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Derailment Redux: Lois McMaster Bujold Hypocrisy Special Edition May. 10th, 2009 @ 08:06 am
The qualitative differences in my thought processes between ADHD-medicated and unmedicated is:

a) whoa, profound

b) hard for me to remember/believe/recognise when unmedicated.

Today I can tell because I've been reading/thinking about the same stuff since before I took my meds, and I can remember what I was thinking about, trying to put into words earlier, as opposed to now, and... yeah. I'm not sure words can describe the difference in experience between my unmedicated, off-the-charts-how-did-you-get-to-28-before-diagnosis self and my medicated self.

Anyway, on to the topic, in which I pick up Someone Is Wrong On The Internet, in the category of RaceFail '09 Version 2.0, The New Failbatch. ([personal profile] naraht is taking the turn as Archivist of the Revolution this time.)

The thread of derailment I wish to cut today: Man, these people are totally over-reacting on the basis of one sentence in a review!

No. No, we're not.

The review sentence to which they refer:
This is an alternate version of our world which is full of magic, and where America (“Columbia”) was discovered empty of people but full of dangerous animals, many of them magical.
Which is, yes, the oft-quoted summation, but is not the entire basis of criticism.

Which is not to say it wouldn't be enough, but it doesn't actually preclude the possibility that the text itself is an instance of total failure. The chances aren't good, but it's possible for that to be an accurate description of a good book.

As it happens, it isn't a description of a good book, but nobody's disputing the accuracy.

Allow me (well, this is my journal; just try and stop me) to collate some of the things which are Known and cause serious problems with The Thirteenth Child. I've already made some reference to the ways in which the approach taken is just bad history, but I'm going to break it down a little harder here.

Quoting Lois McMaster Bujold, as a definitely non-hostile source of description:
The book actually began with a contemplation of the what-if question, "What would happen if the megafauna survived into historic times...?" The theory presently being argued in archeology is that the pre-Columbian settlers wiped out said megafauna, and that's the one Pat chose to follow up; so if one wants mammoths and short-faced bears and terror birds, the Bering land bridge human immigration needed not to have taken place, 13,000 years back. From that, the rest followed, q.s. to the limits of a necessarily slim volume.
From the tor.com discussion thread.

OK, for a start: citation fucking needed. The current state of archaeology is not my personal area of expertise, but if the extinction of the megafauna is being blamed on pre-Columbian settlers, that is not the dominant view, at all, and with good reason: it makes no sense. Why would the same hunter-gatherer groups which later lived in harmony with their prey such that the plains of North America crawled with buffalo hunt even larger animals to extinction?

Lest I become what I seek to destroy, have a reference:
The extinction of megafauna around the world was probably due to environmental and ecological factors. It was almost completed by the end of the last ice age. It is believed that megafauna initially came into existence in response to glacial conditions and became extinct with the onset of warmer climates.

In temperate Eurasia and North America, megafauna extinction concluded simultaneously with the replacement of the vast periglacial tundra by an immense area of forest. Glacial species, such as mammoths and woolly rhinocerous, were replaced by animals better adapted to forests, such as elk, deer and pigs. Reindeers (caribou) retreated north, while horses moved south to the central Asian steppe. This all happened about 10 000 years ago, despite the fact that humans colonised North America less than 15 000 years ago and non-tropical Eurasia nearly 1 million years ago.
Source: The Australian Museum, factsheet on megafauna extinction.

So... the groups who would later become native Americans moved into North America, spent five thousand years living in harmony with the megafauna, then set about exterminating them utterly. That makes perfect sense OH WAIT no it doesn't.

Secondly, the assumption that crossing the Eurasian land bridge into North America precludes human settlement is blatantly stupid; that's not the only route into the Americas. Potatoes got to Polynesia somehow. And "... it was BECAUSE OF MAGIC" is inadequate explanation for the barriers.

Moving on.

We now have the question of content within the text. As I said previously, it's not impossible to write this kind of speculative fantasy well - but you have to consider the ramifications of your choices. My own study of US history is some years ago now, was mostly focussed on the period from the Civil War to the end of the Cold War, so my historical credentials here are thin - and yet, I nonetheless know better.

