Archive | January, 2020

Guest Post: Geography and War In Battle for the Wastelands

22 Jan

Geography and War In Battle for the Wastelands

By Matthew W. Quinn

One major influence on human culture and warfare is geography. Great Britain’s tradition of having a large navy without a large army — and thus a stronger history of constitutional government instead of military strongmen — emerged from being an island difficult to invade from mainland Europe. Meanwhile, the Eurasian steppes, too dry for farming but perfect for livestock, allowed for the rise of the great pastoral cultures like the Scythians, Huns, and Mongols. Like real life, geography plays a major role in the cultures and the events of my new novel Battle for the Wastelands.

Battle takes place in the Northlands, a realm bounded by “the mountains and the deserts and the sea.” To the north rises massive mountain ranges that nobody has ever crossed, or at least crossed and returned. The east and west are bounded by large oceans, while to the south is the vast and terrifying Iron Desert. Although the trading city-state of Everett lies off the western coast and there is intermittent contact with civilizations south of the desert, the Everetti are very good at keeping their secrets and the desert is extraordinarily difficult to cross. This makes the goods brought across by nomadic traders even more expensive and thus fascinating, an effect much like the goods of China brought at great expense along the Silk Road had on medieval Europe. And so the realms south of the Iron Desert are a deeply interesting target for the coalition of warlords commanded by the military dictator Grendel, who has united the Northlands and is now finding his men increasingly difficult to manage without an outside enemy to command them against.

Grendel rules the Northlands from the Basin, a vast region ringed by mountains. The closest real-world analogue to the Basin is the Sichuan Basin in central China. Like Sichuan, the Basin is both a rich region due to farming and industrial cities like Grendel’s capital of Norridge and, owing to its mountainous frontiers, eminently defensible against outside assault. It was the conquest of the Sichuan region by the Qin state in ancient China that played a major role in their defeat of the rival Chu state, which helped transform the Qin family from a regional power to the founders of the first truly imperial Chinese dynasty. Like the Qin and Sichuan, Grendel is not native to the Basin — he hails from Sejera, a coastal region to the west — and it is the joining of this new realm to his original one much like the Qin conquest of Sichuan that makes him a fearsome power decades before Battle begins.

One noted feature of the Basin is the enormous gap in the mountains known as the Pass, much like the Hangu Pass that the Qin fortified and used to check an assault by a coalition of rival Chinese states alarmed at their growing power. Owing to Grendel’s domination of the Basin and the weakness of rivals to its south, this has been an avenue of armies launched against others, but in the event of a reverse this would be a formidable defense, much like the Black Gate of Mordor.

One conquered region south of the Pass was ruled by the Merrill family, which took control in the distant past when a civilization much like ours came to a sudden and unpleasant end. The Merrills ruled along the Grand River, which begins in the mountains ringing the Basin and rolls eastward toward the ocean. The region southeast of the Pass ruled by the Merrills is wide open country and the Merrills, like the ancient steppe peoples, were noted for their cavalry. Although the machine guns and especially the dirigibles of Grendel’s armies broke the Merrills in the open, it is the mobility of the survivors that allowed them to survive and fight years after the fall of the Merrill capital of Jacinto when Battle begins. Though cavalry charges no longer have their old potency in an age of machine guns, the Merrill horsemanship allows virtually their entire army to function as dragoons, moving rapidly on horseback but dismounting to fight. And although aerial reconnaissance and attack make the Merrill remnants less effective, the high plans and badlands where the Grand River valley bleeds into the Iron Desert provide a base for harrying their foes much like a similar environment in West Texas gave the Comanche Nation.

And geography plays a major role in the functioning of the Flesh-Eating Legion, Grendel’s local help in subduing the Grand River valley and main villains of Battle. The Flesh-Eaters hail from the mountainous country northeast of the Merrill realm, a spur of the ranges ringing the Basin. Owing to their homeland’s nature, they are not known for their cavalry, much like how southern Greece where the major classical city-states arose was not known for its cavalry either. Instead the Flesh-Eaters rely on infantry, infantry infamous for their practice of ritualized cannibalism. This too has its origins in geography — mountainous country is not great for farming. In times of want – and the dark years after the collapse of civilization certainly count – the ability of the natives of the region to trade their coal and minerals for food became greatly restricted. So it was that the ancestors of the Flesh-Eaters took up cannibalism and created a faith that made a virtue out of necessity. This faith, ultimately another function of geography, drives their armies to battle and makes them fearsome opponents for Merrill chieftain Alonzo Merrill and Battle protagonist Andrew Sutter, a soldier in his army.

-Matthew W. Quinn is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror based in Atlanta, GA, USA. Battle for the Wastelands is his first independent novel; his horror tale The Thing in the Woods and horror-comedy Little People, Big Guns are through small presses.

OUT NOW: The Ancient Lie: The Unwritten Words II

21 Jan

(Sorry about the delay on this – I caught the flu and still feel rotten)

“I know the words written… But the words unwritten? Those, I don’t know.”


After the campaign in the Summer Isle, Isabella rides out the winter storms by studying the godly magic under Mother Lembu, in the process learning about the origins of the old gods.

Crown Prince Reginald receives word that his father the King is ill and his sister Princess Sofia, acting as regent, is imposing a regime that is strangely similar to what had been happening on the Summer Isle – nobles killed, temples smashed, enforced public worship of old gods. Concerned that his family, and indeed his homeland, are in danger, Reginald is determined to return home.

 But the storms are still raging with what appears to be unnatural force, making any attempt to return to Andalusia too risky for the Prince and his men… unless Isabella can somehow use the new rituals she has learnt to placate the powers behind the storms and navigate the fleet safely home to face whatever has taken control of the kingdom.

Download samples and purchase from the links here!

Musings on Star Wars

17 Jan

Musings on Star Wars

When he devised Star Wars, depending on which version of the story you believe about how much Lucas planned before he started making movies, George Lucas set himself an unusual challenge.  Deliberately or not, he opened in the middle of the story with A New Hope and followed up with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – episodes 4-6 of the overall 9-movie story.  This had both advantages and disadvantages.  A New Hope started with no fans and no following, so Lucas could afford to paper over the cracks in the backstory without upsetting the more nit-picky amongst the audience.  The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had the relatively simple task of building on A New Hope.  The disadvantages, however, were two-fold.

First, the prequel trilogy had to build up to the original trilogy.

Second, the sequel trilogy had to build on both the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy.

This was not an easy task.  A New Hope is a relatively simple story, centred around the power trio of Luke, Han and Leia.  Lucas established their characters in broad strokes, either leaving the other characters to the side (Vader, Chewbacca, Wedge, the droids) where they served as plot elements rather than characters in their own right, or killing them off to suit the story (Ben Kenobi, Tarkin).  The Empire Strikes Back allowed more focus on Vader, as well as introducing Lando and the Emperor, because the power trio were already well established and both Lando and the Emperor were relatively minor characters for most of the movie.  Return of the Jedi culminated this trend by bringing the Emperor front and centre, allowing him to drive Vader’s plot and giving Lando a much bigger role.  It also introduced a handful of minor characters that loomed large through the Expanded Universe/Legends canon.

