Musings on Justice

13 Feb

A follow-up, of sorts, to my previous post.

When the courts pass judgement, we expect them to issue a statement that includes the following:

1) He did it.

2) This is how we know he did it.

3) This is why it is a crime.

4) This is his sentence.

5) This is why this is his sentence.

The court does this because the court needs to justify its decisions, both now and in the future. In the case of the former, the court must convince the naysayers as well as the ‘hang him now and try him later’ brigade. There will be people, in just about every criminal and civil action, who will believe that the suspect isn’t guilty. They are the ones who need to be convinced – or, if they are so far gone that they are unwilling to admit that the person they’re defending is evil, deprived of the chance to insist that the suspect was not given a fair trial.

For example, if you happen to believe that an accusation of sexual assault is tantamount to proof of sexual assault, you will probably believe that Brett Kavanaugh is guilty. “Lock him up and throw away the key!” But, if you want more than a ‘he said/she said’ situation before you pass judgement, you will probably believe that Kavanaugh deserves the benefit of the doubt. “Either prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or STFU!”

This is not to say that courts are perfect. They get things wrong, of course. A witness might be lying. The physical evidence might be misleading. A suspect might look guilty on the stand and prejudice the jury against him. But they do have their advantages. It is possible to limit – if not eliminate – bias. (For example, if one of the jurors happens to be the suspect’s worst enemy, the suspect can ask to have him removed from the jury.) And, with a steady process, it is easy to follow the paper trail that explains why and how the decision was reached. If it later transpires that the convicted man was innocent all along, it is simple to look back and see if the man was convicted in error or if something darker was afoot.

It is generally agreed that the courts have the right to punish people, either for criminal or civil behaviour. The transparency is a key factor of the rule of law. We have doubts about secret courtrooms and suchlike because they are not, by definition, transparent. The wheels of justice can and do turn very slowly – it can be months between an arrest and trial – but they do turn. A court is supposed to put emotion – and public outrage – aside and determine, as best as can be done, what actually happened. It is that which upholds the rule of law.

And it is that which is under threat.

***

The question of just who else has a right to punish has become a thorny one in recent years, for all sorts of reasons. Does a convention have the right to punish someone for something that didn’t take place during the convention itself? Does social media have the right to punish someone for posting something they don’t like? Does the mob have the right to hound someone who breaks a social convention they didn’t know existed, to cost them their jobs and any hope of a normal life? This is becoming a question of increasing urgency, if only because it is only a matter of time before someone dies!

It is also quite a slippery issue, for all sorts of reasons. Let us consider the social media example first. Does Facebook have the right to censor conservatives? (There is a great deal of evidence that Facebook is doing just that, either as a matter of company policy or simply hiring people who are predisposed to hate conservative viewpoints.) A free speech absolutist would argue that no, Facebook does not have that right; a fascist (whatever protective colouring they may adopt) would argue that yes, Facebook can and should censor people he doesn’t like. But such an issue raises another issue: if Facebook actively polices content, then Facebook is de facto responsible for content that slips through the filters, which could be (and has been) anything from child porn to terrorist propaganda. This would provide lawmakers with all the excuse they need to go after Facebook, particularly if their voting base consists of people who feel that they have been unfairly silenced by internet censors.

Even if that does not come to pass, the existence of internet censorship weakens social trust and undermines the free exchange of ideas. It is, in short, the exact opposite of transparency.

The convention issue is, in some ways, just as thorny. No one would disagree, I think, that a person who makes an ass of himself at a convention could be legally evicted, although I have noticed that codes of conduct and suchlike are often so vague that it is hard to tell where the lines are actually drawn. And a person with a track record of misbehaving at conventions could reasonably be told that no, they’re not welcome at another convention. This can, however, cause problems for the convention staff. It is a basic trait of human nature to assume that whoever got punished did so because they deserved it. A person who got told “no, you’re not welcome” could threaten to sue, pointing out that they have been slandered and their reputation has been harmed. If there was no actual evidence – or a court case that could be used as de facto proof – it would be difficult to prove them wrong.

This is, however, something that took place (or would have taken place) during the convention itself. You can reasonably argue that the convention staff have the right to take whatever action they see fit to ensure the safety of the other guests. But what do you do about something that doesn’t take place during the convention?

We recognise that a court has jurisdiction over the entire country. But does a convention have the right to punish someone for something that took place outside the convention itself?

This is, in one sense, an easy question to answer. A convention doesn’t have any right to punish anything that takes place outside the convention (and very limited rights to punish anything during the convention itself.) But, in another sense, it is quite thorny. What do you do when your Guest of Honour is challenged? And what do you do when there is no decision that you can take without courting controversy?

For example, WISCON’s decision to disinvite Elizabeth Moon could be read as a reasonable response to a bigoted statement. But it could also be read as an attack on free speech, as an attempt to punish a woman for speaking out of turn, even – perhaps – as a betrayal of feminism given that the person being disinvited was one of the leading figures in feminist science-fiction. And, worst of all, it could be seen as the convention giving in to a pressure campaign that practically guaranteed that fandom would see more and more such campaigns now they’d been proven to work. (And fandom did see more such campaigns.)

There was no attempt to consider the fundamental questions raised by the kerfuffle. Was Moon guilty by any reasonable standard? And did the convention have the right to punish her? Even if one answers yes to the first question, should you still say yes to the second? And what sort of damage will you do to fandom if you do?

There was, in short, no solid case for punishing Moon. One was never put together, let alone circulated as justification. Instead, we got mob rule.

***

We have a tendency to think of Batman as a hero. He’s a great character. But, in the real world, someone like Batman (or even Sherlock) would be a legal nightmare. Batman does not hang around for the cops, after beating up the Joker or Mr. Freeze or whoever; he doesn’t file paperwork, he doesn’t testify in court, he doesn’t do anything to help Commissioner Gordon put the villains in jail to stay. (Amusing storyline; the villains keep getting out of jail because there’s no proof to keep them in jail.) Batman is very effective at what he does, but he’s not very legal.

