better than Author Y, which do you tend to go for? And/or do you tend to do genre groupings together, or historical periods? If you have answered that you compare everything to everything, does that even count across different sites and platforms?

Do you ever sort of defer to local norms, clustered around a platform, or an author, or even a particular work? Or do you sort of create your own clusters of norms, perhaps according to genre or micro-genre, or perhaps according to something that is a bit harder to describe?

E.g. here's a test: how would you rate these ten works out of five stars, to best communicate what you think and feel about them: Hamlet by Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin, Dune by Frank Herbert, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. You have to do the whole list. Can you rate them all so that no matter what pair you pick, the better work out of the two has the more stars?

(If there are some on the list you haven't read, you can swap them for another work by the same author, or use one or more of these spares: The Concept of the Political by Carl Schmitt, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, Carter & Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard, Planetfall by Emma Newman, Auora by Kim Stanley Robinson, Trouble on Triton, by Samuel R. Delany, Stone by Adam Roberts, Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskill, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe).


Consider this Goodreads user as a specimen. It does seem strange that somebody who was so consistently disappointed by Lightspeed or Clarkesworld or Nightmare would keep coming back, issue after issue. Also he is very valiant to keep struggling through the works of so many writers of color, and so many works by those he probably considers libtards, cucks and feminazis, when he simply can't find any that he likes. Which is to say, I don't think he has actually read most of the works he has given one-star ratings to.

It should go without saying that this dude hails from the Puppies realm of fandom, and he and I probably disagree about pretty much everything. He probably thinks there shouldn't be gun control, I don't mind if there is or not.

But in the context of this post, it should also go without saying that I'm interested in his self-perception. How does this reviewer see what he is doing? Does this reviewer actually think of himself as doing something underhand, as trolling, cheating, gaming the system, meddling with the data? Is there a moment where he thinks, "the ends justify the means!"? Or does he consider his practice legitimate, an expression of the same norms that govern rating all over GoodReads, only given different opinions and information? Does he in fact believe it is enough to "know" with confidence that something is badly written, since he has sampled similar stuff in the past and finds it unreadable, and ascribes its publication to political correctness and nepotism? He probably sees himself -- in roughly Puppies lingo -- as a non-political lover of freedom and democracy standing up to the  hegemony of the Social Justice Warriors. If he were called out over it, would he disappear and try to do it again more subtly, or would he be a little confused about the substance of the challenge? Would he try to defend his practice? If so, how?

(As it happens, I think he probably does see himself as a saboteur, doing something underhand, and the reason for that are that Barack Obama gets five stars, whereas Mitt Romney and Rand Paul get just one; this really looks a lot like an attempt at muddying the waters and achieving deniability. I can maybe see him feeling that Mitt and Rand just aren't alt right enough for him, but all that love for Barack is a real tough sell. If that's the case, it's interesting that this politically motivated rater only has the courage of his convictions when it comes to cultural politics: he's very willing to betray his instincts in rating political memoirs and actual books about politics and cultural affairs, if it will slightly smooth the way for his opinions within the sphere of speculative fiction. Of course I'm speculating. Maybe he just loves those Obama books. I'm also interested, by the way, in his treatment of Stephen King, who gets the occasional two- or three-star ratings peeping out from a long gleam of one-star ratings. Mamatas also musters the occasional two- or three-star rating. Is this more muddying of the waters, a performance of even-handedness? Or is it possible that he has read, for instance, all those Stephen King books, in fact loves Stephen King, apart from King's implicit and explicit political stance? Are we seeing a grudging trade-off, where an author is punished as a public figure, but the punishment is mitigating in the case of a few books the rater found totally outstanding? Is this GoodReaders user vacillating between rating those two entangled things, the author and the author's works?).

(4) What if you know that a book is worth, for instance, four stars. Let's say you are very sure of it. And let's say that this book is currently sitting at an average of about two stars, after about twenty reviews have come in. Conventional wisdom is that you should now rate it four stars, its true worth to you. Right?

So what would it take for you to rate it five stars, to bring its public valuation closer to its true worth? Its just price, you could say? Would you ever be tempted?

Or perhaps this is already your practice? Archers take the prevailing winds into account, shouldn't reviewers? Doth not the responsibility of truth-telling partly imply paying attention to the context in which you speak, and ensuring that you set your meaning on a course such that, as far as you can tell from the currents and forces before you, it will eventually hit its true target as closely as possible? Does it feel slightly like I'm Lucifer? The Morning-Star Tempts the Star-Giver, etc.? What if you were absolutely resolute that it was worth two stars, but it was sitting on an average of one star, after a hundred reviews have come in? Would you give it two, three, four or five stars?

(5) To what extent when you are rating a book (or for instance a hotel or a service or a person) do you feel you are following commonly accepted norms for the generating of ratings? To what extent are the norms you are following describable? Do you think it matters if there are different norms simultaneously in operation? If there are different norms in operation, what are the ways they overlap, and what are the ways that they don't? To put that another way, what sorts of books are more likely to reveal, and what sorts of books are more likely to conceal, the difference between the norms in operation? To what extent do you think the norms you conform to are visible to others when you exemplify them? Do you ever virtue-signal with your ratings?

(6) Do the ethics of rating (OK that's probably too grand a term) actually change as more ratings are accumulated? Do you incline toward temperance / perhaps mild positivity if there are very few ratings, and then go for more extreme and potentially unforgiving ratings if there are lots of other ratings to absorb your contribution? Do you consider how many ratings a work is likely to gather over its lifetime? I.e. if you are likely to be one of only two or three people who ever rate it, or maybe the only person who ever rates it, does that change how you marshal your stars?

(7) What do you think of those people who bestow a book with only one star because it isn't about what they thought it was about?

Or those people who give it one star because it arrived late in the post, or because they thought it was too expensive and so they didn't buy it (for example, as in the sole Amazon review of this academic book, which is modestly priced for an academic book, although of course academic books are far more expensive than they ought to be), or in some other way found the book unsatisfying not in itself, but because it wasn't something they wanted it to be?

Or what do you think of those people who rate the book, rather than the marketplace seller, when they find that the quality of the copy does not match the description? I mean, how many stars would you give those people? No, that's not what I mean at all. I really mean, what's up with that? Can these practices be defended, or can parts of them be defended?

Similarly, what about people who go ahead and give a rating based on a single hated or loved feature? -- e.g. "I hate present third person tense novels. I go around giving them all one star." What about the people who give their ratings based on the same handful of somewhat flexible, extremely broadly applicable criteria, criteria that are brought to book after book, for instance, transparency of style, relatability of character, plausibility of motivation? What about the person, quoted below, who gave a book one star because their friend deeply disliked it? Is that practice defensible? (Compare liquid democracy, perhaps?) Less drastically, how much of a book do you think you need to have read before you are competent to rate it? Or alternatively, how many times do you think you have to read a book before you are really competent to rate it? Say, "in an ideal world"?

Similarly, when you buy Amazon reviews, how does that actually work? -- what parts of the process are automated? Or are there sweatshop workers writing those reviews, or what? Does anyone know?

(8) What are the truth conditions for the attribution of a certain level of stars? If the answer is "it's subjective" or "it depends how you feel," how do you know what you feel? What does a number feel like? How do you feel a number? Do a number of stars feel different from a number of hearts? How do you know you are really feeling the number, and not just mistaking some different feeling for the feeling of that number?

How is it possible for people to disagree on how many stars a book should have?

What would be necessary to make it impossible for people to disagree on how many stars a book should have? Is it possible to give a book the wrong number of stars? Is that is what implied by sites like Love Reading, Hate Books, or by authors sharing their #1starreviews on Twitter? (Answer: sometimes). Is the ascription of stars an aesthetic judgment (e.g. in a Kantian sense), and/or should it be? Would you ever go back and adjust all your star ratings to accommodate the sudden magnificent appearance of something that is greater than anything you have ever encountered, or is literally, by an order of magnitude, just the worst.

(9) Are stars scattered because books are scattered? In other words, do different star ratings tend to reflect sharply different styles of reading, and/or sharply different phenomenologies of reading, and/or the reading of different books? How real are these multiple different books ("book" in roughly the sense of "what is read") that supervene on the common book ("book" in roughly the sense of "the codex filled with words")? Are they at least real enough that we could for instance write literary scholarship about them -- that we could talk about "the one-star Aftermath" and "the four-star Aftermath" in the same way we talk about the First Quarto Hamlet and the Folio Hamlet? How do such different phenomenologies relate to the identity characteristics of intersectionalism and/or diversity discourse?

(10) There could be an algorithm which adjusts the average star rating to a targeted, weighted "average." Would you want such functionality? Would you want a targeted, weighted "average"? Obviously not. What if you could adjust the algorithm yourself, and there was an easy filter switch, to toggle between the weighted average and the unweighted average? Are you absolutely certain such an algorithm is not already in place? If it were, how would it first come to your attention? And what about if we weren't talking about books? What if we were talking about, say, Uber drivers? Would you want such functionality then?

(11) Imagine that reviews were not for authors in any sense, and also not for readers, in the sense that they were not primarily a filter for readers to decide where to focus money, attention, faith, and/or mental and emotional labor. Who or what else might reviews be for?

(12) What recipe would you use to create a useful weighted average? I.e. if you could see all the individual reviews, and could see the average star rating, but could also see another rating, "star tally tailored for me," or something?