Some key points:

1) Crops

Without the "New World" crops and edible flora of all sorts already having been identified and cultivated by the native population, the settlers are going to have trouble working out what's poisonous and what's not. Introduced-crop failures are going to cause mass starvation. This is skated lightly past in the text.

2) Labour

The colonies were severely short of labour. Part of the solution was the indentured servitude of debtors from Europe. (Interestingly, the New Yorker recently had an article on just this. (Abstract only without registration.) Debt to England was one of the issues that - it can and has been argued - produced the American Revolution. However, that wasn't enough, nor was the convict labour (the Americas received convict transportees before Australia did). The rest was slavery.

If you give the "Aphrikans" South America and don't include slavery, then you should have a desperate labour shortage. You should also have widespread starvation and disease in the case of crop failure. (If you have settlers in a land where there aren't any natives, crop failures should be near-constant early on, by the way.)

3) Nothin' but Names

In order to show that the native population was never ever there, all the places in America that have names derived from native sources have different names.

Consider the implication of this (it's a very short reach): the only mark the native population has left on America is place names. Nothing else.

I'm not sure how I can detail exactly what's wrong with that in less than two thousand words. Suffice to say that this is completely, utterly, horrendously inaccurate.

The cultural legacy of American history is complex. Too complex for me - I don't know enough to unravel it. Neither, I suspect, does Wrede, or at least she hasn't thought about it. See this post, again, for a summary treatment of why this is historically invalid.

I hope by now I've established that the critiques of the book aren't operating on knee-jerk hostility. Please note that people who really get into this kind of discussion - the people who stay past "omg that's so racist", and don't in fact ever actually say that - can generally be relied upon not to be reacting on that kind of reflex, because that gets no-one anywhere, especially them. Because now we get to...

The Tone Argument.

I have trouble not inserting an obscene adjective before the word "tone" there.

*cracks knuckles*

Let's stay specific for now, shall we? Lois Bujold, again:
Which begs a larger question: what is the function of fiction? Social engineering? Propaganda, sermon? Or something else? Windows? Mirrors?

People who come down on the social-engineering side do tend to value a book by how well it serves some agenda outside of itself. I see that as a slippery slope, myself.
Give me a break.

This is wonderfully archetypal derailment. There's a woman in one of my classes who does this - whenever I say something she wants to disagree with, but can't, because the facts are on my side and she can't actually refute my argument without redefining the terms of the discussion, she tries to do exactly that.

Fiction has many functions. Anyone who has ever thought about it or looked into it already knows that well.

Not to quote someone's own words against them, but - hell, why not? Bujold:
More and more as I read I have the sense not of entering another world, but of entering another writer’s head. There are some head-spaces I enjoy occupying, others I don’t. If the scenery is ugly, I don’t hang around.


That one's from an interview, so it may be something she didn't get the chance to think through, so let's take one from an essay of hers, just to be fair (emphasis mine):
Every writer writes their world-view; we cannot escape it, unless we're writing utter hack work to order in every detail, and even there it will leak through. And world-view is not limited to writers.

It follows that every time a reader reads a book, two world-views meet, or collide. There are, I think, four possible interactions between the reader's world-view and the writer's.

...

Second, the world-views can collide. In this case, the reader will find his world-views denied or disconfirmed by the text, which can be unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even infuriating. The reader will in this case heap scorn on the book, and sometimes its author, as when a left-leaning reader rejects the political scenarios in a book by a right-wing writer or a woman derides a book by a man who portrays women in ways she finds idiotic. That same angry reader mentioned before may reject with scorn a book that portrays the world as "too nice". It challenges his world-view, and he rejects it. "People aren't really like that! I know people, and people are scum!" Most people, most of the time, respond to challenges to their world-view and the extreme discomfort it engenders by defending their world-view, and finding some "good reason" to reject the challenging data as false, weak, biased, or wrong. Sometimes, obviously, the rejecting reader is quite right.
Unless they're rejecting something of which Bujold approves, apparently.

