Friday, August 21, 2015

Episode 9 is up, so here's a set of digressions leading up to why I called it "Silence Like Diamonds"

Episode 9   of "Silence Like Diamonds"   is up, and as befits the next-to-last episode of a serial, or the penultimate scenes of a novelet, it's pretty much nonstop action.  If you're coming in for the first time, you could just start at "Silence Like Diamonds" Episode 1  (episodes are short and you can pretty much read it all at a sitting if you don't stop off to argue in the comments). There's a complete episode list here.   I explain why I wrote it in this blogpost, and Mitch Wagner explains why LightReading published it on this page. So that's where we are, that's where you can go next if you like, and that's what this is ostensibly about. 
This time I'm taking the very long way around to SilenceLike Diamonds,   something like Schroeder's "book report on Peter Rabbit,"   (my dad tells me I wrote a lot of book reports like that when I was a small person, but I refuse to remember due to 5th Amendment amnesia). Anyway, it may not appear that I'm talking about  "Silence Like Diamonds"   for a while, but we'll get there. Meanwhile, Episode 9 is up.   Only Episode 10 to go, next Tuesday. Almost home!
Now commences a journey through a lot of stuff, at the end of which we shall see something or other about "Silence Like Diamonds". 
About thirty years ago, Terence Hawkes used That Shakespeherian Rag  as the title of a collection of essays that has pretty much defined the terms of argument about why English-speaking people still read and perform Shakespeare (or are trying to quit). Thanks to the need for professors to explain why the assigned reading was titled that, nearly every theatre grad student knows these lines from The Waste Land
'Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?'
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag--
It's so elegant
So intelligent
which is actually a quote (or rather a deliberate misquote) from a 1912 showtune by Gene Buck, Herman Ruby and David Stamper.  "The Shakespeherian Rag" had been a hit while Eliot was in grad school at Harvard, on the brink of heading off to Britain, where he would spend much of the rest of his life struggling mightily to be English, with considerable success.**
As you can discover in one of Hawkes's essays, much of the reading and performance of Shakespeare in the last century or so is explicable if we treat Shakespeare's role as a status symbol as a primary fact, and familiarity with Shakespeare as a kind of country club membership or the wave-in from the cultural doorman at the Cool Kids Cultural Club. Hawkes quoted Eliot's poem because of the complicated prestige-maneuvering involved in those lines. The original song seems to have taken a straightforward "Wow, Shakespeare is great" position with the kind of pretended "I am not impressed, I really know this stuff" attitude that is one way of demonstrating that status symbol of familiarity (see, for example, Cole Porter's treatment of The Taming of the Shrew in Kiss Me, Kate, or the silly "Shakespeare rap" in Renaissance Man). In the way he quoted it, Eliot could make it an ironic comment on the "collect quotes for use later" way that Shakespeare was read by highly educated people (or people who pretended to education, the sort of people who populated Eliot's poetry, plays, and parties).
Now, as Thorstein Veblen might have told Eliot if they'd been at the same university, there's no point to a status symbol that other people can't see. It's not so much the status symbol itself, but its manner of exhibition, that's interesting. 
For many decades familiarity with Shakespeare was mostly exhibited via quoting and/or alluding, particularly in Britain but in all the other English speaking countries. This led to an instructional style of reading Shakespeare as if one were proceeding from quote to quote along a short path of synopsis. It privileged the sacred special memorizable-and-recitable lines over the busy noise of plot and character development and the merely professional interest of how this text should be acted or designed. It was a procedure neither for understanding nor for performance, but for worship (or for pretended worship).
Worship-oriented reading of Shakespeare led, in turn, to a salon culture among the wealthy young in which people showed they'd been to a "good" school by trading infosnippets about Shakespeare (and others on a short list of "greats".)***
One very frequently taught Shakespeare quote was from The Tempest:
MIRANDA:                      Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!

