Timshel — “Thou mayest…”

by Charlie Martin — crossposted from Otherwhere Gazette

*Who spent the time this weekend putting in more coherent thought the things I’ve tried to express about Human Wave.  For those in my workshop, you’ll get your critiques.  Sorry.  I’ve been ill this week and then there was a crisis precipitated by son packing while seventeen years old, that sent us to Denver a day ahead of plan.  On the good side, son’s alliance of themes teams (sorry.  Not nearly enough caffeine today) won the regional robotics competition. — this bit by Sarah and not part of the article that follows.*

Every human institution eventually develops an Establishment: a collection of rules, stated and unstated, that define what is acceptable, and a group of people who act as the lawgivers, interpreting the rules, deciding what is acceptable and what is not, and enforcing their decisions with overt power and through covert coercion.

In the Arts, the lawgivers of the current Establishment are the revolutionaries who overthrew the previous Establishment, the Avant Garde become the Garde. The sign and watchwords of an Establishment are the words “thou shalt not,” and the first sign of revolt is a small voice that says, defiantly, “Sez who? You’re not my mom!”

We believe — and we think many others agree — that there is just such an Establishment in Science Fiction and Fantasy today. We are concerned, primarily and personally, with Science Fiction and Fantasy, or with Speculative Fiction, or with fiction that deals with imagined characters in imagined settings in imagined worlds that may or may not be noticeably unlike our own world — and by saying that, we reject the very notion of genre in fiction, except as a librarian’s convenience. There is, however, a notion of the genre of science fiction as a business in which the rules are more constraining and the Establishment far more established.

The Ludic Experience

As writers and as readers we value ludic reading, reading as play. Engrossed, enthralled, literally entranced, we read fiction for pleasure, for our own enjoyment, not for symbolism, status, or intellectual gratification.

We believe, above all, in that ludic experience: in the ability of well-written fiction to take us, in our minds, to other places. To experience other worlds and other lives. To go where none have gone before.

Up the Establishment

We experience Establishment SF as a depressing, dyspeptic, dystopian, and ultimately disagreeable subgenre in which conformity to certain imperatives, often shared with the mainstream of literary, New Yorker, Iowa Workshop genre of legacy fiction is expected — and enforced.

We believe these rules and this Establishment to be too limiting. As writers, we feel constrained by the imperatives of the Established Order. As readers, we feel disappointed, sometimes angry, and most damningly, all too often bored with the fiction that is acceptable under the Establishment’s rules. And we see, in the sales figures of the independent eBook publishing revolution, that we are not alone. We are a multitude. We are Legion.

Accordingly, we reject this reality, and substitute our own.


The emotional core of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is hidden in plain sight in a discussion of a Hebrew word from Genesis: timshel. Timshel, as translated by Steinbeck in the voice of Lee the Chinese cook, means “Thou mayest”.

“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel–’Thou mayest’– that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’….”

“Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
Timshel is “thou mayest.” You can choose: you have that power. And the power to choose is what makes us human.

“Thou mayest…”

It is thus, in the spirit of timshel, that we reclaim our birthright: as science fiction and fantasy writers; as writers; as human, sentient, beings. We stake our claims, not as commandments — for we do not believe that any person can rightfully command another — but by claiming our right to reject the commandments of the Establishment.

Timshel. Thou mayest write fiction that has no higher purpose than to entertain, to entrance, to free the reader from their current life in order to experience another. And we believe, in fact, that fiction can have no higher purpose.

Timshel. Thou mayest choose characters and their characteristics with no other consideration than story alone. Race, gender, sex, species, organic or inorganic or pure thought form, your characters are your creations. It is your right and your privilege, as writer, to create lesbian starship captains of color; but it is equally your right to create muscular male captains who play baseball as a hobby, if you care to.

Timshel. Thou mayest write of dark worlds or light. Thou mayest write happy endings or sad. Thou mayest write any damn thing you please, and expect it to be judged on its merit as story alone, not on its political inclinations. Or yours.

Timshel. Thou mayest write to convey an intellectual, moral, or ethical message, and in fact we feel that all fiction, by its nature, conveys some intellectual, moral, or ethical message. But your fiction will be judged, first of all, as fiction, not for its impeccable morals or the conformity of its political position with someone else’s standard. And you may find that your message is so objectionable that people no longer buy your fiction, forcing you into that least good of all possible worlds, the real job.

