Archive | April, 2019

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

27 Apr

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

-David W. Blight

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good example is worth a thousand pictures. Anyone who disputes the intellectual capabilities of black – or mixed-race – people must somehow dismiss the existence and achievements of Frederick Douglass, a man who was born a slave and rose to be one of the foremost political figures in the American Civil War era. Douglass’s mere existence is a rebuke to racists who believe that the slaves were well-treated, or that they were somehow destined to be slaves … or, for that matter, that they were effectively children who needed ‘adults’ to keep them. Douglass rose from the very worst conditions in his era to show what he could do.

Blight’s biography is astonishingly detailed, although – unlike some of the best biographies I have read – it tends to be dry in places. It starts with Douglass’s birth – his father is unknown, although Douglass himself believed that he was fathered by his mother’s master – and his early life as a slave child. Blight pulls no punches when it comes to describing the horrors of slavery, from frequent whippings and abuse to how easily slaves could be discarded for being ‘uppity.’ Douglass tried hard to maintain his dignity – he learnt to read, he tried to stand up to his master – but it wasn’t easy. Given a chance to escape, he took it. He and his wife fled north, to a state where runaway slaves were (relatively) safe. The threat of being kidnapped and dragged back to the south was a constant threat, at least until the outbreak of war.

This early experience drove Douglass’s life. He rapidly became a prominent speaker, defending the rights of slaves and fighting for their freedom. He had no truck with the religiously-motivated antislavery activists, believing that ‘shaming’ the kidnappers of runaway slaves was doomed to fail. He believed that kidnappers should be fought, that killing them was the only way to get them to stop. He was, of course, right. The outbreak of war between the north and south sharpened Douglass’s drive to put an end to slavery. He worked hard to encourage black men to join the army, when permitted, claiming that it was the only way to prove themselves. Again, he was probably right.

The end of the war brought both triumph and defeat. The CSA had been defeated, but the after-effects of slavery and racism lingered on. Douglass struggled to keep the fire of freedom alight with mixed results, as successive American governments wavered backwards and forwards on the issue of freedom and rights for the black population. Douglass had a very public position – both as Marshal of DC and Ambassador to Haiti – but this was both a blessing and a curse. To some extent, he lost touch with the realities of black life; he was the only major black figure to oppose the Kansas Exodus, something that cost him in his later years.

Douglas himself was, very much, a single-issue activist. And who can blame him? Blight makes it clear that it was this cause, freedom for his people, that drove most of Douglas’s life. He could be blind at times, seemingly unaware that others – Lincoln, in particular – needed to juggle a number of different issues. Lincoln appeared to promise that black soldiers would be given the same rights as their white counterparts – did Lincoln trick Douglas? Did Douglass hear what he wanted to hear? Or was Lincoln trying to balance a number of competing interests?

This had other effects, some good and bad. Douglass was not opposed to women’s suffrage, but believed that black suffrage should come first. He sounded, by modern standards, rather patriarchal, insisting that (white) women could appeal to their fathers, brothers, husbands (all of whom were voters); a statement that must have sounded like a bad joke to women who had been victimised by any (or all) of the above). Later, after seeing women treated as property in Egypt, he may have changed his mind on this. (He liked Islam’s habit of racial equality – AQ’s leadership is composed of racists – and a few other things, but this would probably be used against him in the modern era.

He was very perceptive when it came to many issues, ranging from black education to freedom and social rights. He didn’t want his people to become wards of the state, but merely to be given fair play. (“Give [the negro] fair play and let him alone, but be sure you give him fair play [as] a man before the law.”) He had no truck with some other issues, most notably the Lost Cause mythmaking. He brutally dismissed General Lee. “He was a traitor and can be made nothing else.”

He was also very perceptive about Haiti’s relationship with the United States. He grasped that Haiti could not be seen to be bending to US pressure, nor to be making concessions at gunpoint. Nor, in any way, could it surrender control over its territory … which is what the US was really asking. Douglass deserves credit for recognising that this was the case, although his influence was limited. In some ways, he was a poor ambassador who ended up putting the interests of Haiti ahead of America’s short-term interests – noble or naive?

Douglass’s personal life was, in some ways, a reaction to his childhood. His first wife – Anna, a black freedwoman – is something of an enigma, a character who never spoke in her own voice. We know what she did, but not what she felt about it. Douglass had many relationships with other women, which may have been friendships or something more: Blight points out that, regardless of the truth, these relationships were used against him. Douglass’s female admirers may have offered him intellectual stimulation that he couldn’t get from Anna; they may have had romantic ambitions concerning him, but Douglass valued his family life (and his duties as a father) to ever leave his wife.

