Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
Updated: 1 hour 49 min ago
I recently wrote a short ‘comment’ for the American Journal of Bioethics. The piece is 1788 words long, the names and affiliations of my co-author and myself included. So that will make for 3, perhaps 4 printed pages, right? Now, Taylor and Francis, the publisher of the AJoBE offered the possibility to make this piece Open Access. Price: $2,950. I say: ridiculous. One of my colleagues said: Obscene. Sure, you might say, but they need to pay the editorial office who guards the refereeing proces of the target article to which we respond. But who did the refereeing? Indeed: two (or three) scholars, for free. And where does the net profit of all this goes? Right, not to the author, not to the referees, not to the universities, not to the taxpayers in the case of publically funded research. I know it’s practically very difficult to boycot this commercial Open Access model, but my little revenge will be in making some free advertisement below for two wonderful Open Access initiatives.
The best news from the open access front that reached my desk is that Open Book Publishers, the Cambridge(UK)-based open access publisher (where – full disclosure- I also have a book under contract), has published its first philosophy book. And not just any philosophy book, but a book by the very eminent philosopher David Velleman, called Foundations for Moral Relativism. As with the other books published by Open Book Publishers, it can be read online for free, or bought as a PDF for a few pounds or bought at a low price as a bounded copy via print-on-demand. I love this model, and perhaps should go off the internet completely until I’ve finished my own book that will also be open access. In fact, if I can raise 3500 UK Pounds, I can make the PDF available for free too. I think that’s a much better way to spend (public) funds than $ 2950 for a 3 or 4 page piece.
But equally good news comes from Axel Gosseries and Yannick Vanderborght, who published a year ago a Festschrift for Philippe Van Parijs, called Arguing about Justice. The book was published in paperback by the Presses Universitaires de Louvain, and now, one year later, is available online, here or here. At a conference a few weeks ago, Axel said that this is what he negotiated with the publisher when they published the book with them a while ago. So that’s an Open Access model too—individual negotiation – that some of us can consider to pursue. In any case, the Van Parijs Festschrift has lots of interesting and provocative pieces, well worth browsing and subsequent reading. Enjoy!
I remember Marianne from the IAFFE conferences that I visited as a grad student. One of the most striking memories I have about her is how she would, despite her seniority and fame/status in the field, talk to anyone – indeed, perhaps she even looked out for those who were young or new to the feminist economic community – a virtue one does not always see among the most senior/famous people in a field, and which was definitely not my experience at other economic events. I also remember some of our conversations – how courageously she was in thinking independently and fearlessly and taking the analysis where the argument goes, rather than where the model forces you to stop. As for other women of her age, you can only dream of how she could have been even much more influential if she had been given the same opportunities as men of her generation.
Marianne Ferber will be much missed, not only by her family and friends, but by everyone in the feminist economics community.
Never respond to reviews, they tell you, in the fiction-writing community, or at least my little part of it. This is probably good prudential advice, but also in its way quite satisfying; self-effacing and self-aggrandizing at once, in a Delphic sort of way. One adopts a posture of: lo, there it is, the book, it speaks for itself or doesn’t, if there was more to say the book would have said it. They don’t let you get away with that sort of thing at the day job. Anyway this is now so ingrained in me that it actually feels vaguely transgressive to write this, like standing up to object at a wedding.2.
I am of course tremendously grateful to all of these very smart and thoughtful and talented writers for expending so much of their smarts and thoughtfulness on my books about Evil Trains; with particular gratitude to Henry Farrell for putting this together. There’s more here than I can possibly respond to, and many interesting ideas that I need to spend more time thinking about.3.
All the posters may well have read these books more recently than I have, certainly the first one, which is now ancient from my perspective; plus, they remember only the books that were actually written, whereas I also have in my head all the things that got cut, or were meant to go in but for one reason or another didn’t, and thousands of changes of mind. It’s very strange to go back to them.4.
Abigail Nussbaum’s Part III points are well-taken and obviously important. Henry pretty much anticipates most of what I would say in response. I see these books as trying to create a sort of version of the settlers’ dream-world, myth-world, in a reshuffled and parodically exaggerated and grotesque-ified way – trying to make this familiar historical stuff seem – as it is – really deeply strange. It is also a partial and limited viewpoint on the world.1 There are other stories going on at the same time, other points of view. The existence of these other points of view is – I hope – presented through implication, through calling attention to gaps, through pointing offstage; the books try to draw attention to the ways in which another/other perspective(s) is (are) repressed, excluded, distorted. This one-sidedness is may be one of the things that the “half-made” title is supposed to imply and acknowledge (I say may because I don’t remember precisely when I came up with the title, and have ascribed a lot of different meanings to it during the course of writing). Henry captures what I think are the roots of my reluctance to go further, to present a fully articulated and fleshed out alternative perspective, a detailed how-it-really-is with respect to the indigenous Folk — my feeling that I cannot and should not, let’s say, ventriloquize – and in particular that I cannot flesh their culture out in the same broadly parodic and not especially kind way that the elements of the settler culture are treated. (It would be different, I think, if these books were set in the real world; or even if they were set in a made-up world, but one which is supposed to be more straightforwardly realistic, less absurdist).
So yes, Harry’s encounter with the Folk in the swamp is supposed to be one of the moments that nudges the reader’s elbow and points outside the frame of the story, to show the existence of other perspectives from which the protagonists’ perspectives appear small, incomplete, inadequate. (Not that I suppose the imagined reader needs to be told this as if it is startling news; it’s more a matter of acknowledging that the issue is there and how it functions within the book). The scene is not supposed to come across as validating the idea of insurmountable alienness or irrationality.
