Being Human

While I agree with Charlie that we don’t want the human wave to be a prescriptive movement, one that cuts at the edges and where people can keep adding more injunctions and shall nots till, as in the present, you’re only allowed to write one type of book that echoes every other kind of book out there, because there’s only one opinion and one story line.

OTOH, while we’re not going to kick you out of The Human Wave for eating crackers in bed – or for writing a book where everyone dies at the end.  Or… – if you’re throwing your lot in with us and advertising yourself as one of us, then you should know that people will expect a certain feel.  And that feel almost certainly won’t be the slough of despond.  It almost certainly won’t be a feeling of disgust for human frailty and human imperfection and a worship of a quasi-mechanical perfection that doesn’t exist in humanity till all humans are dead.  It almost certainly won’t be a feeling of “we’re all doomed and why bother?”

We’re not going to tell you can’t do that, because frankly it’s up to you.  If you think that’s what most people want to read and what’s been censored by the gatekeepers (you might consider upping your meds) and think it belongs with a ragtag group trying to return the fun to science fiction, by all means, have at it.  But don’t be surprised if people attracted to the rest of our stuff aren’t attracted to yours.

This is because while the “human wave” is hard to qualify – all of us coming from many traditions, from fantasy to science fiction and from romantic fantasy to literary – we know it when we see it.  More importantly, the readers know it when they see it.

I’ve been reading everyone’s posts on this over the week, trying to firm it up in my mind, and it seems to me the important part of the “human wave” is the “human.”  And that’s perhaps where our greatest contrast to the New Wave is.  The New Wave viewed human flaws, human defects and human frailty as things to be mocked and condemned.  No, they didn’t explicitly say so, but it came through in most of their stories.  They viewed humans as flawed and therefore to be destroyed.  This was, I think, a reaction to the previous generation’s view of humanity as infinitely perfectible.  (Which wasn’t much better, since it was at the heart of all the totalitarian theories of the twentieth century.)

But viewing humanity’s frailty and error as irredeemable, and humanity, therefore, as an evil to be eradicated is not better.  In its ultimate manifestation it gives us people who hate themselves for being human.  The prescription, state wise, is the same too – they want a strong state to make of them what they can’t make of themselves.  They forget of course that the state is composed of humans.

Forgive me for using an analogy that is not accurate, insofar as humanity probably isn’t one giant organism.  But if humanity were a giant organism, the early twentieth (and in parts the later nineteenth) century would be the part where it graduated from elementary school.  It now knows enough to understand most of the world around it, and it feels confident that it can conquer its bad habits and its defects and grow up to be perfect.
Then comes middle school.  I sometimes say that Europe is dying from the wounds of WWI.  To be honestly, the reaction that was WWII only complicated matters.  If humanity were indeed a sole organism, this is the time at which it sits in its room cutting itself.  And sooner or later, as time passes, it realizes it’s never going to be perfect.

Those of you who have raised kids know instinctively what comes next: the cynicism, the self hatred.  In a particularly neurotic teen, which I think we’ve proven humanity is, it leads to trying to commit suicide.  There will also be attempts to return to childhood, which is where I think we get the rejection of science and the wish by many to lose enough population to return to an agrarian land-bound economy.  In their minds this is always an idyllic time, just like childhood is idyllic in the mind of the teen.

Many of the establishment stories (not New Wave, but an outgrowth of it) frankly read like a long-sustained teenage scream-out.  Or worse, like lying in bed going “moaaaaan.  Everything is bad and I can’t fix it.”

The Human Wave is, I think and hope, where we grow up.  Individual humans can do it, I hope species can, and I’m sure that literary movements can.

This is where we come to terms with the fact that we’re flawed, yes, but we’re all we have to work with, and there is a basic sanity in loving yourself.  You try to improve, yes, but you expect neither perfection nor utter failure.  Being human is a project not a destination.  Being human is a daily effort, not something you’re born.

You’re born a tailless ape with impulses and needs like any other animal, and a brain big enough to aspire to more.  Human is what happens when you integrate those, when you don’t condemn the animal but you also don’t let it have its sway.  It’s a struggle you face every day, unafraid, and when you fall down you pick yourself up and try again.

If the human wave works out, it will neither have the (fun but often superficial) characters of the golden age, who often seemed to never sweat, nor the evil anti-humanity of what is now considered “deep.”

Yes, humanity has flaws.  Yes, it will always have flaws.  But those flaws contain some of our deepest qualities.