Luke himself served as our viewpoint character for most of the trilogy.  It’s important to realise that Lucas painted Luke as a simple farm boy, dangerously inexperienced as he crawls into a wider universe.  His character and skills develop as we watch.  He makes mistakes, from getting into a bar fight to abandoning his training to save his friends, but his mistakes are understandable.  Han and Leia have less development – Leia certainly comes across as far more mature, even older, than her twin brother – but what little we see makes sense.  Han grows into a hero, almost despite himself; Leia takes control of her surroundings and, when she is put in chains by an alien slug, uses them to strangle him. Leia is a feminist icon for a reason.  Neither she nor either of the other two are Mary Sues.

The movie series might have worked better if Lucas had moved straight to crafting the prequel trilogy.  Instead, Star Wars lay fallow for a few years before giving birth to the Expanded Universe/Legends.  This ranged from the extremely good – the Thrawn and X-Wing books – to the shockingly poor and problematic The Courtship of Princess Leia and the deeply weird The Crystal Star. The canon grew into a colossal universe set between A New Hope and massive interstellar wars deep into the post-ROTJ era.  This was both good and bad for Star Wars.  On one hand, it kept the flame alive and gave birth to all kinds of source material that could be mined for the later movies.  On the other, it created a fandom that had emotionally invested itself in the Expanded Universe/Legends canon, which would be very hard to please when – if – the next set of movies were ever made.  The real problem facing Star Wars Aftermath was not the gay character, but the simple fact that the book was competing with the brilliant Heir to the Empire and lost badly. 

Lucas eventually did make the prequel trilogy.  However, to some extent, his vision was competing with the Expanded Universe/Legends canon too.  (Notice the version of the Clone Wars presented in Heir to the Empire, which has little in common with Attack of the Clones.)  This alone might not have been a major problem.  The Phantom Menace, however, had too many weak spots to please the fandom.  Jake Lloyd, like most child actors, couldn’t live up to the demands placed on him.  (Personally, I’d have started with an older actor and declared Anakin to be in his early teens.)  Add this to a comedic character who isn’t funny – Jar-Jar – and a plot that makes little sense (although it does in hindsight) and you have a recipe for trouble. 

These flaws spread into Attack of the Clones, which had a bad guy of little impact (personally, I like the Darth Jar-Jar theory) and cast a baleful shadow over Revenge of the Sith.  The third of the trilogy is the best, but the actors were unable to cope with the script’s demands they play the doomed romance as true love rather than two young people making a series of mistakes and being unable to cope with it.  That said, the movie does wonders for the Emperor and the trilogy as a whole shows why the Jedi were falling to the dark side long before the Emperor effectively wiped them out.  (If they were stupid enough not to realise that bringing ‘balance to the force’ was probably bad news for them, as they hugely outnumbered the Sith, they probably deserved to lose.)

Still, the flaws in the prequel trilogy didn’t overshadow the original trilogy.  The important characters were amply justified (save Jar-Jar) and relatively few of them survived into the next series.  Those of us who disliked the movies could afford to ignore them.  Not everyone did, of course.  Lucas might have recovered from the problems of The Phantom Menace, but his stock had slipped.  He was no longer seen as a genius by his fans.  Star Wars, in a sense, had outgrown him.  His decision to sell the rights to Disney was, generally, taken as a good thing. 

I still don’t understand how they managed to mess it up.

I do understand one part of it.  They were trying to please both the fans – some of whom became known as the Fandom Menace – and new viewers.  The latter would not be steeped in Star Wars to the point they’d understand elements that grew out of the Expanded Universe/Legends canon.  If they’d gone with a movie version of the Thrawn books, they would have had to explain a lot to new viewers  And yet, they wouldn’t need to do that much explaining.  Luke, Han and Leia are known characters; Mara Jade, Thrawn and C’baoth could be introduced relatively easily (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Thrawn and Pellaeon).  It wouldn’t have been that hard to go through the Expanded Universe/Legends canon, take whatever they wanted and discard the rest.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe did that and it worked very well.

Instead, they discarded practically all of the Expanded Universe/Legends canon.

That was, for me at least, the point where I decided I wasn’t going to get invested in the Disney Wars canon.  I was already irked that some of my favourite comics were being steadily rebooted, time and time again.  I wasn’t going to read the books unless the new post-ROTJ canon really grabbed me.  I’d thought the original Expanded Universe/Legends canon did well enough.  But even that wasn’t the real killer.

The sequel trilogy had to build on the original trilogy, at the very least.  Instead, The Force Awakens proved to be – largely – a beat-for-beat reprise of A New Hope.  There is a Rebel Alliance – the Resistance – fighting the remnants of the Empire (aka the First Order.)  The First Order has an even bigger Death Star, plus they’re searching for a droid with a map to Luke Skywalker’s hiding place.  (And why did someone who wanted to hide go to the trouble of drawing a map?)  The overall story arc is very much like A New Hope, with Han playing the role of Ben Kenobi (his death was easy to predict). 

The characters had potential, but that was largely wasted.  Poe didn’t get enough screen time to be a really developed character.  Finn, the best of the new characters, had too many cowardly lion moments for my tastes.  He comes across as weak, where Han looked cocky in the original trilogy.  And Rey is very much a Mary Sue.  She’s too good, given where she started from (Mara Jade, by contrast, had her awesomeness very clearly explained from the start).  The movie denies us the chance to watch her grow, as we watched Luke grow in the original trilogy.  I sometimes feel that the writer gave all the pratfalls to Finn, who isn’t the type of character who can handle it.  In conclusion, The Force Awakens is good for nostalgia, but bad for character development.  It’s tissue-thin and falls apart when you look at it too closely.

Leaving aside Rogue One, perhaps the best of the Disney Wars movies, we move on to The Last Jedi.  Again, it draws heavily from the original trilogy – in this case, unsurprisingly, The Empire Strikes Back.  However, it is unable to justify itself as well as the original.  The plot makes little sense, practically assassinating all three of the main characters as well as both Luke and Leia.  (Kenobi and Yoda hid from an entire empire.  What was Luke hiding from?)

Worse, it lacks the original’s compact storytelling.  Instead of a united plot that diverges and then recombines, there are three separate plots.  The power trio are split up – after having been separated at the end of The Force Awakens – and sent on different missions for various plot reasons. One of them should really have been eliminated, preferably Finn’s.  As much as I like him, and I do, his plot is the least useful.  Finn and Poe should have been kept together, if only because Poe and Finn have a lot more chemistry than Finn and Rose. (Rose herself is completely surplus to requirements, although she’s a better character than her detractors say.)