For what it’s worth, though we certainly never get enough information to grasp their culture (or even what they call themselves), their motivations are not intended to be fundamentally alien or inscrutable. My set of background rules for writing their scenes included: (1) what we see are fragments of a pre-existing culture(s), whose pre-existing centers of habitation are gone or hidden (but the General visits one of their cities); (2) various different factions and individuals among them are trying various strategies to topple, or slow, or reform, the existing Gun/Line/Nameless Middle Third power structure; (3) some of these strategies include collaboration with promising-looking elements within the settler culture(s), e.g. the strategy of helping (creating?) the Republic; (4) they’re not all-wise and they don’t control everything. Their strategies are not very effective during the period of the books – there is no magic bullet that can fix things — but there is a tiny hint, in E.M.C.’s postscript at the very end of the second book, of slow progress and a different kind of relation between the indigenous population and the settlers, in the form of the Treaty of [arbitrary date a decade later]; (5) they generally understand the settlers better than vice versa, though by no means perfectly, and one of the things they understand reasonably well is how they are perceived; (6) they are inconsistent because there are different factions, geographically and culturally dispersed, and with different ideas about what to do (and many groups are just focused on survival). The project of collaborating with the Republic is not universally considered to have been a good idea, and at the time of the first book the key figures involved in that collaboration have been dead for a long time.
So – back to the swamp stand-off – the group Harry meets as a boy in the woods are not the same people as the group he meets years later and hundreds of miles away in the swamp. Even he recognizes they really can’t be, before convincing himself that, well, maybe, what if they were? Therefore Group 2 can’t answer his question — whether he was given the secret of the Process for a reason, and if so what reason, or whether he sort of stole it — because they don’t know. And really why should they explain anything to this man who they’ve just met in a swamp in the dark who has almost immediately started rambling at them about how important and special he is and asking for their validation of his megalomania? They’re not laughing at Harry because they’re inscrutably alien; they’re laughing at Harry because he’s being ridiculous. Similarly, Group 1 back in the woods are laughing at Young Harry because this kid they’ve caught trespassing has just puffed himself up and started promising to teach them the real meaning of things he’s literally just read painted on the walls of their own houses.2 I, too, would laugh at him. Though to be fair to Harry, in both cases he’s terrified; also when he meets Group 1 he’s only a boy, and when he meets Group 2 he’s probably in shock after the boat sinking, and besides what can he say to them? – bearing in mind that his most immediate concern, outnumbered in the dark as he is, is that they will be mad at him — “Sorry” isn’t going to cut it (this is what he means when he recognizes that he cannot talk his way out of this problem; he has nothing adequate to say).
But also, then, when Group 2 laughs at Harry, it’s not that there’s a profound mystical secret beyond comprehension or anything like that; there is in principle a straightforwardly communicable answer to Harry’s question, Harry’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time to get it. Also he probably wouldn’t listen to Group 2 even if they did take it upon themselves to sit down and work through his problems with him, because the most probable answer to Harry’s question is that his notion of being chosen by Group 1 for some important purpose is all in his head. He doesn’t want to hear this – he’s still upset that Mr. Carver’s last words to him were accusing him of stealing the idea for the Apparatus. What he wants to hear is that he’s a chosen hero, though he will settle for being told that he was being chosen for some dreadful purpose which perhaps he might kick against; and neither of those is definitively ruled out, but neither is probable (IMO).
Most probably Group 1 let him go because he was just a kid.3 And if that’s so, then it was just chance that he saw some aspects of their science/art/magic that gave him ideas, and he’s on his own. The fact that he was then able to combine those ideas with the ideas he got from encyclopedias to build his Apparatus is mostly because Harry’s a wizard, Harry.4 This is a world that bends (up to a point) to strong imaginations; the Folk have what we would call magic (or some of them do) but the settlers have whatever the hell the Apparatus is, magical pianos, Evil Trains, celebrity gunfighters with literal super-speed, and so on; magic is in the air here. The frontier is not uninhabited, not not-yet-made but contested and in flux.5
It may well be that this doesn’t work, in a lot of ways, including but not limited to: (1) that I have tried to have things both ways by structuring all this around fairly conventional fantasy adventure plots, which implies to the reader a different kind of worldbuilding; (2) that the line between acknowledging this thing and just embodying it again isn’t really there, or it is there but the books fall on the wrong side of it; (3) that I executed it too clumsily; (4) that this structure is too rigid and oversimplifying; (5) that we don’t really need more stories about the settlers’ point of view, and certainly not at such appalling length. It seems to me that one of the big things that ought to be fleshed out, and whose absence bothers me, is why exactly the settler culture(s) was able to so thoroughly militarily dominate the indigenous culture(s), which otherwise appears as inevitable rather than a contingent historical fact; it clearly has something to do with the rise of Line and Gun among the settlers as stand-ins for industrialization (and its discontents) but why then and there exactly? I have some ideas along those lines but have not found a way of fitting this distant history in or making it readable (“it’s like Guns, Germs and Steel! Only for completely made-up magic!”)
Anyway that was the thinking.
Francis Spufford – and in fact more or less everyone — points to the books’ various refusals of closure and clarity. Trolling, if you will. Yes; there are so many of these that they sort of form the structure of the book – if I had a dry-erase board and a marker I could probably do an outline of what gets promised but not delivered at various stages. A lot of this is just basic good-sense-when-writing-about-monsters; not giving too much detail about the Evil Trains so that they don’t tip over into utter goofiness. Or, closely related, not-explaining-the-joke. Some of it is because I think it’s an effective way of building tension. It annoys some people but I personally enjoy encountering it as a reader; I like having the football kicked away; it’s masochistic, I suppose. Part of this tendency toward refusal is thematic: because the books are both about the frustration of different kinds of utopian early-days-of-modernity hopes.6 (We don’t see Ransom City, but then it doesn’t really ever exist). A big part of this tendency is because of the centrality of the gap/refusal touched on above, re: the Folk and the sense that this is a partial and unreliable story and there are other stories we’re not seeing; which gets mirrored throughout the structure of the book at various levels, probably more often than I was intentionally aware of. Part of it is that I (as a reader) can never really enjoy the sort of fantasy that purports to offer a comprehensive and consistent explanation of the rules or nature of its world. My experience of the world is that I do not fully understand most of its systems and processes outside of small, sort of trivial areas, and the important things that happen happen for reasons that seem largely opaque and inexplicable. Fantasy worldbuilding that purports to be transparent and not confusing and full of weird gaps doesn’t feel real to me.7
An initial draft of Rise of Ransom City tried to follow Liv and Creedmoor’s story more directly. But it wasn’t working. They’d become too central to things, and they knew too much about what was going on, and I wasn’t interested in them any more. I couldn’t relate. So successive drafts pulled back the focus more and more until the thing slipped into first person, and they slipped off into the background.8
(My current goal in editing a new thing is total transparency, for a bit of a change).