And this raises an obvious question. What do we do when Batman gets it wrong?

We like the idea of the brave and true man who cuts through red tape, rescues the girl, catches the criminals … even if he has to throw the rulebook in the rubbish before he gets to work. We like the thought of someone throwing procedure out the window and just doing whatever he does. But what happens when they get it wrong?

The danger with people taking the law into their own hands, either through shooting someone they thought needed killing or forming a mob to harass some poor unfortunate who got on the wrong side of the internet, is not just that they can get it wrong. It is that they can inflict a punishment far out of proportion to the crime. (Worse, perhaps, the punishment can spill over onto others.) And is it a crime? The man who shot Cecil the Lion did not, as far as I can tell, commit any actual crime. Does he deserve to be driven out of public life?

Obviously, there are some people who would answer yes to that question. But do you really want a random outrage mob to be determining who gets punished and who gets away with it?

That is not justice. That is, at best, mob rule.

What makes this worse is that mob rule ensures that the chance for making positive changes (however defined) is lost. The people who were outraged over Cecil the Lion could have pressed for Zimbabwe to ban lion-hunting (although I doubt Zimbabwe would pay much attention) or they could have pressed for the United States to ban Hunting Tourism (in the same way there are laws against Sex Tourism). Instead, they chose to do something that did a great deal of injustice while – at the same time – wasting all the energy that could have been channelled in a positive direction.

If someone does something you find disagreeable, without breaking any laws, do you have the right to punish them? No, you don’t. You have the right to press for changes in the law, if you wish, and make whatever they did illegal, but you do not have the right to retroactively punish them. And if you harass someone … you, not they, are the enemy of civilisation.

***

One of the fundamental laws of … well, anything is that anyone who tries to rush you into making a decision is not your friend. An estate agent who drops broad hints that the house might be off the market tomorrow, for example, is probably not being truthful. It doesn’t matter to him if it is you or your unknown rival who buys the house – he gets the commission anyway – but it does matter a great deal if no one buys the house. A person who does not want you to take the time to think before you come to a decision is the enemy.

In an ideal world, for example, convention staff would have all the time in the world to assess the evidence, figure out what was best for the convention and make a solid decision with a sensible justification behind it. In practice, convention staff rarely get that time. They often don’t realise that there is a problem before a howling internet mob descends on them, demanding complete submission or else. (They also rarely have the time to realise that the ‘or else’ isn’t anything like as bad as it sounds.) As the sudden tidal wave of bad publicity gets worse and worse, as guests of honour are pushed into threatening to withdraw unless you surrender, it’s easy to get stampeded into making the wrong decision (or the right decision without solid justification). This tends to do a great deal of direct and indirect damage to a convention’s future prospects. On one hand, they’ve proven they can be cowed into submission; on the other, more and more writers are shying away from conventions with a history of disinviting people on spurious grounds. This is not good for the convention scene.

This isn’t good in a wider sense either. The more outrage, the more people get tired of hearing it; the more people get tired of hearing it, the less attention they pay to it. Or, perhaps, the more convinced they become that the mob is in the wrong. Why bother screaming, shouting and stamping your feet if you’re going to win in court? People are less empathic these days because we’re supposed to jump to the ‘right’ conclusions without evidence and demand punishment without justice. It can be satisfying – very satisfying – to hound someone for perceived offence, but it isn’t justice. It certainly doesn’t encourage faith in justice.

And without justice, without the rule of law, what happens to society?

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Updates … and Two Questions

10 Feb

Good news first, such as it is <grin>.

I had another scan two weeks ago and a doctor’s appointment last week. Most of the lymphoma appears to have cleared up, although I still have aches and pains and they’re sending me for a PET scan this Wednesday as they’re not sure if the remaining cancer is alive or dead. Obviously, I’m hoping that it’s just scarring and not something that merits another round of chemotherapy.

The second piece of good news is that I have a workable plot for The Zero Enigma 6 (or 7), provisionally entitled Kingdom of Ghosts. It will be the last book in the pre-second trilogy set, I think. Now. Two questions …

Would you rather have The King’s Man (young magician joins the Kingsmen) or Kingdom of Ghosts (young sailor takes a cruise to distant Hangchow and discovers a truth she’d rather not about the mysterious empire) next?

Second, would it be wise to have the lead character of Kingdom be another half-caste, like Rebecca of The Alchemist’s Apprentice, or would you rather someone different?

Chris

Snippet–Cursed (Schooled in Magic 17)

3 Feb

WARNING – SPOILERS FOR THE BROKEN THRONE.

Prologue

When she was young, Cabiria of House Fellini had always loved her family’s library.

It was a monumental collection of books, all the more remarkable for the texts being written and purchased well before the printing press had been invented and thousands of books had become available to all and sundry. Cabiria loved to stand by the shelves and run her hands over the books, yanking her hand away when charms and curses threatened to snap and snarl at her. As she’d grown older, she’d learnt to read some of the oldest books in the world, the ones that had been written by magicians whose names had passed into legend. She spoke five languages fluently and read three more, two of which were only spoken by a handful of scholars. It was easy to believe that all the knowledge of the world was concealed within the library stacks. She could have happily spent all of her life in the wonderful room.

But, as she’d aged, she’d come to realise that not all answers were found within the collection of aging books.

She had never doubted she would have magic, not until puberty had come and gone without even a hint of power crackling around her fingers. She’d muttered spells and chanted long incantations, drawn runes and performed rituals – including some she wasn’t supposed to know existed – without summoning enough magic to light a candle. Her parents had told her, at first, that it was just a matter of time. Later, when they’d thought she couldn’t hear her, they’d fretted about their youngest daughter’s lack of magic. It wasn’t uncommon for a child to have less power than her parents, particularly if her family had put bloodlines over breeding like so many magical families had done before they discovered that it actually weakened the magic, but for a child to have no magic at all? It was almost completely unprecedented. Cabiria herself was the only known case within recorded history.