It’s fairly clear the writer knew little about the military, let alone character development.  Poe is bashed for being wrong, when it’s blatantly obvious he was pretty much right.  (If that dreadnaught hadn’t been destroyed, the Resistance would have been taken out instead.)  This bashing continues as Leia is put out of action, which throws command to Vice Admiral Holdo … who we are told is a great commander, but rapidly shown that she’s nothing of the sort.  Poe clashes with her repeatedly, ending in a mutiny (hell, the only real charge that can be levelled against Poe is that he left the mutiny too late.)  Leia talks everyone down and the plan goes ahead, leading to utter disaster.  Finn, in the meantime, is completely wasted on a side plot that does nothing more than lecture us on war profiteers … a pointless lecture, given that the Resistance couldn’t exist if it wasn’t being supplied by … war profiteers.

Rey, in the meantime, continues to develop far faster than either Luke or his father.  The movie continues the tradition of not letting her show weakness or taking a pratfall, even after she’s yanked into the Dark Lord’s chamber and fights beside Kylo Ren.  She develops at astonishing – indeed, impossible – speed.  This alone might not be a problem, but her development comes at Luke’s expense – remember, Luke was the hero of the original movies – and makes her look like she’s been shrilled, rather than developed naturally.  The temptations she faces are different, but – in a sense – they’re the temptations we’ve already seen in the first two trilogies.  It might have been better, from a story-telling point of view, if Rey and Ben Solo had switched places midway through The Last Jedi.

As a piece of Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi is largely a disaster.  It kills off Luke (and effectively Leia, as well as a handful of others) without building a proper legacy for their successors.  As a movie in its own right, it isn’t any better.  Gross incompetence on one side is countered by gross incompetence on the other side (see the What An Idiot page for details).  Snoke, Hux and Finn suffer negative character development, the former being killed off midway through the movie and the middle turned into a walking joke.  What little development it does is soundly wasted by The Rise of Skywalker.  There were only two good points in The Last Jedi – Ren becoming the Supreme Dark Lord and Rey’s parents being nobodies – and both of them are thrown away. 

It also suffered from a desperate case of trying to be all things to all men.  ‘Shipping’ wasn’t a thing when Star Wars came out.  There wasn’t much, as far as I know, debate about who Leia would wind up marrying.  (And this died, obviously, when Luke and Leia were revealed to be siblings.)  The prequel trilogy had it’s one relationship set in stone from the start.  The Force Awakens, however, birthed a whole universe of ships, from Rey/Finn to Rey/Ben Solo and Poe/Finn.  Pretty much everyone who cared about this was a little disappointed by the outcome.  Worse, perhaps, it gave too much – and also too little – time to minor characters, a mistake neither of the other two trilogies made.  For all their importance to the rebellion, Mon Mothma and Ackbar never steal the show.  Holdo and Rose try to.  It doesn’t work.

This led to an odd problem.  On one hand, Disney tried to be diverse.  On the other hand, it didn’t give its diverse characters a chance to shine in their own right.  (Finn and Poe got undermined, Rey got everything handed to her on a silver platter.)  That undermined the push for diversity, ensuring that Disney would be bashed for both pandering to the SJW demographic and not being diverse enough

I never watched Solo.  But from what I’ve heard about it, the movie suffers from the same weaknesses as the successor trilogy as a whole.  It simply doesn’t live up to the source material (and would probably have worked better following a new character, like Rogue One, or becoming a stand-alone set in a different universe).

And now, we have The Rise of Skywalker.

It didn’t surprise me that they followed the beat of Return of the Jedi.  The return of the Emperor did surprise me, if only because it invalidated everything that happened in both Return and The Last Jedi.  The new Dark Lord gave up his position and submitted himself to the Emperor … why?  The one good thing to come out of The Last Jedi and they threw it away?  (Not to mention the boneheaded reveal that Rey is the Emperor’s granddaughter …)

I could go on about this for hours.  But, really, the successor trilogy had sunk itself.

The biggest problem, as I see it, is that there was no one with the authority to sketch out a story arc (either copied from Legends or newly-devised) and stick to it.  There was no real overarching plot – I recognise the signs – and a great deal of hasty modification to the movies that annoyed everyone.  Beyond that, there was a simple failure to recognise that Star Wars is not a romance series, but softcore science-fiction with laser swords that had a vast fanbase … one that would be easily pleased, as long as the producers stuck to the themes that made Star Wars popular in the first place.  Instead, the fans felt insulted and decided to withdraw their support.  For this, they were blasted as racists and sexists. 

The smaller problem is that there were too many new characters and too little development.  Rey, Finn and Poe either take steps backwards in The Last Jedi or progress in leaps and bounds that are not justified within the movie itself.  Ben/Kylo does better as a character in The Last Jedi, but this is undone by The Rise of Skywalker.  Holdo, Rose, Hux and Snoke do relatively little for the plot, yet they get too much exposure to be purely minor characters (and the former two get blasted for being ‘diverse’ without any competence and/or importance.

In short, much like The Last Jedi itself, Disney tried to appeal to everyone and failed.

I’ve seen this happen more than once in books and it rarely ends well.  The problem is that most creative works only have a very limited audience.  Very few of them break into the mainstream.  (Harry Potter and Game of Thrones are the two biggest examples.)  A fantasy book may appeal to the entire world of fantasy readers, but rarely to anyone beyond (and, of course, not every fantasy book manages as much.)  The more you move away from your core focus, the greater the chance of losing readers without actually picking up replacement readers.  The point is not that you cannot have ‘diverse’ characters, or open a field for ‘shipping’ debates, but that you have to remain aware of what you’re actually doing.  Your ‘diverse’ characters have to be given a chance to be more than just diverse.  If you pull this off, it works wonderfully.  Disney did not pull it off.  And, from the way things developed between The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, I don’t think Disney ever understood why.

I think it’s fairly clear the three trilogies fell into a pattern.  The prequels focused on the decline and fall of the Old Republic and the rise of the Empire.  The originals focused on the rebellion against the Empire, ending with the Emperor’s death.  Logically, the successor trilogy should have focused on the rise of the New Republic and the fight against the remnants of the Empire (like I said, The Thrawn Trilogy covered that very well).  However, The Force Awakens and the rest chose to hit the reset switch.  Everything important – Han and Leia getting hitched, their kid going dark, Han and Leia splitting up – happens off-screen, leaving us with complete newcomers.  This worked in the original series because there were no preconceptions.  This (sort of) worked in the prequels, because we knew who Kenobi, Anakin, Yoda and Palpatine would grow into.  It didn’t work in the successor trilogy because there was an established backstory and the vast majority of the fans wanted and expected Luke, Han and Leia to be the stars. 

In fact, if you watch the movies in order, you can see the prequel characters giving birth to the original characters (both metaphorically and literally).  There’s no immediate connection, however, between the original stars and their successors – and when the connection is made, it involves too much shrilling for my tastes.

How would I have done it, I wonder?  Assuming simply filming The Thrawn Trilogy wasn’t an option – I’d need to hire lookalikes for Luke, Han and Leia – I might skip forward fifteen years or so after Return of the Jedi.  Leia would be serving as a New Republic Ambassador, Luke would have his Jedi Academy and Han … I’m not sure about Han.  He could remain in the military, if he wishes, or – if he splits from Leia – remain exploring the fringes of explored space.  The new threat would be a revitalised empire, led by one of the Emperor’s surviving students.  Ben Solo would be one of Luke’s students, tempted to fall to the dark side; Poe would be involved in the first skirmishes, giving him a chance to meet Finn and urge him to deflect from the Empire.  Rey would remain a desert girl, lured into the dark side by the big bad, or another of Luke’s students.  The first movie might end with a battle over the Jedi Academy, the second with the Empire seemingly posed to win; the third with a final desperate strike at the big bad before he could win the war.  By the time the series ended, the old characters would have gone out in style and the new characters would be firmly established.