“Claustrophobic” isn’t a word that would have occurred to me but now I think about it I absolutely see it. And this possibly also has something to do with the limitation of perspective discussed above, the sense of a line that is not being crossed; or perhaps at this point I’m pattern-hunting.
There is history in the sense of things happening one after another, the map moving about, towns coming and going, the conflict entering hot and cold phases in different places, but not a lot of overall progress. Partly that’s a function of the very-high-altitude view of the world the books provide. Partly it’s a hazard of made-up worlds. If I tell you that the center of empire has shifted from Rome to Byzantium that’s a big deal, but if I tell you that it’s shifted from Zarquon-IV to Squabblaxxx-VIII, well, who cares? The people who live in Zarquon-IV care but to the reader it’s not history, it’s just words; at least not unless a lot of the focus of the story is put there – which takes focus away from other parts – so local history can be developed but sweeping background history is hard. I would have liked to have built in more of a sense of change. It’s meant to be implied, I think, somewhere, that the Gun-Line conflict has not always been as hot or as all-encompassing as it is “now;” that it took a century for either power to fully appear, and another couple of centuries for the war to become what it is.
But certainly they’re stuck now, and have been stuck for a very long time. Presumably the world has to be a lot bigger than ours for all this history to fit in it, but they’re running low on room to expand (the frontier is not infinitely open; in fact Liv and Creedmoor almost reach the sea.) They’re in the grip of ideas that nobody is really entirely happy with, but nobody knows how to get rid of – except on the “vast scale of structural change,” as Maria Farrell puts it.
I said above that this is a world that bends (up to a point) to strong imaginations, but as Miriam Burstein observes, it’s more that the world bends to language, to stories and names; so that naming and defining and describing things can be a weapon, and speaking your enemy’s language can be a trap. The Line has lawyers and machines-that-type-in-triplicate and endless secret files and so on; the Gun literally speaks inside your head and tells you what you think. Stories – the Gun in particular is nothing but a collection of bullshit stories – take on lives of their own, and do things when you’re not watching.
John Creedmoor’s initials actually are a coincidence, or at least not intentional on my part. I liked the sound of “Creedmoor” and I liked “John.” On the other hand, it’s quite likely that the reason the name just seemed so right to me is because I grew up reading so many Michael Moorcock books, whose fondness for J-C names for his protagonists is intentional, if my understanding is correct.
There is a sort of Bible analogue in the world; the Sisters of the Silver City have a very Bible-like holy book. But that holy book doesn’t make any actual appearances on the page, I don’t think, and it’s just one religion among several. The Smilers peeled off a lot of the popular crowd-pleasing bits.
I will not say what the MacGuffin is, but it is the case, as Maria Farrell points out, that the idea of the possibility of the MacGuffin is at least as effective as the thing itself, and possibly more.
Yes! Harry Ransom most certainly does have theories on child-rearing and the state of nature. Nothing would have made me happier than to somehow shoehorn in Harry’s theories on education, which are advanced, forthright and significant. But it was very sporting of my editor to let me include 1,000 words on Harry’s nonsense exercise regime, and there’s a limit to how far you can push these things.
I love “The Wild West As Will And Representation” and want to steal it.
I don’t really have a conclusion
A kind of coda and suggestion for future work regarding Corey’s essay on the links between Nietzschian thought and modern economics. In one respect, I’d ask whether there may be stronger connections than Corey suggests. In particular, I can’t help wondering whether Max Weber might be an interesting vector of contagion. His more sociologically inflected account of the economy clearly had great influence on the Austrians whom Corey is interested in, but his later work, especially Politics as a Vocation, has strong and explicit Nietzschian overtones. However, for Weber, politics rather than the market is the “theater of self-disclosure, the stage upon which we discover and reveal our ultimate ends.” His heroes are politicians, who attach themselves to an end, follow a particular god despite that end’s radical contingency – the value of politics is that it provides a ground in which these very few individuals can fully develop themselves through struggle with others holding equally strongly to other gods who are equally contingent.
Weber’s political aristocracy, however, has little directly to do with the actual aristocracy of German politics in the early twentieth century, despite his right wing views. It’s clear that those on the left, as well as those conventionally subject to contempt as journalists and scribblers can be as heroic as those on the right, as long as they recognize and embrace the paradoxes of political action. It seems to me at least possible that this account might have served as a bridge, through which Nietzschian influences might have escaped into economic thought. If this were so, though, it would suggest that the key was not marginalism, so much as a very particular interpretation of marginalism by Austrians, whose relationship to mainstream economics has always been rather awkward.
This, in turn would lead to a somewhat different interpretation of Hayek, Schumpeter and the others. What is most valuable about Corey’s essay to me is its discovery of a frankly aristocratic element in Hayek’s work (this is less surprising in Schumpeter’s, since Schumpeter, if not quite a fascist himself, was likely a sneaking regarder). An alternative hypothesis is that this aristocratism was less rooted in marginalist accounts of values, than in the fundamental problem that standard economic theory has in dealing with innovation. Standard economic models tend to predict equilibria from which there is no very good reason for economic actors to deviate. This more or less rules out radical innovation by definition – while economists can make some arguments about e.g. the incentive effects that different institutions might have for innovation, they are very clearly outside the territory where standard economic theory is most comfortable and most useful. To the extent that true innovation is in the realm of uncertainty rather than risk, it is outside the realm of things that can usefully be analyzed by standard economic theory.
