Category Archives: science Fiction

Power, Bullying and ‘isms’

It’s been a while since I wrote up one of my ‘Philosophy behind my stories’ posts to bore everyone rigid with. So if you have insomnia… help is at hand!

One of the current memes being aggressively pushed is: On attacking and demeaning someone of another race (usually white) “I can’t be racist, I am not white. Whites are in power and dominant and you have to be that to be racist.” or on attacking and demeaning someone of another sex or orientation (usually male, heterosexual) “I can’t be sexist, I am not male. Males are in power and dominant and you have to be that to be sexist.”

Oddly, I believe there is a fragment of rightness in what on the surface makes as much sense as a hedgehog full of LSD reciting the Koran backwards. In Latin. With a lisp.

Racism is quite simply and clearly prejudice (against or for) on the basis of race. Sexism is prejudice (against or for) on the basis of sex. Both rest on the mean group characteristics always trumping the individual’s characteristics. Think about it: it can’t actually work any other way. Obviously there are no ‘exclusions’ – the concept transcends current circumstances and passes quite cheerfully through cultures and history.

Of course, logic says (and this is the grain — a tiny one — of rightness in the bizarre meme) to translate that prejudice into discrimination which could hurt (or help – let’s not forget it works the other way too) the other person/s involved is that the individual expressing that racist/sexist prejudice needs to be in a position of power to do so.

But of course what is missing in the meme is that power is relative and localized. Coming back to my own work, I have a character in Crawlspace and Other Stories — Laggy — who was a Khorozhet slave, before being liberated by HAR Marines (and hereafter are certain spoilers. Proceed if you have read the space-set murder-mystery, or don’t care).

So: naturally a hero… well, certainly a hero by current sf-tropes. Slaves are by definition always wronged, always victims, always good (Jack Vance was the last author I can think of to not go with this trope. A brave and vastly under-rated and under-appreciated author.)

Let’s play this one through, logically. A slave is at the bottom of social pyramid. He has to be a victim…

Except of course he is not alone at the bottom of that pyramid. And among slaves there too is a hierarchy. Laggy, it turns out, was a trusty. A slave who exploited other slaves. When we take a close look slaves or prisoners… it turns out that, actually, this is quite common, and widely reported, except in modern fiction. There is also the interesting assumption that someone who has been enslaved was somehow always an innocent saint before the bad men (always in modern sf, by bad white men. Once again, history is not congruent with this version of the narrative. Enslavement and slave-keeping haven’t actually been limited to any one race or culture. It seems to have cropped up for a long long time – those bad white men were plainly in the pyramid building business.) came took them from their peaceful vegetarian matriarchal idyll and enslaved them. Let’s face it: innocent saints living in peaceful vegetarian matriarchy are probably very easy to capture and enslave. But of course, in reality such societies tend to die quite quickly unless protected by people who are none of the above, or extremely isolated with very high natural mortality. And even there: saints are thin on the ground. Slave takers didn’t care if you were a wife-beating child abuser who murdered his neighbor, or a saint. The former probably got away or possibly sold out the latter, but if a tribe or a village – or a stray individual got captured, the slavers didn’t do a thorough background check before issuing a ‘be a slave’ license (as in A MANKIND WITCH, where they enslaved someone they should have either ransomed or handed over for the dead-or-alive reward, and better dead). Slaves have to be a cross section of humanity too. Good, bad and mixed. Extreme conditions bring out the hidden best in some, and the worst in others… except in modern fiction.

Nor is the other standard trope: even if they were axe-murdering drug pushers when enslaved… when freed they’ve learned from the experience and become good people (TM) and would never ever exploit (or enslave) anyone else. It does happen — and that is at the root of our criminal justice system (I don’t think this ideal, but that’s a different discussion, different books). But if it worked that way all the time, there’d be no recidivism. That’s not true, and neither is the assumption that just because someone has been a victim, they will not victimize someone else. Sadly, that is not the case. It does happen that the former victim is determined not to do the same… But it is far from inevitable. And, because we are the center of own perceptions, it is quite plausible (and I suspect common) for someone to be be bullied… and at the same time to be bullying another. Or to join in bullying another to avoid being bullied. Or to have been bullied when small, growing and bullying others. And this is at the heart of CRAWLSPACE – Laggy is presumed innocent and good because he was a Khorozhet slave. In actual fact he’d murdered the man whose identity he’d assumed, been captured along with the other miners on the rock, and ended up as a trusty – by betraying some of them. He had seen opportunity with liberation – and kept the other (alien) slaves who had hidden during the attack, hidden after liberation, and still slaves. His slaves now, unaware that they’d been freed – a process he repeated with highly addictive drugs and the prostitutes at his bar. Note that the story does not portray ALL slaves as like Mr Laguna, or even most slaves. It is merely a hopefully plausible example of the variability and of the importance of relative power in any circumstance.

