*This is oddly topical for science fiction — and not just for science fiction, interestingly. Oh, and those who are subscribers, I put out subscriber chow in the protected space. Second chapter of To The Dragons.*
This is a post about the qualities and the effects of despair. There are several reasons for it, the proximate one being that we are fed a lot of it – purposely? – by our art and entertainment complex.
I’m well acquainted with despair. You could say it is an old friend of mine, except that despair is no one’s friend.
Despair accounted for how long it took me to break into publishing, to an extent, by creating long gaps of silence in my production, and several attempts at doing something else – anything else – with my life. My basement is littered with the beginnings of would-be-money-making projects I tried to engage in to avoid what seemed to be a hopeless attempt at getting published. Despair has accounted for how few of my books have been out the last two years. Those of you who have followed my blog through that time know I hit the nadir of despair about a year ago, when it looked like despite all my best efforts to keep running on ice, my career in writing was over.
I was wrong. I was wrong for several reasons, one of them being that Darkship Thieves – my heart’s darling at that point – did well for itself, and continues to do surprisingly well. I was wrong, because indie possibilities opened. I was wrong because I lost it – truly lost it – and started telling it like it is, and weirdly, surprisingly the “me” I’d suppressed so long, in order to have a career that would allow me to feed the kids, allowed me to find readers who helped my career. Go figure.
But the point is not that I was wrong. The point is that I know from despair and what’s more, I understand why despair is considered a sin. This is not always the case, and I’ve always had an issue with, say, sloth, since – being active by nature – I can’t imagine a worst punishment than being forced to do nothing.
Despair is a sin because it eats you, from the inside out. Despair comes with “I will never” and “what is the use” and “the game is rigged, so why bother?” Despair comes with beating your head against a glass window that shouldn’t be there, and yet is. Despair, in its ultimate form has blighted more artistic careers, destroyed more souls (and by soul here, I don’t require you believe in an immortal entity. I refer only to that which makes your mind and spirit yours) caused more suicides than anything else.
Despair is that feeling you get when you’ve run the maze, you’ve done your best, and you come to the end and there’s nothing but a blank wall.
It is a powerful emotion, at least for those of us who have faced it. It is dramatic, if you end a story with it, after a good run and a lot of hope. It stays in the mind.
It is in fact a primary color, and it’s small wonder beginning writers use it, just like beginning artists – say kindergarten – use primary colors.
And it is a sin. It is a sin against your future self. It is a sin against humanity. It is a sin against possibility. Remember that. We’ll come back to it.
However, the fact that it is an easily identifiable tint and primary doesn’t explain why there is so much of it larded around science fiction and fantasy, which SHOULD be the literature of possibility. Sure a lot of this can be explained by the youth of writers (in truth or in practice,) the youth of editors (most of the ones working with newby writers are just out of college) and a certain fashionable air of the times, when it is considered smart and hip to dress all in black and moan about the evils of the future. (Kind of like it was fashionable for Goethe’s Werner. Never mind. Hip, I tell you. futuristic even.)
But wait, there’s more. There’s what despair serves to do. People who despair don’t try to change things and/or undermine the establishment. People who despair, at the very least go away and shut up, even if they don’t deliberately kill themselves.
There is a striking scene in one of Leo Frankowki’s books, in which a Mongol Lord gets peasants to line up so he can behead them. And when the hero comes along and kills him, the peasants turn on the hero because “now you’ve gone and angered them.” And when the hero asks what can be worse than being killed, they have nothing, except “they will make it worse.” THAT’s despair. Despair makes you embrace death willingly rather than rebel, no matter how bad things get.
While I don’t believe in a grand conspiracy among publishing outlets and entertainment venues, I do believe in a tribal culture in what is – after all – when it comes to influential people maybe a few thousand people: a small village. Tribal cultures are easy to influence. I’m not saying anyone is, I’m saying it’s possible – and we’ve found that type of influence behind a lot of the recent “trends.”
So, before you give in to despair, ask yourself qui bono? (And if you’re not into asking yourself Latin questions and are now wondering if you should have been paying more attention to Dancing With The Stars and supermarket tabloids, let me dispel your confusion. That means “Whom does this profit?”)
Dave Freer talks about sheep and goats. Most of humanity are sheep. Some of us are goats. The problem of any establishment, any power, anyone who abrogates influence over human hearts and minds is to control the goats and to make the sheep do more than stand in place and bah. The more brutally repressive regimes eliminate the goats, often physically, and leave only the sheep. The result is all the innovation and elan of… North Korea.
The best regimes manage to allow the goats their head, keeping them only off the things that will hurt other people. They usually result in the highest production – both artistic and material.
In between there are several types of goat-herding schemes, including tolerating them within certain bounds and shipping them abroad to claim new pastures for the sheep. The British Empire used both strategies with great success since the Elizabethan age. They eventually stopped using it and resorted to despair. The British Empire didn’t survive much longer.
So ask yourself what about the current establishment makes it resort to despair? It’s surely the mark of a philosophical system that has nothing else to offer its goats. It’s the mark of a philosophical system that is doomed, and wants to keep things quiet “just a little longer.”
And it has been THE culture in publishing since the seventies. The embrace of declining numbers, declining revenues, declining living standards for writers – the willing embrace of decline – the meek submission to the people who are killing us, because you wouldn’t want to get them angry. They could really make it unpleasant then.
We’ve talked about how going Indie is a mark of impatience… or something – at least according to the establishment. We’re supposed to stay still, and let despair permeate us, and slowly tighten around us like a band, allowing us to make only the approved noises, which increase the cultural despair and get everyone accustomed to decline and darkness, and no way out. When publishers say the mid-list should die, they expect us to curl up and do so. How quaint.
Despair is a sin. And, to quote Jerry Pournelle, it might not even reflect the truth. Look at Heinlein, a smart man and most of us would say an optimist, who chose not to have children, avowedly (yes, I’m aware there might have been other reasons) because “the world was such a mess.” And yet, if he’d had a child in his first marriage, that child would now be older than my dad, who has had a full life, and not an unpleasant one.
Do not take Mr. Heinlein’s example in that particular aspect of his life. Take his example in his writing. Despair is a sin. And there is usually another way: a way through, a way around. Find the way. Pull the Mongol horseman down. If you kill enough of them, they’ll go away. Refuse to write despair. Refuse to believe despair. Look doom and gloom in the eye and ask them “you and what army?” Yes, it might all come to the same in the end, but at least you’ll have fought and died like a human being and not a bah lamb.
Tell the Grocers of Despair you have better things to do. There is a fight going on, and you’d rather fight. And then go on and discover new pastures. The poor sheep need somewhere to graze on. And you’ll have more freedom to breathe. And everyone wins in the end.
Remember qui bono? If they sell you despair it’s because they’re afraid of what you can do if you don’t give up. Don’t give up. Nothing will piss the establishment more than your continued – and cheerful – battling on. Do it. Let THEM despair.