What Schumpeter and Hayek tried to do was to come up with accounts of economics which were less formally neat, but which provided greater room for understanding where innovation might come from. This, I think, is where the notion of the entrepreneur comes in – Hayek and Schumpeter’s understandings of innovation are very different from each other, but both emphasize the role of entrepreneurship in spurring change. For Hayek:the method which under given conditions is the cheapest is a thing which has to be discovered, and to be discovered anew, sometimes almost from day to day, by the entrepreneur, and that, in spite of the strong inducement, it is by no means regularly the established entrepreneur, the man in charge of the existing plant, who will discover what is the best method.
This seems to me to plausibly link to Corey’s quote about the crucial importance of rare individuals in spurring change in tastes (they are different kinds of discovery, but both discovery nonetheless). Schumpeter’s account of the entrepreneur-as-innovator is more direct still – it is the innovative action of entrepreneurs that drives Schumpeter’s cycle of creative destruction.
So what this suggests to me is a kind of consonance of methodological problem and political priors. The methodological problem is that of making an inherently rather static framework – equilibrium-centered economics – something that is better able to take account of dynamic effects, and in particular of the ways in which individuals may innovate. However, there are many ways in which one might theorize innovation – much recent work has looked at the role that contexts rather than individuals play. The political priors have to do with a vision of the world that is most aptly expressed by Nietzsche and perhaps others, which emphasizes how the individual self-development of those few with the capacity for heroism is being stifled by an increasingly routinized and banausic world of bureaucracy and restraint. Weber most obviously expresses this in Nietzschian terms (and makes clear his debt to Nietzsche). But something similar spurs both Schumpeter and Hayek’s pessimism about the likely consequences of social democracy.
What we see (if this guess is right) in the varying Austrian approaches to economics are the consequences of a perceived coincidence of the methodological and the political problems – a set of arguments which are intended both to provide a counterweight to more standardly marginalist accounts of the economy, and a possible antidote to the political disenchantment of the world. Again, what I really like about Corey’s take is that it highlights the specifically aristocratic implications of Schumpeter’s and Hayek’s answers – one could have come up with different possible solutions, and the solution that they did come up with reflects a specific set of political values, and either an elective affinity with, or indirect influence from, the ideas of Nietzsche.
Mash-ups are everywhere these days: zombies keep finding their way into historical novels, and softcore porn into Jane Eyre. Making genres and modes collide is hardly a new thing; what is Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, after all, but dear rational Sherlock Holmes startled to find himself set loose in Bronte-esque Gothic? But Holmes vanquishes his Gothic surroundings, so that we are all back on familiar, if not entirely comforting (poor Sir Henry Baskerville…) formula territory at the end. By contrast, the vogue for zombified historical novels, vampirized Austen, and sexed-up Dickens doesn’t resolve the conflicts between genres and modes so much as play them up for all their worth: yes, ladies and gentlemen, honest Abe hunted vampires.
Felix Gilman’s duology The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City does indeed mash things up, but to more original and serious effect. Here, the mashing involves both wildly disparate literary kinds and just as wildly disparate literary allusions and plots. The Half-Made World is…a Western, with gunslingers toting gods for guns (or, rather, Guns)? A dystopia akin to 1984—with occasional nods to Brave New World tossed in—with permanently grey-faced men and women serving diabolical Engines? How about a vampire novel set in a hospital with a name right out of Spenser (House Dolorous) that has become briefly confused with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Or a straight-up fantasy with inscrutable faeries? Allusions to nineteenth-century literature and culture surface at the oddest of moments: Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help resurrects itself as the vapid religion of the Smilers; Liv Alverhuysen drops her copy of an academic journal as she rides away in a coach, in a moment reminiscent of Becky Sharp tossing Johnson’s Dictionary out the window in Vanity Fair. And the Bible is not immune, despite the fact that it doesn’t appear to exist in this world. The residents of New Design, last remnants of the Republic, are suspiciously akin to the Jews wandering in search of a home. “How do you lead a whole chosen people into the wilderness, in secret?” asks President Hobart, remembering the dangers of their journey. John Creedmoor, whose initials at first seem like a coincidence, nevertheless walks murderously through the battle of New Design, shouting “Tell ’em, should the Republic survive into future generations, that John Creedmoor saved it! And make sure to note that he did it of his own free will!” (HMW 442) (Christ, or anti-Christ?) The Rise of Ransom City, while no means quite so wild in its combinations, nevertheless continues the theme: the suspiciously P. T. Barnum-esque narrator, tripping and falling from one stop to the next in his picaresque plot, is on a quest that looks, also suspiciously, like it has been borrowed from The Wizard of Oz—that is, if The Wizard of Oz also featured a love interest distinctly resembling Lord Byron’s daughter, the mathematician Ada Lovelace, and wound up gesturing towards utopia.