That’s the biz, sweetheart.

No whining.

The Call

We reclaim our rights, and choose another way, not because we believe there is no good in the Establishment model for fiction, but because we see there is good outside it. We believe in fiction of the whole human — sentient — experience, and reject the notion that there are fictional topics that can’t be treated, ideas that may not be explored, thoughts that we are not permitted to think.

We accept as a necessary consequence that the reader may choose to read or not, depending on what that reader chooses and enjoys. And we hope that this will launch a counter-revolution, a new wave, above all a Human Wave of fiction, for its writers, and for its readers.

48 thoughts on “Timshel — “Thou mayest…”

  1. Yes. We embrace the Establishment as part of our field; we reject the Establishment as the definition of our field.

  2. Readers rule, Sarah. That’s not always been the case, but it certainly is today. There are about a gazillion authors in the market today, and many of them have websites, and each and every one of them is competing for the readers’ eyeballs. Good luck to each and every one of them.

    Somebody, somewhere, is going to like what those authors produce (even if it’s just their mother). I’m all for a free market economy – one that is not burdened/governed by a bunch of ‘Thou shalt nots’ and a Board of Directors with the power to enforce their self-serving rules..

    I wish you very well, Sarah A. Hoyte!

  3. And when we, in turn, mutate into the new Establishment, we pray that our children will have the good sense to overthrow us, in turn ..

      1. Please… You have nothing to worry about. You’ll be a fifth columnist, quietly urging them on, giving them inside information and tips, and telling them where our weak underbelly is.

  4. Movements are at their best and freshest when the leaders are reluctant and would rather not be bothered, if only they could see another way to change things. [Insert Bernardo de la Paz reference here.] They stumble and become what they opposed when the eager followers take the reins and too zelaously try to purge the old order. And so the Who sang “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

    We’re counting on you to be the Prod. de la Paz of the revolution after this one.

  5. I think the politics of pessimism is at the root of the Establishment’s hard left turn away from what I remember Science Fiction being and why I started reading Science Fiction. When you’re sending Apollo rockets to the moon, there are no apparent limits to what we can do. This does not make for a compliant population who’ll drive 55, let the utility company set their thermostat, and accept end-of-life recommendations of the national health board.

    1. Is it possible that the pessimism is the result of their youthful idealism meeting hard reality, and instead of coming to terms with the fact that man cannot perfect the world, they have entered and remain in an adolescent funk?

      1. I wish I could’ve seen! (And my kid — she likes robots and hopes to be in a Mindstorms competition next year.)

      2. Oooooo! Ooooooo! Ooooooo! Geek dancing! Yeah!

        I vowed never to give the daughter the universal parental curse, you know the one, usually said through gritted teeth: ‘You just wait until you grow up and you have kids and then you’ll know…’ (I once called my father and told him that while I could now fully understand his meaning, why did he have to lay such a curse on his grandchild? Can you believe it? He laughed at me!)

        I found out that there is an equal and opposite blessing: ‘You just wait until you grow up and you have kids and you get to have the chance to know how good it feels to watch struggle with something and then see them succeed.’ Finest kind, ain’t it?

  6. Almost thirty years ago I put down a book by one of my then-favorite authors and never read another book of his again. The limits of that author’s idiosyncrasies, tied up in a publishing schedule that focused on volume instead of quality, caused a catastrophic cascade failure in my suspension of disbelief. Ten years ago I did it again, with an author who I’d met and like personally, but his complete quality failure on the third book of a bestselling trilogy tainted all his other work with the taste of hack sweat in my mental palate. An author who recently failed spectacularly in attempting a reboot of H. Beam Piper’s “Fuzzy” series, earned my drop choice last year.

    Thou mayest, but I will drop you when you fail and sleep easy that night reading another author.

