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The Scalzi affair

Well, my post on Old Man's War pulled in 23 comments, and the related discussion thread on John Scalzi's blog is up to 29, which is something of an Event. My thanks to John Scalzi for engaging with this reader's comments as thoughtfully as he has done, and to (most of) those others who have chipped in.

Obviously, I have had to revisit one of my core assumptions. I completely withdraw my assumption that John Scalzi is a slavering warmonger who does not care about civilian control of the military. I also withdraw my accusation that the character of "Bender" is a deliberate piss-take of former Senator George Mitchell, and accept that the striking similarities between their two careers were not intended.

Having said that, I'm still very unsatisfied with a book that presents militarism in such an uncritical way. I admit that I came to this fresh from reading Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart, where we may reasonably assume that the authors are expressing their own opinions through those of the central characters. Achebe complains that Conrad "neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters", and I make the same criticism of Scalzi - with the qualification that of the two characters who do hint at such an alternative frame of reference, one is a sheer caricature and both come to sticky ends.

I am also still left with the core of my original objection: that Bender is a crude caricature of a character. Neither Scalzi nor his defenders have really refuted this. Scalzi says,
Bender's salient charateristic, for me at least, was his grasping opportunism; he wasn't looking for peace for its own ends but for what he thought it could do for him (thus he injected himself into a future peace process on Earth, and did a poor enough job with it that it was easily shattered, and was attempting to do a similar thing in the book).
chris_gerrib characterises Bender as "an example of a certain mindset common in America". rachel_swirsky sees him as "a spoof of self-important politicians". Nobody thinks of him as a well-rounded or even particularly credible character. One of the commenters on Whatever says that "I can say the reaction of John Perry and his platoon-mates to the perceived pomposity of Bender rings true"; and indeed it does, but Bender does not ring true in the first place. The initial set-up, of Bender accidentally getting a bad peace agreement, simply is not a credible premise. You don't get peace agreements, good or bad, by accident or by careless work.

I am also still personally annoyed about the glib setting of Bender's career slip-up in Northern Ireland. I don't mind jokes about Northern Ireland politics (see my posts here, here, here, and here). But I do require them to be actually funny, and this one isn't.

A couple of the respondents on Scalzi's blog criticized me for making political judgements about the book at all. Hey, folks, I make political judgements for a living; get over it. And it is a gross mistake to suggest that my sole reason for disliking the book was my perception of the political message. I have even been known to excoriate sf where I actually agreed with the political message but found the way in which it was delivered distasteful (see in particular my take on Terry Bisson's "macs"). (And the guy who thinks that announcing my intention to put Old Man's War fifth on my Hugo ballot, and recommending that readers uncomfortable with militarism avoid it, amounts to lynch mob tactics, clearly has been fortunate in his experience of lynch mobs.)

One person picked up on my complaint that "the explanation of why the commander took offence seemed weak. Perhaps she just didn't like talking about anything reminding her of the massacre of her family sixty years before. (Then why join the army?)" and said that left him "wondering if Mr. Whyte had somehow neglected to read the first 1/4th of the book he's reviewing". Another commenter jumped in to defend me by saying it was a perfectly valid question. My critic then replied:
no it's not a valid question for the context of this book.

The context of the question is that you're 75 years old and you have a choice of rejuvenation or "rather not be reminded" and dying -- sort of the ultimate in not having to be reminded anymore.

Unless you're an absolute fanatic (which there's no reason to suppose she was), I think you opt for choice "A", reminders or no.
I'm afraid this really makes no sense to me. To explain once more: I was puzzled by the argument scene between Bender and the commander. I did not understand the story-teller's reasoning as to why the commander took offence. We are told that Bender's remarks reminded her of the circumstances of the massacre of her family. It seems to me that if you don't want to be reminded of the violent deaths of your relatives, it is probably unwise to join a profession where many of your colleagues are likely to meet violent deaths. The commander did not seem to me an unwise person (indeed, I think her comments were very sensible, which is why I regret that Scalzi chose to kill her off on the next page). My critic seems to think that the lure of rejuvenation easily trumps childhood trauma. I simply don't believe that. So it seemed to me an unconvincing added detail to a passage in the book that I already did not like much.

Surprisingly nobody on Scalzi's blog picked up on a point made by several livejournal commentators, who disagreed with my honestly held opinion that people in their 70s are different from people in their 30s. One person accused me of the "myopia of youth". My myopia is undeniable - I have been wearing glasses since I was six - but having just turned 39, I am pleased rather than annoyed to be accused of excessive youth!

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
rparvaaz
May. 16th, 2006 01:42 pm (UTC)
(And the guy who thinks that announcing my intention to put Old Man's War fifth on my Hugo ballot, and recommending that readers uncomfortable with militarism avoid it, amounts to lynch mob tactics, clearly has been fortunate in his experience of lynch mobs.)

That had me laughing out loud. :)

Must find a topic on which I seriously disagree with you - would be fun to be on the receiving end of great zingers. ;)
matgb
May. 16th, 2006 09:20 pm (UTC)
Thanks for linking back Nick, I'd read your original review before he commented. That was a very illuminating exchange.

I love the internet when it goes well like that.

