In A Warped Mirror — Literature as societal Relection –RES Speaks Again

*In kindness, or perhaps because he wants me to be done with Noah’s Boy already (and he’s not the only one breathing down my neck while I struggle with my writing-to-contract phobia) RES sent me a post on how the artist reflects society.  He’s promised me a companion piece already.  And, btw, I never knew he was a Times New Roman over Ariel biggot [live and learn.]

In a different note, today I have a free short story up up Amazon — it was up here for a week, but if you missed it, head on over.  Something Worse Hereafter should go free at noon Eastern, or in about two hours and change.  My goal is to keep a free story on Amazon between here and the end of the year, and see if that helps goose numbers.  We’ll see, right?*

In A Warped Mirror



It is said that the duty of the artist is to reflect Society.  Unlike many of the things often asserted, it probably is true, although probably not in the way most artists want to believe.


It is not that the artist should hold up a mirror to Society, it is that the artist, by the nature of creating art, does hold up that mirror.  In most instances it is a funhouse mirror, in rare cases it is a true mirror, but the artist cannot refrain from reflecting Society as the artist understands it.


No artist exists in the absence of Society; their values and how they see the world are shaped by Society.  Their conceptions of what is good and just versus evil and unjust are a response to the society in which they swim.  Even if an artist somehow supercedes Society, their art must remain of Society in order to be understood by that society.  Art is a conversation and the artist either converses with Society or talks to himself.


What, then, is the duty of the artist?  While many an artist thinks to hold up a true mirror, the mirror held is almost always warped because few artists have the depth of understanding necessary to offer a true reflection.  An artist has preferences and values (Tolerance versus Holding to Principles, Acceptance of Outsiders versus Group Cohesion and Identity, Times Roman versus Ariel) which warp the mirror raised because they form the basis of the artist’s understanding of Society, of Good & Evil, of Proper & Improper, of Couth & Uncouth.


Removing the timber from your own eye is extremely difficult, yet it is necessary to more accurately reflect the world.  One approach is to rigorously exert yourself to understand the world you are reflecting.  If you write a Historical, be true to the characters in their Time and Place.  Few Antebellum Southerners questioned their Peculiar Institution; few Yankees mill owners thought there was anything wrong with locking the workers into the mills during work hours.  Giving modern views and opinions to historical characters should be done with extreme care; avoid the temptation to wheedle readers’ sympathies by having a character reflect contemporary sensibilities.  In presenting the views of historical characters the antecedents of those views should be expressed, placing them in the context of an ongoing social debate.  One era’s enlightened view is another era’s Paleolithic thinking.


People are and have been shaped by the cultures in which they were raised, with those cultures’ envisionment of the Cosmic All imbibed at their mothers’ breasts.  Rare is the character able to reject the standards of measurement of their natal culture, and only extreme circumstances can bring them to do so.  It requires a powerful motivation for Huck Finn to reject the premise that Jim is somebody’s property, just as it required soul-searing experiences for him to even question that idea in the first place.  Had Twain not put Huck through a wringer those changed ideas would have failed to bring the reader along with him and dimmed the mirror’s reflection.


Characters should represent the zeitgeist of their era as accurately as possible, partly because the reader has chosen that genre in order to learn about that zeitgeist, partly to reflect both the society presented and the society to which that view is presented.  Part of the pleasure of reading a historical novel is to crawl inside a character perspective different from my own, both to experience that perspective in order to understand that era and to contemplate the differences between that era and my own.


It is important to provide readers various touchstones to properly orient in the historical era.  If reading a Western I need to know, the author needs to show me the basic premises of the culture.  I have to be told, for example, that $100 was a lot of money, was four months’ wages for a working ranch-hand.  I need to have explained the different concepts of Time and Distance governing people in that era, when fifty miles represented a hard day’s travel, when a month was the time for a letter to travel from sender to recipient.  Most importantly, I need to see how these factors affect the way people of that era think.


The goal is to provide enough information to allow readers to understand the nature of the culture they are viewing and to allow for the way our present perspectives distort the artist’s mirror.  It is vitally important for the artist to minimize projection of modern attitudes and values as a source of distortion; it is bad enough the readers bring their own values and expectations.  Because Society’s rules and standards are constantly shifting, Today’s blindspot is Tomorrow’s glaring fault.  Present characters and situations that are appropriate to their period.


Science Fiction and Fantasy present similar yet different challenges.  In them the author too easily succumbs to the urge to write lazily, to presume the attitudes which the author desires to promote.  Heinlein believed in “Free Love” and in later novels simply waved his hand, presenting characters who nobly and unselfishly enjoyed multiple partners.  At least in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress he provided a back story to make such attitudes a justified response to extreme conditions, and provided historical basis for the reader to accept the meme.