The obvious recipe is to gradually slightly bump up the weight of reviews which people find "helpful." And vice-versa: if lots of people find a review unhelpful, perhaps it shouldn't carry so much weight. (But do you think there is something a bit seedy about that suggestion? After all, people weren't asked whether they think the star rating should have greater or lesser weight. They were asked whether they found the review -- the text in particular, you gotta imagine -- helpful).

What about a slight extra weighting according to word length -- a decent tracking variable for indicating that a reviewer might have put some consideration into their review?

How about an innocuous scan for phrases like "couldn't decide between three and four stars and eventually went for three" which will re-weight that rating as, say, 3.25 stars?

What about weighting somebody's star-giving according to how prolific they are with their stars: if I only ever give one-star or two-star reviews, perhaps my two-star reviews should be weighted as a curmudgeon's highest praise?

Are there any ways of building in tests that reduce the impact of reviewers who really have not read the book in question? Would you want them?

And what about increasing the weight of reviews by reviewers whose reviews you personally have "found helpful" in the past? Or even increase the weight of reviews by reviewers whose reviews reviewers whose reviews you have found helpful in the past have found helpful in the past?

What about going for a fully blown k-NN classification to determine how close a particular reviewer's "tastes" are to your "tastes," with taste being modeled by extracting features from a data-set including reviews you have written and reviews you have found helpful or not helpful? How would you set up the parameters in detail? What are the second-order possibilities and risks, in terms of a new incentive structure for reviewers, and for cultural production more generally?


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Story Sludge Redux

One problem for the supporters of Narrativity is the danger of unconscious falsifying revision—fictionalization, confabulation—of one’s ‘self-narrative’. I will call this Revision for short. Revision may sometimes begin consciously, with deliberate lies told to others, e.g., and it may have semi-conscious instars, but one has not engaged in genuine Revision in the present sense unless or until one no longer has any awareness of having falsified anything. It is true that the conscious/non-conscious border is murky and porous, but cases of Revision are clear for all that—and extremely common. [...] 
Galen Strawson, "Narrativity and non-Narrativity" (2010)
For some probably dumb reason, I've adopted the love of storytelling as a pet peeve. I mean people who love storytelling: stop it you guys! I mean your love of storytelling as such. That half-awestruck, half-mischievous attitude that is mostly taken up -- as it happens -- by professional or wannabe professional storytellers, or by their closest economic allies, whenever they speak of the Power of Narrative.

Telling stories is what makes us human. Telling stories is what makes us human? Maybe it's what makes you human, humans! Unremitting and unqualified piety in the presence of storytelling per se just makes me as cross as a frog in a sock.

I've sort of done this grumble properly in a short essay in Newb Maps of Hell (subtitled, with misleading portent, "vol. I"). But the tl;dr is: (a) we should at least be open to the idea that many good stories might do bad things, and (b) given this, it's possible that when a bunch of people are nodding along in happy wonderment at the power of storytelling, each one of us may well be thinking of different powers and different stories.

To be fair, when the sentiment comes not from a storyteller, but from a reader, that does make me much less cross. Cross as a frog in some crotchless body-stockings possibly, if we're using the same scale.

Furthermore, this particular family of clichés often escapes the lips of writers who are otherwise pretty damn quick-witted and wise, I guess in the same way as do burps and sneezes. And many apparent evangelists, whether storytellers or readers, may offer more qualified and nuanced accounts somewhere, only to find that the feel-good, upbeat, up-in-the-dumps bits get sheared off and quoted and shared and made into memes. Or it's those bits that are the easiest to reach for, when there's a microphone crawling up your chin and a bunch of necks not yet nodding. Which is fair enough: almost as bad as preaching to the choir is crosspatching to the below-quorum.

But all that aside, I just came across Galen Strawson's short essay "Narrativity and non-Narrativity" (2010) which although not something that has the same pet peeve, is at least willing to come with me while I take mine for a walk and a poop. I may not agree with everything you say, Professor Strawson -- the Diachronic/Non-Diachronic "brain chemistry" bit feels pretty dubious -- but I will defend to the death your right to come with me while I take my pet peeve for a walk and a poop, if we're using the same scale. Strawson concludes that it's false that we naturally see our lives in narrative terms, or that we should see our lives in narrative terms. He sees his position as entirely consistent with the reconstructive and confabulatory aspects of memory and personal identity.

As a complete By The Way, while I'm mentioning Strawson, he has a lovely and odd chapter in Mental Reality (1994) on imaginary creatures he calls his Weather Watchers -- they're sort of his Chilled Triffid take on Chalmers et al.'s philosophical zombies -- which I bet would collide amusingly and maybe even fruitfully with some recent plant neurobiology and totally BeAble-Thing-shit crazy phenomenology-inflected ecocritical thought such as Michael Marder's Plant Thinking (2013).

*   *   *

*   *   *

UPDATE: My friend wrote to me with a really good point. "I think my main objection is different, which is that people who tell you they are storytellers are normally so boring."

Monday, November 23, 2015

Names in SFF #11: Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver

Here be spoilers.
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June and July flowers;
I sing of youth, of love too, and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white:
I write of groves and twilight, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the Fairie King. 
-- Robert Herrick
I guess what I'll do is this. I'll send the British Royal Legion a donation, along with a note explaining why there's no way I could wear a red poppy, and that's a shame because I'd quite like to. And I'll ask them to please, please team up with the white poppy people (they're called the Peace Pledge Union apparently), and both sell both kinds of poppy. Because if two charitable organizations (I'll say) who both agree we ought to support veterans, commemorate all those who have lost their life in war, work constantly toward peace, and never glamorize, romanticize, or celebrate war, if they can't get along and work together for a good cause, then what chance do any of us have?

Or just swap, one year. You sell red and I'll sell white, kind of thing. There are some economic obstacles. One brand is worth a lot more than the other. Hmm. Got to think it through.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There is a kind of garden growing through the names of Between Two Thorns (2013), the first novel of Emma Newman's Split Worlds urban fantasy trilogy. You know: a serene spread of plant color, neatly bedded to belie its rooty intrigues for nutrients and choked struggle for sun.

We need a little background here. Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver ran away from Nether to Mundanus in hope of leading a normal life. But now she's been found, forcibly returned to Nether, and betrothed to William Reticulata-Iris without so much as a by-your-sepal. And if you think that's unceremonious, get this: Nether society is itself agitated, what with the arrival of the Alba-Rosa family in Aquae Sulis, a city supposed to be free of Rosa influence, and the mysterious disappearance of the Master of Ceremonies, the very person Aquae Sulis desperately needs to keep the peace at a time like this.

A Master of Ceremonies is (as Mundanus-dweller Joseph Moser put it around the turn of the Nineteenth Century) obliged to at least:
[...] introduce regularity into large assemblies, to keep order, to repress the ebullitions of passion, to banish, if possible, that contraction or thrusting out of the lips which Shakespear calls duckface selfie; to prevent violent suffusions or flushings in the female countenance; to keep the ladies from tossing, and their noses from turning up, when precedence, partners, and people that nobody knows, with a hundred other serious circumstances, excite those emotions. He has also annexed to his office something clerical, it being his business to join hands: but he goes still farther, he frequently procures partners, who sometimes under his banners enlist for life [...]
OK yeah it's "pouting" not "duckface selfie." Sorry.

It's not precisely clear what the Nether Master of Ceremonies does, but he does seem to be more of a big deal than his Mundanus namesake. He emanates an aura of authority, security, and law and order, perhaps more in a Confucian harmony-through-cultivating-virtue kind of way than either a despot or a highest court of appeal kind of way.

Meanwhile, back in Mundanus, sinister and bloody events are unfolding ... but I don't think we don't need to get into that gargoyle stuff now: that's enough background.

So let's stay with Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver, who has a fancy-pants name, as befits the highborn Fae-touched, although often she's just plain "Cathy."

In a moment, I'll think about why double-barrel names are so fancy-pants. But for now, what might that name remind of, at first blush? Rhoeas could suggest a corrupted rose, perhaps an English rose, and the word papa is discernible as an ominous gardener or florist looming over her. Maybe it would be easy to tease and wind up Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver by calling her Catherine the Corrupt and Papa-Averse English Rose?

But rose may also be a little misleading here: really rhoeas is just "red" from the Greek and papaver is the Latin word for "poppy," perhaps from the root pap, to swell, and/or pappa, food or milk. And in fact Rhoeas-Papaver is, unmistakably, a re-working of Papaver rhoeas, which is the taxon of the common poppy, aka the corn poppy, the corn rose, Flanders poppy, or the remembrance poppy.

I say "unmistakably," because Between Two Thorns has a pretty systematic naming convention for its Fae-touched characters. Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver is one of the Fae-touched, from one of the Great Families that populate the Nether, an interstitial worldlet betwixt Mundanus, where you and I live, and Exilium, where the powerful pixies live. For somewhat nebulous reasons, the fairies are actually supposed to be exiled to Exilium, although this containment strategy seems to be having mixed success.

Anyway, all the Fae-touched go by the about-faced technical terms for flowers. Every Great Family is superintended by one of these terrifyingly potent and trans-moral patrons -- or perhaps, less kindly, puppeteers -- and you can tell immediately which family goes with which fairy, simply by their name.

Lady Rose is the patron of the Alba-Rosas and Gallica-Rosas.

Lord Iris is the patron of the Reticulata-Irises.

And so on.