So what does this have to do with racism, sexism and the trope of “I can’t be… because I’m not a white male, and I have no power to be that in a society in which white males are dominant.” Well, it’s just power is a local or proximal thing, and, logically differs on the basis of the individuals (not groups) in the power relationship. So for example, you might (if you were a moonbat excusing your racist and/or sexist behavior) say White Men still dominate business and politics in Western society and therefore I can’t be. Or even more illogically ‘historically white men were dominant’… Well, let’s take traditional publishing. Historically white men were dominant. But that’s a shifting picture, which, with 74% women employed, and at least 70% in editorial… only 51% in management (and by the salary/age facts those men in management are old, and gradually fading from the picture. In ten years time it’ll be — conservatively — 85% female, and 70% female management.) Given an editor’s (or even someone in marketing) power over an author, it is perfectly accurate to say, despite history or the larger picture of society, the women in publishing would be well positioned to apply sexist prejudice against male authors. On the other hand male authors might be sexist about the editor, but he is in no position to discriminate against (or for) her as a result. The same is not true of the other side of the power equation. It’s not the situation in the wider society, it’s in that relationship. And the historically abused can be abusers. Sometimes they feel it is ‘payback’. Of course, it is never payback to the actual individual person/s who hurt them, but a payback to the ‘group’- which usually boils down another individual/s who may well not ever have inflicted any hurt on any of their group, and who may be in a very fragile personal position. Just because someone is a man, does not mean he is not also poor or suicidal or mentally unstable. When you treat individuals as individuals, that is obvious. When someone is a ‘group’ you can be wildly wrong.

Power determines who can bully who. And it is proximal power. Just as the kid who might come from an intelligent, well-off, socially and financially powerful family can still get the crap knocked out of him by a big kid whose single mother is on welfare and is slightly thicker than your average Hugo ‘Noah Ward’ voter (i.e. needing ‘breathe in, breathe out’ instructions to stop themselves dying of anoxia to the brain cell*) in the locker room, it’s a question who has power in that circumstance.

We’ve had a similar dose of insanity with sad/rabid puppies, with publishers, editors, powerful and successful authors with multiple awards shrieking loudly that the puppies and the nominees – who are none of the above – are bullying them. How, pray? Oh and despite all the evidence to the contrary, they’re sexists and misogynists (even the women) and white racists (even the not-white, or married to not white folk). And, besides the fact that it’s wildly inaccurate, what difference would it make? They have no power to apply prejudice. The inverse, of course is not true.

It has always struck me — as a guy who believes in judging individuals as individuals — how sometimes what is called ‘discrimination’ or sexism or racism is no such animal. Take the cop who hears a noise in an alley – he steps into it and sees a white woman and a black man wrestling desperately. He can only deal with one of them. It’s dim, he sees knife steel, but has no idea what’s happening. What does he do? By the current PC rules one way he’s a sexist, the other racist.

Maybe he should call for a safe space for them talk about it.

Or go for coffee and leave them to it, which is what I am going to do.

*if you think this is a bit harsh, you haven’t thought about the obvious ‘reply’ to this. Nor what good recruiting fodder it is for their foes.

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What if they gave an apocalypse and no-one noticed?

I was reading a rather depressing piece on the world economy, rather stating what I felt, that we’ve been steadily mortgaging more and more of tomorrow to fritter away today. Politicians and bankers contintinue to kick the can ahead, hoping for a miricle…

I’m not really a doom-n-gloom man, believing there is enough, believing we can via technology and just plain old common sense (rarer than technology) solve most things, if teh stupid is kicked out of play, which, to be fair doesn’t happen often. But I do think we may be in for a bumpy ride, and that things need to rebalance – quite a lot in some areas. I’d guess on Sir Terry Pratchett being right again (in Dark side of the Sun) and we’re going have to hit a full-circle where consumption – or at least conspicious consumption, and any display of wealth is the road to a lampost and a short rope.

