Being Human – a Blast from the Past from March 2012

*Sorry, sorry, sorry.  It’s still a little busy and insane out here, and today I woke up to snow on the ground, which wasn’t nearly as bad as waking up several times in the night to howling wind.*

Being Human – a Blast from the Past from March 2012

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 heroes 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.

125 responses to “Being Human – a Blast from the Past from March 2012

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    “Be human”? But I’m a Dragon!!!! [Very Big Grin]

  2. The Other Sean

    It ain’t easy, being green… er, human. 🙂

  3. c4c

  4. I gave up on perfection a long time ago.

  5. Turning flaws into strengths? How very Human Wave.

    In recommending the Miles Vorkosigan books to people not naturally inclined that direction I have pointed out that he is a character denied the use of strength to solve problems and thus forced to think his way out of them.

    If you look back at Heracles’ twelve labors you notice that direct application of force wouldn’t solve all of his challenges — shoveling the stables or simply fighting the hydra, for example — and that he had develop and follow strategies.

  6. “I’m a hominid and I’m OK, I sleep all night and I write all day,
    I write fun stuff, I fight grey goo, I help all Sad Puppies,
    On Wednesdays I go raiding, and have buttered scones for tea!”

  7. I’ve been a bit hesitant to use the Human Wave moniker myself, partly because I’ve noticed a few human wavers describing works that I personally love as grey goo or worse, often after giving a very facile summary, indicating a very facile reading or else a misreading (not going to start throwing mud on individuals here).

    It leads me to the question: so who owns Human Wave anyway? Who gets to assign and catagorize what is and is not included? I’d argue that if I can consistantly put forward the story’s virtues and answer the charges of gey gooitute with texual examples in context, I can label it Human Wave if I so wish.

    Of course, my standards for Human Wave may be a bit different than most. If the characters are able to do anything, anything at all to better the circumstances, then it’s Human Wave for me. Light even one candle to hold back the darkness.

    Then you’ve got to look the bigger picture. 1984 for example, ends it utter, grinding horrific despair, but there’s no sense that this is in any way a good or appropriate thing. The whole book cries out to me: “Don’t let this happen!”

    • To be fair, 1984 is not gray goo but it is predetermined fail. No? Imagine the main character were a Heinlein character…

      • That would be something. But Bradbury already gave such a scenario in Fahrenheit 451

      • Compare it to Poul Anderson’s “Sam Hall,” which has a surveillance society with tools far beyond anything in 1984, but is more realistically successful.

        Or take this comparison:

        • Interesting however-


          -1984 acknowledges all those points in context. It’s revealed that Winston was always under close scrutiny (and probably many others as well) as a sort of project: to analyse the behavior and reactions, patterns and givaways of a rebellious personality in order to apply those findings to catch others. It’s left deliberately ambiguous whether there is a potentially successful and active resistance, mainly because of the very limited and controlled information Winston has access to. This itself contributes to the horrific atmosphere of being trapped in this society. So I think Orwell’s understanding was quite thorough.

          • Yeah, people in Communist countries said he grasped the FEEL very well and (not having read Homage in Catalonia) often wondered how he pulled it off.

            • Polliwog the 'Ette

              I listened to a BBC radio script of Homage to Catalonia this summer and it had Orwell (I’ve forgotten his real name) and his wife as themselves so I’d guess it was accurate. His ending thoughts on fleeing Spain one step ahead of their supposed communist allies, were pretty clearly the basis for both 1984 and Animal Farm.

      • The Other Sean

        Thanks. Now I’m imaging a mashup of Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 and Orwell’s 1984. Can anybody else picture Revolt in 1984 in their mind?

        • Sorry, but I pretty much already pictured Revolt in 2100 as a Heinlein version of 1984. I don’t picture a mashup as being any different than the original.

          • the rhetoric would be inferior. A boot in the human face forever? Really? You can’t come up with something better than that?

          • The Other Sean

            There’s a difference in terms of the enemy. I’d say a religious dictatorship arising from Nehemiah Scudder and a socialist dictatorship are quite different.

            • Nehemiah Scudder is active today — his name is Man Bear Pig and his religious faith is AGW. The drive is to impose a socialist dictatorship based on Faith in hot air.

              We’ve already got the Puritanical SJW mob rampaging on campus, demanding safe spaces where never is heard a discouraging word and the guys are not rowdy all day.

            • In rhetoric, and maybe around the edges, but in all important ways they’d be the same. Tyranny’s tyranny, whether it comes in Ranch or Siracha flavor.

              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                Well, there’s the difference between Tyranny of “For Your Own Good” and Tyranny of the “Robber Baron”.

                The Robber Baron’s greed may have limits.

        • I wanna write it. Give me time.

      • Which brings up the question, is there a common/famous (classic?) work that would fit the description of ‘gray goo’. Something so if someone asks after it, an example can be cited?

        • Anything by Stephen Crane or Theodore Dreiser.

          • I’ve been fortunate to not encounter (as far as I can recall) anything Dreiser. I was about to say the same of Crane, until I looked to see what he’d done and found The Red Badge of Courage which I recall was inflicted on me sometime in (late) elementary school.

            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

              It’s been a long time since I read “The Red Badge Of Courage” but I don’t see it as “grey goo”.

              IMO it’s a Coming Of Age story where the Main Character learns the true meaning of Courage. IE not letting Fear stopping you from doing something.

              Mind you, YMMV as even a good story can be ruined (for the reader) by English teachers. [Smile]

              • I think, upon further investigation, that I may have misremembered the ending to one of his short stories as the ending of RBoC.

              • It has been so long since I read the Red Badge of Courage that I can’t honestly claim it was grey goo… because I can’t remember anything about the story. What I can remember was that I thought it was a horribly stupid story, with a horribly stupid MC. And that I couldn’t imagine why it would be considered a good story or a classic.
                And while it was assigned to us by an English teacher, I did not read it then, because I had previously read it on my own, and I wasn’t going to inflict that on myself, again.