In the end, Disney Star Wars will go down in history as something akin to the DC Cinematic Universe.  A concept with much great promise, based on a well-known and loved franchise, that was effectively wasted by its owners. 

Planned Scedule

11 Jan

For those interested …

Now – The King’s Man (Zero 7)

Feb – The Artful Apprentice (SIM 19)

Mar – Cast Adrift (Probably)

April – Knife Edge or Bread and Circuses (The Empire’s Corps)

May – Oathkeeper (SIM20)

Snippet – The King’s Man (Zero 7)

10 Jan

Comments welcome!

Prologue

If there was one lesson my father had hammered into me, time and time again, it was this.

Never, never, trust an aristo.

It wasn’t that all aristos were bad people.  I’d met some who were good people, who were decent and kind and generous … as long as it didn’t impinge upon their interests in any substantial way.  And I’d met some who seemed to take delight in looking down on the commoners and making them beg, for everything from food and funding – and patronage – to simple survival.  They’d been taught to put their interests of their class ahead of everything else, even simple human decency.  They were just too different.  They could never be trusted completely.

Father had sworn he would never call upon an aristocrat and he’d kept his oath.  He’d worked his way up from the docks through sheer talent, through a gritty willingness to do whatever it took to build up a merchant trader business for himself.  He could have had everything on a platter, if he’d become an aristo’s client.   They would have given him everything he could handle, at the cost of losing his independence.  Once they had him in their clutches, they would never have let him go.  The price was too high.  And Father had proved it could be done without them.  He’d made me swear the same oath when I went to Jude’s.

I’d kept it, as best as I could.  It came with a price.  I could be friendly to anyone and everyone, but I could never truly be one of them.  I wasn’t an aristo myself, of course, and I was unwilling to submit myself to them.  They knew I wasn’t useless, but they also knew I would never be their client.  I studied as hard as I could, determined to make a name for myself that relied on no one else.  I was going to be the greatest sorcerer in the world.  It was why I’d entered the Challenge.

And then everything changed.

I’d chosen not to form a team of my own.  There just weren’t many students, like myself, who didn’t have ties to the aristos.  Even trying to put together a group would have exposed me to humiliation.  I was good too, good enough to think I could do it on my own.  I thought, as I heard the rumours echoing through the school, that I’d have some advantages if I was alone.  I wouldn’t have to fear my allies putting a knife – hopefully metaphorically – in my back.  One never knows with aristos.

The Challenge itself seemed absurdly simple. Capture the Flag, writ large.  I suppose that should have tipped me off.  Nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems.  I woke up in the middle of a forest, miles from anywhere.  No worries.  I was good at sneaking around.  I’d spent my nights at school sneaking around, stealing grub from the kitchens or feuding with the other students.  I stayed low, keeping my head down as I inched through the forest towards the castle.  I didn’t want to encounter the other teams, not when I couldn’t afford to take a single hit.  If I was frozen, or stunned, or trapped in a useless form … I would lose.  No one was going to liberate me before time ran out.  It would just make life harder for themselves. 

I watched and waited as two other teams reached the castle, only to start snapping spells at each other instead of splitting up or trying to collaborate.  They took each other out, more or less.  There were only a couple of students left free by the time I spelled them both and walked past them into the castle.  The wards felt stronger than I’d expected, strong enough to confuse my senses.  The building’s interior kept shifting.  I was impressed, as well as worried.  I knew it would be very easy to get turned around and pointed in the wrong direction.  I was sneaking down the corridor when I saw someone moving ahead of me.  I hexed him …

… And promptly got hexed in the back.

My body froze, my muscles locking stiff.  I wanted to shout, to roar in fury, but it was already too late.  I’d been tricked and … I’d lost.  Francis Rubén walked past me, sniggering like a depraved loon.  He’d been separated from his team, but … it had worked out for him.  He’d taken me out of the game.  He dropped his trousers and mooned me, then walked onwards into the shadows.  I stood there, helplessly.  There was nothing I could do, but wait for the game to end.

I’d been beaten before.  It happened, no matter how hard I tried.  There’s always someone better or luckier or … simply in a position to take advantage of my mistakes.  I didn’t take losing personally.  If I was beaten according to the rules, I didn’t mind.  It happened.  But Francis … I felt tricked, I felt belittled, I felt humiliated by how he’d rubbed my nose in my defeat.  And it didn’t help that the others snickered at me too as they passed.  I was frozen, but I could hear them.  They pointed and laughed at me, the commoner who’d tried to do the Challenge alone.  Alana was particularly cruel.  She’d never liked me, ever since I’d asked her to walk out with me.  She didn’t pay attention to anyone unless he – or she – could trace their bloodline all the way back to the Thousand Year Empire.

It felt like hours before I was freed.  The Challenge was over.  Akin Rubén – one of the few decent aristos I knew – had won.  Alana had come second, sort of.  Francis was dead.  I never heard the full details, which led me to suspect he’d done something embarrassing.  I would have liked to think that he’d hexed someone else in the back, but I doubted it. Aristos didn’t get thrown out for cheating commoners.  That was how most of their ancestors had risen to power in the first place.

But the whole affair left me unsure what to do with my life.  I was a good magician – I knew that – but what would I do after I graduated?  What could I do?  There were few careers open to me that didn’t involve asking for patronage, pledging myself to an aristo and following my patron’s orders slavishly.  The system had little room for the truly independent.  Father had worked hard, but he’d run up hard against the limits.  He couldn’t grow his business any further without their help and it was the one thing he refused to do.

The weeks and months that followed were frustrating, to say the least.  Everyone knew I’d been humiliated.  They learnt not to snigger so loudly after I claimed Scholar’s Rights and hexed two particularly annoying students until their own mothers couldn’t have recognised them, but I knew they were still laughing.  Of course they were!  I was a safe target.  They wouldn’t get embroiled in a family feud by laughing at me.  Whatever I did to them, it wouldn’t last.  I forced myself to work hard, putting my all into the exams.  And then …

I waited, bored.  I had to do something to liven things up. 

Ironically, my decision to commit a string of pranks was what opened the door to a whole new world …

Chapter One

It was going to be the greatest prank ever.

I smiled at the thought as I carefully picked my way into the Charms classroom.  Jude’s had a tradition of pranksters, students who pushed the limits as far as they would go without crossing the line into outright bullying.  I’d gleefully embraced the tradition over the last few months, devising newer and better spells to make everyone – even the victim – laugh.  But I hadn’t come up with anything truly new.  My pranks were little more than modified or improved versions of older pranks.  They’d be saying I was a copycat.  And that was intolerable.