Questioning the moral background of fiction is entirely valid, and finding a writer's products problematic is something Bujold has, in the past, acknowledged to be only right and fair. And yet, criticising The Thirteenth Child is not. Anyone who finds that these well-discussed issues, based on undisputed facts about the content of the novel, are too problematic for them? They get told:
My mother -- born in 1912 -- used to have a phrase for this: "My mind is made up. Don't confuse me with the facts."

A stance of moral superiority really cannot be floated over an abyss of ignorance. (Though I admit, people routinely try.) It's especially not a sound footing for this book which, within the limits of its scope, actually does some very interesting things with subverting assumed Avyrupan dominances.
Because it's ignorant hypocrisy to respond to the facts, apparently. Also, it's not for critics.
The book deserves better than to be pored over by an inquisitor only seeking evidence for a conviction already decided upon.
"Inquisitor." Yeah, she went there.

And finally, to finish on Bujold - who, by the way, is only one of many people failing hard on this, but she's the most famous, and the one who's hit the Tone Argument most blatantly, and the easiest to research, we have the comment where she claims to have thought about it more. Really, you need to read the whole thing to understand the magnitude of her wrongness, but:
... despite the fact that Native Americans are over two million strong, voting citizens, fellow exiles in the 21st century, and many are educated, articulate, and perfectly able to speak for themselves (most of the major tribes have websites now, a thought both hopeful and boggling) poverty and discrimination do still fall disproportionately upon many others.
Why is it boggling that the tribes have websites? Because the savages shouldn't be part of the Internet? Because tribal identity shouldn't persist into the digital age, because everyone should have abandoned that primitive barbarism and adhered to nice, civilised European-American constructions of identity by now?

The mind, it boggles.

Next:
I still have a profound problem with any argument that leaps from hearsay to condemnation without any intervening stop at “evidence”. It doesn’t matter *what* the subject is, the *form* is wrong, even if the conclusion after examining the evidence bears out the initial belief.
So, anyone criticising this book was doing it with no evidence, so they're wrong, even if the evidence actually supports their criticisms. The fact that they're right doesn't matter, the way (she believes) they arrived at their rightness is flawed therefore the thing they're right about TOTALLY DOESN'T MATTER.

Seriously, how does anyone type this stuff and get far enough to hit "post" without realising how incredibly stupid and wrong they're being?

Enter the sanctimony:
The past is beyond anyone’s reach, and history is fractal -- one sperm over, and we would all have been our siblings, and our own self-centered universes would never have sprung into being at all -- so what can an ordinary person do right-here-right-now about any given hurt in the world?
First of all, bollocks. "History is fractal" - no, it isn't. It just ISN'T. Do you even understand what these words mean, Bujold? History is many things, and my love for it is deep and pure, and my knowledge of it, I'd wager, is substantially greater than yours... but history is not "fractal".

Secondly, one sperm over, and I might have been a man, I might have been a slightly different woman, but I would not have been my sibling, because my sister is two and a half years older than I am, and a slight sperm difference is not going to turn me into her. We had different gestational experiences - our mother was older, she was living a moderately different lifestyle, her body was different by virtue of having borne a child before. Even leaving out the difference in our life experiences post-birth, your statement is blatantly stupid.

Thirdly, one of the things ordinary people can do about "any given hurt in the world" is fight against it, and The Thirteenth Child is a "hurt in the world". Trying to deflect doesn't change that. It's not "just fiction", as you damn well know - stories have meaning, stories have power, and stories contribute to the ways in which we define the world in our "own self-centered (sic) universes". This means that - though it's not the biggest wound on the world, it's a wound, and all wounds need to be treated for the patient to recover fully.

She then goes on to list a bunch of charities she threw some money at, to demonstrate that her commitment to making the world a better place is so superior to everyone criticising this book, who obviously couldn't possibly be doing anything for the Native American population themselves - despite the fact that many do, despite the fact that many of them are Native Americans.

The next person to recommend I read Bujold... I can't guarantee I won't laugh in their face. I have standards, and she does not meet them.

And now it is time for me to switch my focus to the work I should be doing on my essay, before this post gets to the point where it's longer than the essay's going to be. (This is about 2500 words, but the essay is 4500 minimum.)

Current Music: This Is Ivy League - A Summer Chill

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