He tried to be a good father to his children, particularly his sons. He did well, but – at the same time – he may well have been a little overbearing. His clan had problems – financially speaking – and some of his children may never have fully stood on their own two feet. Against this, it must be noted that Douglass did better than his father (whoever he really was); he might have been exasperated, at times, with his kids, but he never abandoned them.

Douglass’s second wife was white, a union that was challenged by many on both sides of the racial divide. Accusations of what we would call a ‘mid-life’ crisis were hurled at him, along with other – even less kind – suggestions. Douglass, to his credit, never bowed to pressure from his detractors. This second match was childless, but it brought both of them great happiness.

It is rare, these days, for anyone not to have feet of clay. Douglass had his strengths and his weaknesses, but the former effortlessly overpowered the latter. He was a remarkable man – and it is greatly to Blight’s credit that he manages to show the transition from half-black slave to towering intellectual. Douglass was neither an angel or a demon, but a man.

At the same time, the book has a tendency to drag in places. Blight is admirably through, but he lacks Douglass’s intellectual capacity. There are a multitude of details that are lacking, ranging from background insights into American society to Douglass’s own thoughts and those of his fellows. His wife remains an enigma, for better or worse. Blight is also coy about some of Douglass’s engagements, wondering if they were more than friendships. The truth is that we simply don’t know.

I enjoyed reading it. But it was more of a drag than I expected.

Quick Updates … And A Question

27 Apr

Hi, everyone

Just another quick update.

My family and I went to Turkey last week on an all-inclusive package tour. It was an interesting experience, in some ways; Turkey – what little I saw of it – reminded me of Malaysia, with chunks of rich and poor jammed together. The resort itself was fake, in the sense that it wasn’t the real Turkey. But we did manage to visit the Old Town nearby, as well as a couple of waterfalls. I would have enjoyed the latter more if we hadn’t had to take the pushchair with us. It was relaxing – and I read a few books I need to review.

Since we got back, I’ve had a combination of a sore throat and evening/morning coughing. It’s the sort of thing I would have shrugged off before discovering I had lymphoma, as what seems a small problem could be a sign of something greater lurking under the surface. We’ll just have to keep an eye on it.

On the plus side, I’ve finished 28 chapters of The Right of the Line and I hope to get the draft completed by the end of the coming week. And then the edits … and then the publication <grin>.

After that, I have to write Debt of War (Kat Falcone 6 (or 7, depending on how you look at it.) And then …

Well, that’s the question. I want to write a Zero Book and the choice comes down to Kingdom of Ghosts (voyage to Hangchow) and The Family Pride (Akin’s Seventh Year at Jude’s.) I had originally intended to write that one last, but the idea has just grabbed me … which one would you like to see?

Let me know …


More Updates <sorry>

8 Apr

Hi, everyone

I was feeling slightly better today, which put me in a good mood for doing the edits for Cursed. The book is now just waiting (I hope) on a cover and then we can go live. If there are more edits … well, I’ll just have to do them. <grin>

I can also inform you that the audio version of The Broken Throne is going to go live on the 16th. I’ll put the link on my Facebook page when I can.

I’ve been stalled on The Right of the Line, thanks to radiotherapy. When we get back from holiday, I hope to get cracking and complete it by the end of the month.

I’ve also sketched out the plot for The Family Pride, which will be Akin’s story – set roughly five years after The Zero Blessing and The Family Shame. So far, the list of planned Zero books are: Kingdom of Ghosts (voyage to Hangchow), The King’s Man (story about a Kingsman <grin>), Revenge (perhaps – this might be better kept separate) and The Family Pride.

Thanks for your patience. It’s been a hard month.


Musings on the US College Admissions Scandal

5 Apr

I have actually been planning to write about the recent scandal – in which a number of wealthy (and quasi-famous, although I hadn’t heard of most of them) parents used various illegitimate methods to ensure their children went to college – for some time, but a combination of health issues and a desire to say something that hadn’t been said about the affair stayed my keyboard. Obviously, not everyone is going to agree with me here, but I think these are valid points. Feel free to comment below if you disagree.

I wasn’t particularly surprised by the affair, but I was angered. Any complex system – and college admissions is both insanely complex and largely opaque – can be gamed by people with money and connections. It isn’t that hard to get special treatment for your children, by having them declared dyslexic or autistic or something … a maddening fact to those of us who do have learning disabilities. In a sense, the admissions scandal is maddening to just about everyone in the civilised world. One could not have asked for a better demonstration of just how the system is rigged … and just how badly the system is rigged. If one has to have an elite composed of cheating bastards, it is too much to ask that they are competent cheating bastards?