Not that her family was cruel to her, of course. Cabiria’s parents never even hinted at disowning her, despite hints from some of their more distant family members that – perhaps – Cabiria should be sent elsewhere. Her father had fought a duel with a distant relative after he’d suggested, perhaps a little too loudly, that his wife had cheated on him. Cabiria’s sisters had protected her, as had her cousins. She still smiled at the memory of Cousin Alexi nearly killing one of his friends – his former friends – after the brat had played a particularly spiteful prank on her. But …

Cabiria sat in the library, trying to remember the feeling of wonder she’d one felt when she’d gazed upon the bookshelves. She was sixteen, old enough to expect an invitation to Whitehall or Mountaintop or even – perhaps – Stronghold. But the invitation would not come if she couldn’t draw even a spark of magic from her powerless bones. She would grow into adulthood and then … and then what? She would never be a part of magical society, not without power. She would be forever on the sidelines, looking in. Her family would be good to her, she knew, but … it wasn’t what she wanted.

And my one hope of being normal, she thought, is to take a terrible risk.

She heard the door open, heard someone walking towards her. She didn’t have to lift her head to know that it was Allophone, her oldest sister. Allophone was everything Cabiria wanted to be, a girl who had been favoured with everything from good looks to powerful magic. And she wasn’t even cruel. Allophone treated her young and powerless sister as if she was made of fine china.

“They’re ready,” Allophone said, quietly. She placed a hand on Cabiria’s shoulder. “You don’t have to do this, you know?”

“I do,” Cabiria said.

The words hung in the air between them. She had never told her sister – could never tell her sister – but she resented their kindness and decency more than she cared to admit. She wasn’t a helpless child, not really. She didn’t need to be coddled, to be wrapped in protective spells and guarded every time she walked out of the mansion. And yet, she knew that she was vulnerable. She was the blind girl in the kingdom of the sighted, forever at the mercy of those who could use magic. Better to take the risk of death – or worse – than spending the rest of her life without power.

“It’s risky,” Allophone said. “Uncle Alanson said …”

“I know what he said,” Cabiria snapped.

She caught herself, biting her lip hard. Uncle Alanson, Patriarch of House Fellini, had been even more driven than Cabiria’s parents to find a solution to her woes. It had been he, more than anyone else, who had drawn up the rituals to try to find, somewhere within her, a spark of power. Cabiria loved him for it. He could have pushed her parents to disown her. The hell of it was that he might have been right. House Fellini could not afford whispers about weak blood and powerless magicians. Too many people were already starting to talk.

“Come on, then,” Allophone said.

Cabiria stood, ignoring her sister’s attempts to help her up. Gods! She wasn’t a cripple. Her legs worked fine. She didn’t need a flying carpet to get up the stairs, or sneak down in the middle of the night for a snack. Allophone let out a faint sound – Cabiria didn’t care to wonder what it might have been – and followed Cabiria as she stalked out of the room. The hallway felt … cold, as always. Cabiria knew they were surrounded by powerful wards, spells that her family had been weaving for generations, but she couldn’t feel them. There were parts of the mansion she simply couldn’t go without walking into danger. The last time she’d triggered a trap, she’d been frozen for hours before her parents had found her.

The spellchamber felt creepy, as always, as she walked into the underground chamber. Her uncle stood in the exact centre, carefully drawing out a handful of chalk runes on the stone floor. He’d wanted to use iron, claiming that it would help channel the power, but Cabiria’s parents had said no. It was too dangerous, they’d insisted. Cabiria’s cheeks burnt as she remembered the discussion. Allophone had been experimenting with more dangerous substances than cold iron well before she’d gone to Whitehall …

“Cabiria, my favourite niece,” Alanson said. He was a handsome dark-haired man, with a roguish smile that belied his kind nature. He’d never married, even though his family expected it of him. “Are you ready?”

“Yes, Uncle,” Cabiria said, as she took her place in the circle. Uncle Alanson was the only person who treated her as if she was a living person, rather than a fragile doll. She loved him for that too. He hadn’t spent the endless rehearsals talking about the risks. “I’m ready.”

“Be careful,” Allophone said. She retreated towards the door as Uncle Alanson raised his wand. “And good luck.”

Cabiria felt a flicker of nervousness, even as she braced herself for another crushing disappointment. Her parents and close relatives kept trying, but … she feared, deep inside, that they were starting to give up. The mystery of her lack of power might never be solved, nor might she ever have magic. To hell with the risks. She would take her chances and if she died, she died.

“And now,” Uncle Alanson said. Bright light flared around him. “We begin.”

Cabiria felt, just for a second, as if her skin was on fire. Something was … crawling over her, something she could feel even though she couldn’t see anything. The light was growing brighter, forcing her to squeeze her eyes tightly shut. And yet … she found, to her horror, that she couldn’t move. Someone was screaming, the sound echoing through her ears and pounding into her skull. She thought it was her, but … she wasn’t sure. The world spun around her, as if she was standing on the deck of a ship during a storm …

Someone was laughing. She could hear someone laughing …

… And then her mother was pulling at her arms, yanking her upright. “Cabiria! Cabiria!”

Cabiria opened her eyes, unsure when she’d closed them. Her memories were so confused, so blurred, that – for a moment – she thought she must have dreamed everything. And yet, as she forced herself to sit upright, it was clear the spellchamber had been devastated. The runes and glyphs on the walls were gone, scorched out of existence by the forces Uncle Alanson had unleashed. The walls themselves were scorched and pitted, even though they’d been designed to stand firm against the strongest and deadliest of magics. And the floor was covered in black ash …

She looked down at herself, wonderingly. Her robes were covered in ash and soot, but otherwise intact. Her skin was unmarked. She was alive …

“He’s dead,” a voice said. It took Cabiria a moment to realise that her father was talking, his strong voice echoing in the giant chamber. “Alanson is dead. Burnt to ash!”

“And he nearly took Cabiria with him,” her mother snapped. “No more experiments, do you understand me? No more!”

Cabiria looked down at her fingers. They had always been long and thin – magician’s hands, Uncle Alanson had said – but now … they felt different. She had always hated her hands – their mere existence mocked her – yet … they tingled, as if power was spreading through her skin and bones. Quietly, wonderingly, she muttered a spell. The room filled with brilliant white light.