This time, I told myself, it would be different.  I was really going to do something new.  I was going to upset the aristos, shocking them … my smile grew wider as I slipped into the empty classroom and made my way to the storeroom beyond.  I’d borrow a handful of supplies, turn them into the prank and – afterwards – take whatever punishment came my way.  Magister Hugh Von Rupert wouldn’t be too annoyed, I thought.  The old geezer barely knew what year it was, let alone the names and faces of the students in his class.  He had a first-class mind for magic – I’ll give him that much – but little else.  I honestly didn’t understand why students like Caitlyn Aguirre paid so much attention to him.

The wards on the storeroom parted after a few moments of careful effort.  I nodded to myself as I gingerly opened the doors – I wouldn’t put it past the charms tutors to rig a surprise on the far side for any thieving students – and peered inside.  The small collection of tools, supplies and textbooks seemed to shimmer in welcome.  I stayed where I was, casting a handful of detection spells.  Getting caught after the fact was one thing, but getting caught in the act would make me a laughing stock.  Being laughed at was worse than detention, or writing lines, or even helping the catering staff prepare the food.  If there were any more charms inside the compartment, I might be in some trouble.

But there were none.  I frowned, torn between the urge to get on with it and the sense I should back away now.  The storeroom wouldn’t have been left completely undefended.  I could hardly be the first student who thought of raiding the charms classroom for supplies.  The potions cabinets were heavily defended – most students tried to raid them – but really … the storeroom should have been defended.  Yet … there was nothing.  I narrowed my eyes, then inched inside.  I’d come too far to back out now.  I’d know, even if no one else did.  I would know I’d been a coward, rather than taking what I wanted and withdrawing before lunch was over and the tutors returned.  I reached for the nearest box of tools …

… And sensed, more than heard, someone behind me.

I tensed, bracing myself as I turned slowly.  If Magister Von Rupert had caught me … I might be able to talk my way out of serious – and humiliating – trouble.  Boys will be boys and all that guff.  My heart sank as I saw Magister Grayson, his hands crossed over his chest and a grim expression on his face.  Magister Von Rupert was easy-going, but his partner was vindictive, vicious, vile and a number of other things that also started with V.  No one ragged Magister Von Rupert – much – for fear of Magister Grayson.  I was doomed, unless … I groaned to myself.  Tradition decreed that any student who managed to get past the tutors and escape was allowed to go free, but I knew I wasn’t going to get past him.  Magister Grayson was the toughest tutor in school.  A student who tried to give him the traditional black eye would be lucky if he only spent the next few weeks in the hospital wing.

“Adam Mortimer,” Magister Grayson said.  I tried to look for a hint of mercy in his dark eyes, for an awareness that we were nearing graduation, but saw none.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

A hundred answers ran through my mind, all discarded before they were fully formed.  I couldn’t lie, not to him.  I couldn’t escape either.  There was nothing for it, but to take my punishment like a man.  I wondered, as I forced myself to relax, what it would be.  Tutors weren’t allowed to hitor hex students, unless the students hit or hexed them first, but they had wide latitude for punishment.  I was an upperclassman.  Maybe he’d humiliate me by assigning me lines, as if I were a lowly lowerclassman.  Or maybe he’d tell me to spend the next few days helping the kitchen staff.

“I was borrowing supplies for a prank, sir,” I said.  I didn’t bother to pretend I was sorry, not about anything other than getting caught.  He wouldn’t believe me if I’d tried.  “I … how did you know I was here?”

“That’s none of your business.”  Magister Grayson glowered at me.  I wondered, suddenly, if he’d swapped shifts with his partner.  I’d thought Von Rupert was on duty today.  I would never have dared raid the storeroom if I’d known it was Magister Grayson.  “You’re meant to be graduating, are you not?”

“Yes, sir.”  I felt a flicker of fear.  Could Magister Grayson tamper with my exam results?  I didn’t think so – the exams were administered by independent proctors, sworn to neutrality – but it was impossible to be sure.  Magister Grayson was good.  “I’m due to leave for good in two weeks.”

“How lucky for us,” Magister Grayson said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.  “I suppose giving you a year’s detention is a bit out of the question.”

“Yes, sir.”  I tried not to smirk.  Whatever punishment he gave me, it wouldn’t linger past graduation day.  “I’ll be gone soon.”

“Quite.”  Magister Grayson smiled, coldly.  I felt another frisson of fear.  “Go to the detention hall.  Supervise the detentions until dinnertime.  And if I catch you in here again, you’ll regret it.”

I tried not to wince.  Supervising detentions was boring.  An hour supervising the detention hall was almost as bad as having detention itself.  Worse, perhaps, because the supervisor had to keep an eye on the detainees.  He wasn’t allowed to read or do his own work or do anything.  I’d done a few shifts, an hour at a time, and I’d hated it.  I had never been quite sure who was actually being punished.  The lowerclassmen in detention or the poor upperclassman who was meant to be watching them.

“Yes, sir,” I managed.  There were worse punishments, weren’t there?  “Thank you, sir.”

Magister Grayson pointed at the door.  “Go.”

I walked past him, gritting my teeth as I strolled into the corridor.  There was no point in not doing as I was told.  Magister Grayson would report the punishment to higher authority and if I didn’t attend the classroom … I snorted, rudely.  That would get me in real trouble.  It might not affect my exam results, but it would certainly affect whatever reference Jude’s gave me after I graduated.  Getting caught trying to break into the storeroom was one thing, disobeying orders and welshing out of punishment was quite another.

And Father would not be pleased, I reminded myself.  I didn’t want to go to work for my father, after I graduated, but I might not have a choice.  And … my actions would reflect badly on himEveryone would be saying he raised a coward who couldn’t look himself in the eye.

I dawdled as much as I could as I walked through empty corridors and into the detention hall, trying to convince myself the hall would be empty.  The exams were almost all over, save for a handful of exams that were intended for specific career paths.  I hadn’t taken any of them, if only because I wasn’t sure what my career path was.  Everything I wanted to do would have required pledging myself to someone … I put the thought aside as I peered into the hall and winced.  The Head Girl – Alana Aguirre – was sitting at the desk, looking bored.  A handful of younger students were sitting at desks, doing their work.  They looked too scared to talk out of turn.  I didn’t blame them.

“Adam?”  Alana glanced up at me.  “You have detention?”

I tried not to stare.  Alana was beautiful, with dark skin, darker eyes and hair so perfect I knew she used magic to keep it in line.  I’d found her attractive from the moment I’d started noticing girls as more than oddly-shaped boys.  She looked as though she wouldn’t harm a fly.  But I knew she not only could harm a fly, she was perfectly capable of turning someone into a fly too.  Rumour had it she’d been really terrible to her sister, the Zero.  I believed it.  I’d asked her out and she’d laughed in my face. 

And it doesn’t help that people keep asking if we’re related.  I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at the thought.  They really can’t believe my talent came from the commoner ranks.

“Yeah.”  I had the satisfaction of seeing her eyes widen before I explained.  “I’ve been ordered to take over from you.  Lucky you.”