There is a Jewish story about Moses, which I told each of my children in turn when it became obvious they were falling in despair because they’d realized they’d never be perfect.

During those forty years in the desert, one of the chiefs of the tribes whom the Israelites were approaching was a great believer in the study of physiognomy.  This is the belief you can tell a person’s character by their facial traits.  Hearing of this great multitude advancing towards him, he sent his court artist to spy covertly and make a portrait of their leader, so he knew what to expect.

When the physiognomist looked at the portrait, he told the chief.  “We’d best meet him at the edge of our land and surrender.  This man is an adulterer, a murderer, a thief.  He will destroy us.”

So, quaking, the chief met the Israelites at the border of his lands.  On speaking to Moses and hearing they were just passing through and had no intention to pillage or kill on their way, he invited Moses to the banquet, where he found that Moses was not in fact a monster.  So he told Moses the story and said, “I’m going to have my physiognomist put to death because he’s useless.”

But Moses said, “No.  Stay your hand.  He is right.  I am naturally all those things.  I’ve just chosen not to use my natural traits that way.  It is knowing those flaws in myself that gives me the ability to help others behave better and to spot those who can’t.  And it is struggling to make myself better that gives me the strength to keep my people together on our journey.”

Whether you accept the historicity of Moses or not, you can probably see the truth of that.  Someone who was perfect, sweetness and light, and never had experienced a bad impulse in his life, would not be able to keep a fractious people together on a perilous and grueling journey.

I knew this truth about myself by fourth grade.  I knew I was naturally envious, so it was easier to study and be the best than to live with the envy of the person who had the best grades.  I knew I was naturally aggressive, but I didn’t like the results of just pounding people at random, so I channeled it into looking after the weak and the timid and worked it out by beating the occasional bully who’d pushed too far.

That balance between knowing yourself what you are and choosing to be better or to channel it in ways that don’t disgust you and don’t destroy those around you is being human.

It is the fact that we live in muck that makes us aspire to the stars.  It is our own internal weakness that makes us struggle to be strong for those we love.  It is knowing our own craven, irresolute nature that gives us the strength to say we’ll be better than that when it’s needed.

And that is, I hope, what the Human Wave will bring to science fiction and literature in general.  

Not a pollyannaish utopia, not heros that work like clockwork, not a shiny future where everything is splendid – mind you, we won’t tell you you’re not Human Wave if you do that, but you might find that stories with no conflict don’t sell well.  Not a despondent wallowing in the filthiest parts of our human condition – again, we won’t tell you that you’re not Human Wave if you do that, but our readers WILL know.

No, Human Wave aspires to write and read humans as they are: with the flaws and the warts that make our achievements – both scientific and moral – more astonishing.

Get out of your parents’ basement.  Stop contemplating suicide.  Stop raging at how everyone is stupid.  Yes, a large amount of people are, and you too are, but there is kindness and joy and love out there, why are you ignoring it?  It’s as real as the rest of it.

Go forth and read and write and be human.

81 thoughts on “Being Human

  1. But I’m a Dragon!!!! [Wink]

    Seriously, your comments here are definitely truthful.

    1. Well, I just found that I am a state, and here I just thought I was in a state. (Wink on back at ya.)

  2. In the Writers of the Future forum, there’s a recurring phrase that K.D. Wentworth used to describe a style she likes: “tragically beautiful ending”. A story can end in death and destruction and yet still be moving or hopeful or even defiant. While I wouldn’t call it beautiful, I would submit that even 1984 has an uplift of a sort: you just have to read it not as “This is the way it is, we’re all doomed,” but as “This is how we could be doomed unless we stand defiant.” He wanted the reader not to wallow in despair but to respond to and reject the system that led to that ending.

    I don’t see a lot of Utopia stories, because just as you’ve described, Utopia is generally boring. But then, so is Dystopia.

    1. Keep in mind that Atlas Shrugged is a dystopian novel, but I don’t regard it as such, because everyone lives happily-ever-after in Galt’s Gulch extending an upraised middle finger to the leaches and moochers.

      Does this mean that we can characterize fiction as Human Wave when the story shows heroic characters successfully fomenting revolution against an oppressive state. As Heinlein said, an oppressive state is more common than a free state, so we have to acknowledge that part of human nature even if it’s in rebellion against it.

      1. If Human Wave doesn’t include “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” among its forbears, I strongly suspect our hostess will redefine the movement until it does!