She heard her father cry out, heard her mother start to cry, but she barely noticed. Her fingertips were sparkling with power. Sparks danced over her bare skin. She could feel the power within her. She had power. She finally had power.

No, not power.

She had magic.

Chapter One

Emily sat in bed, staring at her fingers.

They were long and slender, the skin pale and smooth despite six years of magic and mayhem. Magician’s hands, they’d been called. Emily could have been a surgeon or a pianist, but instead … she was a magician. She took a long breath, then started to chant a spell that she’d memorised six years ago. Her fingers moved in perfect lines, crafting out and directing the spell, but nothing happened. No power crackled around her fingertips. No magic sparked forth to do her will. She might as well have been playacting.

I was a magician, she thought, numbly. A week of being powerless, of being without magic, had left her feeling drained and numb. Her thoughts moved sluggishly, when they moved at all. It had been hard to get out of bed, let alone attend to the growing list of problems she had to handle. I was a magician and now I’m …

She closed her eyes, going all the way back to first principles. She’d been taught how to build a spell up from scratch, how to shape the magic before she’d grown used to channelling her power instinctively, as easily as she’d breathed. Her magic had been a part of her, something she could move at will. Now … she felt as if she’d been crippled. The power within her, the power she’d learnt to sense and cultivate, was gone. Her senses felt muffled, as if she were blind. She knew the stone walls were crawling with wards – some designed to keep her safe, some designed to hide her condition from unfriendly eyes – but she couldn’t sense them any longer. It reminded her of the days when she’d first come to the Nameless World, when she’d been scared to touch anything for fear of setting off a trap. Now … she was afraid to touch anything again.

The spell echoed in her mind. She cast it carefully, with all the precision she could muster after six years of training, giving it the kind of care and attention she’d never had to give it after she’d managed to get in touch with her magic. The casting was perfect – she knew it was perfect – but nothing happened. A wave of despondency threatened to overcome her as she dropped her hands into her lap. The knowledge she’d gathered over the last six years, some of it dangerously won, was useless. She was powerless.

She closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them and looked around the room, searching for a distraction. But the room’s mere existence taunted her. The lanterns glowed with magical light, but she hadn’t cast the spells. She hadn’t carved the runes on the walls. She hadn’t even lit the fire in the fireplace! It wasn’t her room. Alassa had promised her a suite of her own, but … it wouldn’t be hers. She was nothing more than an unwanted guest.

You’re being unfair, she told herself. Alassa had been nothing but kind to her over the last week, even though she was very busy. The civil war might be over, yet there was no shortage of work to do. Reconstructing the country would take years. Alassa offered to host you forever.

It was a bitter thought. Alassa had meant well. Emily was certain of it. She had no doubt that her friend would do everything in her power to help. But the stone walls felt like a prison, a mocking reminder that Emily no longer had the power to shape her future. She was vulnerable, vulnerable in a way she’d never been for six years. She felt as if she’d lost her confidence along with her magic. What was the point of struggling, she asked herself, if there was no hope of winning?

There was a tap on the door. Emily tensed, despite herself. Alassa and Jade had woven hundreds of protections into the castle, but they couldn’t keep out everyone. How could they? Castle Alexis wasn’t just the monarch’s home, but the centre of government for an entire country. The lower levels were crammed with everything from aristocratic parasites to common-born bureaucrats, the former trying to convince themselves that they were still important while the latter felt utterly underappreciated by their superiors. Emily was all too aware that someone with bad intentions probably could get into the castle, with a great deal of effort. Why not? It had happened before.

The door opened. Lady Barb stepped into the room.

Emily felt an urge to shrink back inside herself as her former teacher – the woman she regarded as the closest thing she’d ever had to a mother – closed the door and strode over to the bed. It was hard to escape the feeling that Emily had failed Lady Barb in some way, as if things might have been different if Emily had listened to the older magicians who’d told her to stay out of the civil war. But … Emily knew, all too well, that she couldn’t have made any other choice. Alassa and Jade were her friends. Emily had owed it to them to stand beside them when they’d gone to war against Alassa’s father. She could not have turned her back.

Lady Barb had been badly injured, during Fulvia’s attack on Whitehall, but now … it was hard to believe that she’d ever been more than scratched. She was still tall and muscular, with long blonde hair and a stern – almost patrician – face. The robes she wore were loose, designed to allow her to move freely; the sword at her belt was a sign that she knew how to defend herself with and without magic. And her utter confidence in herself was daunting, to those who didn’t know her. Only a handful of people had ever underestimated Lady Barb, Emily knew, and none of them had made the same mistake twice. There were girls at Whitehall who wanted to be Lady Barb when they grew up. Emily knew how they felt.

She looked down at herself, unwilling to meet her tutor’s gaze. Her body felt … wrong, somehow. She’d been hurt – badly – during the fight with the mad king, but the injuries hadn’t healed as quickly as they should. The healers had done all they could, mending broken bones and repairing damaged tissues, yet they hadn’t done a perfect job. Emily wondered, morbidly, if her magic had helped her heal, every other time she’d been badly injured. Magicians lived a long time, even without life-prolonging spells. Perhaps their magic countered the onset of old age.

“Emily,” Lady Barb said. Her voice was stern and unyielding, but Emily could hear the hint of compassion. “Look at me.”

Emily looked up, reluctantly. She felt … she felt vulnerable. Too vulnerable. She knew Lady Barb would never hurt her, would never do anything to her that was not for her own good, but she still felt vulnerable. She felt defenceless. All of her weapons, magical and mundane alike, were gone. The healers had even confiscated the virgin blade she’d carried in her sleeve. She knew why they’d done it – the waves of despondency and depression had only been growing stronger since she’d lost her magic – but she resented it. There was no way she could put up even a token fight against someone who wanted her dead.

She should be pleased to see Lady Barb. She knew she should be pleased – and relieved – to see Lady Barb. But …

“Tell me what happened,” Lady Barb said. “Please.”