There are, I feel, two aspects of the situation that have gone largely unmentioned. One of them is an issue that most people would regard as completely illegitimate, not without reason; the other has more to do with how the American educational establishment managed to get itself into this mess in the first place. It may be accurate, and I suspect that most people would agree with me, but it is not politically correct. Unfortunately, any system largely isolated from the outside world – and academia is often isolated from the rest of the US, let alone the rest of the world – is prone to allowing political correctness to override common sense. One cannot tackle a problem without a careful examination of the causes and a workable plan to deal with them. Allowing oneself to become deluded about the true cause ensures nothing, but failure and (eventual) humiliation.

First, the weakness of the elites.

There are two basic truths throughout human history. First, all societies larger than a mid-sized village will inevitably develop an elite. The combination of concentrated wealth, social complexity and the desire to pass an established position down to one’s children makes sure of it. Second, elites find it difficult to combine the need to keep the power within the family – so to speak – while bringing new blood into the system. As the elites grow stronger, they draw lines between themselves and the lower classes. It therefore becomes harder for talented commoners to marry into the elites, bringing with them new ideas and a solid grasp of the real world.

The first generation of aristocrats, therefore, might be very capable indeed – the first kings were pretty much lucky warlords – but later generations, not having experienced the struggle to establish themselves, are often less capable. A cursory study of monarchy within Britain, for example, reveals a series of competent and very capable kings being followed by incompetent and incapable successors. This happens, at least in part, because the later generations have a tendency to assume that their inheritance – their privilege, as modern-day academia would probably put it – is theirs by right. They didn’t have to earn it and, therefore, they rarely grasp that they have to maintain it. They are therefore unprepared for trouble, rarely capable of dealing with it … and, because they are disconnected from the real world, they have a nasty tendency to listen to people who tell them what they want to hear. This is at least partly why Hilary Clinton lost in 2016.

The ideal of America – the American Dream – is that a man can start poor and work his way up to the very top. In the past, it happened. Most of America’s best leaders and industrialists came from hardy, but poor stock. Democracy served as a way to ensure that the leaders did not lose contact with the commoners, as the leaders who did tended to lose power. This wasn’t a problem as long as the system worked, as long as newcomers could keep rising to the top. However, the concentration of wealth and power ensured that the elites became more isolated from the commoners. They lost touch.

What is truly maddening about the whole admissions affair is that the elites are not even following their own self-interests any longer. It is clearly in their interest for elite colleges (Yale, Harvard, etc) to work properly, ensuring that talented newcomers are inducted into the elites while also preparing the children of the elites to take their place amongst the powerful when their parents pass on. There has to be at least a pretence of fairness for the system to work. Everyone who gets into Harvard while clearly being unqualified, be they legacy or affirmative action admissions, clearly weakens the system. If a Harvard degree is worth less than a piece of toilet paper, what does that say about the students who go to Harvard?

The scandal has deeper repercussions than one might expect. One of the purposes of elite colleges, as I noted above, is to allow the well-born to mingle with talented commoners. (A good fictional example of such a system is the Slug Club from Harry Potter.) There is little pretence that a wealthy man’s son genuinely earned his place, although he might have done. Rubbing shoulders with the established aristocracy, however defined, is the point! But if talented commoners are being pushed out by elitist parents rigging the system, what does that say about them? Those parents are not even capable of preparing their children for the modern world. Indeed, they are actively harming the best interests of their social class.

In one sense, this is a reflection of a greater disease sweeping the West. There is a pronounced tendency to mistake a symbol for the thing itself. Thus, we are told that a treaty with Iran is a good idea even though it is a profoundly bad treaty … and Iran didn’t bother to keep it anyway. In academia (and writing, I admit) one can draw up all sorts of theories and imaginary worlds, without ever actually testing them. It’s easy for people to believe nonsense when they are never asked to actually prove their theories. Therefore, the ‘acceptable’ opinion is not the objectively right opinion, but the politically acceptable opinion. There is no room for questioning orthodoxy. This ensures that universities are increasingly held in contempt by outsiders, who comprise the vast majority of the American population. This is a recipe for trouble.

One can understand a ‘damn you, I’ve got mine’ attitude from the elites. It isn’t pleasant, but it has been a battlecry of the elites throughout history. But what is one to make of an elitist system that is literally eating itself?

The second aspect is more controversial, politically speaking. And, if you don’t mind, I’m going to start with an anecdote.