Darkship Thieves handles the issue of presenting a Libertarian society by displaying it through the eyes of an outsider, dumped into the society unwillingly and unexpectedly.  We are given enough background of the culture’s history to imagine we understand how they reached this social solution, and because the narrator is naive in regards to the culture she challenges and asks questions, allowing the social adjustment to be justified.  Because the reader is equally naïve, the identification with and sympathy with the narrator are enhanced.  Willingness to accept the character’s conclusions is greater because the author has “shown her work.”


Ayn Rand’s characters, on the other hand, are generally cardboard, acting according to authorial requirements for the philosophy she wants to present, speaking all too often in polemical oratory, too rarely as real people.  The mirror she holds up to Society is a warped one, purporting to present both how Society is (conniving and corrupt bureaucrats striving to control everything) and how she wishes it would see itself (entrepreneurs acting to improve the general weal by advancing their personal interests.)  Because her characters are not brought to life their experiences are less moving to the reader than they ought be.  Her mirror is dulled; we do not see our own reflections therein.  Even people who share Rand’s politics are distanced from the novel by the flatness of the characters.


For truly powerful and moving art, the artist must understand the world being reflected, must know the motivations and histories of all the major characters and many of the minor ones.  Every character should have a personal code, a set of lenses through which they view their world, and the reader needs to know each character well enough to understand that viewpoint even if (especially if) they don’t agree with that view.  Villains should not simply be given Black Hats — repellant personal traits and characteristics that the reader recognizes as signs the character is despicable — and White Hats.  Their motives should be complex enough to be credible rather than something as jejune as a lost childhood sled (unless the lost sled represents a stolen childhood.)


Heroes and heroines ought be motivated by moral principles perceptible to the reader, if only through many layers of character.  Sure, Li’l Abner’s Mammy could declare that “good is better than evil because it’s nicer” but that’s because she was a character in a comic strip dedicated to parodying mindless memes, the bad mirrors of the strip’s era.  When a character has to struggle to make a decision the reader needs to know why this is a struggle, what values are in conflict and what their roots are.  If the character makes a decision without any struggle, the reader should have seen why the character was decisive, why Value This so readily trumped Value That.


A culture is defined by its values, and those values define the culture.  Subcultures exist and define themselves by the values they emphasize and de-emphasize: group loyalty over fidelity to the standards of the larger culture, recognition or non-recognition of rights of those not belonging to the group.  A reader’s ability to perceive and recognize these distinctions affects the level of involvement in the tale.


While it is nearly impossible to perceive the world so thoroughly and clearly to present a true mirror, the artist should strive to polish the mirror to the best of their abilities and to make the warps in the mirror as honest as they can.  Admit preferences — Human Wave or Grey Goo — so that the reader can sense the warp in the glass; trust the reader to share that warp, if only for the length of your story.

123 thoughts on “In A Warped Mirror — Literature as societal Relection –RES Speaks Again

  1. RES –
    I enjoyed this essay–
    Also I am a Times Roman kind of gal after working as a typesetter for several years before starting my adventures. I believe in escapism more than a mirror of society. If I think about being a mirror, my words freeze. Your view was interesting though.


    1. You cannot define a proper escapist fantasy without the context of what you are escaping from. So he still wins. 🙂

      And, more seriously, your fantasy is still reflecting a society: it’s just reflecting a fantastical society. It must be a consistent mirror in that regard.

        1. The point is, even if (especially if) you don’t think about it, it is the context in which you write. It forms the view of the world to which you are responding. It even shapes how you view the role of the writer.

          I refuse to defend Ayn Rand’s prose. Interesting, when I did eventually read Atlas Shrugged (okay, listened to Edward Hermann read it, in abridged form audiobook) I found most of the ideas presented already in my world view, having been so much influenced by (frankly, better) writers who Rand had influenced. Even with bad prose Rand proved the mirror used can change our view of the world.

          1. I have read Ayn Rand (not listened to the abridged form). There were things I agreed with and other things I didn’t. She has an especial dislike of magical thinking which I don’t have. Or at least her version of it. Anyway– what I am trying to say is that the writer should have absorbed the ideas before he writes because if he is truly writing, he is thinking about character and not about philosophy. He might be thinking that he needs to put in description to make it more real, but the logic is on the back burner. If you are writing with logic and lose the creative impulse you might as well just write essays.

            Please no one should get mad– I have read some really good essays. But, essays are NOT fiction. I have written both.

            1. Agreed – the writer must immerse himself in the milieu they are creating, as an actor immerses himself in a character they are playing, else the flow of story and character is stilted. But that is still a matter of becoming the mirror.