        1. That should be “forebears”. I knew that, really I did. Too many hours of work, not enough hours of sleep or writing.

      2. Does Atlas Shrugged Have any human characters in it? When I read it they were all cardboard.

        1. Weirdly the movie, though very faithful (I hear) is better. At the risk of being whipped in the public square, I could never like Ayn Rand as a writer. Part of it is the characters, part of it is the prose which just doesn’t “beat” right to my hear. Eh.

  3. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man. This works both ways. We are corruptible, and not as good as we’d like to be. But then the worst of us, is not as bad as s/he might be. Thus, there’s good reason to depict the darkness, but just as much reason to depict the light of human nature.

  4. The secret decoder ring says …

    If your spaceship
    Needs repair
    Grab a wrench
    And don’t despair

    There’s an interesting school of thought that says a lot of human institutions that on the surface make no sense (religion, tribalism, etc.) are actually deliberate mechanisms to fool our animal brains into accepting as “us” a group of people larger than the personal kinship group (max size ~150). I think we do a lot of things to fool the animal brain, but the best way is to a) accept we have one and b) teach it to do tricks. Use the impulse, as Sarah said, and channel it into more acceptable actions. But don’t squash it because then it just explodes and there’s lots of yellow tape, police reports, and neighbors saying “but he was always so quiet…”

    1. well, and that’s a reason of the traditional publishers I’m phasing out everyone but Baen — that and Baen lets me do Space Opera, which gives me warm fuzzy feelings — because I felt I was one more lousy copyedit and/or doctored statement away from “Some hurricane seems to have struck the publishing district. We’re still finding body parts”

    2. Sabrina – those institutions also serve as a stable framework for people (especially those who are unable or unwilling to do the job by themselves) to use as a bulwark against the animal brain reactions which tend to be rather selfish and potentially destructive to others. This works better for some than others, and some don’t need it in order to overcome their impulses. I think one of the problems we face today is the notion that if something doesn’t work for everyone, then we have to throw it out completely and start over, which is not really the case.

      Oh, and your Burma Shave-like blurbs are hilarious.

          1. well, today I removed a pan from oven without glove, let lose with LONG string of profanity in Portuguese, and when kid said “Why didn’t you wear oven mitt” I had to confess “I forgot I wasn’t fire proof.”… I guess doggerel verse would hurt less when accidentally turned off?

            1. It’s the fault of the microwave. We’re much too used to reaching in and grabbing the pan. (This is your cover for when an outsider catches you using your super powers.)

              Beautiful post.

            2. I can’t turn it off! Sob. It spills over into what my family calls “Teddy Bear Opera”. When they do the Met broadcasts and the tenor is passionately singing something in Italian I “translate” a new libretto involving his lost teddy bear. I can usually stay in metre, too.

              How I will use this ability to conquer the world remains a mystery.

              1. Who wants to conquer the world? I mean once you’ve done that what do you have? A whole lotta people dependent on you who are not the least bit inclined to follow perfectly logical instructions to the letter.

            3. She has done that sooooo many times, trust me. There was a great, low-budget British sf-horror movie in the sixties, “Unearthly Stranger,” in which that’s the way a man finds out he’s married to an alien infiltrator, when she thinks no one is looking, she takes things out of the oven without mitts and without pain or injury. And… where am I going here? Sarah THINKS she was dumped here by a passing starship? Nevermind.

              1. *clears throat, nervously* It might be possible that some of us WERE dumped here by a passing starship. I mean, few cultures WANT muckrakers and sass-mouths and goats in their midst. What else is there to do with us, besides take us deep into the “country” and toss us out, to fend for ourselves or die? 😛

    3. Everyone’s probably seen the t-shirt that says:

      The Four Stages of Life
      You Believe in Santa Claus
      You Don’t Believe in Santa Claus
      You ARE Santa Claus
      (You Look Like Santa Claus)

      We need these things – stories, religion, what have you – to get important things into our id-monkey brains, which aren’t rational and get bored by a lot of “You Should Do This” speeches (and rightly so). One good hero role model does more good than a lifetime of “Thou Shalts.”

  5. Well done, Sarah! I loved the Moses story. Know it well. And I agree with ‘turning weaknesses into strengths’ — it’s what we *do* with them that counts.

    Thank you.

    ::Kitteh-Dragon purrs and does a ‘wing bump’ with Drak Bibliophile::

  6. I love the way you put words together Sarah Hoyt. (And the thoughts aren’t bad either.)

  7. *gets slightly baffled by the organism analogy; never went through it in that way*

    And, because I am terribly skew at the edges, I do wonder if, someday, there might be a “certification” process for Human Wave stuff. Not anything ultra-formal! Ugh, no. But it would be amusing to have a way for Known Readers to Vouch for something on a website. (“Look, look well, O wolves! …who will speak for the man-cub?”)