My primary schooling was a failure, even after I was (eventually) diagnosed with dyslexia. I spent four years at a hellish boarding school, where I was probably the most academically successful student during the school’s final years. And then I spent my last two years of secondary education at a mundane school, where I discovered – to my horror – that I was probably a C-student at best. There were so many gaps in my education, so many things I that hadn’t mastered, that I was dangerously behind my peers. I had hoped to take so many classes the hellhole hadn’t offered, only to be told I hadn’t made the grade. My career ambitions had been dashed long before I’d even formed them. I considered becoming a lawyer, for example, but by the time I discovered what the requirements actually were it was far too late to try to meet them. My hopes and dreams had been squashed before I had ever come to realise that I might have a future.

(There is another problem that is rarely acknowledged. If you remove a legal – i.e. arbitrary – barrier between any given group and a profession, it still takes some time for a newcomer to qualify to practice. There will be a lag between the members of the group being allowed to train and actually graduating. This inevitably irks those who want immediate results.)

In some ways, I was lucky. My parents were determined to help me. They never sneered at the idea of learning. And my near-complete social isolation probably kept me from embracing my peers and forgoing my education, although – as it was a bad school – it probably wouldn’t have made any difference to the final outcome. But it didn’t matter. I had so many gaps in my education, so many things I hadn’t been allowed to master before being rushed on to the next thing, that I looked doomed. I suppose I should be grateful they weren’t trying to teach me how to write <grin>.

Education – particularly STEM education – requires a solid grasp of the basics before moving on to advanced studied. Students must be able to read and write, to comprehend, contextualise and compose … it simply isn’t easy, as I found out, to catch up when you’ve been left behind. A gap in your knowledge from when you’re a child may ensure that you never catch up, particularly if your teacher is unaware of your lack and/or unwilling to help you. If you start your education in a poor school, you will be hampered for life.

Schools aren’t the only problem. If you grow up in a deprived inner city, for example, you will face social exclusion yourself if you try to study hard. Your peers will condemn you for trying to better yourself. (This is true even in racially-homogenous districts.) Your teachers will be poor, either because decent teachers shun such assignments or because they’re hampered by absurd rules handed down by political elitists who don’t know the reality on the ground or simply don’t care. It is hard to study, it is hard to better yourself, when you have no father (or mother), crime is rife, drugs are freely available … indeed, it is far easier to blame outside forces for your problems than look to yourselves. A student who grows up in such an environment is unlikely to match, academically speaking, someone who has both the drive and the resources to make use of it.

This creates a nasty little problem. A student from a deprived area is unlikely – by any objective measure – to make the grade to enter college. They simply haven’t had the advantages enjoyed by students from better areas, everything from better teachers to parents and peers who are actively encouraging. However, as many deprived students in the US are either black (or minority-majority), this looks like racism to subjective outsiders, to whom the absence of non-whites is prima facie evidence of racism. To ward off challenges, colleges therefore use affirmative action and lower the entry requirements for selected minority groups. This is, as I noted above, a belief that problems can be solved by making things look better. The fact that the real issue is still allowed to fester is neither here nor there.

Unsurprisingly, this causes resentment. Parents and students who think other students have an unfair advantage start muttering darkly – “if she only had to meet two-thirds of the requirements to get in, is she only two-thirds as good?” – and they get angry. Why should they not? The recent lawsuits challenging Harvard’s admissions of Asian-Americans are only the tip of the iceberg. Why should Asians have to jump through more hoops – most of which are painfully subjective – when they did nothing to deserve it? It gets more poisonous if the AA students genuinely are unprepared for college. They look bad, which – because they’re often the only lower-class students the elitist kids will meet – tends to taint elitist attitudes to their peers.

The admissions scandal intersects with this in several different ways. The more complex a system becomes, the easier it is for corrupt staff and students to ‘game’ it. It is relatively simple to boost a student’s prospective standing, particularly when one understands how the game is really played. Everything from learning disabilities to racial origin and sporting skills can be used … the student, as we have learned, doesn’t even have to play sports to qualify. In short, the complexity provides an unfair advantage to wealthier parents … one that, unlike making massive donations to the college, doesn’t even offer advantages to the entire institution. Why should people not be angry about this?

It is, in many ways, worse than I suggest above. People do not get angry, by and large, about a third (or whatever) of college slots going to legacy admissions. They go to college to meet legacy admissions. But the admissions scandal actually limits the number of places open to everyone else, whatever their colour or creed. Of course it does. If an AA slot can be claimed by someone who cannot, in any real sense of the word, be described as ‘deprived,’ what does this mean for someone who genuinely is deprived?