There’s a belief that mankind always progresses… hmm. It’s not really up to robust examination. We accumlate knowledge and material, and that makes it easier to build up, even on the ruins of the empire before. But there are surely some deep troughs, and my own feeling is we’re nose-diving toward one now, even as our governments discuss the importance of vital matters like gay marriage (who cares? Not me. They want to marry, go for it. Stick by the same rules as everyone else and tiny minority (maybe 2% of the toal population) will be gay and married. So what?) I’m a lot more interested in stuff that affects 95%. I want to eat, have my family eat, be safe and have my family safe, have reasonable medical access, and reasonable liberty for them.) I would also put a very high likelihood on the rise of nationalism and the rise of various forms of racial and ethnic discrimination within those nations. The brightest buttons on the PC heirarchy of benefits for historical injustice (‘my grandma was a victim and you owe me’) should work out that now is the time to be calling for equalisation, rather than demanding even more payback and more special conditions, or as the wheel turns, it will be reversed again. It’s not something I want to see, but I see it building. I’d also put a fairly high set of odds that the standard bottom of the PC scapegoat pile is going finally get to saying ‘well, if I get treated like an oppressive, racist, chauvinist sexist no matter what I do… I might as well be one’. (I saw this with a number of historically generous, tolerant white South Africans, who had made huge efforts to be good to black South Africans during apartheid, a decade after the end of it… and being lumped on the basis of skin color as villians, become, slowly but steadily the inverse of what they had been – which is survivable when they’re a small, weak disarmed minority, even though it has cut 20% off SA’s growth and hurt everyone, IMO, but even less clever if you’re the small weak minority, and they’re bigger, stronger, and a large percentage). I support equality before the law and of opportunity, but there’s a sort of ‘kick a dog often enough and you either kill it or it will turn on you’ inevitiblity to this. Stupidity has to be evolution in action, or just gets worse, and we’ve been rewarding teh stupid in PC circles for a long time.

Personally I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to see the upper 1 percent pushing a sort of Shavian socialism — where they continue to be very comfortable and wealthy, and make decisions as to what the proles can do. For their own good, of course. It’s not really sustainable, as they run out of other people’s money, and no one is going to touch theirs. And it won’t work terribly well, because the doer’s who are less in number than the I-wanters will do their damndest to John Galt, and without them the 1% of lawyers and politicians and bankers and heads of corporations actually can’t make anything or grow food. It will head into little dictatorships, and uprisings against a bloody mess… And actually the mess will favor not the civilized but the people from nasty spots. I’d rather this wasn’t a future, but I’m a realist. I know that in that sort of war, the primitives win, because we are not Saxons conquering England.

The semi-best scenario is a sort of muddle on, confiscate savings (A la Cyprus) and the political elite-at-present will shift their faces around to become anti-emigrant, anti-this and anti-that, intolerant and rather miserable, but still in charge. The best – from my point of view – isn’t going to happen. The sort re-evaluation and everyone cuts their cloth a bit, and the international financiers settle for a holiday in Florida in a nice hotel instead of a private motor yacht on the Costa Smerelda, with GINI co-efficient getting a lot narrower as we re-align our consumption and society to fit what we’ve got and what we’re actually worth, is just too sensible, and won’t happen.

Still, the various folk commenting – it was an economics article and not particularly any political slant, were saying stuff like ‘a month’s worth of cans…’

And I was laughing to myself. That may help if everything stays very ordered and recovers fast (more so than in most natural disasters), but really it’s not effective. Space, distance from the cities, some dry goods and the skills to grow and catch your own, and good neighbours with skills and the ability to defend yourselves are all that could. History shows what to do, and those who don’t learn, repeat, or die trying to.

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The treatement and cure for Nasty Bloodsucking Parasitic Parrots

Whenever people talk about politics they seem to get bogged down in minutiae. Let’s step back and look at what politics is, and why it exists at all.