This is the main way in which names work in Between Two Thorns. These relatively legible power relationships re-create an archaic connection between name and status, the sort of thing a good edition of a Nineteenth-Century novel might include in the footnotes, making seemingly pointless conversations suddenly light up with connoted cut-and-thrust. Such names also vouchsafe a sort of pre-liberal sense of being utterly embedded in the fate of your lineage. To keep this sense sharp, the rising and falling fortunes of kin become transposed, in Between Two Thorns, into the favors and furies of the pixie patrons.

In other words, to be a Rhoeas-Papaver is to be connected to the fate of your family -- okay, whatever, we get that -- but it is also to be inescapably, suffocatingly connected to the wonderworkings and the whims of Lord Poppy. A concrete agent, not a vague abstraction like "the fate of your family." Someone from the Great Families, particularly a woman from the Great Families, does not write her own history. She is trapped in fate. "Of Flowers, so much has been said and sung, that it were impossible to write any thing new," as Francis S. Osgood writes in The Poetry of Flowers and Flowers of Poetry.

Fairy is probably from fāta, the Fates. And as it happens, the personality of Lord Poppy -- if personality is the right word? -- recalls the more louche and unpredictable of Neil Gaiman's Endless, or possibly Loki at his most jaded and frivolous, or perhaps the Ancient Greek pantheon at their squabbliest and most squee-tastic-est, just as they're really getting stuck in around Troy. I want to go further: there is also a sense that Poppy's capacity for boredom is the radical unknowability of fairy, imperfectly translated into something mortal minds can deal with. Lord Poppy is, like Fortuna, the the vicissitudes and vagaries of what's coming, personified and given an uncomfortably intimate grin.

What first strikes us as fairyland's "radical unknowability," of course, might be developed into a critique of our customary modes of knowledge, and perhaps eventually an expansion of their limits. At the same time, even this early talk of constructive criticism in hope of an upgrade, and thereafter to increased technical capacity and newly conquered territories, feels inimical to any fairy way of knowing. That is, perhaps even to talk of different ways of knowing is already only a metaphor for whatever it is fairyland demands of us. One might compare Michael Marder's Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013). I have added words like fairies: 
Because fairies do not appear, they bestow on us the problem of representing them both in the theoretical sense of representation faithful to their ontology and in the strictly political sense of representation as delegation, claiming the right to speak as though bewitched by fairies. Perhaps to encounter fairyland without distorting it through the mangles of mortal hyper-familiarity, it becomes necessary to take up some trick, cheap glamor, or changeling substitition. By means of this clinaman, whose status is that of thievery, or of the forged or deliberately misleading, our encounters with fairies are temporarily jogged from their justifiable trajectories. Because the absence of visitation by fairies does not proclude their spatial, material self-expression: it only poses additional hurdles to the ethical treatment of fairyland. 
If ethics, understood à la Levinas, is the relation to the other, then it must be rooted in the ontology of fairy life, heteronomously defined by a striving to alterity. The heteronomous decorum of fairyland, or more precisely, the heteronomous decorum of the Seelie Court, is therefore a kind of homecoming, a harkening of ethical discourse back to the domain of life wherein it originated. On the one hand, the open-endedness, or the essential incompletion, of wish-granting and of other fairy functions subtracts fairies from the logic of actualization they have been often called upon to illustrate. On the other hand, the infinite possibilities of fairyland correspond to its countless ends.
Honestly though, brushes with fairy can be stressy.

To a lesser extent, the same flowerbed of names, Rhoeas-Papaver, Californica-Papaver, Alba-Rosa, Gallica-Rosa, Reticulata-Iris, and so on, also advertizes horizontal associations: the Rhoeas-Papavers and the Californica-Papavers are not only tied by a common fairy patron, but also likely more closely-related to each other than the Rhoeas-Papavers and the Alba-Roses, for instance. Such blood ties are more understandable, since they involve only mortal power-differentials, rather than fealty to something nebulous and numinous. But these blood ties are also ambiguous and flexible in their own little ways. Close names connote close histories, but tell us little about what those histories are. Are the various Papavers more likely to be allies and kissing cousins? Or is whatever forked the dynasty in the first place still lodged there, wedging the lines apart?
He looked down at the wedding ring. “That’s one of the things that happened whilst you were missing.”
“Lucy Californica-Papaver.”
“A Californica? I don’t understand.”
“It was to end the feud.”
Then there's Catherine. 

The name Catherine is at once queenly and unassuming. Catherine is a name ready for any weather, ready to boom at bad guys down two barrels -- or wielding some suitably grand identifier by the ligature of an "of" or a "the" like a cat-'o'-nine-tails -- yet ready too to grin and turn out nuances of cheerful competence as Cathy, of glamor and rubby intimacy as Kitty, or of wayfaring and subtlety as Cat. The name may even go all mousy, by some mysterious dialectics of cats and mice, although always the mousiness of a brave mouse, always the mouse of a Mouse-cat-teer, of a mouse that is probably really just a mini-cat. Remember Katherina Minola, the titular shrew of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Catherine is a name at home among crenels or taking tea. Shirley Jackson's Mary Katherine "Merrikat" Blackwood has always lived in the castle. There are Jane Austen's Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey and Catherine "Kitty" Bennett from Pride and Prejudice -- women with whom Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver has some context in common, being like them stuffed into impractical pouffiness and somewhat aggressed by fairylands. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights has Catherine Earnshaw and she has Cathy. It seems remarkable, an oversight, even an outrage, that there is no Catherine Pevensie. It is the name of a midfielder, a captain. It is is a name that holds the centre, it contains the letters "c-e-n-t-r-e" and in English it is an intuitive core to a cloud of cognates, the Karens and Katyas, Caitlins and Catrinas, the Ecaterinas et cetera.

Catherine comes from the Greek Αικατερινη, "Aikaterine," to which is grafted the Greek καθαρος, "katharos," meaning "pure," as in cathartic as purifying. One intriguing source for Aikaterine are five nymphs, the Ἑκατεριδες, "Hekaterides," or their dad Ἑκατερος, "Hekateros," whose name roughly connotes "each of two" or perhaps "with both hands." There is some intricate finger-related stuff there, but for the sake of Between Two Thorns, in which places in the Nether are anchored in Mundanus, so that London is mirrored by Londinium, Bath by Aquae Sulis, it is mostly the doubling that is interesting. Another intriguing derivation is from the Greek αικια, "aikia," meaning unfair, unreasonable, unjust, an insult, an outrage, an affront, suffering, torture.

Like the purr of a cat, the purity of a Catherine is a throaty sound, ribbed and knurled with harmonics and overtones. I'm not being funny, but the term pure is mixed in its meanings: what counts as pure alters according to context and purpose, so that there can be no pure pure. The heroin which comes to you from a poppy may be pure as regards adulterants, but impure as regards consumer ethics. In economics and finance, in particular, pure profit must be calculated by consulting a recipe with several ingredients. In Scotland pure is an intensifier hospitable to anything and everything: and though ma heid's pure mince the day, I wonder if there's even a little connotation of "ex nihilosine causa, just because" about the Scottish pure, like "just totally" or like the South African sommer. Collocations like "vengeance, pure and simple," or "pure chaos" or "pure mayhem," or "pure outrage" or "pure rage," -- one of the few instances of the word in the novel is in "pure fury" -- all bring to mind complexity, obscurity and cloudedness, like the conflating, concealing and co-mingling dust clouds of cartoon punch-ups.

Tanners used to use an infusion of pigeon, hen or dog poop called pure or puer to strip away fur. Papas on the topic of daughters' purity are often full of shit, as we can see as a piece of it escapes Polonius: "Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl!" Brothers are not much better:
"Look, when I went up to Cambridge, you didn't think Father trusted the chaperone and the minder, did you? He put a curse on me, to make sure I didn't lose my market value." 
"Catherine! What a way to speak of your own purity." 
"Oh, please. I'm not stupid, that's what it comes down to, isn't it? Have to guarantee the goods are pure and unsullied when selling them off to the highest bidder."
Do unicorns count frotting? I wonder if the later novels reveal anything about the no-doubt hugely heteronormative fae algorithm glowing within Will Reticulata-Iris and his father's virginity-detecting gizmo.

Exercise: how would you program such a thing, pixies? I see most of you have gone for, "If she believes she is a virgin," which is a solid B+. Who handed this one in, with the tech-tree diagram? It hasn't got a name on. And whose is this, stating "And the commoditie be valued as chast within the market, it is the Opal's duety but to giue confydence to mens' iudgement"? You lot are weird.

Above all, no matter what the regime of measurement and control, pure and innocent are far from synonymous. Innocence conveys untried and untested. Purity equivocates between the purity of isolation and the purity of homeostasis: between being sheltered, and being experienced but incorruptible. Our sense of this distinction may be confused by a certain kind of strong innocence, which filters evil at the outermost fringes of experience: such innocents may come through trials not only uncorrupted but in a certain sense untried. Sometimes this filtering is something we can do for or to each other.

Roses may also be symbols of purity, especially through their association with the Virgin Mary. William Blake wanders through worlds of purity, of innocence, and of experience, in search perhaps of other worlds, in his Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes the fruitfully resilient poem of corruption "The Sick Rose." The fairy lord Harold Bloom even more-or-less manages to make the rose into the corrupting factor, a worm-tease possessed of a "jealous lust," although he's being a bit contrarian. What I find odd is that there appear to be two worms in the picture:

You can try out "innocence and experience" as the plaintext of Blake's "rose and flying invisible worm" respectively. I sort of think that, whatever else is going on in that poem, Blake is proposing airborne microorganisms as a vector of plant blight. I think that all the ingredients were available to him: the notion of human diseases carried by infinitesimal spores; the notion that insects were responsible for plant disease; the homunculi and animalculae of preformationism; the scattering of panspermism.