The core of the problem is two-fold. First, many students (and not just those from deprived areas) do not meet the objective academic requirements to enter higher education. In a just world, there would be no debate; if a student cannot pass the entrance exam, they shouldn’t be allowed to go to college. However, this contrasts with both the practical need to keep legacy admissions (and the donations they bring) and kowtow to the social justice zealots. There is no easy way to deal with the problem, thus enforcing a complex admissions system … and therefore encouraging both racial and class resentment.

But the deeper problem is that primary education (in both Britain and America) is largely unsuited to purpose. Kids who fall behind – and many of them do – rarely have a chance to catch up. Instead, they find themselves hopelessly unprepared, either for college/university or the real world. Fixing education would, I think, fix many of the problems facing us today. It would not, however, be an easy task. It would require a degree of long-term thinking that is alien to our modern-day elites. It would also require a cold, unemotional examination of the facts, one that discarded political correctness for objective correctness.

And that might be the hardest thing of all.

Review: The Killing Moon

4 Apr

The Killing Moon

-NK Jemsin

“We tell them stories about your kind, you know. ‘Be good, or a Gatherer will get you.’”

His face twisted in disgust. “That’s a perversion of everything we are.”

“You kill, priest. You do it for mercy and a whole host of other reasons that you claim are good, but at the heart of it you sneak into people’s homes in the dead of night and kill them in their sleep. This is why we think you strange—you do this and you see nothing wrong with it.”

NK Jemsin is one of the more prominent voices calling for ‘diversity in science-fiction and fantasy,’ a platform that has always struck me as dangerously misleading. I have no objection to diverse backgrounds or worlds that draw on non-western influences, although they do have their limits (as I have discussed in this series on ‘diverse’ books), but I care nothing for the race, gender, sexual orientation or culture of any given author. I judge an author solely by their work, not by any aspects of their life and times that are utterly irrelevant to me. Indeed, Jemsin deserves credit for putting her money where her mouth is – unlike most social commenters – and actually writing ‘diverse’ books herself.

And The Killing Moon, in many ways, showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of ‘diverse’ books.

On one hand, it cannot be denied that The Killing Moon takes place in a universe that is refreshingly different from many more mundane fantasy books. The background is largely – although not entirely – unique, drawing from Ancient Egypt and Hinduism rather than Medieval Europe or Native American. And yet, the characters remain understandable and human, even when they are often unsympathetic. But, on the other hand, the basic assumptions of this universe are so different from our own – and the bog-standard fantasy backgrounds we know and understand – that it can be hard, at first, to follow what is going on. The names of people and places – even the curious background mythology – are alien to most readers. The Killing Moon rewards a second reading, like most good fantasy novels, but it has problems getting its readers to want a second reading.

The plot is both surprisingly simple and remarkably complex. In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, the night belongs to the Gatherers, priests of the dream-goddess who harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe … and kill those judged corrupt. Their word is law, at least within their city. Foremost amongst them is Ehiru, who has recently accepted a new apprentice (Nijiri). Ehiru, however, has problems of his own. After a Gathering – a mission to grant a peaceful death – goes badly wrong, he finds himself questioning both his calling and his order’s innermost secrets.

In the meantime, Ambassador Sunandi – a representative from a nearby country – discovers that Gujaareh is plotting war. She attempts to warn her people, only to alert the hostile factions to her knowledge. Ehiru is told that she has been judged corrupt and ordered to grant her peace (i.e. kill her). Faced with her worst nightmare – a Gatherer in her bedroom – Sunandi manages to convince Ehiru that she has been wrongly named. Reluctantly, realising that there are worse problems at home, Ehiru and Nijiri flee with Sunandi to her homeland in hopes of discovering what they know. However, powerful forces are after them and Ehiru – deprived of the dream-stuff he would normally have harvested from Sunandi – is starting to lose his mind. He warns Nijiri, who has fallen in love with him, that the time may come for his apprentice to kill him. But the war begins before they can act.

Returning to Gujaareh, they discover that the leader of the plot is none other than the Prince himself – Ehiru’s brother. The Prince points out that the Gatherers are little more than drug lords, harvesting dream-stuff and distributing it to addicts. (One of the more interesting aspects of the story is that it is clear the Prince has a point.) Regardless, he has to be stopped; his researches into long-lost magics, and the reason Sunandi and most of her countrymen fear and hate the Gatherers, have offered him the chance to make himself an immortal king. Ehiru stops him, saving the city from one enemy only to hand it over to an invading and occupying army. Nijiri ‘gathers’ Ehiru, then goes back to the temple to begin his career as a full Gatherer.