            2. Heavy handed is the terminology that I use when someone is trying to prove their philosophy in story. But being a person that sees all sides (I really hate that about myself) I can see why you would like clear mirrors. Even foggy mirrors can show us something useful. 😉

              1. When the writer becomes heavy-handed in his/her axe grinding, I think the author becomes a pornographer. I’ve blogged about this. The writer is responsible to tell the truth and the truth includes indicia that supports and also that undermines one’s partisan position. The pornographer omits the latter.

              2. Heavy handed is the terminology that I use when someone is trying to prove their philosophy in story.

                Ornery soul that I am I do not take kindly to being lectured to in my entertainment reading. I do not fling books. Books, in principle, are good, although some idiots do fill them with nonsense, which is not the book’s fault. But polemics and diatribes poorly masked as fiction? This makes me want to hurl the contents from my brain, like bad food from the stomach, if only I could.

            3. Um… no, the stories still need logic — but yes, you SHOULD be in it while you write. Logic — DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY BEGINNERS HAVE PEOPLE DISCOVER A CORPSE THEN DISCUSS FASHION INSTEAD OF CALLING THE POLICE? Unless this is done VERY skillfully and the characters are OBVIOUSLY insane, the violation of logic causes book to meet wall-like structure at speed.

              1. Ironically, while discussion of fashion is probably low on the list, there are any number of things people do when actually presented with a situation like that other than the obvious one (e.g. call the police.) Some people handle stress and shock well and others do not. People who don’t will do the most inexplicable things. (There are all kinds of explanations for this: I tend to think it’s usually caused by a phenomenon called “trance logic.”) Watch somebody try to explain a sequence of events to a cop on “COPS” sometime. You will constantly be thinking… “What… why would you… who does that?”

                So I’ll put up with characters who do bizarre things. What I won’t put up with is characters who obviously not in shock and are for all appearances perfectly rational and aware, but still do bizarre things. That is where the skill/obvious insanity has to come in and fast.

                1. Yes, what you said. Yes, I know about shock reactions, but I mean when it’s obviously not that, it’s just that the writer got bored and decided to move on to something she DOES like and have experience of.

                  Or, you know, the protagonist’s mother just died, he grieves for five seconds, then goes off to drive his new car and never thinks of her again. (And this is NOT supported by the personality shown.) Or the inverse — your character gets a hangnail and the entire country mourns, which is excessive even if he’s a king, but he’s just the shoemaker round the corner.

                  That type of “story logic” misstep is what ruins (IMNSHO) most beginner books.

                  1. This is probably also related to Mary-Sueism. The interchange can only work one way: if you become your character, you can write a very believable character. If your character becomes you, well, that goes nowhere good and it goes there fast. “Everybody was sorry/happy it happened to Mary Sue because she was SPECIAL!” Although there is absolutely nothing special about Mary Sue other than that she is the main character of the story.

                    1. It is especially Amusing to me to make reference to this phenomenon since essentially every non-walk-on male character in my stories is me, or at least some aspect of me. The difference is a) I know it and b) I don’t think very well of myself in many ways and that stops me from Gary-Stuing. Usually.

                      This is REALLY funny when I have two male main characters talking to each other, like Doctor Solomon and his hapless assistant Ted. I’m both of them. When Doctor Solomon calls Ted an idiot, that’s me, and when Ted points out Doctor Solomon outclevering himself, that’s me too. This writing business isn’t nearly so hard when you have the power of applied schizophrenia on your side.

                    2. What’s bizarre is how many people think the main character is DST is me Mary Sueing. Er… other than a tendency to dirty fight, which was forced on me in youth, no. My reaction to a anti-grave wand flight would be to go gibberingly insane. And I was never as flip as Athena. (In my mind, she talks in this voice that drives me insane.)

                    3. lol Marc it gets even crazier when the male and female characters are you. I don’t notice when I am writing. Afterwards I wonder, but don’t try to think about it much. 😉

                    4. Anti-grav— my knuckles would be white as I grabbed on to something to stabilize myself. Since I have a real fear of falling, I wonder if anti-grav would scare the bejesus out of me. 😉 It would be fun to find out. Of course, I am not a Baumgartner and would have to be pushed out of the little bubble. (or the hubby who has an amazing amount of daredevilishness about him would pull me out.)

                    5. Anti-grav (or freefall) is a weird phenomenon and it does weird things to people.

                      For instance, I’m not afraid of heights: I’m afraid of edges. (If strapped in securely I can handle things like hot-air balloons, free-fall amusement rides, and open-cockpit airplanes without skipping a beat. Put me on a roof too close to the edge, and it does unhealthy things to my heart rate.) Obviously, the reason to be afraid of edges is that you’re afraid of falling. If there’s no gravity, you can’t fall. So I think I’d actually be fine, but there’s no way to know until I get that ride on Virgin Galactic.