If rose customarily denotes earthly beauty and fragility, mortality, corruptibility, and inevitable decay, it is also a word which can intimate recovery, return, or even resurrection, in its five red petals' correspondence to five wounds on Christ's body, and in the faith "that He was buried, that He rose again on the third day."

In the Child Ballad 166A, the rose that is thoroughly trampled and rooted out by a wild boar, representative of the House of York, is a hardy plant that finds its way back:

Wend away, messenger, with might and maine;
Itt’s hard to know who a man may trust;
I hope the rose shall flourish againe,
And haue all things att his owne lust.

Then Sir Rice ap Thomas drawes Wales with him;
A worthy sight itt was to see,
How the Welchmen rose wholy with him,
And shogged them to Shrewsburye.

I like that: "How the Welchmen rose wholy with him." Just one more thing about roses. Listen to this creep fucking neg:

There is something of the rose about Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver. The poppies of Between Two Thorns are pepped up, glamorous poppies. "In Mundanus the red poppy was scentless, but in Exilium it smelt divine." In a way, they are a bit like red roses without all the hokiness of red roses. They are stealth red roses.

I've talked too much about roses. I've talked a bit about poppies, and I'll talk a lot more about them soon. But it's worth emphasizing that her name is not Catherine Rose, or Catherine Poppy, or Catherine Papaver Rhoeas. Her name is Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver. What difference does that make?

Rhoeas-Papaver. Stare at it long enough, it starts to look like an articulated lorry trying collidingly to reverse into a space -- reverse, as in the swappage of "Papaver" and "Rhoeas" to make "Rhoeas-Papaver"; reverse as in the word reverse, a word almost audible among the incessant pa! pa! of the heavy duty vehicle reversing alarm -- but the really important bit isn't that swappage, it's the hyphen.

Double-barreled surnames have long been an affable compromise between class-based domination and gender-based domination: if a chap married up, he couldn't very well lose his name, but he wouldn't want to throw away a boon like his wife's (father's) name. Alternatively, a chap with only daughters, the poor chap, might have insisted no chaps should marry those daughters unless these chaps agreed to double-barrel, thereby carrying on his horrible illustrious name. Double-barreling also became an affectation of the upwardly mobile middle classes, particularly in Victorian Britain as the law around name-changes became clearer and more forgiving.

So double-barreling usually suggests aristocracy, although perhaps -- with the current spate of couples who double-barrel out of an urge to merge non-hierarchically -- it is on the verge of losing that association.

(That, and the coming bloodbath. Anyway, we'll see!)

What is interesting about the Rhoeas-Papaver double-barrel is that it suggests a marriage, some time in the past, between, let's say, Goodman Joseph Rhoeas and Mistress Josephine Papaver. Now, I'm not saying that the novel wants us to think that this has literally taken place within its story-world. I'm speaking strictly non-canon now. But the suggestion is there -- because that is how double-barrelling normally works -- even if it's a suggestion that eventually gets obliterated by seething bolts of worldbuilding.

Yet the name's unmistakable meaning -- if we simply flip it to Papaver rhoeas -- suggests an altogether different taxonomy, and an altogether different history. That is a history whose dominant event is the split, not the merger. Papaver is the genus, and Papaver rhoeas is the species: the common poppy. A rhoeas is not a rhoeas is not a rhoeas: taxonomically, a rhoeas always implies and is contained by its genus. My imaginary couple, Joseph Rhoeas and Josephine Papaver, are impossible: they can't have met, because they are just different ways of slicing the same evolutionary story.

You can say the same thing about Catherine's fiance, William Reticulata-Iris: although his name suggests some past union of the Reticulatas and the Irises, the Iris reticulata is the netted iris, a plant with its own evolutionary history. It's not something you get every time you cross a net with an iris. Taxonomy is not just synchronic nomenclature, not just a snapshot of distinguishing features at the present moment: taxonomy has a relationship, albeit a fraught one, with phylogeny; in other words, it conveys, in an uncluttered and imperfect and highly reductive way, the ramified structures of cladogenesis and anagenesis, it hints at the reproduction and reshuffling and flow and drift of genetic material, clumped more-or-less into organisms, stretching back millennia.

There are a lot of ways we could go from here. In imagining the reconciliation of this contradiction, an image of supreme nominocracy, rule by names, could be teased out: as if the Rhoeas and the Papaver families had to unite on the social plane, because they had already emerged co-evally on the biological plane. That might be a particularly intriguing incarnation of the fateful power so often welded into names in fantasy narratives. I'm not sure.

But can we bring it back to those poppies? On the one hand, Rhoeas-Papaver seems to be the outcome of Rhoeas plus Papaver; on the other, it seems to be the outcome of the evolution of Papaver rhoeas and other Papaver species in different directions from some likely common ancestor. In other words, the name Rhoeas-Papaver expresses a struggle about different ways of reading the past, or of rendering the past legible in the first place. In other words, it expresses a struggle about remembrance.

The semiotics of the lapel poppy are disastrously, dishearteningly jumbled and impure. We wear red remembrance poppies to honor and commemorate those who have died in war. We remember all those who have died in all wars, but particularly we remember the servicemen and women of Britain and of the countries of the former British Empire who have died since 1914. We honor those whose acts incarnate a kind of courage whatever bravery or fear or otherwise may have filled their hearts, and many of whom died.


Perhaps Remembrance Sunday should have a tidge more War Awareness Day to it. Commemorate is a funny word. The closest synonym is remember, and of course remember is equivocal. Most people don't recall, for instance, fighting in World War II. Some people recall hanging out with somebody who did. Maybe hanging out with them on Remembrance Sunday. A sense of strengthened continuity with ancestral suffering springs up around Remembrance Sunday. Suddenly personal reflective nostalgia gets ambiguously blurred with restorative nostalgia violently fixated on a mythical golden age. And/or (usually or) personal reflective nostalgia gets ambiguously blurred with a righteous fixation on reparations, or some form of restorative justice, or at least accurate, appropriately publicized history.

From the little I know about my ancestors, I suspect they were usually committing the massacres.

And a sense of humble prayer hangs over Remembrance Sunday. Specifically, the sense of a performance before the divine that is oddly evacuated of meaning, because even though you attach significance to its symbols, whatever significance you attach is subsumed in what the Almighty knows those words to really mean.

This year, the Royal British Legion suggests, "Take a photo of yourself with a poppy held to your lips," visually reflecting, of course, the paltry two minute silence. It should be two days. But it is also, I think, a subtle borrowing of a semiotic idiom associated with pacifist, radical and/or Leftist protest.

The quality of silence itself has changed in recent years -- silence now exists visually on Twitter, for instance -- and this year, it seems like the British Legion is experimenting with adapting to more recent versions of silence. In particular, the poppy-to-your-lips campaign feels like an allusion to activist art and protest which seeks to draw attention to oppressive silencing. Asylum seekers have sewn their lips together, for instance. The undercurrent of this campaign can't be anything but: we will not be silenced!

And that in turn implies: "It's those Guardianistas, those authoritarian metropolitan elites, those ivory tower trustafarians, those Political Correctness fetishists, those head-in-the-clouds attention-seeking crusties, those foreigners (like, idk, Greeks) or spawn-of-foreigners with their weird perspectives, who are trying to silence the poppy and everything it stands for. They are the appropriators, they are the revisionists, and they have the cheek to call me that! But they're the ones trying to erase the sacrifice of our parents and grandparents. Try telling them a simple fact about Britain's sacrifice standing up to the Nazis, and they'll derail the conversation, with something about Britain and British colony's 1% killed against the Soviet Union's 12%-13%. Or even worse, something about British colonial administrators shipping grain out of India and outlawing relief efforts during the late 19th century famines that killed more people than either world war. It's not that it's not true or anything: it's just, that's not what this is about. They can barge in with their agendas the rest of the year, but not November: not while we're mourning."

By the way. The presence of Maharaj Kumari Rani Nucifera-Nelumbo in Between Two Thorns is a little mysterious. Her appearance is a status coup for the Alba-Rosas, of course. "The Albas brought an Indian princess to impress the Censor into letting them in." And I suspect it may be of some intertextual importance, setting up the character for the sequels, or perhaps calling back to some of the earlier Split Worlds short fiction. Nevertheless she dangles a little, conspicuously enough that I almost want to say her real function in the novel is to raise in a more explicit way the theme of empire.

Yet ... having a pop at the poppy still feels like a trap.

That is, to articulate the despoiled symbolism of the red poppy, which does not mean what it officially means, feels like walking into a trap.

That flash of red is the red of red-bait. That is the flapping red corner of the matador's cape. Without constant vigilance and creativity, the voice which leaves your lips will default to the voice of the Left as the Left is imagined by the Right. You become your own stereotype. Almost anything that you don't "agree" with is something that "offends" you and something that you want to "ban." You are a strain of paranoid, sneering and sniveling refusenik, crossbred out of Vyvyan and Neil from the 1980s sitcom The Young Ones. You think you are the only one who sees what a hard world this is, and you can't help but ruin the few things about it that are good. You pretend to care about everyone to conceal your inability to care for those closest to you. You trample the poppy because your flower is the narcissus. At the very best, you have no tactics or common sense either: even if you're not really authoritarian, you'll come across that way (meta: you'll come across as someone who will come across as authoritarian), you'll alienate the people you need by your side. Also, you're a bad Kantian, because the maxim you're acting on isn't universalizeable: when somebody (militaristic racists for instance) appropriate a symbol, do you just go ahead and surrender it to them? Where would it end, hmm?