It should be obvious looking at the root of the word – poly as many (or a badly spelled parrot) and tics as in involuntary jerks or spasms or possibly badly spelled nasty blood-sucking parasites. Now that we understand this our grasp of the antics of politicians is suddenly much more clear. But besides producing many nasty parroting blood-sucking parasitic people who can’t help being jerks, the purpose of politics is to decide on governance. On who controls and orders society (or a part of it) – AKA government.

Now let’s look at the purpose of government – besides providing an environment for nasty bloodsucking parasitic parrots – AKA NBPP. As far as the NBPP are concerned that is its first and foremost purpose. Never forget this. It is key to our understanding and getting the best out of them. Of course originally back in the high and far off times (more recently for me than most of you, which is why I remember it so clearly, when we were still monkeys) Government outside of the family group arose from the need to defend ourselves from the bigger family next door – otherwise they were inclined kill the males, eat them, and take the females to breed with and eat their food. And as offense made your family bigger, to organize raids on suitable targets for the same. It is questionable whether at its core government has changed much from this. Of course some bright monkey figured two families could do better together against a third and thus the arms race was born, leading to where we are now. Several sf authors have suggested that what we need is a common enemy…

Back in those days the organizing was done by the biggest nastiest monkey in the troop, and his camp followers – who because they got eat better and get eaten less, which is a serious advantage. It was mostly done by bite and swat, but also with reward or offers thereof. At the top it was almost inevitably male because they’re bigger and nastier. Once again, none of this has changed much, and maybe we need to think about changing it.

This led to autocrats – kings, Chieftains – with their clique of courtiers/ elders / camp followers running the show, with for solid genetic reason said head honcho doing his level best to put his bloodline on top and keep it there. The same applied to courtiers/camp-followers, who wanted that privilege for their genetic heritage – or the head honcho’s job. And thus was born the system of NBPP. Remembering this – they’re fighting for the top job, or at least to be in camp-followers, not you, or the people or society. What they did – be it get the ordinary folk to build a stockade together or harvest together (which would benefit all of them, was – no matter what bullshit they came up with (AKA rewards and offers thereof, offers being cheaper and easier) was to keep themselves at the top. Over time the offers got bigger, and sometimes even partially fulfilled, but bite and swat got moved up to a lot worse too.

In conflict with all this (and this is at the root of modern democracy was a set of behaviors as old or older, ‘fair’ (which is not ‘equal’ but meritocratic. That can be equal, but isn’t always.) which all social species need to some extent to survive. It’s well recorded and demonstrated among various monkey species, and obviously ties into an earlier evolved concept – reciprocity (which we can see in all sorts of species – where they figure doing X will get you Y and somewhere the leap got made – if you want Y do X. It’s a vast leap. Many people still haven’t got it, proving Border Collies are a lot smarter than they are. That’s why I made one the hero in Dog and Dragon – but that is another matter. Obviously most of politics and governance isn’t ‘fair’ and all sorts of deceptions are employed to try and make it look like it is – be it ‘by divine right’, or ‘the people elected me’. It’s only when these fail and it looks like the head honcho and his camp-follower courtiers might find themselves first course in the new tribal feast (or at least deposed or dead), that NBPP start on horse-trading towards a fair deal. Being the nice people they are that often comes down to ‘we’ll make you junior camp followers, and give you pretties (less than we give ourselves, but more than we give other people who want us for entrees) if you keep the would-be chefs off our throats. Occasionally it rises above this to make things more fair and meritocratic, but not if they can avoid it. The system is evolved to not select that kind of leader or courtiers.

Governance, to my jaundiced eye, is best viewed as an eternal conflict between the general populace seeking a fairer more meritocratic system and the NBPP wanting to keep themselves where they want to be. All systems of government derive from this.

Over time, as some of us moved from monkey to less monkey, and the groups of families grew bigger all of this got more and more complex, and we lost sight in the trees of the wood, we did try various options on this. The Greeks from which we draw much of Western Civilization tried a fair number – feudal, dictatorship, military repression, qualified democracy (no slaves or women need apply), timocracy (read PYRAMID SCHEME). (Sf tried a few more. Sprauge de Camp and Heinlein particularly spring to mind. Had to love de Camp’s ideas, the drunken council and sober council being one I found delightful. It seems to have died out, with only socialism and condemnation of what is called capitalism and a few autocratic theocracies, getting a look in now. Oh and space-faring heriditary autocracy (Some, as in Hoyt’s Darkship Thieves have basis in logic. Others are fantasy dressed up as sf, and delusions of what nobility and empire are.)