                    6. For instance, I’m not afraid of heights: I’m afraid of edges.

                      I’m not really afraid of either, though my respect for edges grew in direct proportion to my age. My biggest fear in these regards is sudden deceleration trama.

                    7. Well, there’s always the vomit comet. And you get to experience it in short chunks, too.

                      I don’t know about now – with the weight I currently am, it might be a little bad, but when I was younger, an anti-grav ride would have been the most awesome thing i could think of. Having spent half my younger life on a trampoline, my stomach for such things was like iron.

                      Like Marc, I’m afraid of edges. I couldn’t go near the edge of Natural Bridge in Kentucky, but the Free-Fall ride at 6 Flags in Atlanta was nothing but fun.

                    8. Weirdly? I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of fast movement. So even the “simulated” rollercoasters, where you go very fast, but the track just reconforms and it’s a circle, you’re always “on the ground” or close to TERRIFIES me. As a child I once jumped out of a merry-go-round hand propelled because the woman was making it spin really fast and it short-circuited my brain. (Yep, I did fall on my head. Next?)

                    9. I don’t know about the Baumgartner Scenario. My first impulse is to say that it would scare the bejeebers out of me. How much edgier can you get?

                      However, the concept of “falling” is kind of abstract in that situation. It’s not like you can see where you’d hit if you fell from 100K feet. Interesting question.

                    10. in my case it is a full-blown fear of falling. I have stood on the edges of hills (scared), on the edge of a roof (scared), looking down on the Boer monument (scared shitless), and hanging on the side of a small cliff with my hands (scared). Nothing has taken away the scaredness. It is not scared of edges. Even stairs will give me that feeling. Longer stairs with open sides will scare me more than covered stairs… and so forth.

                      Yes, I did try to make it better by putting myself into situations. Not again– It just gets worse.

                    11. I used to love to go fast as a child, which means I had a lot of scrapes because I kept falling. When I was in Panama I used to race around a lot (being a below the border country, you could drive crazy, and I did). I had a little rust-bucket Mustang that I would drive as fast as I could on some of the most horrific roads you have ever seen (saw a car upside down in a hole in the middle of the road with the tires barely peeking out of it).

                      I really miss running. I just don’t have the balance (well to be honest I never had the balance, I just could run faster than I could fall).

                    12. I really think it’s something wired in my brain. It’s not fear as such just a straight “can’t take this” — this is why I like the SUV. I don’t “feel” the speed the same way. Dan has a little car and I always have to calm myself.

                    13. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t do all sorts of stupid things in the climbing and balancing department as a kid (I did mention I fell on my head, right? SEVERAL times.) It’s just the feeling “I’m going fast” — somewhere between vertigo, nausea and a panic button at the back of the brain. I’m sure Tedd Roberts could explain it. Yo, SPEAKER?

                    14. Heights and speed don’t bother me, although Sib HATES heights to the point that an open-mesh metal floor induces the willies. I, however, crave a horizon. If I can’t see that something has borders or an end, I start getting the willies. And the opposite – put me in a confined, crowded space and I want to flail my way out. Both the Permian Basin/ Capitan Reef underwater diorama in Midland TX (beautifully done and scared me spitless) and Lasceaux II induce flight reactions. *shrug* I’m probably not cut out for space travel.

                    15. I’m not afraid of heights. Or edges, entirely. I’m afraid of jumping. The fascination of free-fall is not worth the landing.

                    16. I like hieghts and edges, and am scared of them at the same time (yes, I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie). I understand exactly what you mean about jumping Beth. I remember learning how to rappel while in Boy Scouts, I climbed the climbing tower (75′ tall) and that was fun, then we were to rappel down. I wanted to step over the edge with the rope tight, but they wouldn’t let me, if I wanted to rappel I had to jump over (with my back to the dropoff, I would have much rather been facing the way I was jumping), that was REALLY hard to do. Rappeling is a blast once you get started, but I never did get over the fear of jumping. I haven’t rappelled in years, but if I was to do it tomorrow I know I would still almost freeze up before jumping over the edge.

            4. I think what you’re missing is that if you write fiction, you are holding that mirror whether you want to or not. Sure, if you think about it too much, it can throw you off, just like someone who is afraid of heights looking down when crossing a narrow bridge.

              However, there is the part where you need to see how the character and/or the society are different from your own, so you will know when to put things into perspective. Some people have to do it consciously, some don’t. When you put Billy the Kid up for free a few weeks ago, I read it, and you did a good job of weaving the perspective into the story without putting in out-of-character infodumping, so based on what you’ve said above, you appear to be one of those who don’t need to do it consciously. I, on the other hand, would have to be very aware of the differences I would be trying to present, and have to do a considerable amount of work trying to not sound pedantic.