    It’d probably fall down in practice, alas, the first time someone tried to game the system for discoverability alone. Probably better to just let authors self-identify, and readers can speak for the man-cub, er, book if they review.

      1. If you wrestle them down and hike up their shirts, you’ll see the “made in xxx” stamp on their belly button… And if you don’t, the experiment is likely to make life REALLY interesting for a while. 🙂

        1. Had a friend in college who claimed to be a Martian with a cleverly concealed zipper in his left side, so cleverly concealed that it was on his right.

          (Little did I know at the time he stole that line from my future Spouse…)

          1. You know, when I was 6-7 years old, I started telling people I was a Martian.

            Of course, that was the year before I went to college the first time.

            1. The daughter first started living on campus when she was three days old, but that is another story. ;-P

            1. Actually it was an aquaintance of Richard’s. It was freshman year and I was head over heals about him and he was the only one on the whole campus who didn’t know it. He’s the one who told me I needed to meet this guy named Richard who had been there the year before…

        1. No. He’s just proof that you can try to avoid your destiny, but if Himself Above designed you to be a mad rabbi you will eventually become one, even if you have the world’s oddest congregation.

  8. not heros that work like clockwork

    But what if your hero is clockwork? (asked with a mischievous grin…)

      1. There’s a cure for his exuberant youthful productivity; but it involves you becoming a grandmother, and you’re clearly too young for that.

      2. Never mind the robots – why isn’t he updating the comic? I need my dose of Ninja Nun.

      3. Please tell me he’s read Henry Kuttner’s Gallegher stories. If he hasn’t, please tell him to read them once he’s finished his own. They were collected in Robots Have No Tails.

  9. To paraphrase Pratchett, the Human Wave is where climbing bald ape meets falling angel. And tries to climb a bit higher to get to that source of greatness.

    1. the Human Wave is where climbing bald ape meets falling angel. And tries to climb a bit higher to get to that source of greatness.

      Wanted to see it again.

  10. I’ve used “humanity in its adolescence” myself, so I’m right there with you. I think part of it is that the people in charge of communications, the people who tell us who we are, have never interacted much with the rest of humanity and, thus, have never learned how dumb they are (the way the rest of us do when we leave school and get a real job or the equivalent – “Oh, wait, I guess I don’t know everything after all.”)

    1. One of the best things to happen to me was to be shipped off from center city Philadelphia to a boarding school in rural eastern Tennessee when I was in my mid teens. Opened my eyes. There is nothing so provincial as those in the big cities who believe that they know about everything everywhere.

      1. It’s safe to say that those from the Provinces do more business with and travel to the Cities than vice versa. Hence one group gets exposed to both ways of life, and one group not so much. (As always, there will be exceptions on both sides.)

  11. I decided to start tagging appropriate books on Amazon with “human wave”. I figure it will help readers find fellow travelers (irony alert). Darkship Thieves is the first one tagged. Rock on fellow humans!

    1. THANK YOU. Would like to point out that Neptune’s Orphans and High Stakes are in the DST continuum. BTW, at some point in April there will be readings of those by me available for download…

  12. Testing…
    I’ve been having problems trying to comment lately, has something changed?

  13. Okay, seems to work now, if I’m logged in to that account. So name change then, I will be commenting as ‘pohjalainen’ from now on.

      1. Also trying to get some stuff up on Amazon. I don’t use Word, so trying to do it from pdf, having some problems. So snafu.

        Human Wave is a great idea.

        1. If you have calibre and can make RTF, I think you can make and upload .mobi to Amazon? You can definitely upload HTML; I upload Word, download the HTML it generates in the Kindlizer, tweak the HTML for things like emdashes because the HTML is buggy, and re-upload the HTML. (This avoids a possible bug that screwed up the very first thing I uploaded, though it’s a bit cumbersome.)

        2. Human Wave is a great idea, yes.

          PDF is not, at least not as any sort of intermediate product. PDF is for final products, and excels for that purpose. The whole design goal of .pdf was to make the document come out looking exactly the way the originator intended, and as such it is deliberately missing things like syntax markers (paragraphs and the like) necessary for a decent conversion.

          Beth has the right idea. Get a clean .html version, run it through Calibre to .htmlz, rename it .zip and unzip it, clean up the html, and upload that.

