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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!


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.

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