In many ways, my brief summery has not done full justice to the plot. There are many neat aspects that only revealed themselves during the second reading, from the subtle (and somewhat inconsistent) message of ‘chosen’ – i.e. adopted – families being better than birth families to the obvious comparison between abuse of the dream-stuff and outright drug abuse (and how it can be used to control people). In hindsight, it is clear that ‘corruption’ is present well before it makes itself overt. Indeed, Jemsin definitely deserves a reward for creating a society that is loved by its members and yet regarded with entirely-justified fear and loathing by outsiders. I haven’t seen this done so well since SM Stirling created the Draka, with the added bonus that Ehiru – at least – is brave enough to take a stand against his society.

But then, the book also showcases the flaws in such an approach. Ehiru’s stance might have saved millions of lives, but it also opened the gates to allow Gujaareh to be occupied by its enemies. This is, of course, a repulsive (and distressingly common) historical problem. People born into an ‘evil’ society cannot simply give up without being destroyed by their society’s enemies, a problem Nelson Mandela understood and most modern-day SJBs do not. Why take your boot off someone’s neck, even if you understand that it is an unpleasant and wrong thing to do, when that person will destroy everything you hold dear? I don’t know if Jemsin did this intentionally, but it is definitely a point to ponder.

The characters themselves are a little weaker than one might expect. Ehiru himself is very much a ‘lawful good’ character, which allows him to be manipulated by both his brother and his superiors in the temple. He has no understanding of compromise and rails against corruption wherever he finds it, without realising that aims and intentions are sometimes more important than actions. It never crosses his mind that his superiors might be evil – or find themselves forced to make evil decisions – and he is rightly horrified when he discovers the truth, nearly having a breakdown (and he must have found death to be a relief). Nijiri, by contrast, comes across as a flatter character with a homoerotic crush on Ehiru. This becomes more than a little edgy at times, although nothing actually happens.

Sunandi, by contrast, is a curious choice for ambassador. Jemsin does an excellent job of making it clear that she’s a good character, although she shares the same fear and loathing that other outsiders feel towards the Gatherers and Gujaareh itself. (This is completely justified in-story, a curious choice on Jemsin’s part.) She is also brave and resolute when necessary, talking her way out of being assassinated by Ehiru – and yes, this would have been a political assassination – and doing everything in her power to resist the invasion. Jemsin hems and haws a little on Sunandi’s role in the counter-invasion, although no one would have blamed her for wanting to crush the beast in its lair.

And the Prince himself is an oddity. He is a devoted family man – in stark contrast to the father he shares with Ehiru – and has a very strong point, but he throws it away as he descends into madness. In a normal book, he’d be the hero. Instead, he is the darkest person in the story. His seeming decency only makes the truth worse.

There are, it should be noted, a series of curious aspects within the text. Jemsin does not, it seems, understand the role of an ambassador, an interesting oversight given that ambassadors were regarded as sacred in ancient times. It is hard to believe that any government, ancient or modern, would tolerate the legalised murder of an ambassador, or even accept that it might happen. (Carter effectively did tolerate it, leading to many of the problems facing the US today.) It’s also hard to believe that any halfway responsible host government would tolerate religious factions attacking diplomats – that is, bluntly put, an act of war. And Sunandi allows herself to be seduced by the Prince, which may have been intentional (it let her take a look at his chambers) but the text isn’t clear on this point.

The city also has a curious mixture of sexual freedom and repression. On one hand, both homosexual relationships and temple prostitution are treated as normal. No one appears scandalised by Nijiri having a crush on his teacher (although they should be, as Ehiru is Nijiri’s mentor). But, on the other, the locals seem to feel that their women should not work; this is treated as a sign of respect, but it should be obvious how this is also a sign of repression. It’s also worth nothing that the city is racially-diverse, but not particularly culturally­-diverse. No one makes an issue of skin colour within the book, a refreshing change, but aspects of the plot are driven by cultural clashes between the city’s locals and outsiders.

The text also highlights the problem with religious extremists. Both Ehiru and Nijiri are fanatics, by modern standards; they do things that Sunandi (rightly) finds appalling, because they feel they have divine sanction. In this universe, they may have be right; however, it doesn’t stop them (and their followers) from being regarded as monsters. You cannot argue with a fanatic because he knows he’s right. The text also illustrates the dangers in such an approach. Religious institutions are dangerous because their followers will refuse to question them, even when they are clearly in the wrong. Ehiru is a good man, but what happens when a religious nut is not a good man?

This raises yet another curious issue. At the end of the book, with Gujaareh under enemy occupation, Nijiri tells Sunandi that Gujaareh will not resist … if she and her customs are treated with respect. But why should they be treated with respect? Why should the civilised man respect barbarian customs? Respect is earned, not given. The deep-seated corruption within the temple – neatly foreshadowed by Jemsin right at the start – has rendered it institutionally guilty. A little more of ‘we will respect your right to burn widows if you respect our right to hang murderers’ would do wonders for our modern-day problems.

