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Windwalker
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Postby Windwalker » Sat Dec 27, 2008 1:15 pm

I found an old(ish) article by Michael Moorcock that discusses some of the key questions we explored in this thread: Starship Stormtroopers. It's long and the web page font is hard on the eyes, but it's worth reading. I agree with his assessment, which articulates some of my very deep uneasiness with the F/SF genres.

In my own unpublished efforts, I have tended towards societies without hierarchies, based more on cats and bonobos than dogs and chimpanzees. These variations may be biologically/culturally impossible for humans, but they are very interesting as gedanken experiments (and less boring for me, as both author and reader... *laughs*).
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Postby caliban » Sat Dec 27, 2008 2:23 pm

Very interesting article. I have noticed in my own travels in SF circles a strong, and to me surprising, trend towards conservative and authoritarian ideals. This is especially true in the US. I guess I am surprised because my own training comes from Kim Stanley Robinson and Joanna Russ, who write from the opposite end of the political spectrum. American "hard" SF in particular is very rightwing, less so in the UK.

Windwalker wrote:In my own unpublished efforts, I have tended towards societies without hierarchies, based more on cats and bonobos than dogs and chimpanzees. These variations may be biologically/culturally impossible for humans, but they are very interesting as gedanken experiments (and less boring for me, as both author and reader... *laughs*).


I think in general (not referring specifically to Athena's works) such societies are interesting gedanken experiments, but often make for (again, not referring specifically to Athena's works) boring fiction. Part of the problem is that fiction relies upon conflict, and if one writes about a society without hierarchies, one generally needs to find some other way to inject conflict. LeGuin did this brilliantly in The Dispossessed, where her socialist society faces both an external enemy -- the capitalists of Urras -- and internal divisions, where hierachies and power structures appear nonetheless. In an unfinished, unpublished novel I developed a similar communal society, and I think some of the novel's problems were due to the lack of significant internal conflict. So now my current writing strategy is the opposite tack: set up a society with huge inequalities and show the price paid. For me I am finding this a more satisfying strategy.
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

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Postby Windwalker » Sat Dec 27, 2008 9:46 pm

caliban wrote:Such societies are interesting gedanken experiments, but often make for boring fiction. Part of the problem is that fiction relies upon conflict, and if one writes about a society without hierarchies, one generally needs to find some other way to inject conflict.

Most intriguingly, such societies are usually attempted by female authors (just as female authors are much more likely to showcase non-traditional gender and family arrangements, as I realized while writing The Shifgrethor of Changelings).

There are two strategies for conflict, even when setting up non-hierarchical societies: external enemy, internal dissension. The former is more obvious and has produced landmark works -- for example, Sloczenswki's Door into Ocean and Russ's When it Changed. The latter is more interesting, as both approach and result. Two stellar examples are Cherryh's Union/Alliance cycle and portions of Robinson's Mars trilogy (whether to terraform Mars or not). LeGuin's Dispossessed actually combines both conflicts: Anarres versus Urras in addition to the internal currents in Anarresti society.

And I have to disagree with you on this. What is most wrenching is not a struggle between good and evil, but between two ideals of good. Internal dissension, unless one side is clearly deluded or malevolent, falls under the rubric of irreconcilable ideals and can make for gripping action and character drama.
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Postby caliban » Sun Dec 28, 2008 1:59 am

Windwalker wrote:And I have to disagree with you on this. What is most wrenching is not a struggle between good and evil, but between two ideals of good. Internal dissension, unless one side is clearly deluded or malevolent, falls under the rubric of irreconcilable ideals and can make for gripping action and character drama.

I don't think there's disagreement at all. I tend to find "good versus evil" plots rather trite. Internal dissension makes for excellent plot. It's also difficult to pull off. The problem is, if the society is truly non-hierarchal and all the characters are reasonable, is to make the dissent between the two parties believable and compelling. This can be done, and has been done well, but it's not easy to toss off. LeGuin does a particularly poignant example of it in The Dispossessed.

I would not put a story that has a hierarchal society with inequalities immediately into the "good versus evil" category, if that is what you meant.

(In the same way, I may have unconsciously conflated your non-hierarchal societies with utopias, the latter being notorious for somewhat dull plots.)
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

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Postby Windwalker » Mon Dec 29, 2008 8:36 am

caliban wrote:I would not put a story that has a hierarchical society with inequalities immediately into the "good versus evil" category, if that is what you meant.

(In the same way, I may have unconsciously conflated your non-hierarchical societies with utopias, the latter being notorious for somewhat dull plots.)

I would put hierarchical structure on the x-axis and good-versus-evil polarity on the y-axis. This gives four domains (with gradations), which correspond to fairly well-defined narrative categories.

Indeed, I think that non-hierarchical and utopian overlap but are distinct. It dawned on me that most people automatically consider utopias dull because they usually have an obvious agenda. However, even stories set in utopias can have plenty of derring-do as well as fascinating quirks. Two examples by male authors are Banks' Culture and the society of McDevitt's Benedict stories, which have maximized the well-being of their citizens without stifling them.

Incidentally, I was just reading a review by Abigail Nussbaum (Stories for Men, by John Kessel) and this nugget came up in her essay. It speaks to the issue of how conflict is defined and valued in both society and literature:

"As in other stories about men encountering female-dominated, peaceful societies--Tiptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland--he [a character] insists that the sublimation of masculinity equals the sublimation of struggle and growth, and that without the violence that men bring to society it will stagnate, "an evolutionary dead end" (but then, maybe it's just peace-loving utopias that bring this attitude out in those observing them--see just about every outsider's reaction to the Culture in Iain M. Banks's novels)."
For I come from an ardent race
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