In the 1910-60 era when Eliot was most active, anyone whose schooling had gone beyond age 12 knew that quote. In fact, in the instructional methods of the time many students had been required to recite it or to write it out on exam papers.
And so, when Aldous Huxley wrote a brutal satire of a world where human needs were met but at the cost of no one being very human, he called it Brave New World. He knew that the sort of people who were browsing in a bookstore would immediately see that title and think "... That has such people in ’t!' 
It was sort of an earworm-generating-quote. Many great titles have been constructed by giving half a quote; almost always the missing half is the important part, which the reader then says mentally. (Or as Frost put it, "But it isn't elves exactly ....").  Ones I can see on my bookshelf right now include the great post-WW2 documentary Situation Normal, George McDonald Fraser's war memoir Quartered Safe Out Here, Robert Penn Warren's political novel All the King's Men, Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, the incredibly overused When the Bough Breaks, and Saul Cornell's book on the origins of the Second Amendment, A Well-Regulated Militia.
As it happened, Huxley's story became famous and influential in its own right, and it would be an interesting question whether nowadays more people know something about it than about The Tempest. Brave New World went on to become a famous phrase now separated from Shakespeare, and in its newer incarnation it links to ideas like soma, that unforgettable opening scene with the embryos in bottles, and a general impression of what non-violent, mostly-invisible totalitarianism might look like.
Many readers who don't like Brave New World complain about the characters being "unlikeable." Such readers often read for the pleasure of make-believing they are the characters. They can't get much fun out of a character it would be unpleasant to be. That's why most unambitious genre books, the simple adventure stories and love stories that populate most of the shelves, offer "likable" characters. As I've heard Tom Doherty say many times, bestsellers are usually books about people and settings where the readers "want to be them and want to go there."
Short sidenote: readers don't necessarily want to be admirable people or go to ideal vacation settings, though of course they might. There's a lot of fun in imagining being or meeting Don Corleone, Hannibal Lector, or Scarlett O'Hara, and though William Gibson's Sprawl, Arrakis, or Mordor aren't nice places, they're interesting, especially if you don't actually have to physically endure them.
But Huxley had ambitions beyond selling books and entertaining casual readers. He was purposely working at the intersection between "science fiction" and "novel." Properly speaking, a novel is a bigger, richer, more complicated form than a simple adventure story or even an archetypal Hero's Journey, and one of the main things it is concerned with is "Where do different types of people come from and what difference do the different types make in the world?"
The point of a novel, as opposed to just a book length story for entertainment, necessarily includes something about that basic proposition: if you have this kind of world, it will have this kind of people. Those people may be dreary or even dull, if your point is that the world we have makes us into people we don't want to know. You can find a fair bit of that exact point in The Catcher in the Rye, Of Human Bondage, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Robber Bride  (though that one has likable characters, they aren't necessarily the source of interest; Zenia is what makes that novel fascinating).  They may be evil or brutal or shallow, emotionally stunted or inexpressive, or manipulative and self-pitying if that's what you think your world will make them, and within the more serious and complicated game of the novel-reader, that's in bounds, even if they aren't playable/likable.
In sci fi, that's a higher wall than many readers want to climb, and a deeper well than they want to probe, and thicker woods than they want to push through, and much more mixed a metaphor than any of those. The plain and simple adventure story, in which one sturdy root of genre fiction is always planted, tends to have characters who change in simple ways that fit the reader's experience of life today: young insecure (or cocky) characters become older, more secure, and wiser; people who take a turn for the bad get worse or turn back in a great shower of remorse; and so on.
Nonetheless, whenever science fiction (or any other genre) acquires a bit of ambition, it has to take some position of the form: if you have this kind of world, it will have this kind of people. It does mean losing a certain kind of reader, and if you are going to write with any ambition, you will just have to consider them well lost. I catch a certain amount of flak about there being "no likable characters" in my own Kaleidoscope Century, The Merchants of Souls, Motherof Storms, and  Losers In Space. I also see some less-frequent and less-intense grumbles about people being "too good to be true," which I think is another form of unplayability, though it might also just be the more legitimate complaint that I'm depicting a genuine impossibility, in Orbital Resonance, Tales of the Madman Underground , and The Sky So Big and Black )
It's part of the heat you accept when you go into the literary kitchen, even as a mere chopper of vegetables and arranger of canapes. 