Modern Democracy rests on an equal right to vote – conflating equal with ‘fair’ and allowing no measure of merit. It’s obviously a bit of a con, because even monkeys have no trouble getting the concept of merit not always meaning equal. But it’s better than the autocracy (which, by in large is the alternative. If we ever got enough space to be safe from being dinner, anarchy has merits. Socialism BTW is a con job, purporting to be more fair by apportioning reward more equally but sans merit (unless you are one NBPP in which case the rewards are much bigger. Surprise).

What obviously is wrong with democracy is that it is viewed by so many as an end point. One simply has to look at our elected leaders (pick one, any one) and realize that if this is an end point, it surely doesn’t work that well.) And by so many as a one way street. You get a vote by being a citizen (or pretending to be one) – not something which required much merit if you were born there. And as party democracy has largely degenerated into lobby groups and pretties for camp-followers… which usually boils down to we’ll take from those who aren’t in our camp and thus do better (which, surprise, is back where it all started.)

Hmm. As I wrote in STARDOGS the logical answer is surely to accept that government and those in it will always become principally self-serving and for the benefit of government. The only way to win in the sense of a fairer more meritocratic system that benefits the society and not just the government… is to make Government’s reward directly the result of doing a better job. One of my friends suggested that democracy should have an entry and exit poll with the electorate being able vote for the departing polly and the number of votes = bonus. But that would still come down to hand out the pretties to as many as possible, by taking from who wouldn’t vote for you anyway, rather than necessarily any improvement in the society. Some kind of short and long term reward which is not just based on popularity but hard metrics. For instance a basic salary based on the MEDIAN per capita GDP, and a bonus -or clawback – based on the difference between start time and now. And for a long term effect you could make that affect their pension. Obviously these things have no impact on multi-millonaires going into the process or on them getting kickbacks or sweetheart directorships or jobs afterwards from lobbyists etc. So you’d have to deal with that. The other issue, of course, is making the voters liable in some way for the action of their representative. You’d think a lot more carefully and vote a lot more thoughtfully, if you personally would carry either a profit or loss from it. And then there is the question of merit – we need universal suffrage… but are all votes really equal? Is the vote a reward, or a duty, or a punishment? Maybe 1 vote basic, a second for those who have served the community/society? Maybe another for… I don’t know, paying taxes. Philanthropy. Tertiary education? And becoming a five vote person recognized with a title of some sort, or better pension or tax break or something, making it a measure of merit to be striven for.

This is what sf ought to be exploring in the future worlds we write about. Not the stale stuff.

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Fiat – let there be…

I see Iran has imitated Zimbabwe by pegging the rate of rial. Yes, that worked well didn’t it? Well, in a manner of speaking if you were a ruling party politician or had the connections it did. You’re still in power, and you’ve effectively transferred almost all the money held by those not in your position to you to play ducks-and- drakes with, without adding any work or value. Of course it destroyed the economy, left the roads and infrastructure deteriorating towards Somalia, and sent maybe 1/3 of the people into exile, caused a vast spike in infant mortality, starvation, dropped the average lifespan. But if you were in power… it worked.

This is how it will work: the official rate from government outlets – at which foreign currency in time will be available only to those with ‘special licenses’ or some such franking of their right to hold and use foreign currency legally – those with connections in other words – will not match the real rate at all. Very shortly expect it to be illegal to hold foreign currency at all (if this isn’t true already). The Government will print however as many rials it needs… Which in theory will work for a while in a large mostly self-sufficient internal market (China for example) but not on a very import dependent one. Everyone, from your upright and law abiding cousin Joe, to the ratbags in politics (but not in power) will be willing, indeed desperate to give you multiples of the official rate in rials for a dollar or a pound or even a Cowrie shell. The well-connected (possibly with a bogus import export company so he needs forex)… will exchange rials for dollars at the official rate. He will then sell those dollars at the black market rate, quite possibly making 1000% profit. He then takes those rials back and swaps them for more dollars at the official rate, which he then sell on the black market and returns to buy more rials… No work, no risk and vast vast profit. The state, desperate for more dollars to give him, confiscates all incoming forex… and gives out rials in exchange at the official rate – which the recipient (unless he’s well-connected) can’t change back into a currency that anyone else will accept offshore to do business with. So if he exports raw materials… like dates, he can keep getting rials for which he can buy some (diminishing) local goods – for a little while until inflation destroys that. If he imports and sells he’s going bust or going crooked. Or pushing his prices up as much as he can to buy forex on the black market from the well-connected.