              1. TG Wayne – I guess I should say that I can’t be to logic-overloaded or carry the mirror across the void. (Dang I thought I was normal and most authors were like me) 😉

                1. Don’t use me as an example of most authors. I haven’t finished anything yet, and even though this site is far more comfortable to me than most, I’m still looking on from outside a little bit.

              2. yea – well Billy came from a more matriarchal society which is not really understood in the West. I was in Panama and observed a tribe there who were matriarchally led. It was different than we think. Men were still warriors and women were still in charge of the home. The difference is that they were in charge of most of the major decisions like who they considered allies.

                1. My Anthropology professor came from a tribe in New York where they were mostly led by the women. He said he asked his aunt, who was a tribal leader, about why that was so, and she said, “Because men think with their balls until they’re 50”.

                    1. Yes, I’ve already pointed out that my grandfather was 63 when his last child was born. 🙂

                  1. The defense responds that women think with their emotions until at least the same age in most cases. Exceptions to this are about as rare as exceptions to the other.

                    1. To be honest – it was the older women in the tribe who were in charge and the younger women who were under their tutelage. So really you are very right Marc.

                    2. Sounds to me that the criteria for “in charge” should be: “Old people (with experience + hopefully some flexibility and laid-back-ness) with investment in the future (e.g., children).” It’s getting the royal flush of all five that’s hard.

                    3. Larry Niven’s Protectors expresses much the same thought, as well as looking at some of the attendant problems.

              3. You can think of it like a dance. If you go right right right, you trip. You go right, left, right, left and a rhythm follows. Sometimes I realize that I need description. Sometimes I realize I need thoughts. The thoughts and how the character reacts to situations tells a lot about a character. Info-dumping is a pretty crude way of doing it.

                A friend of mine helped me with story when I was struggling. There were only four things to remember: 1. Feelings/ thoughts
                2. Action
                3. Dialogue (mix with feelings and thoughts)
                4. Action is followed by reaction

                Remembering those four things made it easier to write a strong story.

  2. Arial is for spreadsheets. TNR is a compressive text, so that when I convert an article or column to Word for ease of printing & reading (I be old-fashioned – I still prefer the contrast offered by dead tree) TNR offers a higher ratio of characters to space, which reduces the page count required.

    1. I’d like to find the nitwit who made Cambria the default for the latest Mac Word and hit them with a Nerf-bat (TM).

      1. Amen. You can’t stamp it out no matter how hard you try. I find control codes referencing it in documents which have been nuked. It’s the cockroach of typefaces.

  3. The past is a different country – they do things differently there. It’s a bit of a tightrope, creating authentic and supposedly likeable characters, when they have attitudes that are very much out of kilter with those we are supposed to have today.

    One of my alpha-readers is a friend of my mothers’ … and teaches creative writing at a local community college, and she about had the meltdown of all times when I hinted that Comanche-settler relations in pre-Civil War Texas were not particularly friendly, and that in fact, the settlers might have had darned good basis for not viewing the Comanche as friendly neighbors.

    I got a page and a half-long note, lecturing me about how my attitude was hurtful to present-day Indians.

    1. And it is, too. Apparently rubbing somebody’s face in the fact that their ancestors were totally outclassed by your ancestors is apparently very hurtful to some people.

      I wouldn’t know.

      1. Eh. We won’t mention mom’s side of the family. We just won’t. Not that they outclass anyone. Outdistance, outspend, outdrink, out… but not outclass…

      2. It was not an issue of out-classing. It was a matter of differing rules of engagement, differing rules in regard to the treatment of the ‘civilian’ populations.

        For example it had not been that long before it was assumed that European soldiers raped and pillaged when entering a besieged city. While it was viewed as messy by many officers it was not stopped, for it was considered unstoppable. (Consider that Welsley viewed the British soldier as a low form of life.) Once this behavior came into question and was rejected it became obvious that it was ‘wrong.’ Even thought such behavior had not yet ceased in the armies back home, the civilized European settlers were horrified by what they viewed as a breach of basic morality by the Comanche.

        I found that all this was beautifully conveyed, without beating you over the head with it, in Celia Hayes’ Adelsverein trilogy. And this is part of what RES writes about when saying you have to respect the time and place of your setting.

      3. Interesting logic – by that, I assume that in writing about WWII, we shouldn’t be beastly to the Hun, or mention that we outclassed the Japanese, to the tune of nuking two of their cities?