In short science fiction, it's the same but more so. The game is really about what kind of world makes what kind of people. There isn't space to do much more than establish a world, establish a few people, and have them do one interesting thing.
It's all about the meaning Huxley probably intended to invoke when he picked "Brave New World" for a title. He would have known -- it was and still is one of those infosnippets traded around at parties to prove your cred as an educated person -- that "brave" in Shakespeare's day carried a strong idea of showiness, visual splendor, and richness of appearance, as well as courage; a brave man wasn't just courageous or valiant, but was also conspicuous and attention-grabbing. 
That is, Miranda means that it's a dazzling world she has never seen before, because it has people of a kind she's never seen before.
And that's part of the job, if you're writing short science fiction for some reason other than the check. One way or another, dazzle the reader with a vision of things they haven't seen before, which includes a vision of new kinds of people.
So as part of creating the world for "Silence Like Diamonds"   (oh, look, there it is! see, I did get around to it!) I tried to ask ... what kind of people grow in a world with no privacy and insecure untrustable information? In the imagined future of the story, the fast factorization algorithm that collapsed all of encryption happened around 2020, so these characters spent most of their young adulthood coping with the aftermath of that.
What kind of people has this made them?
They have to value skills more than mere compendia of information. Anybody can steal your secrets and thus prevent your charging for them, but stealing your skills is a whole other business. Hence Yip's most valuable and salable asset is her carefully honed and developed talent for seeing where the money is going in criminal schemes (she's a "scheme architecture analyst," a term that some large detective firms are already using for their accountants who specialize in tracking money through the laundry).
She knows lots of facts about how money moves illicitly in the world, but anyone could access those. The "secret sauce" is in her ability to grasp the new, not to repeat the old. That's very different from many present-day experts who are essentially depth librarians of highly specific topics.
Similarly, Yazzy sees what software does (but isn't a code jock by present day standards), Dusan has marketing skills (he does better things with the same information that anyone could look up), and even Markus describes his job as beating people up, i.e. a skill, not a body of knowledge.   
They think in terms of defense and attack. It's not a violent world necessarily but a ferociously competitive one. When everyone reads everyone else's records and communications, the game becomes closer to zero sum, and the premium for hitting first goes up, so it is hardly surprising that people look around themselves all the time, checking for enemies.
Personal trust becomes more highly valued. Everyone counts on family connections and longstanding friendships; in a world where you can't discuss lunch without being drowned in ads for cafes and slagmails from one cafe dismissing another, and where to talk securely two people have to prearrange regular transmission of one time pads, the human connections outside the system become more vital.  (Notice, for example, that Yip is interested in Markus in part because they live and work in the same immediate area; the world of "Silence Like Diamonds  probably has a lot less online dating than ours, much less "shopping around," and much more "settling," because meeting strangers, especially at a distance, involves too much sensitive information being where anyone can read it).
Above all else, they value silence. There are two great privileges in that imagined future: not being deluged with messages from people trying to sell you something (not just products and services, but ideas and beliefs), and not having to communicate more than you want to. Hence the title, about which I've had a few queries; it comes from the last tag at the end of Lupe Fiasco's "Go To Sleep" :
If talk is cheap, then my silence is diamonds. Preach
It's a world where talk is cheap because people have no control over it; and where anyone who carves out a little bit of control uses it to get some silence, both of transmission and reception. Silence is what you need to listen, and the status symbol that indicates you aren't compelled to speak.
            And that is why it's called that, and why, in its own way, it's a brave new world.

*It's very witty and entertaining if you read academical high-faluting language comfortably, so if you're anything of a Shakespeare fan and you falute at medium or greater altitude, it's worth your while.

**for a very long time, the surest way for an poet to get into American anthologies, which was just about the only reliable source of poetry income, was to be English. If, like Eliot, he (it was usually but not always a he) was also at least a bit stuffy, required footnotes, and generally found life to be a drag, he could do very well indeed, being stamped into the memories of most undergrad English majors from the last Coolidge to the first Bush Administration.

*** again, this meant laying out quotes and synopses as if they were poker hands. The point was to show that you'd been to school, not that you'd read closely or thought deeply, which is why the women were talking of Michaelangelo as they came and went in that room.