Both unsettled and unsettling, the freewheeling allusiveness of Gilman’s two novels offers the reader an experience something like that of his characters encountering the as-yet unmade West. In this pliable world, men inadvertently call the gods into being out of their own desires. “ I have heard it said that we ourselves made them,” writes Harry Ransom, “that something in those forms spoke to us and to our nightmares and obsessions and that is how the world changed, because of us” (RRC 143). Line and Gun, along with the other spirits that appear, are fictions in the original sense of the term, created things—but this is creation without intentionality and without control. The half-made West sounds like Eden at times, but it’s an Eden where man needs to refrain from naming things, and yet perhaps cannot help doing so. When Creedmoor encounters one of the mysterious Hillfolk, she warns him, “Do not look on this place, do not name these things, do not make them into things they are not” (HMW 316). Here, the danger of giving and knowing names—a trope of longstanding duration, and not only in high fantasy—up-ends Genesis 2:19: “And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” In Gilman’s novels, to name is all too often to name wrongly, to induce chaos in the paradoxical attempt to create order and familiarity. His Adams and Eves are already fallen, and what they make bears the marks of their fall. Although the environmentally-destructive effects of the Engines certainly invokes our own anxieties, the men of Gilman’s world threaten to wreck it in a fit of an absence of mind; it’s no accident that Creedmoor, dealing death through New Design, announces that he does it “of his own free will,” since that commodity remains in short supply, especially in the first novel. Inchoate passions call all-too-definite deadly forces into being, and those forces demand absolute control over the minds that gave them birth. (Perhaps I should have listed Frankenstein in my catalog of allusions running rife. Or Zeus giving birth to Athena…) Line and Gun are not formed out of some deliberate plot or conspiracy–it’s not clear that there is anything that could have been done to stop them from emerging, and the miracle weapon that apparently manages to kill them, somewhere in the interstices of Ransom’s fragmentary narrative, is not of man at all, but the understandably unfriendly Hillfolk.
It’s not surprising, then, that when Harry Ransom encounters a lawyer ultimately under the control of the Line, the lawyer leans hard on the singular meanings of words:
“All of this is over, Mr. Ransom. That is the meaning of the word injunction, which you will see here, and again here, on this order. Only a word, all of it only words, but words of great power. I think you understand about words, Mr. Ransom. Why, what else is there? Now in this instance the power of this word is the power to set the world back on its proper course, to put an end to these shenanigans and japes and nonsense and to say who’s who and what’s what and who owns what. This is a word that commands you to be silent.” (244-45)
The malleability of the West stands in stark contrast to this vision of language, in which words classify, categorize, order, and fix. Here is absolute clarity, which also turns out to be implicitly an act of violence: the ultra-rational world of Line, in which words ought to be surgically attached to their singular meanings, deforms human and other energies as much as does the freewheeling, dime-novel vision of Gun, whose Agents kill anyone and anything under the threat of the agonizing Goad. Whatever ends the mutual antagonism of Line and Gun turns out to be something that the duology does not directly represent, as if to suggest that whatever truly “set[s] the world back on its proper course” is a force beyond the constraints imposed by human naming. Which brings me back to the novels and their refusal to settle into any one genre, or to reconcile their clashing literary and historical references. Our world is not half-made, but the duology keeps escaping classification, whether by academics or by booksellers (is this SF? Adventure? A Western? Horror? What?). It is quite cheerfully partial, unwilling to adopt any one conveniently recognizable form.
In The Rise of Ransom City, Felix Gilman attempts a couple of tricks one really shouldn’t try at home. First, he shows rather than tells how history is made by economics, politics and changes in popular belief, not the bravery of heroes. Second, he keeps much of the plot-driving action off-stage. The narrator Harry Ransom is a charismatic storyteller with a knack for coming close to the action but never quite bending it to his will. He says at the outset that he’s changed history four times. But when he explains how, you realize Ransom’s usually a part of someone else’s plan or that it’s something he failed to do that changes how things turn out. It’s all quite subtly done and my first read-through was spent in a fog of mild frustration. It wasn’t until I realized that Ransom is more Forrest Gump than secret agent that I started to get along with this book.
The Rise of Ransom City is very good at rushing you from one adventure to the next, while slyly confounding expectations of what will be explained. The ever-changing settings of Ransom’s mishaps are terrific fun. They include a gambling river-boat, a doomed town on a snowy mountain pass, a high class brothel and a lonely industrial penthouse suite. There’s lots of lovely steam punk with a self-playing, perpetual motion piano and its maker Adela, and a convincing slave economy built on the whipped backs of the native Folk, who may or may not be manipulating the action. The real players, Creedmoor and Liv, break off half way through and continue their adventures elsewhere, but there’s plenty to admire and enjoy while you try to figure out what’s really going on.
On the face of it, Harry Ransom is a great narrator. He’s a self-mythologising showman who stumbled as a teenager onto the intuitive mathematics of the Folk’s ability to tap a source of perpetual energy. Ransom takes his light-machine on the road, hawking at the same time his System of Exercises, vegetarianism and the blue-prints for a surprisingly modernist utopia to be built in the jungles of the Half Made World. I suspect he also chews his food one hundred times and has wild theories on child-rearing and the state of nature, once you get him going.
But Ransom’s hard won self-knowledge and rueful noticing that he’s lapsed yet again into self-promotion mean that he’s far from a one-note character. He makes funny, under-stated asides, especially about family life. His most endearing act is to defy expectations regarding a romantic interest and to more deeply mourn another character who seems to be peripheral. But Ransom is a frustrating narrator when you get thinking about what you’re not being told. He’s self-obsessed, never thinks ahead and he evades hard questions about what anything means:
“I have that cast of mind that can only think about a problem when it can be solved.”
Well, that’s convenient if you don’t want the storyteller to reveal anything too soon or even at all!
Although the novel’s setting is an epic conflict between the forces of gun-toting individualism versus the rationalizing logic of the locomotive, Ransom is on his own quest; to meet his great hero and businessman, Alfred Baxter. Baxter is a self-made millionaire industrialist (all hard work; no luck) whose autobiography is Ransom’s bible. Ransom is convinced Baxter will recognize him as a kindred spirit and back the mass production of the perpetual energy machine. It never occurs to him that the very last thing a robber baron wants is a technologically disruptive entrepreneur nipping at his heels.
When Ransom and Baxter finally meet, it turns out that individuals don’t count as their publicity would lead you to believe. It’s more self-made myths than self-made men. Baxter a mere figure-head of the industrialising current of structural economic change. Worse still, Ransom becomes just such an imprisoned figurehead himself. I expected him to somehow talk or trick his way out. But, again, the story defies expectations. Our canny hero is well and truly crushed. He listens lovingly to the sound of his own voice and signs his name to deeds history won’t forgive unless it can forget him entirely. He fails to find a way to triumph or even, for too long, a way out. And in the meantime, elsewhere, epic forces confront each other. Battles are won. Friends are lost. And somewhere, far offstage, Creedmoor, Liv and others continue the real struggle.