        1. It is forbidden to show “nice” Nazis but is required to show the Japanese as being “threatened” by the evil West before WWII. [Wink]

          1. And it is for some reason likewise not done to discuss the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Probably because the goal of Progressivism is to essentially recreate it, although with fewer Comfort Women.

            1. Or if you mention it, you talk about how it was somehow better than European efforts along those lines (definitely don’t talk about how much worse it was than the European efforts).

    2. You have my sympathy and understanding. That’s why I do not touch the reservation period in my work, especially given the in-fighting among the Comanche at the moment (tribal politics + family disagreements = just don’t touch it). And I had a beta reader slam me for not depicting someone as an evil despoiler of “nature.” Um, well, in 1890 no one understood the hydrology of overgrazing. They knew you did not want to overgraze, and tried not to, but fluvial dynamics and species diversity preservation were not high on ranch managers’ priorities in the middle of a four-year drought.

        1. It is a form of hubris, of arrogance, projecting our current understanding onto the past. Oh, if only our ancestors were as enlightened as we are (they probably would have employed birth control to prevent such deranged descendants despoiling their legacies.)

          1. Hey, if someone calls ME a “despoiler of nature” I damn well want to have earned it. Now, where’s that volcanic eruption to channel over soon-to-be-former-farmland? (twirling non-existent ‘stache)

            1. You could try opening the Yosemite caldera, but that may entail a wee bit of risk to yourself.

              1. Not if I do it from far enough away… Maybe drill down the San Andreas Fault and put a bomb on the fault line, then get myself elsewhere before the detonation.

                No… That would necessarily destroy LA, and therefore count as urban renewal. Life’s tough for a despoiler of nature.

      1. While I suppose it’s possible that pre-Columbian American aborigines were idyllic and like that, you only have to read about a few pitched gun battles over the leadership of a tribe (and the attendant control of untold millions of dollars in resource leasing, gambling revenue, etc) in the modern day to wonder if perhaps such people are as bloody-minded as any other typical Homo Sap.

        1. When Stephen LeBlanc first came out and announced, “hey folks, those peaceful Puebloan peoples built walls for defense because they were massacring each other,” it caused a firestorm in certain anthropological circles. Even as the Hopi and others said, “Well, yes, we have stories about using chemical warfare to help us massacre our enemies. Why?” Now most people accept that warfare happened among the peoples of the American Southwest (although OF COURSE it was not as bad as anything done by the icky Spanish or the ickier Anglos). I’m not sure anyone has yet found a way to classify the Aztec as peaceful, although I’m behind on my reading so that may have changed. 😛

          1. Nope – They just put a historical on Cortez and the Aztecs. They still couldn’t spin the Aztecs as peaceful (hope I got the right conquistadores)

          2. There was an idiot on Baen’s Bar who admitted how nasty the Aztecs were *but* it was still evil of the Spanish to invade and conquer them. [Sad Smile]

            Still a few years back, I read a Mack Reynolds (?) time travel story where a man found himself in Mexico before the Spanish invaded. There the author did a complete “white-wash” of the Aztecs. [Sad Smile]

            1. Was this before or after Stirling’s sub-plot about what happened to the hippies who tried to protect the Mesoamericans from the time-travelers in the Island in the Sea of Time novels?

              1. I doubt that the idiot would have read Stirling (& it was after) but I think his answer would be “they shouldn’t have gone there”. Basically, his mindset was “Europeans should have just stayed home”. He agreed that Mesoamericans weren’t “nice people” but Europeans shouldn’t have come to the Americas.

                1. He agreed that Mesoamericans weren’t “nice people” but Europeans shouldn’t have come to the Americas.

                  By that logic, neither should the Mesoamericans. It’s not like they just sprang up out o the cabbage patch. They immigrated as well and killed off a healthy percentage of the fauna in the western hemisphere in the process.

                  1. He was deep into the “evil Western Civilization” idea which basically says that non-Western Cultures can do no wrong even if they do things that he’d comdemn Western Civilization for doing. As for Logic, that’s another evil “Western Idea”. [Evil Grin]

                2. He wouldn’t have cared, but for anybody who’s following along at home, the time travelers a) didn’t do it on purpose (although the hippies did go to Central America of their own accord later) and b) were already in the Americas.

                  What happened to those hippies was just horribly delightful, especially the ringleader. And what happened the aborigines couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch. Very satisfying.

                  1. Yes, it was. I’m actually working through the trilogy on Audible during my work commutes. I’m almost done with Against The Tide Of Years. For our 10th anniversary, we went to Nantucket specifically to visit places mentioned in the three novels, including the beach where the Tartessians land in “Oceans”.

                    On this read-through, however, I’m noticing just how badly most of the men end up in Stirling’s fiction and just how OMFGBADASS the principle women are. I think it’s because either I have become more sensitive to the ridiculousness of such characters or pop culture is breeding far, far too many of them on it’s own. Probably both, which ably launches me into grouchy old man territory.