What is the title of Between Two Thorns about? Any between-ness immediately suggests Nether, suspended between Mundanus and Exilium, but I don't think it's about that. I wonder if the Alba-Rosas and the Gallica-Rosas can each lay claim to one of the title's thorns. Alba-Rosa and Gallica-Rosa suggest respectively the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster (or Gallic rose). Perhaps Between Two Thorns -- or at least, the Nether version to which it is tethered -- re-stages the War of the Roses as the War of the Poppies, red and white.

Civil war in England!

There is, of course, another remembrance poppy. The white poppy.

The white poppy was introduced by the Women's Co-operative Guild in 1933, about ten years after the red poppy, and is now mostly sold by the Peace Pledge Union. The motto of the Peace Pledge Union is, "War is a crime against humanity. I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war." I've never worn one. Maybe I'll start, even though -- well, I don't know. It also feels a little bit like the semiotics of the white poppy are, "Debate me bro!"

Turns out there are purple poppies to remember animals killed at war! But not in a big way.

And in Between Two Thorns this is the story: neither side is the good guys. The Gallica-Rosas seem to be good guys, but they're actually in league with the bad guys. Pretending to feud between themselves, they conspire to attack on two flanks: the Alba-Rosas with arrogance and aggression, the Gallica-Rosas with persuasion and seduction.

Can you see where that might be going, with respect to poppies? Maybe?

And yet, that just seems like such a smug, dialectic-er-than-thou, academic Marxist bro thing to say: that the white poppies are the problem as much as the red poppies! Like, oh my God. Who can really believe such a thing? Believe that there is no special or unusual hypocrisy, or complicity, in wearing the symbol whose non-appearance on a lapel is most energetically criticized and policed by the same people who want to violently repel people who are fleeing from war?

Of course, I know lots of people don't care half a hoot if I wear a red poppy or not, but the ones who care the most -- who in a certain way care much more than the Royal British Legion actually care -- are definitely the ones who are happy with refugees drowning. On balance, they're happy with that. Starting wars is fine and dandy, so long as it's Over There.

Surely that must count for something? I think those guys are wrong about drowning refugees, should they nevertheless be my self-appointed sartorial go-to guys?

The earliest known stem-word of rose is, funnily enough, the Parthian wâr.

And can I really believe -- oh, I'm not sure how to put this -- can I really believe that there is no special or unusual hypocrisy, or complicity, in commemorating the sacrifice of those who fought fascism by using literally the closest thing these isles have to a living fascist symbol?

Perhaps not that close, but closer than anything else. Top of the leaderboard. The swastika is too niche and anyway it's German af. St George's Cross is never noticeable by its lack, the way the red poppy is. All those eagles with lightning beaks and whatever are too frikkin awesome to be properly fascist. The poppy is the closest thing there is. And of course it is still entirely justifiable to wear a red poppy, 110% justifiable, I could justify it for you right now. But I don't want to. But I could. But I really don't want to.

Given all that, why would the white poppies be problematic, as much as the red? Because ... I forget. I am ensorcelled into forgetfulness by all this remembrance. Poppy may also suggest poppet or puppet. The Fae-touched are referred to, rather dismissively, as puppets by the Arbiters and Sorcerers, those charged with defending Mundanus from the fairies of Exilium.

Puppetry and pageantry. Well, the white poppy might be a problem because -- even though it forswears it, as much as the red poppy forswears its racist militarism -- the white poppy represents the hectoring arrogance of the Left, our incapacity to accommodate meanings other than our own.

No, that's not quite right! The white poppy represents the Left's inability to set that something free, to set free that red spark, or whatever it is, that red spark of something so necessary and so good, that goes swimming around somewhere inside the red poppy, that goes trickling around inside all its solemnity, and sorrow, and joy in community, and sense of history, and sense of kinship, and sense of place, and resistance to being told what things mean, and all those memories of childhood, or of a lost grandparent or parent or brother or sister, and all that willingness to link your sorrows to larger sorrows, and the ferocity of your love to a larger ferocity and a larger love, and all that pride, and defiance, and nationalism, and patriotism, and jingoism, and er xenophobia, and er justifiable national security concerns, and er racism, and er fascism-ish er empire-ish genocide-ish. Can't blame us, but can't not blame us, for not seizing that strange red spark. The Left's inability to encounter racism in its most triumphant of all outfits, the one it wears when it drowns vermin while dictating exactly the expression you should adopt while you watch it drown vermin, the Left's inability to encounter that and be all like, Wait, I mustn't blow this. We have stuff in common. We can figure this out.

No, that's not quite right! The point would be, I suppose, that the very practice of contesting the meaning of the red poppy -- "It's you being racist," "No, it's me thinking about my granddad" -- ends up being a kind of pageantry whose sum total effect is a kind of nil, that is to say, a kind of default to the status quo, which is a preference for mass murder, over the risk of slight loss to personal material advantage or slight adjustment to personal worldviews.

But can I really believe that? Do I really believe that those who ostentatiously support pacifism, and those who ostentatiously support whatever multifarious and muddled but broadly nationalist referent the red poppy is about ... that these two factions are in practical terms in league with each other, working to sustain and strengthen imperialist and capitalist patterns of domination, oppression and mass murder ... only they're too hazy-headed to recognize it?




Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, is responsible for associations of ensorcelled slumbers and fey reveries. From poppies (mostly the seed pods) you get opium, from opium you get morphine, codeine and (with a synthetic sprinkling of two acetyl groups) heroin. The opium poppy might be a reminder of imperialism: the British Empire used to grow opium and sell it to China, and when China tried to kick the habit, Britain invaded. I believe David Cameron was asked not to wear a poppy during some Sino-diplomatic shenanigans, but he did anyway? China lost a few chaps in World War II too, so no doubt they forgave him. Nowadays Afghanistan is totally blanketed with poppies.

Does Cathy have a poppy held up to her lips?

It could be helpful to think about the story that Between Two Thorns is not. It's not the story of an ordinary girl who -- after first brushes with fairy, and a confesh to her BFF that she might be going maaaad! -- enters an enchanted alternate world, a world filled with fairies, wishes, curses, and danger, a world where little is as it seems, a world that exists on top of and set somehow also alongside the mundane world, a world which reflects and estranges the mundane world, and which in certain weird ways satirizes and clarifies it.

It is not the story of this girl discovering that the society of this enchanted alternate world, despite its marvels, is trapped in the past, and is, in particular, way sexist. It is not even the story of an ordinary girl finding out that she is not so ordinary after all, for fey blood rushes in her arteries, nor the story of how this not-so-ordinary girl's secret tyrant extended family tries to embroil her in their fairy affairs, and their (un)seelie sexism, insisting that she wear stupid clothes, speak in florid circumlocutions, fulfill her destiny and marry a fairy dickhead.

It is not about this not-so-ordinary-girl's klutzy early attempts to fit in, nor her masochistic micro-ecstasies when she does fit in, nor her outbursts and decisions to be true to herself, nor her wit and fury poured in the pointy ear of pixie patriarchy, nor her thought-provoking encounters with her oppressed and repressed fairy sisters, nor the virality of her simple, unpretentious everyday feminism. It is not the story of the eventual transformations and syntheses and compromises and reconciliations, which promise that even though fairyland cannot be beyond the remit of the modern liberal West, loosening the laces on those whaleboned-in ribs does not have to mean total disenchantment: it is not the story of ultimately, through courage and a strong personal brand, having it both ways.

Why not? That sounds awesome!

Because it is something more uncomfortable than that. Sometimes, when you're in two minds about a story, homing in on the thing that is discomfiting you or failing to satisfy you, and taking it seriously as itself, rather than a crushed version of whatever you want it to be, can set off chain reactions throughout your experience

First, because there are three worlds, not two.

Second, because this is not a portal fantasy. It is a petal fantasy. Cathy is not the us-among-the-aliens, not the ingénue enveloped by strangeness, not the alchemical additive that catalyzes worldbuilding into storytelling. If anyone fulfills that role, it's the mortal bloke Sam, for whom Cathy plays Mr Exposition.

Cathy has always known fairyland. She is a fish-out-of-water not on dry land, but there in the sea.

But ... I don't know, actually I'll think I'll leave it there. A few loose threads, but this thing is long enough as it is.

One last loose thread. I suppose I'll write to the British Legion every year, and to the other ones as well. They seem to be the ones best-placed to do something about it all. If the Royal British Legion would consent to sell the white poppy alongside the red ... well. And in the meanwhile I'll wear the white, or nothing, and if it does spark off any little chitchat, try to wear my wokeness lightly, and laugh it off, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha. ha.