Overall, Jemsin deserves credit for creating a very different magic system that – by and large – hangs together very well. It is nowhere near as detailed as any of Brandon Sanderson’s creations – I thought I saw elements from Mistborn worked into the system – but it does manage to both look different and provide an understandable and well-foreshadowed ending to the story. In hindsight, both the real nature of the Prince’s plan and the resolution are clear to see. Given the challenge facing Jemsin, she rose to it very well.

She could not, however, avoid many of the weaknesses of ‘diverse’ books. She needed to explain her society to us, but that inevitably slowed down the plot; she needed to make her characters likable, which she did, yet she needed to keep reminding us that Ehiru and Nijiri may be good people, but they serve (by our standards) a monstrous society. Jemsin is a remarkable world-builder, but the sheer alienness of Gujaareh works both for and against the plot. There are aspects that should have been detailed, but were simply glossed over. The Killing Moon really should have been a trilogy. The plot was certainly big enough to spread over three books. (There is a sequel, but it isn’t a direct sequel.)

The Killing Moon has not won any major awards, which is something of a shame. It is – in my less than humble opinion – the greatest work Jemsin has produced. Indeed, unlike The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or The Fifth Season, it is strikingly groundbreaking and should have been nominated for a Hugo. The world is different, but understandable; the characters are not-us, but understandable even though (some) of them would be regarded as villains or monsters in our society. Or even simply too alien to be accepted easily. The most understandable characters, from our point of view, are Sunandi and the Prince.

But, on the whole, The Killing Moon is definitely a excellent book that rewards its readers.

Who’s Side Are They On?

1 Apr

This is something of a ramble and I was very depressed when I came up with it, but there’s a serious point here. As always, disagreement is welcome.

It’s kind of scary where my mind will go if I let it. Case in point, I was reading a book to my son a couple of nights ago called Share. It’s one of those sweet little books that are supposed to teach older siblings that they should share everything they have with their younger siblings, even if the object in question is theirs. The poem-text includes gems that run like this:

I love my fluffy teddy, but Baby wants it too.

“Share, says Mummy. So I do.

“And now my teddy’s sticky – and covered over with glue.

The story goes on in similar vein. Big Sis shares her stuff with Baby, only to have it ruined; Big Sis shares everything else with Baby, only to make a mess; Big Sis discovers the joys of sharing life with a little brother. Sweet and charming, if you discount the string of Big Sis’s possessions that have been ruined and her newfound joy of making messes that Mummy has to clear up. Mummy, of course, takes this in her stride. <grin>.

What struck me as grossly unfair, while I was reading the book, was that Big Sis’s possessions were being ruined. None of the things that got damaged by Baby were easy to repair – even if they were replaced outright, they wouldn’t be the same. Mummy doesn’t seem to notice quite how unfair she’s being. On one hand, from her lofty maternal perch, she’s trying to get her children to play together; on the other, from Big Sis’s point of view, she’s sacrificing Big Sis’s possessions to Baby. It isn’t fair to Big Sis. Why should she be happy with it? And why doesn’t Mummy understand? Wasn’t she a little girl, once upon a time?

The average parent doesn’t really care about issues that seem so important to children, if only because – as adults – they have (hopefully) grown out of childish disputes long ago. To a child, fifty pence is a vast sum of money; to a parent, fifty pence won’t even buy a cup of tea. Parents think of themselves as separate from their children, untouched by their spats and petty disagreements. It’s quite possible for two boys, the worst of enemies by their standards, to discover that their parents are the best of friends and the kids are expected to play nicely together (and, when one of them is victimised by the other, the victim normally discovers that their parents see them as equally guilty). Such an approach might make sense for parents. It isn’t the end of the world if one boy knocks down another boy’s sandcastle. It can be rebuilt. But, to someone who is intensely focused on a sandcastle that took hours to make, it really does feel like the end of the world.

Indeed, we tend to mock parents who get too involved in childish issues – or try to live through their children. A father-figure cannot be a father-figure if he wants to be one of the boys, a point that too many fathers often forget. He must keep himself above their petty disputes if he wishes to be seen as a reasonable source of justice, rather than a grown man pretending he’s a child.