    3. When writing the past, you have to mind that society has changed and now finds the formerly commonplace to be offensive. The author of stories set in Ancient Rome needs a protagonist who’s an abolitionist slave-owner. I term this requirement, “The One Modern Man.”

      1. A certain gothic horror romance writer who shall remain nameless has a scene wherein a Pharonic Egyptian is eating dinner in a modern setting. He refuses to use a fork or a spoon (IDRC if soup is involved) because only a barbarian would shovel food into his mouth.

        I have no idea if that’s historically accurate but it strikes me as a little gem of the idea that even the most commonplace thing imaginable can be unimaginably alien to somebody else. I mean, sure, an iPhone might scare the hell out of a Bronze Ager, but who would think off the top of their head that a spoon might be offensive?

        1. A certain gothic horror romance writer who shall remain nameless has a scene wherein a Pharonic Egyptian is eating dinner in a modern setting. He refuses to use a fork or a spoon (IDRC if soup is involved) because only a barbarian would shovel food into his mouth.

          Stirling explored something similar in “Peshwar Lancers”. It was set in the Victorian age, but a small asteroid strike in the early 1800’s (?) caused the northern hemisphere to pretty much ice up. The British Empire, en masse, emigrated to their largest significant holding at the time…India. The combination of cultures was very well done (said a man who knows little to nothing of Victorian India) and the story was set in the early 1900’s, I believe.

          One of the recurring themes was the younger generations, those 30 and under having had grown up in the new India was looking sideways at the older people who insisted on eating with utensils.

          1. I read that one and I agree, Stirling got it right. The whole side-play about beef eating and caste/class politics also rang true.

      2. I read a story set in ancient Egypt told by a man of that time and told to people of his time. It “jarred” me when he stopped the story to “defend” slavery. It was so obviously a message by the story’s *real* author to readers of our time.

        I don’t think the “abolitionist slave-owner” works but a slave-owner who has “doubts” about slavery might work.

        Of course, if one of the characters is from our time/world, that works better.

        1. I don’t think the “abolitionist slave-owner” works but a slave-owner who has “doubts” about slavery might work.

          Ah, but there is another possibility. What about a slave owner who is absolutely convinced of his/her mental and physical capabilities and, given decades upon decades of genetic research, which the accompanying ability to run unfettered human testing on slaves, they actually start BECOMING better?

          1. “Better” is in the eye of the beholder. Speaking of Stirling, I think you’ve just described the Draka from their point of view. Frankly, if they weren’t so obviously designed (successfully) to be creepy, I’d be firmly on their side. In many ways their viewpoint is much more rational and more aligned with observable human nature. (In other ways, it’s self-defeating, because it can never advance. That’s my real reason for not sharing it. It’s just as bad to assert that our natures are unchangeable as to assert that they don’t exist at all.)

            1. Speaking of Stirling, I think you’ve just described the Draka from their point of view. Frankly, if they weren’t so obviously designed (successfully) to be creepy, I’d be firmly on their side.

              DING DING DING…you got it in one. The Draka WERE better. Not at first. That was purely believing their own bullshit…although centuries of breeding for warrior traits and intelligence could arguably produce a bell-curve bender as far as “ferel” humans are concerned. It was their willingness to spend chattel lives in the pursuit of bio-superiority that eventually DID make them superior…and entire different species, in fact. Combine this superiority with an innate belief that while they were superior, they had a chivalric-ish responsibility to protect their own slaves, and you have something truly, beautifully horrible.

    4. To rewrite the history of Comanches or any other historical group is imposing contemporary morality and standards on ancient and honorable cultures. It is an act of cultural hegemonism and is intent upon wiping out the history and cultures thus misrepresented.

      1. And that that “ancient and honorable’ culture also had a severely Spartan-warrior ethos, which included extremely brutal treatment of captives of all races (to include gang-rape of women and girls), quite sickening and prolonged torture for the amusement of the tribe, slave-trading and free-lance war against all comers … well, the historical record makes it really, really hard to frame the Comance as peaceful hunter-gatherers, at one with the natural world and the other humans within it….

        1. EXACTLY – it is an act of modern ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism to deny the Comanche the truth of their history because some find that history embarrassing. We should NOT impose our Europeanized cultural values on a noble tribal people.

          The only way to deal with such cultural retards* is to hoist them by their own petards.

          *N.B. – the term “retards” in no way should be taken as a slur on the mentally impaired; in this context it clearly reflects disdain for those incapable of accepting the complexity and truth about indigenous cultures, insisting on rewriting History to better conform to their cultural prejudices.