On the aging thing? Put it another way. I'm now 31. Yet I tend to go tot he same sort of clubs, with the same sort of people, as when I was 19. I have a different perspective, sure, but I don't feel old when I do it, and my eyes still follow the pvc clad ladies around the room.

That and my most recent girlfriend was ten years my junior and it didn't matter at all. Can't comment, really, on NI stuff, compltely different to come from there, but I've seen unfunny jokes on stuff that have affected me, and so get where you're coming from on it.

I'll read the book. At the end of the day, he seems like a nice bloke, and it is up for a Hugo.

Still, for for Swainston in the Campbell. It has to be done...
sammywol
May. 16th, 2006 09:28 pm (UTC)
I am also still personally annoyed about the glib setting of Bender's career slip-up in Northern Ireland. I don't mind jokes about Northern Ireland politics (see my posts here, here, here, and here). But I do require them to be actually funny, and this one isn't.

Well I haven't read the book, and in truth probably never will so I don't know if this was funny or not but I am forcibly reminded of several correspondants at the White House dinner where Steve Colbert was keynote speaker excusing the total lack of reporting of it afterwards as being because 'it just wasn't funny enough'. That in turn reminded me of many an evening with Conor Kostick, then (and now for all I know) a deeply committed SWM(in those days)er refusing to laugh at any jokes at the expense of socialism and acitivism on the grounds of 'I'd laugh if it was funny'. I don't think we ever think that satire or even simple jokes at the expense of our personal sacred cows are funny.
chris_gerrib
May. 17th, 2006 08:30 pm (UTC)
Going on a Bender
I'm always reluctant to argue with a career diplomat over a fictional diplomat, so please consider this in the same spirit as a friendly discussion in a pub.

I'm the guy that said Bender was a "type." To be clear, I think you can be a "type" and still be a rounded character. Bender was a type of person that assumed everybody was "just like him." He didn't try to understand the cultural / social differences between humans.

This was why his "peace deal" in Northern Ireland failed (to read into the story). I would argue that he probably never had a "real" peace deal in the first place - if he did, a kid with a grenade wouldn't have ruined it.
naomikritzer
May. 18th, 2006 03:14 am (UTC)
Have you read "Earth Logic" by Laurie Marks? (It's the second in what was going to be a four-book series -- the first is "Fire Logic.") It's a book about peacemaking in a country that's claimed by two groups. One is clearly indigenous while the other was an invader, but the invaders were outcast exiles and have no home to return to.

I liked the two books quite a lot, in part just because they were approaching this situation so differently from most SF/F I've read. But, I've heard people complain that they're unrealistic. I'd be interested in the thoughts of an expert on the subject.
nwhyte
May. 18th, 2006 04:36 am (UTC)
Will add it to my wish-list...
(Deleted comment)
nwhyte
Dec. 27th, 2006 03:56 pm (UTC)
It's on my "to read" shelf...
(Anonymous)
May. 18th, 2006 12:58 pm (UTC)
It seems to me that if you don't want to be reminded of the violent deaths of your relatives, it is probably unwise to join a profession where many of your colleagues are likely to meet violent deaths.

I believe a reasonable explanation for this is that the people on Earth are kept oblivious to what is happening in the CDF. There is a reason why they don't allow recruits to go back home - if these seniors knew the reality of the situation they might not choose to enlist. The commander might have believed she would be guarding settlements instead of engaging in never-ending warfare.

A similar analogy would be members of America's National Guard - many of them signed up believing they would only be on duty one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, with the occasional disaster relief duty as well. How many realized they might end up serving indefinitely in Iraq or Afghanistan?
jimlawrence
May. 18th, 2006 01:31 pm (UTC)
As the person who used the term "myopia of youth" let me respond to your recent achievement of being the same age as Jack Benny (hope that's not a meaningless allusion) by noting that my eldest offspring is approaching 38.

Anyway, I was addressing your comment that "people in their 70s are different from people in their 30s." Well, duh, yeah, we are older. [Full disclosure: I'm only 63 but I have no expectation of making any radical mental changes other than that when I am in my seventies I will probably only work part-time so that I would have more time for other interests.] I think sammywol's comment yesterday was pretty much on target: "In my head I do not feel different to how I felt at 19, not that is until I stop to think about it." I guess the main difference is that in my inner mental self-image I am in my mid-thirties. I'm not sure what kind of changes I need to make in my thought processes in order to have the correct age-apppropriate mental configuration. Perhaps if I join AARP they will be able to apply a senior mental template.

(Anonymous)
May. 19th, 2006 10:57 am (UTC)
I'm in my fifties, and no I am not the same person I was at eighteen... but I'm convinced that a good bit of that difference is purely due to physical changes. Our hormones and general physical condition really do affect our mental functioning more than is commonly acknowledged.

This is actually easy to observe. Don't know about the rest of you, but for a while after orgasm I feel quite different mentally than I do most of the time, never mind how I am when I'm horny.

So... what would it be like to be a 70 year old in a "rejuvenated" body? Would you still act and talk like an elder? I don't think so.
rachel_swirsky
May. 19th, 2006 11:40 am (UTC)
That all makes sense. I'm glad I traipsed over here from Scalzi's blog again.

I agree that it makes sense to judge books on their politics; as a radical, I sure as hell do. The personal is political, and the literary too, neh?
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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