Alana smiled.  It lit up her face.  “What did you do?  Throw a tomato at the Castellan?”

“Something like that,” I said, vaguely.  I wasn’t going to admit what I’d actually been caught doing.  Magister Grayson might not be very specific when he reported me to higher authority.  Alana had access to the punishment books.  If I was lucky, they wouldn’t tell her very much. “The Magister was not best pleased.”

“Hah.”  Alana stood, brushing down her skirt.  I tried not to stare at her shirt as she donned her uniform jacket.  “Akin’s due to take over in an hour or so.  Should I tell him not to bother?”

“I’m here until dinnertime,” I told her.  The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I grew.  “Tell him to do whatever he wants.”

Alana nodded stiffly, then turned and headed to the door.  I resisted the urge to watch her as I took the seat and checked the detention roster, casting my eyes over the list of names.  I knew some of them, but – as an upperclassman – I was obliged to pretend I didn’t.  It was lucky my sister wasn’t in the crowd.  I’d have had to be extra hard on her, just to make it clear I wasn’t favouring her.  I settled back into my seat, raising my eyes to study the detainees.  They made a show of not looking back at me, save one.  Penny Rubén.

I held her eyes until she looked down, her cheeks burning with humiliation.  Penny was a fifth-year student who’d been caught bullying – openly bullying – one of her first-year charges.  Akin, her cousin, had caught her.  He’d surprised and outraged many of his peers by ensuring Penny had the book thrown at her, rather than dealing with it himself or burying the truth to protect the family name.  I wasn’t sure quite what had happened – and not all of the rumours reflected well on Akin – but he’d certainly ensured the problem could not be quietly forgotten.  Penny might spent two more years at school, yet … she’d always be treated as a lowerclassman.  One of her former peers had probably given her lines.  She couldn’t have been more humiliated if she’d been forced to clean cauldrons like a skivvy.

Serves you right, I thought.  Upperclassmen were not supposed to pick on lowerclassmen, certainly not first-years who were meant to be under their supervision.  But Penny was an aristo.  Her father, who’d left his family under mysterious circumstances, had probably raised her to suck up to her superiors while sneering at everyone below her.  It isn’t as if your punishment will follow you when you graduate.

I scowled.  I’d been assured that wasn’t true.  Penny’s reputation would follow her, wherever she went.  But it wasn’t a formal punishment.  She’d probably find a way to parlay her birth into an advantageous match, or convince her family to give her lots of money in exchange for taking herself out of Shallot.  Her family wouldn’t punish her unless she really stepped over the line.  Akin’s sister had been sent into exile for high treason.  Anything less would probably be quietly ignored.

Someone coughed.  I glared at him, then turned my attention back to the list.  A boy who’d been disobedient in Defensive Magic.  I was surprised he’d been sent to the hall instead of being put to work by the tutors.  A pair of girls who’d been given detention for talking too loudly in the library.  Personally, I thought they weren’t being punished enough.  I’d always hated chattering brats when I’d been trying to study.  And seven other students, girls and boys, who’d been ordered to write some variant of ‘I will do as my tutors tell me without talking back.’  I had to smile at one of the notes – a first-year boy who’d charmed a piece of chalk to write lines on the blackboard for him – and made a mental note to suggest my sister kept an eye on him.  Someone with that sort of talent might be worth watching.

He’s probably got a patron already, I thought, sourly.  Aristo students were expected to start recruiting clients young.  It just wasn’t fair.  I could have had anything I wanted, as long as I pledged myself to someone barely older.  If they couldn’t give it to me themselves, their parents certainly could.  And even if he doesn’t, that will change before too long.

I leaned back in my chair, wishing for something – anything – to happen.  The rules were clear.  I wasn’t allowed to read, I wasn’t allowed to write … I wasn’t even allowed to engage my charges in conversation, unless one of them did something I could object to.  I waited, half-praying for Penny to step out of line so I could stomp on her, but she did nothing.  I guessed she knew just how bad things would be for her, over the next two years.  She deserved no less.  It wasn’t justice, but it would have to do.

The door opened.  I glanced up, just in time to see a brown-haired firstie girl inching into the room.  She looked ashamed, as if she was already regretting whatever she’d done.  It was probably her first detention.  I concealed my amusement as she sneaked forward, as if she could avoid being noticed as long as she stayed quiet.  She was already too late to escape notice.  Hell, she was ensuring she was noticed by trying not to be noticed.  I wondered, idly, how long it would take her to learn that there was nothing more conspicuous than someone trying to hide.

Probably a commoner, I decided, as she stopped in front of the desk.  She looked so tense that I was tempted to shout BOOAn aristo would be a little more confident even if she was walking to her doom.

I dismissed the temptation – I wasn’t Penny, damn it – and took the slip she offered me.  It was clear and concise.  The poor girl – her name was Gayle – had been given lines for a poorly-written essay.  I guessed she’d been having problems with her handwriting, rather than whatever she’d actually written.  I’d had problems too, when I’d been a lowerclassman.  Father had made sure I knew how to read and write, but I’d never been a particularly good writer.  My tutors had made hundreds of sarcastic remarks as I’d struggled to learn the ropes.

“Take a seat,” I ordered, as I passed her a pencil and paper.  “Write your lines, then you can go.”

It wasn’t the nicest thing I’d ever done, but the last thing she needed – when she had six more years of schooling to get through – was me going easy on her.  The other students might be pretending to ignore us, but I knew they were listening.  They’d talk if I went easy on her, if they thought I let her off … her classmates would hear, eventually, and take it out on her.  It wouldn’t be her fault.  It wouldn’t be as through she’d begged me to let her go or something along those lines.  But they’d take it out on her anyway.

I watched her sit down, then forced myself to think of something – anything – else.  I had only two weeks before I needed to start job-hunting in earnest.  I knew my father.  He’d put me to work in the shop, or kick me out if I refused to work.  And the longer I took to get a proper job, the harder it would be.  I glowered at my hands, feeling magic prickling just under my dark skin.  It just wasn’t fair.

Life isn’t fair, I reminded myself.  All you can do is play the cards you’re given and hope for the best.

The door opened, again.

I blinked in surprise as Akin stepped into the room.  Alana should have told him he wasn’t needed … right?  I didn’t think she’d take the risk of letting the Head Boy embarrass himself not when their families were in alliance.  Her parents would be furious if she caused a rift between the two families.  And her sister, perhaps the most important aristo amongst her generation, would be angry too.  She and Akin were betrothed.  They seemed to get on better than most betrothed couples.

“Akin,” I said.  “I’m stuck here until …”

Akin cut me off.  “The Castellan sent me to take your place,” he said.  “You’ve been summoned to his office.”

I blinked.  “Why …?”

“I have no idea.”  Akin smiled, humourlessly.  “But you’d better get there quickly.”

“Will do.”  I stood, wondering if I should be relieved or worried.  “Have fun.”

New Draft Afterword

9 Jan

Normal commenting rules apply <grin>

Afterword

Here’s a question I’ve been pondering for some time.