One of the first things Ransom ever tells us is that he’s a victim of circumstance. It’s probably the truest thing he says. Yet like the dying General Enver of The Half Made World who had;
“… taken the mere words of politicians and philosophers and he’d beaten the world into their mold”,
Ransom is obsessed with staking out his place in history. He’s convinced that readers of his story will live in an era when the war is almost forgotten – though he’s hazy on how that will actually occur – and that the fame of Ransom City will ensure his immortality.
But this is not the kind of novel where the satisfyingly obvious is allowed to happen. Plucky schemes to find secret weapons are dispatched by random happenstance and the sheer force of opposing numbers. Where ideas, technology and the sheer, vast scale of structural change are what count, individuals are irrelevant. Heroism exists only in self-improvement manuals and children’s storybooks. This canny huckster’s claim for immortality is likely to be denied.
This is, in a silly way, a footnote to my previous Kevin Williamson post, but, more seriously, to my contribution to our Erik Olin Wright event. In my post on Wright I remarked that, in a sense, he’s pushing against an open door: he wants Americans, who think ‘socialism’ is a dirty word, to be more open to utopian thinking. The problem, I pointed out, is that thinking ‘socialism’ is a dirty word is positively, not negatively, correlated with utopianism, because conservatives are, typically, very utopian, especially in their rhetoric – more so than socialists these days; certainly more so than liberals. Wright responded that his project “is not mainly directed at ideologically committed Conservatives whose core values support the power and privilege of dominant classes. The core audience is people who are loosely sympathetic to some mix of liberal egalitarian, radical democratic and communitarian ideals.”
But the problem is that conservatives are loosely sympathetic to this stuff – in a weird, cognitively dissonant way. Anyway, it isn’t just conservatives who have this funny problem – utopophobophilia. If you want to talk to people about utopia, you have to deal with a lot of confusing, confused love-hate relationships.
Which brings me to Kevin Williamson. His new book, as I mentioned in my previous post, really is (although some of you doubted it, in comments!) The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure. And yesterday I got an email from National Review, plugging it. Here is Williamson summarizing his position, in a way that perfectly illustrates my argument against Wright. Indeed, Williamson is a kind of Bizarro Wright. (Him want real utopia because utopia am bad. Best way show utopia am impossible is show little ways utopia am actually working.)
Why are our smart phones so smart – getting better and cheaper every year – while our government is so dumb? Is there a way to apply the creative and productive institutions that produced the iPhone to education, public schools, or Medicare?
A few years ago, I was giving a lecture in which I mentioned, as an aside, that libertarians and free-market conservatives often utter the words “the market will take care of it” or “voluntary charity will take care of it” as though those sentences were real answers to meaningful questions. And when they do try to address social concerns in a more substantive fashion, they too often fall into the trap of drawing up blueprints for utopias.
We live in remarkable times, an age of extraordinary wealth, freedom, and creativity. But a few critical areas of life – education, health care, and retirement prominent among them – are dominated by antiquated political systems that cannot respond adequately to the complexity of 21st century life. The problem is not so much left-wing politics or right-wing politics, “good” politics or “bad” politics, but the centrality of politics per se, the inevitable defects associated with centralized, hierarchical decision-making institutions that cannot evolve in response to fast-moving, complex knowledge.
Economists spend a great deal of time talking about efficiency, productivity, GDP, marginal output and the like, but I am more interested in the question T. S. Eliot put to us: “When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’ What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together to make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?” I live a few blocks from Wall Street – what, indeed, is the meaning of this city? If we do not have a good answer to that question, then all of the efficiency and productivity in the world are not going to do us a great deal of good.
My book has a two-part argument; I call it “short-term pessimism, long-term optimism.” It is not always obvious, but government as we know it is in retreat, a retreat that I expect to be accelerated by economic trends related to public debt and unfunded government liabilities. But once the disorder is behind us, we will discover new and better ways to serve one another. You would not know it to listen to many of the self-appointed defenders of capitalism, but that is what the economy is there for.
I quote this not (just!) to make fun but because I think Williamson’s case, although extreme, is not untypical. He is saying that the only alternative to utopian thinking is revolutionary communism [hold that objection for just a sec]. Indeed, the replacement of the existing capitalist order with a revolutionary communist order is an inevitable (or highly likely) function of the economic contradictions of actually existing capitalism. The state is destined to wither away. (Just look at your iPhone if you don’t believe me!) No other approach makes sense because it’s madness to try to blueprint our way to some sort of perfect world.
The tendentious bit of my summary is labeling Williamson’s ideal ‘communism’. That term has a history. But there is a straightforward logic to its application in this context: like Marx, Williamson evidently dreams of an ideal community in which we live ‘to discover better ways to serve one another.’ (You have a better definition of communism? I’d like to hear it.) Like Marx, I presume, Williamson believes that by making people free, we will bring them together in ideal community, and by bringing them together in ideal community, we will make them free. It’s a virtuous dialetic that will, in some sense, place us post-politics. And it’s possible. Perhaps inevitable. Last but not least: like Marx, Williamson is very impatient with people who waste their time blueprinting Utopia.
This is not to deny rather significant differences of opinion between Williamson and Marx, not just about economics and politics but about what is really valuable in life. Nevertheless, the odd parallels underscore my sense that the thing that makes utopian thinking hard is not so much that people hate utopia, unreasonably, but that people love it, unreasonably, given that, unreasonably, they think they hate it. Utopophobophilia isn’t just for conservatives. Even Marx sometimes got kind of wild-eyed, in this way.