Emily took a breath and rattled through the whole story, starting with the discovery that King Randor was practicing necromancy to the final desperate battle inside the castle. She left out nothing, knowing – from long experience – that the older woman wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than the complete truth. Lady Barb listened, saying nothing, as Emily told her about the final seconds, before Randor exploded and she blacked out. She remembered nothing between her collapse and waking up in Alassa’s bed.

“I don’t think you burnt yourself out,” Lady Barb said, when she’d finished. “You’d probably be insane by now.”

Emily choked down a sound that was both a laugh and a sob. She was insane, by the standards of her new world. The natives didn’t understand her reasoning, didn’t understand her social attitudes … they didn’t understand why she befriended commoners, or helped them to succeed, or … or anything. She’d grown up on a world where social mores were very different. How could she share their attitudes to life?

“I don’t feel insane,” she managed. “But …”

She looked around the spare room. Normally, lying in a healer’s bed would have driven her mad. She would have demanded something to do, even if it was just being given a stack of books from the castle’s library. She wouldn’t have minded – much – if someone had provided her with a stock of cheaply-bound blue books from the nearby printers, if it gave her something to keep distracted. But instead … she’d practically spent the last week in bed, staring up at the barren ceiling. Her friends – even Cat, her semi-boyfriend – hadn’t been able to get her out of her funk. She’d been too depressed to care.

“You’re not screaming at the walls or lashing out at the maids,” Lady Barb said. “And we’re not shipping you off to the Halfway House.”

Emily snorted. She’d heard too many horror stories to take that entirely seriously. “And there are so many people who do abuse the maids that they might just be the sane ones.”

She felt her eyes narrow. “Are you going to send me to the Halfway House?”

“No,” Lady Barb said. The Halfway House was – in theory – a place for people who had been afflicted with unbreakable curses, who could neither be cured nor allowed to live freely. In practice, it was more like a bedlam straight out of Oliver Twist. “I don’t think they’d be able to do anything to help you.”

“I don’t know if anyone can,” Emily said. “I just feel …”

Lady Barb’s lips thinned. “I have to examine you,” she said. “Get up.”

Emily hesitated, but she knew better than to disobey. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood, feeling her legs threatening to buckle as she smoothed down her nightdress. It felt alarmingly thin. Lady Barb looked her up and down, frowning in disapproval. Emily felt a stab of guilt, mingled with fear. Lady Barb was a product of her society too. What must she feel when confronted with a cripple? The Nameless World wasn’t kind to cripples.

It isn’t kind to anyone, Emily thought. The aristocrats and magicians had power, but they also had social obligations. Commoners … had no rights at all. They sometimes lived so close to the edge that they had no choice, but to discard anyone who couldn’t work. A cripple would be lucky if he wasn’t put outside to starve. What will happen to me when the truth comes out?

She gritted her teeth as Lady Barb produced a long silver wand and started to wave it over Emily’s body. No one, apart from her closest friends, knew what had happened to her … but it was only a matter of time until the truth came out. She was – perhaps – the most famous person in the Nameless World, with a string of titles she’d been given by bards and broadsheet writers. There were probably already rumours spreading through the Nameless World. And someone – sooner or later – would try to test them.

“Interesting,” Lady Barb said.

Emily cursed under her breath. Her skin should have tingled as the wand performed its magic. She should have felt something. Her magic should have responded to the probe. God knew there had been times when she’d been told to hold her magic under firm control while the healers had done their work. But now … there was nothing. She shivered helplessly, despite the warmth from the fire. A first-year student could turn her into a frog with the snap of her fingers. She hated to think what an adult magician could do.

“Interesting indeed,” Lady Barb said. “Have you had any other problems? Aches and pains? Trouble with going to the toilet? Anything?”

“Nothing apart from having to use a chamberpot,” Emily said. She didn’t care what anyone said about it. Chamberpots were disgusting. But the castle had been built long before anyone had seen the wisdom in installing toilets, let alone hot and cold running water. “Some of the potions didn’t seem to work quite right, though.”

“They must have been brewed for a magician,” Lady Barb said. She motioned for Emily to turn around, then ran her finger down Emily’s spine. “They’re not always so effective on mundanes.”

Emily flinched. “I didn’t know …”

“It’s something healers and alchemists learn, when they start their apprenticeships,” Lady Barb said. She squeezed Emily’s arm, gently, then muttered a handful of spells. Nothing happened. “The potions you were taught to brew in school were very basic, but these … these can be quite sensitive to levels of ambient magic.”

She let out a long breath. “Sit down.”

Emily sat, feeling drained. “What did you find?”

“Something that doesn’t quite make sense,” Lady Barb said. “You should be a magician. You should have magic. But I can’t detect any magic. It’s odd.”

“Odd,” Emily repeated. She wanted to shout, but she was too tired. It was a matter of life and death. “What does it mean?”

Lady Barb’s voice was sombre. “Alassa told me that your … familiar is still a bracelet,” she said. “How are you maintaining the spell?”

Emily blinked in shock. Her familiar – Aurelius the Death Viper – spent most of his time as a transfigured bracelet. Emily might be safe from his poisonous touch, but anyone else who picked him up would be lucky if they only lost a hand. Death Vipers were amongst the most dangerous beasts known to exist. But the spell should have run out of magic and faded to nothingness a long time ago. Emily hadn’t protested when they’d taken the bracelet away. It was better to make very sure that no one got near it.

But if the snake was still a bracelet … she felt a flicker of hope. Where did the magic come from? Her?

“It’s possible that the snake’s own magic is maintaining the spell,” Lady Barb said, mercilessly. “But it is odd, to say the least.”

Yeah, Emily thought, as the hope faded and died. It is odd …

“I think Randor hit you with a death curse,” Lady Barb said. “Casting a spell powered by his own death would be difficult, but … he was not inept. He knew he was going to die and … thanks to his necromancy, he had power to spare. “Death curses are nasty things. They can be dangerously unpredictable.”