                Of course I had much the same reaction to Black Beauty.

          • The Other Sean

            Dreiser’s style is horrible. This is one example where the foreign critics had it right, panning his writing while American critics praised it. I have read several of his novels, though, because he has a trilogy of novels that are a VERY thinly fictionalized portrayal of Charles Yerkes and the battles for control of first the Philadelphia, and then the Chicago, streetcar systems (along with his utterly amoral life).

            But the style – ugh. I’ve never read an indie work whose prose was so awful. Few pieces of literature forced upon me in my school years had prose so horrid. My best attempt at a description of it is thus: Take bad teenager fanfic writing, and then mix it with the worst of yellow-press journalistic writing. His worldview doesn’t make it more palatable.

            With respect to that trilogy I mentioned, I will admit he does a decent job of capturing the machinations of the principals involved in the matter quite nicely. That is its sole redeeming characteristic.

            • Yowch. I only know of Yerkes from his name on the observatory in Lake Geneva, WI, with the 40-inch refractor. He was mentioned in the history of George Ellory Hale, of course, as he was having bigger and bigger telescopes made. Hale was not the same, but I do recall the comment (his? the authors?) that every big project needed one arrogant bastard to get the thing done.

    • I’d argue that one touchstone for Human Wave is hope, either inside the story or inspired in the readers. Another might be determination to improve (or just survive), in which case _1984_ fits.

      If you finish the book and want to throw yourself off a cliff, or exterminate the rest of mankind (or dragonkind *looks up-thread*), its probably not Human Wave.

      And cats are already perfect, so we have nothing to prove.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        IMO _1984_ is a good example of a cautionary tale. I don’t see it as “grey goo” because Orwell’s intent was to warn against the creation of that sort of world.

        {Not commenting on the so-called perfection of cats.)

        • The Other Sean

          Now if we could just start convincing our own government that it is cautionary tale, rather than an instruction manual.

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            Well, our government has a long way to go before it is close to Big Brother’s government.

            • Yes, but the “miracle of cheap electronics” has given modern governments tools far more powerful than those in “1984.”

              That, and people will *voluntarily* give up information Big Brother would have had to work for…

              • The Other Sean

                Now they can just grab it from Faceplant, instead.

                • It’s not just Facebook.

                  Recent years have seen the proliferation of video cameras in cities and suburbs. London is famously bad for this, but they’re pretty dense in NY, as well. And i’m not even talking about traffic cameras – I’m talking about people who put cameras on their buildings for security purposes.

                  The combination of these cameras and facial recognition software means that in the near future it will be possible to track people’s public movements – and the existence of cheap storage means it will be possible to do so years after those movements happen.

                  These aren’t being watched in 1984 fashion, yet. But they *can be*, and there’s no good reason to assume they won’t be.

                  • Not faces per se (though I thought the London system was all networked together using face recognition stuff already), but the license plate scanners on police cars basically build up a database of where your car goes at all hours. Merge that with the Stingray phone tracking data and the stuff they can get from credit card companies and it’s not all that much of a stretch.

                    • There is a reason I always leave the location turned off on my cell phone. Of course there is no real way to know whether the phone company is telling the truth about the location being turned off, and if you send or receive a call, they do know approximately (at the very least, what tower you are within range of) where you are.

            • The Other Sean

              But it is one area where our government (and allied media!) has not been slothful. OTOH, the UK government is going there even faster.

            • I hear they’re crunchy and good with ketchup.

            • “our government has a long way to go before it is close to Big Brother’s government.”

              This is not quite high praise.

        • I found Huxley’s Brave New World more depressing, and probably closer to grey goo than 1984.

        • One notes that there is a traditional duality in the concept of dystopia. You had the cautionary tales (which are the most literately accepted SF because they really are about the modern day world), and then you had the tales where you needed a bad guy, and dystopia worked well (and lost).

      • Hrm. Yes.

        It’s hope, will, determination, acceptance of risk and responsibility, defiance in the face of grey goo/oppression/zombie apocalypse… It’s not “I hope someday things will change,” it is more “this sucks. How’s about we work on fixin’ that, right now!’ If it’s Human Wave you still might want to throw yourself off a cliff… and fly (hang gliding, dragon flying, personal jetpacks, thinking with portals…)

  8. It’s still a little busy and insane out here, and today I woke up to snow on the ground, which wasn’t nearly as bad as waking up several times in the night to howling wind.

    Are you sure it was the wind?

    For all you know it really could have been dragons, big cats, and some sizable wolves preparing for a fight. 😉

    • Judging by the tumbleweeds piled up around the cars in the school parking lot . . . it was the wind.

      • Oh… who had the short story about … it was either tumbleweeds or a piece of cardboard? Blowing in the wind, that turned out to be a somewhat shy alien who preferred not to be noticed?

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Well, Robert Heinlein’s “Our Fair City” featured a sentient whirlwind but I don’t remember that she was that shy. [Smile]

        • Mercedes Lackey had a scavenger alien that faked being a cardboard box. Or maybe it was just a monster. A story in one of the compilation ebooks on a Baen cd.

          • Monster. Someone asked her how she got ideas, and she replied that she’d seen a cardboard box by the highway, and from there produced a rather creepy little story.

    • I AM going to write Bowl of Red, yes I am.

      • Huzzah! Very carefully leaves you (ruthlessly… don’t know anyone named Ruth anyway) alone.

      • “My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, my sister thanks you, and as for myself – that goes without saying.”

        George M. Cohen

        (Mind you, the only sister I have is one born of a different mother on a different continent, who claimed me by acclamation.)

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