Why the sudden rise in social-awkwardness, neurodiversity and, ultimately, involuntary celibates (incels)?

I’ve heard quite a few theories, ranging from the practical (past societies had fewer room for people to diverge from the norm, or for people to take advantage of being neurodivergent) to the horrific (people like that used to be shoved out to die, thus removing them from the gene pool).  None of those theories quite seem to explain it.  There were neurodivergents in the past – most of the great inventors and innovators were neurodivergent – and they wouldn’t have existed if neurodivergence had been eliminated completely.  It’s true, of course, that the vast majority of the pre-1900 population had little or no education and thus any neurodivergence might have passed unnoticed.  It’s also true that society was far less tolerant of those who stepped out of line, whoever they were.  But social change alone doesn’t seem to explain it.  What changed?  And why?

Here’s my theory.  I blame the schools.

There is no shortage of problems with modern-day education, practically all of which owe their existence to government policy and bureaucracy.  I could write an entire book on the horrors that result from a combination of incompetence, micromanaging and poor allocation of funds.  But, for the moment, I’m going to focus on a single aspect and how it interacts (badly) with neurodivergence.

The average child, in Britain, enters formal schooling – primary one – when he or she is somewhere around five years old.  There’s some room for manoeuvre, but not much.  He will complete the first year, then move on to primary two.  It is, at least in my experience, very rare for a child to be held back a year.  This – and the combination of ever-growing classes sizes – makes it difficult to make sure that all the children master all the skills they need before they jump up a level.  A child can therefore move onto primary two – and ever-upwards – without actually being ready for it.

This has two separate implications.  First, from an educational point of view, if you fail to master the basics you will be unable to grasp advanced material.  A student who cannot read is not going to be able to study on his own.  A student who cannot do basic maths will be unable to cope with more advanced maths.  He will start falling behind almost at once, no matter how hard he tries.  And yet, the bureaucracy will sort him by his age group rather than his educational aptitude.  Distant bureaucrats are unable to realise that kids learn at different paces, let alone sort the fast from the slow.  They let their preconceptions – and political correctness – blind them to the truth.

The second implication, however, is just as serious.  Some children are lucky enough to develop socially as they develop physically.  Others are not.  A child who lags behind his peers in social development – for example, figuring out the right or wrong thing to say in any given situation – is likely to be shunned by his fellows.  At best, he’ll be seen as the class clown (unfairly, given that he’s not trying for laughs); at worst, he’ll plummet right down to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Now, this alone would not necessarily be a problem.  However, kids can be cruel.  Very cruel.  The kids in the middle of the social hierarchy tend to establish themselves by dumping on the kids at the bottom (i.e. bullying them).  This is a display of social insecurity, from an adult point of view, but the bottom kids don’t care.  They just want it to stop.  Worse, because they’re targeted by everyone, the rest of the kids don’t want to hang with them.  Of course not.  If you’re standing next to a target, you get targeted yourself.  And if you try to defend them, it just gets worse.  Kids learn, very quickly, that calling a bully out is useless. 

This tends to be true for adults too.  It’s harder to tackle a bully who happens to be popular and/or important to the school (the typical sports star, for example).  It’s a lot easier to pick on the victim, to blame him or her for being targeted.  One of the reasons so many kids books include the ‘adults are useless’ trope is because many adults are useless, when it comes to schooling kids.  They prefer not to intervene because it could come back to haunt them.

What does this mean?  Simple – if you’re popular, people will make exceptions for you.  You’ll never be called out for your mistakes and, even if you are, you won’t suffer for them.  You’ll learn, consciously or not, that you can get away with anything as long as you don’t really cross the line (an attitude that can come back to bite you when you enter the working world).  The unpopular kids, on the other hand, will be jumped on for anything and everything.  They’re seen as weak, unable to fight back.  They make easy targets.  This is part of a ladder of abuse rolling downhill, but they’re at the bottom.  There’s no one they can pick on. 

The target’s social development, therefore, is badly hampered.  However, he or she is still moved up the ladder with the rest of the age group.  They do not get a chance to retake the year with their social peers, but have to remain with their age peers.  This ensures that they are almost always stuck at the bottom, which – as they grow older and their hormones start humming – their development is always behind their peers.  They don’t understand the limits. They don’t comprehend mixed messages – or resent getting them.  By the time they master the in-jokes, they’re outdated.  And so on and so on and so on.

If you get the impression, rightly or wrongly, that social interaction is dangerous, you’ll do as little of it as possible.  You may even come to see it as a threat!  The person who asks you how you are, for example, may be making a honest enquiry, but your history tells you that it’s the prelude to more pain and humiliation.  You’ll say as little as possible, which will make you look stand-offish to people who don’t know you.  Or, alternatively, you’ll overcompensate.  You’ll be too friendly, too eager, too pushy … people will be creeped out, even though you think you’re doing the right thing.  You’ll misjudge a situation badly and wind up with egg on your face.

This can really mess someone up, particularly if they’re a little (or a lot) neurodivergent.  It’s very easy to become bitter and curdled, to give way to resentment and hatred of the popular kids.  It’s very easy to start blaming them for everything.  It’s very easy to look at the lies they tell, and how the rules are warped and twisted for the popular kids, and dismiss them as nothing more than nonsense.  If you can’t win, why bother to play?  And if you get a chance to take revenge, to lash out at the bullies, maybe you’ll take it.  Or maybe you’ll be too scared to take it and hate them even more, because you can’t fight back.  Indeed, one assessment of GamerGate was that nerds were finally fighting back against bullies.  This may not be true – I make no judgement, here – but resentment of bullies intruding into nerdy spaces certainly played a part.  One very cynical remark about incels noted that ‘bogeyman’ was actually a step up for them.  If they’re seen as dangerous, they might not be picked on quite so much.

The good news is that a lot of people grow out of it.  The real world is much kinder to the neurodivergent (particularly in fields where neurodivergence brings useful skills).  As people mature, as they grow used to adult bodies and lives, a lot of problems and old hatreds fade away.  The bad news is that not everyone grows out of it.  If they go to work in the wrong place, marry the wrong person (and so on and so on), they find themselves stuck in the bitter teenage mindset, the one that tells you that everyone else is to blame.

And, if you get hammered for a tiny mistake while others get away with far greater transgressions, because you’re an easy target and they’re not, you’ll find it hard to improve.

And this tends to lead to a descent into depression, isolation and – sometimes – incoherent violence.

What can be done about this?

Most suggestions I’ve heard are poor, in that they don’t tackle the underlying causes of the problem or impinge on other’s rights and freedoms.  They tend to be based more on what ought to be rather than what is.  Indeed, I don’t think there is a single solution that will fix everything.  Humans are social animals.  We want companionship.  But companionship isn’t something that can be forced.  You can’t pay someone to be your friend (well, yes you can, but the friend won’t stay with you when you run out of money). 

First, during basic education, we need to reduce class sizes.  It’s a lot harder for someone to slip through the cracks if the teacher has more time to work with them individually.  Linked to this, we need to be prepared to have low-performing kids repeat a year to give them another chance to master the basics rather than mindlessly advancing them up an increasingly-slippery ladder.