Aargh 2015

Listicles Updated
SFF about gamification
SFF about economics

New Genres Invented in 2015
Utopian Science Fiction
Not the Chosen One
See also earlier new genres

Hypotheses Hypothed in 2015
See also three mini-theses on epic fantasy and raceThesis on Witches' Cats, earlier hypotheses

Naming Names
Benedict Cumberbatch
George Lucas's Luke Skywalker (according to Samuel Delany)
Emma Newman's Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver (in progress)
Neal Stephenson's Bobby Shaftoe
Ann Leckie's Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen 
Ursula LeGuin's Ged
Ursula LeGuin's Shevek
Cory Doctorow's Buhle
Tom Pollock's Parva "Pen" Khan 
Tom Pollock's Beth Bradley (& one more, probably Reach, still to do from the same book)
Lucy (incl. e.g. Amal El-Mohtar's Lucyite)
Samuel Beckett's Winnie

Full text of "It's OK to Say if You Went Back in Time to Kill Baby Hitler"
Acknowledgements for "The Internet of Things Your Mother Never Told You"
Excerpt from "Interpellation" (in progress)

(See also Games tab)
Drama & Dice - free, generic, rules-lite tabletop RPG
Dreams & Dystopias - a free diceless tabletop RPG (in progress) which uses Chess mechanics
Daiquiris & Demigods - free, generic, rules-lite tabletop RPG that uses drinking instead of dice
Signal-boosted call for submissions: How to Win at Ultravision
Sad Chess (Ten Laws is out of print for now, but email me if you want a pdf)
Sample campaign material, since been incorporated into Daiquiris & Demigods as an appendix
Skycrawl: text-based RPG created in Twine (in progress)
See also Sad PuppiesExcerpt from "Interpellation", excerpt from "Integration"gamification SFF listicle (updated)

Disjecta Membra
Hinkley Point
Star Wars tweak
Crouching Dire Haggis, Hygge Grue
Lady Windermere's Chatterbutler
From a WIP (Swift / 1001 Nights)
Jonesing (see also Nugget of Pratchettology)
The Gold Touch
Excerpt from Popular Magic
Excerpt from How to Behave

Writing, Narrative, SFF Studies, SFF Poetics
Today, Tomorrow - a talk on near future sf (direct link)
Story Sludge Redux - link to a Galen Strawson article, plus an attack on stories
Marxist Science Fiction - "... while science fiction studies has got comfortable with the idea that science fiction doesn't predict the future, the study of future-predicting practices has started investigating the ways in which they are science fiction ..."
What is a spoiler?
Also, how would you ever know how long it took you to write a book?

Economics / Money
Unequal Pricing - long post loosely based on Georg Simmel's "perfect money" thought experiment
Quick thought about Carl Menger and the social construction of economic value
Thesis on Witches' Cats
See also Note on Mieville's The City & The City, Sales-Fieconomics SFF listicle (updated)
& elsewhere: Economic Humanities scrapbook

Notes on Terry Pratchett
Nugget of Pratchettology - toward the establishment of Pratchett Studies
The ambivalent figure of the pig not-pig in Terry Pratchett's Thud!
What kind of satire is the Discworld?

Other Reviews / Notes
Sales-Fi: on David D. Levine's "Tk'tk'tk" and Cory Doctorow's "Chicken Little" (in progress)
Naomi Foyles's Seoul Survivors
Lauren Beukes's Moxyland

BristolCon - links to reports, my report on the last bit
BristolCon Fringe with Joanne Hall and Jonathan L. Howard
WorldCon 2017 site selection ballot
See also Happy Puppies

Publishing, Publicizing, Social Media
Star Star Star Star Star - a collapsing nebula of questions about reviews and ratings
What counts as "published"?
Elsewhere: five suggestions for Making Twitter Better
Podcasts - any recommendations?
Elsewhere: my Patreon
See also Happy Puppies

Prizes, Voting, Democracy
BSFA nomination process suggestion: six per member? (& see also BSFA & Hugo noms ruminations. Can you nominate a blog label?)
My Obligatory Eligibility Post
Thoughts on Eligibility Posts - if you believe in #dontselfreject, then don't let your vote get split either
Hugo Nomination Ruminations (& Nebula murmuration)
Happy Puppies: my suggestion for an improved voting system (for the Hugos or any literary prize)
Quick Hugo Thought & Stupid Obvious Hugo Question
Sketch for a new bottom-up SFF award, friendly to indie publishing
PR under FPTP: "hacking" the existing parliamentary to emulate direct democracy, probably catastrophically

link list, and some thoughts on epic fantasy and race
Big list of some short SFF I liked in 2014
See also gamification SFF (updated), economics SFF (updated)

Will try to do better next year :/

Friday, November 20, 2015

Drama & Dice

Added a pen & pencil RPG gamelet, Drama & Dice, to the games page. Mainly just thinking about a mechanic in which character attributes wouldn't represent quasi-permanent differential advantages, but rather how saturated the story has become with certain modes of conflict-resolution. Combined that with a really free-form approach to defining characters numerically. Interested in feedback as always. I guess one possible variation would be to entirely decouple the Regain Points bit from in-story events (like everybody taking a nap). No doubt similar stuff is out there already somewhere, but there's my version :)

Monday, November 16, 2015

"Our Generation Ships Will Sink," by Kim Stanley Robinson, about how humanity is not going to the stars, and other stuff.

"We are not gods, and anyone who thinks of science as a magic wand, or even as a verb, is making a mistake, a category error sometimes called scientism" -- wondering if this is a reference to The Martian's "science the shit out of this"?!

The Alien

[Taking this blog post down provisionally because some of the material might go in a review appearing elsewhere -- if they end up using the short version of the review, I'll put it back :)]

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Hypothesis Thursdays: Specters

The changes in speculative fiction since the 1970s match the changes in speculative investment. Neither is an educated gamble on future events any longer. In each case, speculation is simply the self-perpetuating production of liquidity: that is, the intense mutability of forms that dissolves form itself, the frictionless compossibility of all things.

Okay: dinosaur sorcerers but their "spells" consist of "future" events (e.g. doings of urban fantasy kitsune detective in Mexico City) and what "happens" in the "future" determines whose magic is strongest in the primordial world ... yeah so those dino witch guys are forced to put aside old rivalries when their way of life and very existence is threatened by the Starborn, shadowy necromantic xenomorphs that have the power to convert weather into specific ninja moves, who are all in love with the same bounty hunter. Only gender-flipped?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Names in SFF #10: Bobby Shaftoe

As part of an ongoing series, I'm thinking about the name "Bobby Shaftoe" from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.

Have you noticed that Neal Stephenson named every single character in Cryptonomicon after his and his friends' penises?

Bobby Shaftoe is a gung-ho (early adopter) WWII Marine Raider, one of the heroes of Neal Stephenson's maximalist epic Cryptonomicon. Cryptonomicon weaves together a large cast of characters across two eras, WWII and the (then) present day turn-of-the-21st-century. It's an edge-of-sf sprawler which shakes loose shades of Pynchon, Eco, Vonnegut, while also serving as a brio-and-panache popular intro to cryptography and to various STEM topics, in a way which I suspect nudged the evolution of cyberpunk into what it is today (that is, whenever it's not retro-cyberpunk): I mean, it nudged cyberpunk into the near future novum-lite Menippean satires of Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, and the later Sterling and especially Gibson.

I'm only one-eighth into it so far.

Bobby Shaftoe, by contrast, is in to his hilt:
Their bodies [Bobby Shaftoe's and Glory's] have spontaneously merged, like a pair of drops running together on a windowpane. If he [Bobby Shaftoe] is thinking anything at all, it is that his entire life has culminated in this moment. His [Bobby Shaftoe's] upbringing in Oconomowoc, high school prom night, deer hunting in the Upper Peninsula, Parris Island boot camp, all of the brawls and struggles in China, his duel with Sergeant Frick, they are wood behind the point of a spear [Bobby Shaftoe's].
Glory of course suggests morning glory and glory-hole as well as a saint's nimbus or halo, a very appropriate nexus for the prim-Catholic-schoolgirl-slash-succubus-fantasy wherein the character of Glory first is introduced.

Whereas you, Bobby Shaftoe, thou art a figure without an O, or nearly anyway. That name "Bobby Shaftoe" is a necromantically animated graffito priapus. It bobs and bobs. There is no mistaking the O sound at its end for the edge of another human presence: that is a naught, to which the (spear) Shaft- is merged, and which it all but obliterates. Yup, that O is a naught, a monosyllable which etymologically entwines naughtiness, wickedness, and especially, sifr, cipher, zero, nothingness; that O is naught but the scabbard in which the blade of Bobby Shaft- ceaselessly jiggles. Compare its "nothing" to this "nothing" (from that one scene where Hamlet and Ophelia more-or-less call each other cunts ("country matters" / "you are naught")):
That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs. 
What is, my lord? 
Bobby Shaftoe, Bobby Shaftoe, Bobby Shaftoe! Yeah, more like MENippean. More like MANYPENISean. Just in case we somehow miss the pervasive insistence that humping to and fro is what a boy does by his nature just as bobbing up and down is what a buoy does by its nature, Cryptonomicon even finds time to explicitly collapse these two images:
Shaftoe decides to tackle the challenge on hands and knees. Every so often, a big wave spanks him on the ass, rushes up between his legs orgasmically and washes his face.
Obviously it is unfair to gloss over that e. After all it's what Bobby Shaftoe has over and above his folk song namesake:
Bobby Shafto's gone to sea,
With siller buckles on his knee;
He'll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.  
Bobby Shafto's fat and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair,
He's ma' ain for ever mair,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.  
Bobby Shafto's getten a bairn,
For tae dandle in his airm;
In his airm, and on his knee,
Bobby Shafto loves me.
In some variants, that is: sometimes the song uses Shaftoe too. In some variants, by the way, combing is panning, as for gold. There's also a "Hey ho! Boy Shafto!" one which feels pertinent. 