Emily swallowed. She’d heard some of the stories. There were others, she’d been told, that were never told to unqualified magicians. It was hard to imagine what sort of horrors were kept concealed, not when the stories were told to warn magicians of the dangers they faced on a regular basis. Death curses … were rare. It required a special kind of magician to shape the spell, knowing that his death was only seconds away.

And knowing that he has made his death certain by casting the spell, Emily thought. King Randor had never struck her as someone who was prepared to accept his own death. He’d fought savagely to preserve a social structure that was already doomed. He put his own daughter in prison rather than admit that times were changing …

“Beyond that, I’m not sure,” Lady Barb said. “It’s possible that it might have stripped you of your power, although the shock should have driven you insane. It’s also possible that the curse might be drawing on your power, ensuring you can’t do anything else. Or … it might have simply blocked you from using your magic. There are spells that do you, as you know.”

“Spells that wear off,” Emily said. “Or spells that can be removed.”

“Yes,” Lady Barb said. “But I tried a couple of counterspells and neither of them produced anything. That means …”

She paused, significantly. “If your ability to use magic is blocked, Emily, it will … it will build up inside your head. Right now, you don’t even have any wards you can use to channel and absorb the power. Sooner or later, the power will burst out of you.”

“It might take the curse with it,” Emily said.

“It might take you with it,” Lady Barb said, flatly. “No, it will take you with it. There have been cases – a handful of cases – where someone had their powers blocked and they …”

She kept talking, but Emily barely heard her. She’d lost her powers. And she might be about to lose her life.

“Emily,” Lady Barb said. “Are you listening to me?”

“Go away,” Emily said. She slipped her legs back under the covers, then reached for the blanket. She just wanted to hide. “Please.”

Lady Barb snorted. “Emily …”

“Go away,” Emily repeated.

The older woman seemed to hesitate – Emily could almost see the wheels spinning inside her mind – and then left the room. Emily watched the door close with a sensation of relief, as misplaced as she knew it was. She wanted – she needed – to be alone. She wanted … she wasn’t sure what she wanted. She could feel despair bubbling up at the back of her mind as she pulled the covers over her head. It would be easy, so easy, to simply give up …

There was a crash as the door opened, then shut. Emily looked out, surprised.

“Cat?”

Out Now–CRY WOLF (The Empire’s Corps XV)

2 Feb

They say democracy dies in darkness …

cry wolf large Cover final

Earth has fallen. The Empire is no more. Old certainties are collapsing everywhere. Chaos is spreading across the stars, with war following in its wake …

Tarsus, a world too close to Earth for comfort, is far from immune.

Clarence Esperanza, a reporter on Tarsus, thought he had the story of the century. But, when he took the story to his bosses, he was unceremoniously fired. Cut off from his former friends, abandoned by his wife isolated from the world around him, he thought all he could do was stagger onto the streets and wait to die. But when an old friend offers him a job, with a new news outlet challenging the dominance of the planetary media networks, he finds himself on the front lines of a struggle for control of the planet …

… And fighting for the freedom of an entire world.

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Out Now– Heinlein In Reflection

30 Jan

Robert Anson Heinlein was the Grandmaster of Science-Fiction, originator or populariser of many of the science-fiction tropes we take for granted today. Heinlein laid the groundwork for countless authors to follow, combining his engineering knowledge and experience with a knowledge of humanity to open vast vistas for his readers. His popularity remains undiminished, even three decades after his death. Heinlein remains one of the greatest science-fiction writers in history.

Heinlein2

But is Heinlein still relevant today?

He could be – and still is, even by the standards of our time – very controversial. In his later years, he pushed the limits as far as he could. His characters were freethinkers to a degree even we find alarming, discarding the chains of their societies in a manner that could be both heroic and dangerously unwise. His books – and Heinlein himself – have been accused of being fascist, or sexist, or racist, or thoroughly immoral. Is Heinlein still a great mind? Or should he be forgotten like so many other writers of his time?

In this collection of essays, science-fiction writer Christopher G. Nuttall takes a fresh look at Heinlein’s books, assesses the accusations made against Heinlein’s work and concludes that yes, Heinlein is still relevant today …

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Progress Report

29 Jan

Just a very short update …

First, the treatment seems to be progressing ok. I’ve got another scan later this afternoon that will – in two weeks or so – tell me if I need more treatments or if they can shift to simply monitoring me, post-treatment. I’ve had some aches and pains and a handful of minor colds that won’t go away, but I’m hopeful. I’ve managed to get back into the swing of writing and I don’t want to stop <grin>.

Second, I’ve finished the first draft of Cry Wolf (TEC 15). I’m hoping to get it edited by Friday/Saturday and get it uploaded to Amazon and various other places shortly afterwards. I’ve been told it’s a little different from the other TEC books – it’s a side story, setting the groundwork for the return of the marines – but I think it works.

cry wolf cover

Third, my current plan is to start writing Cursed next week. That’s the direct sequel to The Broken Throne (SIM 16). I’m hoping it will go relatively smoothly, but I will probably have to slow down because it’s my son’s half-term and we have family coming.

Fourth, my rough future plan is Cursed, The Right of the Line (Ark 14), Debt of War (Kat Falcone). I’m not sure what comes after them. Zero 6? Or A Learning Experience 6?

What do you think?

Chris

Musings on Forgiveness

6 Jan

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or HolyRollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.”

-Heinlein, Revolt in 2100.

This is a bit of a meandering post, written in hopes of easing myself back into writing, but bear with me a little.

It may surprise some of my readers to know that I am both religious and profoundly suspicious of organised religion. A religion may come from God, if you believe in it, but the people who set themselves up as religious leaders are as human as you and I – and, therefore, bound by human nature. A religion that becomes a de facto theocracy falls prey to the same flaws in human nature that doom both fascism and communism, from the urge to impose one’s values by force to the inevitable rise of a dictator, put in power and maintained by the security forces (i.e. the religious police) that were necessary to impose the religion in the first place. The Theocrats of Iran – and even the Taliban – may have meant well, once upon a time, but they were corrupted by human nature. Religion provides all the justification one could possibly want to throw all restraint out of the window.