In “Utopophobia” [that’s audio; the material is gone over a bit differently in print here] Dave Estlund (who contributed to our Wright event) suggests that utopophobia – an irrational aversion to theorizing about ideal political order – is chiefly due to a fallacious slip. He quotes Machiavelli to the effect that is and ought are so far apart that thinking about ought will blind you to is. He quotes Rousseau on the importance of ‘taking men as they are, laws as they might be.’ Estlund basically argues, against both, that even if it is true that is and ought tend to be run together, it doesn’t follow that we should, as it were, preemptively conflate them – as if giving oneself a chronic case of the disease counts as vaccination against it. If two things that you are going to need to combine tend to get mixed up, the thing to do is distinguish them.
I think there’s a lot of wisdom in Estlund’s aspirational-concessive distinction-drawing – I feel I’ve learned from it, anyway – but it doesn’t explain the common phenomenon of utopophobophilia. Love of hating on utopia by utopians. Where the hell does that come from?
People tend to think that bad utopianism means taking too sunny a view of human nature. As a result, people who are cynical about human nature assume they can’t possibly be engaging in utopian thinking.
The truth is that utopian political thinkers are typically very cynical about human nature – albeit selectively so. From Plato on, utopian political plans typically hinge on clever notions for how to leverage weak humanity into social strength. The foundation of Plato’s Republic is deluded and brazen, even if the apex of the pyramid is wise and golden. Marx thinks that communism is inevitable not because all men are implausibly angelic but because they are mostly selfish and deluded, hence rather predictably self-destructive. Free market utopianism is similar. It assumes ‘base’ motives, and ignorance, but predicts a system can be built that will leverage this base matter into something positive – as mathematically ideal as anything Plato dreamt of.
This isn’t to say all these cynical, let’s-turn-weakness-into-strength social schemes are the same, or equally flawed – or necessarily flawed at all. The point is this: from the fact that a lack of cynicism about human nature would be a recipe for unhealthy utopianism, it doesn’t follow that cynicism about human nature is a recipe for anti-utopianism.
Cynicism about human nature feels like a shield against naive utopianism. But the truth is that thinking everyone around you is basically an angel who can be counted on to do exactly what you want them to do is not a typical, psychological temptation that needs to be warned against. The actually psychologically hazardous root of utopianism is utopophobophilia: you, unlike those utopian idiots, see the score. You can pull off the cunning bankshot – using human weakness against itself in some ingenious, generally beneficial way. You are the cunning social engineer because you are cynical. Cynicism breeds utopianism.
Obviously I’m not saying that all cynics are utopians. Just that what makes utopianism attractive is not that it is some saccharine sweet, obviously artificial, Panglossian notion. Rather, it’s a tasty combination of sweet and bitter. It’s satisfying to get to be a lover of humanity while feeling deep contempt for it at the same time. This is what makes conservatives such suckers for utopia – and they aren’t the only ones.
You might object that it isn’t quite fair to extract this from one email National Review sent me, telling me Williamson has managed to draw the blueprint of the one true, blueprint-free anti-utopian heaven. If it turns out that Williamson has really pulled it off – boy will I look like an idiot. No question. That said, I’m not going to read his book. As the man sang: “Well, we’d all looooove to see the plan.” That doesn’t mean we are all willing to pay to read it, if we’re pretty sure it’s bad.
There's been a lot of excitement about the discovery of two Earth-like[^1] planets, a mere 1200 light years away. Pretty soon, I guess, we'll be thinking about sending colonists. So, I thought it might be worthwhile to a little bit of arithmetic on the exercise.
I'm going to assume (generously, I think) that the minimum size for a successful colony is 10 000. The only experience we have is the Apollo program, which transported 12 astronauts to the Moon (a distance of 1 light second) at a cost of $100 billion or so (current values). So, assuming linear scaling (again, very generously, given the need to accelerate to near lightspeed), that's a cost of around $100 trillion per light-second for 10 000 people. 1200 light-years is around 30 billion light-seconds, so the total cost comes out roughly equal to the value of current world GDP accumulated over the life of the universe.
Even supposing that technological advances made travel possible over such distances possible, why would we bother. By hypothesis, that would require the ability to live in interstellar space for thousands of years. A civilisation with that ability would have no need of planets.
On behalf of my fellow Australians, I'm going to make a counter-offer. For a mere $10 trillion, we can find you an area of land larger than a typical European country, almost certainly more habitable than the new planets, and much closer. We'll do all the work of supplying water and air, build 10 000 mansions for the inhabitants and guarantee a lifetime supply of food. I'm hoping for a spotters fee of 0.01 per cent.
On a related point, what should we be wishing for here? The fact that no-one has sent a detectable signal in our direction suggests that intelligent life forms similar to humans are very rare. If habitable planets are very rare, then this is unsurprising - interstellar distances preclude both travel and any kind of two-way communication. If on the other hand, the emergence of intelligent life is common, then the evidence suggests that its disappearance, through processes like nuclear war, must also be common.
[^1] Where Earth-like means somewhere between Venus-like and Mars-like.
I like the Los Angeles Review of Books quite a lot. I’ve given them real, actual money. But this article by James Harkin on Marx and public choice theory is, to put it plainly, shit. Below the fold, a lengthy and repetitive diatribe, which I’m posting less because I think it will be especially entertaining to readers, than to do my little bit to discourage others from writing similar articles in the future. Also, perhaps it might get LARB to rethink their quality filters.Taking various claims stated by the argument in turn …
(1) The claim that there is “a distinctive approach to political economy, sometimes known as game theory or public choice theory” is itself rather … distinctive. Public choice theory is not the same thing as game theory. Not only is the preponderance of classic public choice theory decidedly non-game theoretic, but many public choice theorists are actively suspicious of game theory. See e.g. Charles Rowley’s introductory essay to the standard collection of classic public choice articles, which hints strongly at the deviant tendencies of the ‘Rochester’ (i.e. game theoretic) school (which after all might suggest that market failure, as well as government failure is endemic in strategic situations). Game theory is a set of analytic tools, which, whether you like them or not, are compatible with a wide variety of political approaches. Public choice is a set of tools combined with an explicit ideology – in the words of the aforementioned Professor Rowley (a long time editor of Public Choice) it is “a program of scientific endeavor that exposed government failure coupled to a programme of moral philosophy that supported constitutional reform designed to limit government.”