Cryptonomicon's added e may suggest updating the anachronistic and usurping the obsolescent, as in eReader etc. Although this e has washed up on the wrong end of the word, suggesting, funnily enough, atavism: as in the phonetically redundant e that in many an oldere compocision apeereth. That is, the e of "þe olde shoppe."

Like his folk song namesake, Bobby Shaftoe goes to sea, and leaves a woman, and for all we know the stirrings of a bairn, behind him on the shore. Although whether we'll get Glory's perspective on things, or if that particular POV is obsolescent and/or dismissable in its newfangledness remains to be seen. There are a lot of pages ahead. To tell the truth I don't know what to say about the except that it bursts from the glans like a crystal of precum or gout doing double-duty as a [Shaf]toenail, "nail" as in "Reagan wants to turn tail and head back down to Hollywood and nail a starlet fast." You can "toe the line" and you used to be able to "toe the plank," so maybe you can toe the shaft too. Whatever: a nice big toe is entirely penile, is the point.

Glancing at a character list, I see Bobby Shaftoe joined by a couple other fairly sticky cocky names: Comstock, for instance; and I don't know how you feel about Kivistik (cf. stick), Günter (cf. gun), Wing (cf. wang), Rudy, Root (cf. rod). But Comstock for sure; think of the term cum stocking, or just Robert Herrick's "The Vine":
Such fleeting pleasures there I took
That with the fancy I awoke;
And found (ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a stock than like a vine.
And then there's that name Alan Turing. With a pathological fetishism that only imposes upon and mutilates its supposed obsession, the name Alan Turing fixates around the genitals, and particularly the penis, of the man Alan Turing. The name can even be construed as a sort of linguistic violence which faintly and distortedly and in an abject bungling fashion tries to convey the real chemical castration of the real Alan Turing, and the other violence of state actors who eventually perhaps drove him to suicide because he was gay or, just possibly, murdered him because he knew state secrets and was gay. The murmured under-phrase two ring insists, with cis-heteronormative prurience, on a double anal and vaginal penetrability, even as the phallic l shuffles inside the word anal and a long two ring blurts its homophobic horror at this imaginary objectifeminized effigy's lengthy ventral erection. It was only a couple of years ago he was pardoned. The recent film was a straightwash. So I guess everything's okay now.

Randy -- or any one of the novel's many ornery, ostentatiously flawed, underdogged heroes who sees the world through horseshit-and-son-of-a-bitch-tinted spectacles -- might call horseshit on my preceding cryptanalysis, just on the basis that "Alan Turing" is a name which existed in history and Cryptonomicon had no choice, or more precisely, no fucking choice, but to deal with this historically-given material. Randy, of course, means horny. There's also the wetness-housed hard prick of Pritchard Waterhouse, who's related to Randy in a way I haven't figured or have already forgotten. The point is that Cryptonomicon activates these associations, whether they were set up by history or by Stephenson. The namespace of Cryptonomicon is permeated by warm miasmas like the smegmal waft of an entire guys' locker room of a cryptographer castle as an overblown transformation sequence shuffles it into the Elvis-thrusting groin of a super robot.

The names of this 1/8 of a novel are just way too cocky.

*   *   *

UPDATE: Hmm! Perhaps "cocky" in the same sense as Root describes Bobby as "morphine-seeky"? (See Note 2).

*   *   *

The off-the-shelf defense is that the novel is true to the consciousness of each of its characters. The POV characters are all men, and they are military men and/or nerds.

It is worth scrutinizing, for instance, Randy's brush with Charlene and her vaguely-sketched feminism, and his head-on collision with Kivistick and his vaguely-sketched poststructuralist (?) criticisms of the early internet. Cryptonomicon was written, by the way, and is partly set, around the turn of the century. In these run-ins Randy is absolutely not an authorial mouthpiece: rather, gentle, affectionate fun is poked at Randy, embroidering him, disheveling him, making him unsympathetic in some ways, more sympathetic in others, rounding and enriching him as a character. Real novel stuff, all the way.

But "filtered" through Randy's "consciousness" or not, it is also still satire, with specific targets, with which it deals aptly or less aptly, justly or less justly, mercifully or less mercifully. I appreciate the satire on bad counterproductive feminist essentialism, and on exhaustingly hypocritical passive-aggressive struggle conducted under a pretext of openness and safety from aggression. Charlene perhaps suggests char or chaff, more-or-less useless material that just gets everywhere and makes a mess. But I can't help but think that Charlene is pretty much a straw-woman, an inauthentic and cherry-picked adversary.
Randy had ruined his relationship with Charlene by wanting to have kids. Kids raise issues. Charlene, like all of her friends, couldn't handle issues. Issues meant disagreement. Voicing disagreement was a form of conflict. Conflict, acted out openly and publicly, was a male mode of social interaction -- the foundation for patriarchal society which brought with it the usual litany of dreadful things. Regardless, Randy decided to get patriarchal with Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik.
What's nasty here isn't even so much the exaggerated, hard-line (extinctionist?) quasi-feminist philosophy espoused here; it's the world-weariness with which Randy relates it, as if it were, at least in Charlene's circles, a dominant and indomitable worldview. It's not just Charlene who thinks this way, Randy seems to imply, it's everybody. And wow, don't even bother trying to argue: nobody's gonna listen to you.

Is this just Randy's perspective? I don't really feel like it is. I feel like it's the book's perspective too.

The dinner table clash between Randy (who's sticking up for someone) and Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik (for whom everybody sticks up, and who tonight is sporting all the pomposity those three initials suggest), is seething with satirical potential. Particularly, it promises satire against those lossy humanistic critiques of positivist knowledge that are actually way more formulaic, blinkered and unreflexive than their targets. Perhaps there will be some discomfiting but thought-provoking sense of liberal arts discourse lacking robustness in the field?

But no. It turns out to be an oddly damp and dissatisfying and then, upon inspection, slightly gross episode. Partly that's because any skewering of pomposity is a hard sell from a novel that is so brilliantly pompous itself, a novel that clearly knows how to make pomposity work.

But mostly, it's because of the knights jousting for the wimpled princess. I find it a bit difficult to ferret out the standard nuances of the name Charlene, at least in a USian context. Suggestions? Is Charlene perhaps the most pretentious, busy-bodyish of that Cheryl, Sherry, Cherry, Sheree, Charlie, bunch? -- perhaps even with an ominous undertone of uppity redneck? Or perhaps here I'm just reading the character straight back into the name without tuning into any true relationship between the two. Is there anything of the big wild west there, and perhaps the cowboy as chevalier? Hmmm.

Charlene is also the feminine form of Charles, meaning man. Since she hasn't got a leg to stand on, which man she will lean on is presumably the main existential fact about Charlene. There is a faint implication of Charlemagne and by association chivalry, and perhaps of champion. Ah, there is the word share there, and perhaps the sense of Charlene as an indicator dial that leans left or right, trembling between two contesting forces.

What about the knights?

(War as Ex).

Well, as for Dr. G. E. B. Kivistick, I also don't get a lot from his name. Other than the obligatory crock-of-"cock of stik"-shit, I suppose we might sort of hear civvy in kivi: a civilian, someone eminently unsuitable to keynote a conference entitled War as Text. (Or eminently suitable, if you take the view that an event with that title is constitutionally incapable of playing host to any non-hooey cognitions whatsoever. You need a civilian to be the frontman for something as obviously stupid as War as Text). The G. E. B. might suggest Ursula le Guin's Ged, and a boss-fight with your nemesis who is a version of yourself, or gib, the chunks of ambient crimson flesh left behind when you blast its predictable AI to bits. Perhaps, given what quickly follows, the most convincing association is Gödel, Escher, Bach, and Hofstadter's braiding of mathematics with other forms of knowledge.

"How many on-ramps will connect the world's ghettos to the Information Superhighway?" asks Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik. Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik, who has prepared himself to talk about this very topic on television, not to mention "spent years sparring with really smart people over high table at Oxford" -- where he would have sat with the science and maths dons -- never even properly articulates, let alone evidences or defends, his main argument.

Whatever that argument is, it's obviously something about the digital divide, and if Kivistik had actually come out and said any of it, instead of trying to change the subject via smug versions of the wobbly slogans of some college freshman who, I think, has dozed through one lecture on Derrida ("this fork is a metaphor") and one on Foucault ("who decides what is bad?"), then it might have been something which we could have decided, with the benefit of hindsight, was pretty perceptive and prescient of Kivistick, and of Stephenson, given it's only 1999, or alternatively, interestingly wrong.

But Kivistick doesn't make even a half-decent argument. Kivistick evades, playing to his weaknesses, allowing Randy to skewer him for throwing around his reputation, whilst Randy is vacuously using argument from authority himself ("a number of Internet experts have written well-reasoned books"), and to humiliate him for a sensible commitment to the notion that all knowledge is embodied in particular knowers, by articulating the same commitment with a modicum more nuance ("if I have questions about the Internet, I will seek opinions from people who know about it"). Pretty soon Kivistik's voice merges with the babble of the academy (see note); perhaps that's why he didn't want to show any specialist knowledge, he was the avatar of all liberal arts all along!