Second, we need to enforce the rules evenly.  The rules should be simple, easy to understand and enforced in all cases.  Nothing destroys the credibility of the law – or school/corporate rules – than having them unevenly enforced, or blatantly accepting different rules for different people.  There must be a clear understanding of what is wrong, a clear statement of the consequences and a willingness to enforce them, even if the person being punished is popular and/or important. 

Third, we need to be a great deal more tolerant of social faux pas.  People make mistakes all the time.  If you have a quiet word with someone who made a faux pas, they’ll be embarrassed but grateful you pointed it out; if you publically humiliate them, they’ll hate you with white hot fury for the rest of their life.  (If you do that, rest assured they’ll strike back if they find themselves in a position to do so.)   Linked to this, if someone really does step over the line, be prepared to justify your actions to people who will not automatically take your side.  If you act like a bully, people won’t give much credence to what you say even if you’re in the right.

And fourth, we need to stop engaging in what John Ringo called ‘Deflection in Abuse Syndrome.’  It’s tempting, if you get bullied or feel insecure (which leads to bullying), to stamp on the people below you, but it only fosters resentment and hated.  It certainly doesn’t convince people to like you.  Picking on the safe targets, the ones who can’t or won’t hit back, just makes you look like a coward.  People will hold you in contempt.

I don’t know if any of these ideas are practical, or if they’ll work if they were tried.  But I do know we have to try.

Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2020

Diversity Kills Inclusion

6 Jan

Diversity Kills Inclusion

Obviously, a lot of people are going to disagree,  Usual commenting rules apply.

This is a bit of a ramble, but bear with me a little.

What do men (and women) want from marriage?

The simplest answer is sex, but – sooner or later – sex palls.  The more accurate answer is that men (and women) want to be comfortable.  They want to come home to a safe place – a safe space – where they are accepted for what they are, where they don’t have to keep their shields up and phasers set to stun and so on and so on.  Indeed, if you think about it, most of the stereotypes about bad husbands and wives revolve around people who made their partners uncomfortable (by cheating, by overspending, by being lax or nagging or … (etc)).  People want a safe place and if they don’t get it, they get annoyed and start looking somewhere else.

Now, what does this have to do with fandom?

One of the best explanations of fandom is that it is a ‘safe space’ for people who weren’t very popular anywhere else.  The nerds, the geeks, the people who played D&D when the [insert long rant about jocks and mean girls here] were marginalised everywhere else, so they built fandom so they’d have a place of their own.  Like all such communities, it grew in ways its creators – insofar as it had creators – didn’t anticipate.  Now, science-fiction and fantasy fandom can be divided into two separate factions, as outlined by this post:

First, a faction that prioritises acceptance over politeness.

Second, a faction that prioritises politeness over acceptance.

At their extremes, both factions are dangerous.  The first faction finds itself defending the undefendable, such as Walter Breen, and – in doing so – sacrifices its moral authority.  The second faction finds itself punishing the socially inept, often over more socially adapt wrongdoers who are either capable of presenting themselves in a good light or possessing attributes that make it harder to conceptualise opposition (such as Requires Hate).  In doing do, it sacrifices its moral authority too.  Thus we have the first faction branded as witting hosts to racists (etc) and the second faction branded as humourless wokescolds who just won’t stop nagging and shut up.

Both factions have a tendency to make people uncomfortable, but the second is considerably worse.  Why?  Because the definition of something that needs to be punished – i.e. impoliteness – keeps changing.

I may be socially awkward, but even I know there are some things that give offense … and quite reasonably too.  No one will fault someone for complaining they were called a n***** or a b**** or h**** or whatever.  If someone goes to a convention, gets wildly drunk, gropes everyone within reach and generally makes a complete ass of himself, I wouldn’t fault the convention for not inviting him back.  And I wouldn’t fault other conventions for taking note of his behaviour and saying ‘no, we’re not taking a chance on him.’ 

The problem with the second faction, however, is that it’s hard to know what’s considered offensive ahead of time.

What started this train of thought was skimming through lists of links I’d saved over the last year, including a number concerning the incidents prior to Worldcon 76.  (There are links here, here and here, plus plenty more – fair warning, most of them have an axe or two to grind.)

The basic facts of the first incident, or at least the ones everyone seems to agree on, are that non-binary writer and editor Bogi Takács was given the wrong pronoun by the convention staff.  Takács uses e/em/eir/emself  – or singular they – for his pronouns.  And what struck me, the first time I heard of the affair, was that I’d never heard of anyone using such pronouns until now.  As a couple of other commenters pointed out, it’s quite likely that the convention staff copied the bio, ran a spell check when they’d finished compiling the document and changed the pronouns without realising they weren’t a spelling mistake.  (My MS Word seems to think that em/eir/emself is wrong.)

Now, this is the kind of error that creeps in all the time.  I’ve had my name misspelled quite a few times.  I don’t blame Takács for being annoyed.  But it’s also the sort of error that can be corrected with a simple email.  People tend to respond better to a polite request to change things than they do to public humiliation.  If you lash out at someone, particularly for a mistake others can make easily, you run the risk of making yourself look bad and/or unreasonable.  On the other hand, if you give someone a chance to fix their error, you make yourself look reasonable (and if they refuse to fix the mistake, you can – reasonably – make a fuss about it.)

So, you ask, what’s the point?

The problem with diversity sensitivity training is that it draws attention to differences between people.  It draws lines between groups of people.  Worse, it puts you in the wrong for offending someone from a different group, even when you honestly never meant to offend them.  There are, for example, words in UK English that are quite offensive in US English.  I’ve had editors point them out to me.  But if someone took offense, they’d be taking offense at something I never meant to do.  I’d see them as the villains.  I’d have stepped on a landmine I didn’t know existed until it was too late.

Going back to the two fandom factions, the first faction understands that it’s easy to make a faux pas.  The second faction, however, has no such understanding.  It demands punishment and is merciless to anyone who argues for simple human decency.  And that makes people scared to step out of line.  If they don’t know what’s likely to cause a tempest in a teapot, how can they keep from starting one?  And this, in turn, tends to poison people against inclusion.  They’re scared to be inclusive because, the more people they include, the greater the chance of stepping on one of those landmines.   They are not comfortable.

Indeed, this attitude can be seen everywhere these days.  From one point of view, this is outrageous.  From another, it’s simple self-defence.  When you think your fellows don’t have your back, when you think you won’t get a fair trial if you make a minor faux pas, you cover yourself as much as possible.  And if this means not opening up your community, well … so what?  You want to be comfortable.

The more diverse a community becomes, be it fandom or something larger, the more tolerant people need to become.   There must be an understanding that people make mistakes.  There must be steps taken to prove that someone acted out of malice, rather than simple ignorance or being pressed for time or something along those lines.  And if relatively minor mistakes are fatal, there’s a strong incentive right there to refuse to admit fault and change.  A great many problems, these days, exist because someone could not afford to admit they were wrong. 

And if we don’t find a way to live together, we’ll wind up tearing ourselves apart.