Indeed, religion – and I include fascism, communism and social justice as well as Judaism, Christianity and Islam – adds a dangerous aspect to the problem. If one truly believes in one’s religion, it can be hard to question both the religion and its priests. It feels wrong to question a religious figure, even when he doesn’t live up to his words. Thus, we have Catholics who find it hard to reconcile their faith in the Vatican with the ever-increasing number of priests who have been revealed as sexual predators and Muslims who find it impossible to openly acknowledge that their religion has been turned into a weapon and used against them. Those who do are often attacked – even murdered – by people who feel ‘my religion, right or wrong.’ The urge to censure someone for anti-religious sentiment – however deserved – can be overpowering.

This is a problem on a number of levels. On one hand, put crudely, what is the value of religious devotion if it is demanded (or extracted by force)? A Catholic who gives up meat for Lent, or a Muslim who fasts for Ramadan, is making a religious statement … but does it count if they will face everything from ostracism to death if they don’t? If the religious police arrests men who don’t have beards or women who don’t cover their faces … are those people doing something because they want to do it for God or because they will be punished if they don’t? Why should they take it seriously? Why should they not cheat? Forced compliance does not breed acceptance, but resentment and hatred.

And that hatred will be focused – on the other hand – on the religion itself. The Vatican’s failure to admit that it has a problem – and deal with it – has done untold harm to Christianity itself. Britain’s historic fear and loathing of foreign authorities (from the Vatican to the EU) may stem from the Pope’s interference and hypocrisy during the reigns of Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John and Henry III. It’s easy to lose any claim to the moral high ground when you start putting the interests of organised religion ahead of the people the religion is supposed to serve. It should be no surprise that the most irreligious people are often those who fled strongly religious communities.

My religious education was never very through. What little we were taught about Martin Luther and the Reformation was strongly slanted against Catholicism, although (to be fair) the Church of that era was deeply corrupt and tyrannical. The idea of indulgencies (in which the Church would forgive a sinner in exchange for a massive cash payment) seemed grossly unfair. I found it impossible to accept that a man could go to Confession, receive a very minor punishment and find forgiveness and acceptance. How could a priest possibly forgive, for example, someone who had trespassed against me? I later learnt – when I had less biased teachers – that it was a little more complicated than that, but it stuck in my mind. The Church had crossed a line when it had abrogated to itself the power to forgive.

And yet, as odd as it seemed to me, there was a certain method in the madness. The people of the past accepted their religion as indisputable. They believed in their religion – in both God and His Church – to a degree utterly alien to most of us in the modern-day Western World. (Even King John called for a confessor when he lay dying.) The common folk believed that to sin was to be damned and to be damned meant going to Hell when they finally died. If a sin meant that someone was damned, why should they refrain from more sin? They were already damned. They had nothing to lose. By offering forgiveness, the Church convinced sinners that there was hope. They didn’t have to be damned. A spell in Purgatory might be bad, but at least it wouldn’t be Hell.

A cynic might argue that this was very convenient for the Church. And it was. But it was also based on a profound understanding of human nature. The vast majority of people who feel guilty about something – anything – would be delighted to seek forgiveness, if there was a prospect of actually putting the sin behind them. Confession thus served the purpose of both forcing a sinner to own up to the sin and acknowledge that he’d done something wrong – even if it was just to a priest – and liberating a guilty man from his guilt. It might not lead to punishment – the guilty man’s guilt would remain unknown to society at large – but it might keep him from sinning again.

There are people who will argue that this is unsatisfactory, that the guilty man is avoiding punishment (at least in this world). And I would agree with them. But it is – at least in theory – a way to avoid a sinner throwing away all chance of redemption and going wild. By offering a way to face up to the sin, without actually being punished out of all proportion to the crime, it offers hope. And people will crawl over broken glass, if necessary, if there is a hope of getting what they want at the far side. We like the rules to be understood. We like the goalposts to be firmly emplaced. When they’re moved … watch out.

***

I compared fascism, communism and social justice to religion for a reason. All three of them have a great deal in common with religion and – I suspect – speak to the same flaws in human nature that cause religions to go bad. Their devotees face the same problem as history’s theocrats; the vast majority of the population does not want to perform even lip service to the religion, so the devotees either have to abandon their ideals or force the vast majority of the population to conform. They therefore have to build a secret police – as I noted above – or give up.

One would consider giving up to be the sensible option, but a person who treats his religion as an article of faith – i.e. without questioning it – is often unable to make the mental leap he needs to realise that not pushing it would probably make people think better of him. (There would probably be less opposition to gay marriage if pro-gay marriage people weren’t so intent on smashing all resistance.) Instead, he tends to assume that his religion is good and right and therefore anyone who disagrees with him is wrong and evil. Worse, perhaps, he is so convinced of the rightness of his judgement that he finds it impossible to accept that a dissenter might not be wilfully wrong. To him, the truth is so self-evident that no one could possibly disagree with him. There is no room for contradictory opinions.

And he does not know when to stop.

Humans do not like to be nagged constantly, even when the nagger has their best interests at heart. There comes a time, fairly quickly, when the amount of nagging required to get someone’s sullen compliance simply skyrockets, if that person is obliged to listen to the nagger. It does not matter, from our point of view, if the nagger is a religious nut or a social justice bully. The more nagging, the more resentment; the more resentment, the greater the chance of an explosion; the greater the chance of an explosion, the greater the chance that everything the nagger wants will be thoroughly (and perhaps unfairly) discredited.

Now, say what you like about the Ten Commandants, but they are relatively easy to understand and follow. There was no doubt about what sort of behaviour crosses the line into sinfulness. When they were taught in schools, no one had any excuse for not knowing the difference between good and bad. The problem with social justice, however, is three-fold; the rules keep changing, the rules can be applied retroactively … and, worst of all, there is no system for forgiveness and social reintegration.

A few weeks ago, for example, Kevin Hart (who I had literally never heard of before articles condemning him started popping up in my Facebook feed) stepped down as Oscar Host, after a number of homophobic tweets were discovered and savagely condemned. He currently seems to be wavering between stepping back up again and staying down, between grovelling for forgiveness and being defiant. His tweets were offensive and I quite understand why people were offended, but … what now?