The point – which I will get to before you all start thinking I’ve gone insane – is that politicians have increasingly started to see themselves as paternal figures, who are above childish disputes. On the surface, that isn’t such a problem. We need people who can think beyond tribalism. But, at the same time, it can lead to all sorts of problems. A parent who earns minimum wage, for example, is still vastly richer than a child who only gets £5 a week in pocket money. It can be hard to understand how unpleasant it can be to lose £5 – or an even smaller sum – if one has far more money in one’s wallet and/or bank account. A politician who is surrounded by armed security, 24/7, is one who cannot understand what it is like to live on a crime-riddled estate. The politicians are secure. Their voters are not.

Kids sometimes ask themselves, in all honesty, which side their parents are actually on. Why aren’t my parents taking me seriously? Why do I have to play with that jerk? Why am I expected to share my toys when he breaks them? Why do I have to … it goes on and on, with no good answers (or at least no good answers a child can accept.) This is part and parcel of growing up. But, when it is applied to politics, it turns actively poisonous. Which side are they on indeed? A cynic – like me – might well answer “their side.”

Point is, parents don’t really get down with their children. They dispense justice (or dictates, depending which side you’re on) from high above. But this blinds them to the truths of any given situation, truths that any child knows to be true. To parents, the victim and the victimiser look identical; to children, the parents are either on their side or against them. A politician may believe that it is important to give criminals a fair chance to re-enter society, for example, but the average civilian feels otherwise. If we know someone is guilty, if we know someone is likely to reoffend … well, lock them up and throw away the key. The political elite may believe that it’s important to make a show of being impartial – which they do very well, as long as their interests are not threatened – but the commoners (and commoners is pretty much how the elites think of them) want people who put their interests first. A criminal’s rights are important, but they’re much less important than the rights of his victim.

As society fragments, thanks to identity politics, this causes all sorts of problems. For example, transgender bathroom rights seem like a good idea if you’re above the problems they bring in their wake. On paper, there is nothing wrong with letting people use the bathrooms they want to use. But, in this case, transgender rights conflict with the right of women to have sex-segregated bathrooms. One group’s rights clash directly with another group’s rights. This alienates women from transgenders … and both transgenders and women from the lofty politicians who have caused the problem in the first place. Instead of working out a reasonable compromise, two groups are at daggers drawn. This is, shall we say, a little unfortunate. It also raises a simple question. Why should one group be forced to compromise when the other – from the first group’s point of view – is the aggressor?

This is, in many ways, merely the tip of the iceberg. As I have noted before, controversial issues – from immigration and open borders to currency integration, trade treaties, and globalisation (and yes, transgender bathrooms) – may have brought benefits, but they also brought troubles … and the benefits and troubles were not spread equally. The people who benefited from free movement within the EU, for example, were not the ones who had to deal with the problems it brought in its wake. The political elite often did benefit – this is undeniable – and it made it harder for them to understand the concerns of those who didn’t. It’s easy to dismiss the wolf when you can’t even hear the approaching howl, let alone feel the teeth biting into your neck. The constant dismissal, mockery and even hatred for those who hadn’t benefitted only alienated them from the political elites.

What people want, at base, is politicians who are unambiguously on their side. Not shifty little weaklings who hem and haw whenever serious issues are raised, not indecisive fools who are afraid to choose a side for fear of losing voters they probably never had anyway, not layabouts who soak up money while doing as little as possible, but politicians who put their interests first. They want – they need – politicians who stand up for the country, who fight for their people … not politicians who sell the country to the highest bidder (and are sometimes too incompetent to manage even that). And if the current crop of political leaders are incapable of serving the interests of the voters, the voters will look elsewhere. Why should they not?

Back in 2017, Ta-Nehisi Coates published an article in which he called Donald Trump the ‘first white President.’ On the face of it, this is absurd. With the possible exception of Warren Harding, who was alleged to have ‘passed’ as white (this has apparently been disproved), forty-three out of Trump’s forty-four predecessors have been white. And yet, as strange as it seems, Coates had a point. Trump would not have been elected, were it not for the support of people who felt that they were being marginalised, discarded and ruthlessly mocked … people who wanted – who desperately needed – a political leader who was unambiguously on their side. The unfortunate result, as I noted earlier, of identity politics is that it encourages tribalism … and, inevitably, we end up with ‘straight white male’ being considered an identity. In that sense, Coates was right. Donald Trump was elected because be appealed to an identity that felt it had been sold out by traditional politicians.

Obviously, a lot of people will say that isn’t true. They may be right, but it doesn’t matter. People believe it to be true and perception, in politics, is more important than reality.

If you want an explanation for the current political crisis gripping America, Britain and Europe, look at how badly politicians have lost touch with the common man. Look at just how many problems have been caused by political elites forgetting what it is like to be at the bottom of the ladder. Look at them forgetting who they work for …

… And whose side they’re supposed to be on.