  14. On “everyone dies /= Downer Ending”:

    “And so my King died, and my brothers died — barely a year ago. Long I pondered my King’s cryptic talk of victory. But time has proven him wise — for from free Greek to free Greek, the word was spread: That bold Leonidas and his three hundred, so far from home, laid down their lives — not just for Sparta, but for *all* Greece, and the promise this country holds.Now, here on this ragged patch of earth called Plataea, Xerxes’s hordes face obliteration! Just there the barbarians huddle, sheer terror gripping tight their hearts with icy fingers, knowing full-well what merciless horrors they suffered at the swords and spears of three hundred; yet they stare now across the plain at ten thousand Spartans, commanding thirty thousand free Greeks! The enemy outnumber us a paltry three to one — good odds for any Greek. This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny, and usher in a future brighter than anything we can imagine. Give thanks, men, to Leonidas and the brave Three Hundred! TO VICTORY!”

      1. There is a movie I’m thinking of that essentially has every character but one die for merely the purpose of the one who didn’t. The first time I watched it, it depressed me. The second time angered me. When I think of it now, I begin to admire the “one who didn’t”. I certainly wouldn’t count it Human Wave, but I wonder if “for no purpose” would be met or not met in that circumstance.

        1. well… a lot of “War” movies have that narrative and they’re not downers. You emerge from it with both “war is hell” and “it was a good death.” There is a feeling I THINK that since we can die but once, if we make it count it’s a win. Particularly if you lay the stakes high enough. In A Few Good Men it doesn’t get quite that bad (My book — coming out from Baen Spring of 2013, btw) but there are a lot of deaths. It’s a war, so duh. Not to no purpose, though. In the next one which is still nameless a lot more people die, some main characters. Maybe it’s my age. I get older, people die.

    1. Yes, exactly. There are magnificent and noble defeats that buy the necessary time, that inspires others to stand up, that turns the tide. And that sure is a great deal grander a read than our, ‘Remember the Alamo!’ or ‘Before I be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave…’ Thank you.

  15. When Brecht & Weill sing it, it’s a delight, when authors spend 500 pages writing it it’s tedious.

    If at first you don’t succeed, then try and try again.
    And if you don’t succeed again, just try and try and try
    Useless, useless.
    Our kind of life’s too tough.
    Take it from me it’s useless. Trying ain’t enough.
    Since people ain’t much good just hit ’em in the head
    But though you hit them good and hard they’re never out for good.
    Useless, it’s useless when they’re playing rough
    Take it from me it’s useless
    You’re never rough enough
    From “The Useless Song,” Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill, Mark Blitzsteing trans.
    Threepenny Opera

  16. You could make a down-loadable logo for authors to put up on their sites advertising themselves as Human Wave. Or are we all supposed to be so individualistic that self-identifying as a member of a movement is tantamount to sheephood?
    Personally, whenever I’ve heard the sheep metaphor, the other species mentioned was wolves, not goats. But perhaps that was just bloodymindedness on their part.

    Everyone dying to no purpose is, of course, existential literary speak for “life has no purpose.” We’re born, we mate, we die. Or, as we say in Oz, “Life’s a bitch, then you die.” (Which is nicer than the alternative version which includes marriage to a female dog. [grin])
    I think that those of us who have/are dealing with depressive natures seek in fiction some idea that, no, contrary to what we’re constantly being told, there is a purpose to life, and it’s not just about surviving from one day to the next. It’s about the struggle to Live, to, as Kipling put it, “… fill the unforgiving minute with sixty-seconds worth of distance run.” And if you die attempting that, you will still have succeeded more than the sheep do who just float down the river of life from birth to death with no effort to steer their lives to either shore.
    If we are, as some have claimed, all slaves to the wristwatch and the dollar, then fiction is that thing that feeds our minds, enables our imaginations to strike off their chains and soar to other realms, other times, and, out of the best fiction, bring back the keys to the chains that bind our physical forms.
    This modern ‘humanity is crap’ literature would have us believe not only that we deserve our chains, but that, really, there is no such thing as freedom. I don’t know about you, but I think proving them wrong is a battle worth fighting, a war worth winning.

          1. No smiling faces is somewhere in the same category as no business meetings.

            And Sabrina — would love to, but it needs to be SMALL, black and white, and visible on an Amazon thumbnail corner. we’re working on it.

    1. “Sheep separated from the goats” is a metaphor in the New Testament about the Last Judgement. I enjoyed Sarah’s twist on it 🙂

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