Hyperinflation, and the destruction of all savings held in that currency must follow… well or the state can mandate the prices. Except then there is none for sale, because it costs more than the trader can sell for.

‘Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch’ I hear you think. Except of course the people it does and will affect are not the rulers. They’re just about everyone else, with the intelligensia and those with technical and commercial skills which are transferable getting out, leaving those who can’t – the old, the poor, those who love the country or their bit of land – to survive or die. Oh the boss-folk and those who appease them enough to keep sweet but alive can do quite well off the carcase. For a while.

It does expose the value of ‘fiat money’ though. Which is to say its worth… more or less as much as the labor/product of people using it can be taxed for. Or how much anyone will give you for that. In the short term, for their own interests that can be worth much more labour/product of the country divided by the total number of rials/dollars/pounds printed. Right now, a dollar is in Tehran (you can buy more goods with a dollar than a dollar is actually worth – which pushes up, at least temporarily, the value of the dollar) China has been propping the value of the dollar for a while – which both has and hasn’t helped the US (in the long term, hasn’t IMO. But it’s been good for the carpetbaggers).

Of course the real value of fiat money is never enough for any government. And then they print more, effectively both selling off future value, and trying for the quick con (ie. use it to buy x before the seller of x realizes that it’s worth slightly less. It’s on the level of honesty of using clipped coins.) The seller hastily tries to repeat the process, eventually coming down to shorting the poor honest fellow whose savings got eaten by inflation. Basically it’s conned money, which as often as not is turned into pretties for voters / supporters, enough of whom aren’t savers to like this. We’ve set up a selection criteria which ensures Government is by definition a bunch of sharpies out to look after themselves, and then wonder why they turn out to be a bunch of sharpies who are out look after themselves.

Money – and systems of government(but that is another post subject) that don’t do this – have been obvious targets for sf for dun-a-meny years. It’s fallen out of fashion, lately, because well, most sf publishing is firmly pro-establishment now (someone needs to explain to modern American liberals that establishment is not = conservative, or right wing. Establishment is the bunch in power. And that means power at the level which affects you. In Iran the eye-owe-tollies are the establishement, in China the CCP is. In more democratic countries the parties in parlimentary power are, and usually to the point that it doesn’t matter that much who is in power per se, their backers are – and the backers will often be the same people regardless of the party). The establishment is pretty keen on keeping the con going, so they have money for those pretties, and will not thank those who point out it’s a con. That hasn’t stopped Douglas Adams or Sir Terry Pratchett doing it, but it’s not ‘avant garde’ or ‘groundbreaking’ (it is really of course, far more than endlessly recycled feminism, which usually gets that label).

Still, it’s been stuff of interesting ideas – especially as most bright people realize fiat is just not going to work as is. The concept of energy units seems worth looking at, as do ideas of using various resources as a guarantor of the paper you use as exchange means (until of course some beggar comes up with with matter transmutation or a cheap way to get lots of energy.) Labor is another (I think Eric Frank Russell used the concept of ‘obligations’. There has seldom been a more wildly revolutionary writer. Barter is of course something that works and always will. (Gold is an odd one. It’s really not much use.) Immortality (well, years of life-extention) was a rather neat Pratchett one. Concepts of services like defense and medical help are ones I’d like to work on in future books.

The mechanism I’ve quietly used in some of my work is the basic foundation of fiat money: trust. It’s the coinage which needs to be backed by integrity, and once debased never gains its value again, short of very harsh medicine.

I wonder when that will be painfully explained to governments?

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