    1. IN my own case, I’d resent that, not because there aren’t books of mine that might have that feel, but because dropping a writer forever is… an issue. Oh, maybe not MOST of the time. But when you write as much as I do, in as varied a field, just because I had to force book x of x trilogy it doesn’t mean my next book in a completely different voice/place won’t please you. Of course, as a reader it’s your choice. And I do things like use different names to signal “You might love my fantasy and hate my SF or vice versa.” But you’re forgetting other things. For instance, if I ever wrest control of the Musketeer mysteries series from the publishing house, I MUST completely rewrite book five. Why? Well, first, I already knew the series was dead when I wrote that. It’s hard to put heart and soul into it, when you know it will hardly be distributed and there won’t be a “next book.” Second, I was very ill at the time. How ill, you ask? So ill I kept having to go back to look up secondary character names, then forgetting them when I got back to the page. This is one of the drawbacks of traditional publishing and running on schedule, particularly for mid-listers. Baen is patient (are they ever!) but other houses not so much. It doesn’t take human frailty into account.
      How I intend to deal with that is go out of contract and work ONLY without a net in the future. In the meantime, if I’m one of the authors you dropped give my indie novels (not up yet, but will be by next year) a try. You never know.

    2. I’m a reader even more than a writer; and in today’s world, there are FAR too many books I want to read than I can ever possibly read. I thought I piled up a backlog in the old world, but Kindle makes it just too easy to buy ahead of my reading speed. As a reader, if you want me to keep reading, don’t waste my time.

      So as a writer, I hope I remember that’s how readers feel.

  7. At its core this “revolution” isn’t about writers. It isn’t about publishers, or agents or The Establishment. It is about readers. It is about respecting readers’ intelligence and taste sufficiently to trust them with making their own choices as to what is worth reading.

    No longer should readers be fed literary castor oil because it is what they “should” want to read. Readers are due an open market place of ideas and literature and can pick for themselves what they want to read.

    Before they find something they enjoy more.

  8. *beth has way-too-early-wake-up-time-so-maybe-no-brainz idea*

    I wonder if the Romance genre is so popular because it mandates a Happy Ending of some kind? “Low-brow” and “trashy” it might be, but you’re guaranteed that, for the definition of “success” in the genre, the protagonists will “win.” And no one’s managed to insert anything else — a bait-and-switch unhappy ending would be beaten with pointy sticks by the readership, I gather.

    Go, go, Human Wave. 🙂

  9. In the Arts, the lawgivers of the current Establishment are the revolutionaries who overthrew the previous Establishment, the Avant Garde become the Garde. The sign and watchwords of an Establishment are the words “thou shalt not,” and the first sign of revolt is a small voice that says, defiantly, “Sez who? You’re not my mom!”

    And of course the first thing that the successful revolutionaries do is conduct a purge. David Weber did a really good job of transporting the French Revolution to the 39th Century in his Honor Harrington series. I suspect that those who weren’t familiar with the history of the time thought that David had totally overdone the Terrors, but he did quite a good job with it.

    The Avant Guard couldn’t hang people of course. They could however cut off their income, which had a similar affect.


          1. You’d believe him if he said yes?? “People in masks cannot be trusted” [/FezzicVoice]

            You may be an outlier, Patrick, because from *my* observation your kinfolk like living in my old chimney, never paying rent, and wreaking vengeance on my roof when I took the old chimney down. Nobody mentioned tummy rubs. Or pie. I’m pretty sure I’d remember if they asked for pie.

              1. It’s part of the great coonspiracy. We make sure you think we’re just dumb animals. Meanwhile we’re Riverdancing the night away after having stolen every shiney thing we can get our paws on and much like sneaky snake, eating all your pie and drinking your rootbeer!

                Ever go downstairs to get that last slice of pie to find it gone? You just thought you’d forgotten you ate it, or that your spouse or kids got it first.

                Nope, it was us!


                1. According to Sterling North, you guys prefer fruit-flavored pop — strawberry or orange, I can’t recall. Guess it is time to reread Rascal and marvel that once there was an America where a dad could let his boy build an 18-foot birch bark canoe in the living room without Child Protective Services intruding. … I think there was some fruit that had fermented there that Rascal got at …

  10. It’s not the rabies you have worry about with racoons, it’s the deadly brain parasites.

    Cute little fellas; but the DNR around here destroys them as a matter of course. That nematode, harmless to them, is nasty to us.

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