  4. Many people have no interest in really escaping to another zeitgeist. They can’t imagine why anyone would write a story about a hierarchical society in which the characters treat it as self-evident, and in which nothing is done about it.

    1. I don’t like much about the world depicted in Nurse and Gothic Romances, but, instead of insisting that everyone write to affirm my world view and tastes, my solution is to not read them.

  5. I have but one quibble with this post. I think the writer is obligated to tell the truth. Not to reflect society, to reflect Truth. However, before you get the idea I’m a naive Modernist, I think that Truth can be illusive and subject to distortion by one’s own perspective and socialization that the writer must struggle to transcend.

    Happily, the Truth also includes propositions like 2+2=4, which have application when calculating royalty payments.

  6. Interesting essay, RES. It would make a good assignment to a Modern literature class or something like that. It would, like here, generate a great deal of classroom conversation. I figure if one is going to write a story, then they need to write from either personal knowledge, so that would be modern literature (generally boring), or they need to educate themselves on the era they want to write about. Of course, science fiction and fantasy are the exception as most people are building a new world in hard science fiction, or exploring what most folks would believe is an unreal world in fantasy.

    However, either way, the writer must have continuity in the world they create. Nothing bothers me more than to be reading along and suddenly run across a bit of modern slang in a historical, sci-fi, or fantasy book. It is jarring, even more so than the unexpected f-bomb. In one book I recently read, a hard science sci-fi space opera, where one character called another Dude. In fact the entire conversation sounded like two surfer dudes, stoned out of their heads, trying to be philosophical. Very dissonant.

    1. However, either way, the writer must have continuity in the world they create.

      If you don’t the geeks will eat you alive. I’m still trying to geekproof my work.

      1. There will always be critics. People even tear Jules Verne’s work apart today. And he created a great sci-fi world for his time in history. You don’t have to be a quantum scientist to write about space ships, all you have to do is read what someone else wrote in a scholarly tome, translate it so you understand the topic, and they create from that point. Not steal their work, but simply understand it so you can create your story. Geeks ALWAYS nitpick. Trust me, I am married to one. We can’t even watch a movie without him picking every detail apart. I have to remind him, IT IS NOT REAL over and over. He makes me crazy. Of course, those of us who are vague on the topic of true hard science, generally really enjoy science fiction – as long as it has continuity. Besides, most of us are from the era of Star Trek, Star Wars, or Buckaroo Bonzi and we see science fiction as FUN!

        1. I think it was Orson Scott Card who said that you can get away with one large piece of bolognium in a story, but more than that and you’d better have very good reasons and explanations for them.

          1. I always heard this as the “One Impossible Thing” rule. Of course a clever writer can turn one impossible thing into any number of impossible things. E.G., computers in Star Trek are much more powerful than they have any right to be… because they apply warp fields to the computer cores. But superfast computers aren’t impossible things if you allow warp fields in the first place.

            This rule is pretty flexible… I’ve never heard anybody cite it against Star Trek, for instance, even though they have two impossible things. (Warp fields and transporter beams.) But it’s not a bad guideline to avoiding wizards-did-it syndrome, which is the downfall of many a speculative universe.

            1. Actually, I expect that we will exceed all but the most outrageous computer representations in Star Trek within 30 years, although I guess it’s possible that we will bump against a hard barrier in development sometime in the next 10-15 years, which would stunt things for a while. 30 years, at current progression, will put 10 petaflop processing on our desktop, and supercomputers would be about a million times more powerful. If we hit a hard barrier with component size limitations, that can’t be circumvented with other means, like more parallelism, then we will have to wait for retail-level quantum computers, although, I’m not sure that we won’t already have them by then. They should be at least commercially-viable by then.

              1. In most ways we’ve already beaten them, especially if you go by TOS guidelines. They just didn’t have any idea a) how easy it is to accumulate masses of data and b) how hard it is to manipulate it. Their programmers with our stuff would be quite interesting to watch. 🙂

              2. A recent report advises us that they have figured how to write data into the DNA of gerbils (for example.) That probably solves the data storage question … and if we use hamsters their wheels can be hooked up to power the computers utilizing that data.

                  1. Mmm’kay … so with the gerbil memory system, where do you plug the USB cable into the gerbil? Will there be a special port installed, like in eXistenZ?

                1. The scary thing about seeing this now is that it relates tangentially to the short story I’ve been complaining about trying to work on lately.

                  1. Oh, and 1) I’m nearly done with the first draft, and 2) I hadn’t heard about that story until today.

        2. The mistake such geekery makes is to confuse the story with the background setting. The setting should be reasonably accurate to facillitate willing suspension of disbelief, but nobody has bought SF for the background since Hugo Gernsback’s day.

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