And although I've no doubt that there are senior academics and public intellectuals who are every bit as stupid as Kivistik acts in this scene, especially if swilling with wine and some auto-metabolized concoction of grandiloquence, micro-specialization and contrarianism, I'm not sure why Cryptonomicon needed to place one in this role. It's a book with lots of clever people in it, many of whom teach or show or prove or disprove things to each other. One of the main advantages of a big roly-poly novel like this is that it can be seriously dialogic; you can generate a forum with a lot of various dissenting and incompatible voices, with complex interplay and powerful emergent properties. If you're writing a big roly-poly novel, you should seldom if ever try to sabotage any of these viewpoints: of course you'll have your favorites, but most of the time you just end up weakening them if you try to load the dice in their favor. That's your heuristic, and it's pretty basic: give everyone as much internal consistency and sympathetic motivation and argumentative oomph as you possibly can. Don't worry, bro, no matter how hard you try, we'll still know which ones are you: but you should try.

One way of looking at this anomaly is that there are bits about ideas and there are bits about shooting and bits about girls, and this is actually more a bit about shooting than it is about ideas, and actually fundamentally more a bit about girls than it is a bit about shooting: "Really he [Kivistick] was there to recruit Charlene, and really really (Randy suspected) to fuck her." Kivistick is Sir Given-a-Stick, the knight with the rubbish toy lance. He is Charlene's champion. Dispatching Kivistick's liberal arts perspective is really a sneaky and unpleasant way of discrediting how Charlene sees herself, Randy, and their relationship, without coming across all braying and overbearing and inadvertently self-betrayingly apophastic and just basically rigged and petty and bullying and boring.

Stephenson is, in a way which is becoming increasingly difficult to define or hold onto or even believe, one of my "favorite" genre authors. Never have I read 1/8 of a modern book so unabashedly in love with such a boringly debased and narrow version of masculinity and the navel-gaze-plus-male-gaze. (Plus naval gaze idk). Women are property, scenery, appendages, fantasies, context. Gnarled, abundant Rabelaisian Cryptonomicon is too smart to continue in this vein. This is the real deal. It is not faux-ambitious, not cod-sweeping, not a garrulous splurge that is nothing but a canvas for tech rants, fan service, and FPS scenario design ideas. It is not Bill O'Reilly looking up and memorizing obscure and sometimes archaic words with perfect commonplace synonyms with which to learnedify his speeches.

So I predict, at worst, strong female characters, hyper-competent women of an overcompensating kind: quasi-cyberpunk bad-asses whose neural jacks and diamond monofilament thumb-whips have been sublimated into personality features. That's the very worst, and I'm sure Cryptonomicon will do way, way better.

Let's hope so, else this son-of-a-bitch has come up with some real horseshit.

UPDATE: Spoiler alert. Getting there. Such ALOLs. Such grace. "The red coals of half a dozen I SHALL RETURN cigarettes leap upwards into the Huks' mouths as they free their hands for a light round of applause." Yet I am increasingly certain that this is a really basically stupid book. I just don't think you can pretend you can pretend you're affectionately mocking your characters for viewing women as badly designed sperm-removing witches for 1,000 pages without giving some slight hint that you yourself do not basically share this perspective. The predicted hyper-competent bad-ass kind of showed up in the form of America Shaftoe, although she has a little more of the Manic Pixie Crazy Fucking Bitch stock-type than I expected. And perhaps a little more of it than is strictly compatible with even the expected gee-shucks-I-know-I'm-a-lunkhead-but-I'd-go-shaft-to-toe-against-everything-that's-fucked-up-about-patriarchy-if-I-only-knew-how compensatory bro-portrayal of hyper-competent chickness. There is also a cunning and alert auntie who gets one over on Randy, but the whole bit with the aunties and the furniture was basically disgusting. #ShrewwGross. So it is worse than I predicted as a worse-case scenario, though there are still pages on the clock.

UPDATE: Spoiler alert. Nearly there. My bit about Bobby Shaftoe / Bobby Shafto and his bairn was prescient: Bobby is currently leading his ragtag group of fighters (and one cleric) through the Battle of Manilla in search of his son, whom he has never met. Glory has appeared again once, briefly. The POV character then had to be rendered unconscious to prevent Glory from saying or doing anything interesting. If Glory doesn't show up again I'm gonna lose my shit. Treatment of race, ethnicity, nation and civilization is a bit shallow and stupid btw. More later, perhaps!

UPDATE: Jesus fucking Christ.

SFF names #9: Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen
SFF names #8: Ged
SFF names #7: Shevek
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

Elsewhere: on the internet, there's no such thing as a strawman.

*   *   *

Note: Here's the rest of that scene fwiw.

"Funny how all of the technocrats seem to be in favor of the Internet," Kivistik said cheerily, milking a few more laughs from the crowd.

"You have just made a statement that is demonstrably not true," Randy said, pleasantly enough. "A number of Internet experts have written well-reasoned books that are sharply critical of it."

Kivistik was finally getting pissed off. All the levity was gone.

"So," Randy continued, "to get back to where we started, the Information Superhighway is a bad metaphor for the Internet, because I say it is. There might be a thousand people on the planet who are as conversant with the Internet as I am. I know most of these people. None of them takes that metaphor seriously. Q.E.D."

"Oh. I see," Kivistik said, a little hotly. He had seen an opening. "So we should rely on the technocrats to tell us what to think, and how to think, about this technology."

The expressions of the others seemed to say that this was a telling blow, righteously struck.

"I'm not sure what a technocrat is," Randy said. "Am I a technocrat? I'm just a guy who went down to the bookstore and bought a couple of textbooks on TCP/IP, which is the underlying protocol of the Internet, and read them. And then I signed on to a computer, which anyone can do nowadays, and I messed around with it for a few years, and now I know all about it. Does that make me a technocrat?"

"You belonged to the technocratic elite even before you picked up that book," Kivistik said. "The ability to wade through a technical text, and to understand it, is a privilege. It is a privilege conferred by an education that is available only to members of an elite class. That's what I mean by technocrat."

"I went to a public school," Randy said. "And then I went to a state university. From that
point on, I was self-educated."

Charlene broke in. She had been giving Randy dirty looks ever since this started and he had been ignoring her. Now he was going to pay. "And your family?" Charlene asked frostily.

Randy took a deep breath, stifled the urge to sigh. "My father's an engineer. He teaches at a state college."

"And his father?"

"A mathematician."

Charlene raised her eyebrows. So did nearly everyone else at the table. Case closed. "I strenuously object to being labeled and pigeonholed and stereotyped as a technocrat," Randy said, deliberately using oppressed-person's language, maybe in an attempt to turn their weapons against them but more likely (he thinks, lying in bed at three A.M. in the Manila Hotel) out of an uncontrollable urge to be a prick. Some of them, out of habit, looked at him soberly; etiquette dictated that you give all sympathy to the oppressed.

Others gasped in outrage to hear these words coming from the lips of a known and convicted white male technocrat. "No one in my family has ever had much money or power," he said.

"I think that the point that Charlene's making is like this," said Tomas, one of their houseguests who had flown in from Prague with his wife Nina. He had now appointed himself conciliator. He paused long enough to exchange a warm look with Charlene.

"Just by virtue of coming from a scientific family, you are a member of a privileged elite. You're not aware of it--but members of privileged elites are rarely aware of their privileges."

Randy finished the thought. "Until people like you come along to explain to us how stupid, to say nothing of morally bankrupt, we are."

"The false consciousness Tomas is speaking of is exactly what makes entrenched power elites so entrenched," Charlene said.

"Well, I don't feel very entrenched," Randy said. "I've worked my ass off to get where I've gotten."

"A lot of people work hard all their lives and get nowhere," someone said accusingly. Look out! The sniping had begun.

"Well, I'm sorry I haven't had the good grace to get nowhere," Randy said, now feeling just a bit surly for the first time, "but I have found that if you work hard, educate yourself and keep your wits about you, you can find your way in this society."

"But that's straight out of some nineteenth-century Horatio Alger book," Tomas sputtered.

"So? Just because it's an old idea doesn't mean it's wrong." Randy said.

A small strike force of waitpersons had been forming up around the fringes of the table, arms laden with dishes, making eye contact with each other as they tried to decide when it was okay to break up the fight and serve dinner. One of them rewarded Randy with a platter carrying a wigwam devised from slabs of nearly raw tuna. The pro-consensus, anti-confrontation elements then seized control of the conversation and broke it up into numerous small clusters of people all vigorously agreeing with one another. Jon cast a watery look at Randy, as if to say, was it good for you too? Charlene was ignoring him intensely; she was caught up in a consensus cluster with Tomas. Nina kept trying to catch Randy's eye, but he studiously avoided this because he was afraid that she wanted to favor him with a smoldering come-hither look, and all Randy wanted to do right then was to go thither. Ten minutes later, his pager went off, and he looked down to see Avi's number on it.

Note 2:

Root talks about 'morphine seeky' as meaning possessing an inclination to seek morphine. In the same way, Bobby means he has an inclination to bob.

"I don't like the word 'addict' because it has terrible connotations," Root says one day, as they are sunning themselves on the afterdeck. "Instead of slapping a label on you, the Germans would describe you as 'Morphiumsüchtig.' The verb suchen means to seek. So that might be translated, loosely, as 'morphine seeky' or even more loosely as 'morphine seeking.' I prefer 'seeky' because it means that you have an inclination to seek morphine."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Shaftoe says.

"Well, suppose you have a roof with a hole in it. That means it is a leaky roof. It's leaky all the time--even if it's not raining at the moment. But it's only leaking when it happens to be raining. In the same way, morphine-seeky means that you always have this tendency to look for morphine, even if you are not looking for it at the moment. But I prefer both of them to 'addict,' because they are adjectives modifying Bobby Shaftoe instead of a noun that obliterates Bobby Shaftoe."