One of the problems facing society, these days, is that an apology is seen as a sign of weakness (and, in business, an admission of liability). But another problem is that there is no clear path to understanding, forgiveness and a return to society. (One might also question the value of punishing Hart when Hollywood holds far greater sinners, as we have been learning since 2016.) Should Hart be driven out of society? Or should a handful of tweets be held over his head for the rest of his life? There are people who will answer yes to both questions, for all sorts of reasons, but is this a good idea?

It is a basic understanding that the punishment should fit the crime. If Hart’s career is utterly destroyed, there will be people – including Hart himself – who will argue that Hart was unfairly treated, that he was punished out of all proportion to the crime. One does not punish a naughty child by cutting off his head! If pushed too far, the outrage can rebound upon the mob; the people who do not share the outrage may feel that the mob has gone too far (even if they don’t agree with Hart’s tweets). The optics of bullying someone into submission – as people who supported the wrong football teams were bullied at school – are poor.

But, more seriously, is there no statute of limitations on tweets? Or on … well, anything? People change, people grow up … at some point, the tweets you made when you were a teenager are going to shift from ‘daring and edgy’ to ‘stupid and idiotic.’ A person who had homophobic opinions as a teenager might grow out of it as an adult. Is it remotely fair for that adult to be condemned because of opinions he stated when he was a young man? And can anyone say, with complete certainty, that they never said anything that – perhaps taken out of context – could be used against them?

The blunt truth is that society changes too. What was acceptable in 1970 is now utterly verboten. And that’s a part and parcel of social change. But … is it fair to blame someone for doing something that was, at the time, regarded as acceptable? The push to condemn TV shows like Friends and Seinfield has a great deal in common with the Taliban’s wanton destruction of Afghanistan’s history, but it is fundamentally stupid and pointless. Reasonable people understand that social mores change over time. Attacking TV shows that were made in a different era – and there are quite a few cringe-worthy episodes of Star Trek and Doctor Who – merely gives the attackers a bad name.

And, perhaps the most important thing of all, why should someone strive for forgiveness if there is no forgiveness to be found?

The funny thing is that the incident that started this line of thought had nothing whatsoever to do with Kevin Hart, but a set of controversial moments in the writing world that probably have no meaning to anyone outside the writing world <grin>. The first was Robert Silverberg’s public condemnation for his opinion of Nora Jemisin’s 2018 Hugo Award speech. The second was Gregory Benford being condemned for statements made at LOSCON. The third was Mystery Writers of America deciding that it would not honour Linda Fairstein’s writing for her role in the prosecution of the ‘Central Park Five’ (alternate take).

Now, I’m not going to get into a pointless argument about if these people crossed the line or not (I had honestly never heard of Linda Fairstein either until I started seeing articles about her) or if they deserve punishment. By the time I heard about the controversies, there were pro- and anti- articles popping up all over the internet, with people putting their own slant on the affairs and then shouting down everyone who disagreed. There was a particularly nasty article on Silverberg – which I will not link – that basically painted him as a racist. You can go read them yourself if you like. The question these three incidents lead to, however, is simple. Is there any way back for them?

The question is more treacherous than it seems. One opinion holds that Linda Fairstein was guilty of serious misconduct. Another holds that she did the right thing, based on what she knew at the time. A third accepts that she was in a tough position and could not afford to back down. I don’t know the truth and I probably never will. Should she be punished for making a bad call? To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence to suggest that she was wilfully wrong. And should Mystery Writers of America have the right to punish her by withholding an award explicitly to punish her?

I am aware, all too aware, of the satisfaction that comes from pointing at the guilty and shouting “UNCLEAN, UNCLEAN, UNCLEAN.” But a fundamentally emotion-driven reaction cannot be trusted. One must be able to formulate a convincing argument that appeals to people who do not share one’s faith – or preconceptions. If Silverberg is to be condemned, it must be proven that he did something wrong. A case must be made that the punishment is just. And while one person can argue that he made graceless remarks about Nora Jemisin, another can argue that he had every right to state his opinions (but no right to expect everyone else to agree with him). YMMV.

***

When I was a child, I was taught that the correct response to a mistake – be it stepping on someone’s foot or accidentally saying something hurtful – was to apologise. The victim would be expected, in turn, to gracefully accept my apology and move on. It was, in many ways, the same as confession; I would admit that I’d made a mistake, forgiveness would be proffered and the matter would be laid to rest. As I grew older, and more cynical, I lost my faith in human decency. Too many people saw advantage in claiming victimhood for me to keep it. (And others, probably, saw apologies as insincere, made more to escape punishment rather than express contrition.)

And yet, what are we going to do about this habit of regarding a single mistake as career-ending?

If we are incapable of forgiving people who transgress against social norms that change from day to day, what does that say about us as a society? If we are unable to let someone get over it, to leave it in the past, why should we expect mercy when we have shown none? And if we are insistent on punishing the guilty out of all proportion to their crime, why should they repent and apologise? I cringe every time I read an apology statement because they sound like a confession extracted during a communist show trial.

This breeds cynicism. Did [offender] really mean it when he apologised? Or was he only apologising because he wanted to avoid punishment? Does [big corporation] really care about [social issue] or is it doing nothing more than virtue signalling? Does [presidential candidate] really care about [social group] or is he just saying what he thinks they want to hear? And is that [writer/singer/actor] getting praised because they deserve it or because [reviewer] is scared to criticize?

The hell of it is that a great deal can be lost. Most social reformers have good intentions – and they often have a point. But they can push too hard, too fast, and lose the goodwill and support of the population. And this can discredit their entire cause. Activists who go too far can cause a backlash directed against their community, even if most of the community wasn’t involved (in the way that PETA embarrasses animal rights activists).

And – like I said above – societies change. What is acceptable today might be forbidden tomorrow. And societies that are unable to reintegrate the losers – however defined – are often setting themselves up for another round of civil war.