(2) “Public choice political economy was born out of American military think tanks in the late 1940s, and set itself the task of dissecting the burgeoning role of government in advanced industrialized economies.” Oh dear. Game theory did get some impetus from American military think tanks (I’m travelling, but I recall William Poundstone’s book being good on this), but because it was perceived as being useful for military strategy, that being what military think tanks are in the business of caring about. Public choice theory really gets going in the 1950s, and is descended from a different line of inquiry in economics – social choice theory. This non-game theoretic approach builds on theoretical work by Kenneth Arrow (who’s incidentally as social democratic as they come) and Duncan Black.
(3) “As public choice theory has spread its influence across the entire social sciences in the last 70 years, this central idea that society is made up of no more than self-interested, strategically aware individuals gave rise to “rational choice theory” and became central to the entire Western social sciences.” This is exactly backwards. Rational choice theory gave rise to public choice theory, not vice-versa.
(4) “An example: the prisoner’s dilemma collective action problem, the most glittering weapon in public choice theory’s armory — quite simply one of the most important and most intractable logical puzzles of the last 100 years.” Prisoner’s dilemma and collective action are two distinct concepts. Mancur Olson’s seminal work on the collective action problem is entirely non-game theoretic,and makes no reference to the prisoner’s dilemma. As best as I know, the first book to systematically analyze collective action problems in terms of the prisoner’s dilemma is Russell Hardin’s 1982 Collective Action, which spurred responses from Michael Taylor and others pointing out that other logics (assurance games; chicken) could equally well underly collective action dilemmas.
(5) “The idea of the prisoner’s dilemma, which subsequently became the collective action problem or the “free rider problem,” As noted – the collective action/free rider problem was initially formulated by Olson without any reference to the prisoner’s dilemma. Prisoner’s dilemma is one useful way you might formalize the analysis of a particular kind of collective action problem, if you wanted to use game theory. That’s all.
(6) “In the last 50 years, [prisoner’s dilemma] has troubled the best mathematicians and social scientists of the modern era, and has been an ideological plaything and a weapon in the battle of political ideas. Intellectuals of every different stripe have fought over who owns the prisoner dilemma game because within it lies clues as to how to answer key social questions: how to organize society, the role of the market, the role of pressure groups, the purpose and prospects for collective mobilization, when the state should intervene to provide public goods for its citizens.” This potted intellectual history is not only terribly written (“an ideological plaything and a weapon in the battle of political ideas” …”every different stripe”) but wildly eccentric. Prisoner’s dilemma is an interesting and useful game for many purposes. It is not, nor does anyone consider it, a master-key to the great and enduring questions of the social sciences.
(7)”Brilliant economists like James Buchanan (who died in January) went on to argue that all kinds of collective action were bound to fall victim to the free rider problem; their conclusion, by and large, was that both politics and government were hardly worth the bother.” I think that the author is trying to describe some garbled version of Buchanan’s arguments about rent seeking but can’t be entirely sure. The claim that Buchanan thinks that politics and government “were hardly worth the bother” is decidedly peculiar – Buchanan’s criticism of government was most certainly not that it was barely worth any effort.
(8) “By the 1970s thinkers working within the new discipline of “law and economics” set about raiding game theory to explain the stuff of everyday life. The Chicago economist Gary Becker borrowed this calculus of material self-interest to explain the workings of marriage and the family: we marry in order to maximize our long-term utility, reckoned Becker, and according to strict laws of supply and demand.” The last time I looked, Becker’s arguments about the family were not game theoretic, nor inspired by game theory. If you really wanted to be pedantic, you could say that they implicitly invoke Von Neumann-Morgenstern utility functions, but I don’t imagine that the author of this piece would know a Von Neumann-Morgenstern utility function if it bit him on the arse.
(9) “Coase’s contribution was to argue that harmful effects could be resolved by means of a simple logical bargain between its immediate perpetrator and victim and without the intervention of the state or anyone else. If the flowers in your garden are aggravating my hay fever, for example, both of us could come together to find a solution. All that was required, he maintained, was a legal system that allocated rights to each party. After that, it was up to the bargaining parties to trade their rights depending on how much their respective activities were worth to them.” As a respected English economist (who by a bizarre coincidence is also called Ronald Coase) has noted, this interpretation (while regrettably common) completely misses the intended point of the argument about social cost. Coase ‘maintained’ and maintains no such thing.
There’s much more I could say. Some of the claims about Marx are nearly as remarkable as the author’s cockeyed understanding of public choice – e.g. the claim that Marx retired from active politics after 1848 to think great abstract thoughts about social theory will come as a surprise to his biographers. But that’s likely more than enough to give a general picture. It’s perfectly reasonable that a wide variety of people on the left don’t like public choice theory as it is currently formulated (I’m not especially fond of it myself). But if you want to criticize it, you need to understand it. The willingness of otherwise good publications to publish sloppy polemics about economic theory, as long as they have the right politics, is highly unfortunate. I’d like to think the LARB will do a better job in future.
So much of the discourse around the US and genocide focuses on the sin of omission, the failure of the US to prevent or stop genocide elsewhere. Now that former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt has been found guilty of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison—a fact established by a UN truth commission in 1997 but often ignored in the literature on genocide and intervention, which tends to focus on Rwanda and Bosnia—perhaps we can attend to the sin of commission. For the US support for Rios Montt was extensive. I wrote about just a little of it in the London Review of Books in 2004:
On 5 December 1982, Ronald Reagan met the Guatemalan president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in Honduras. It was a useful meeting for Reagan. ‘Well, I learned a lot,’ he told reporters on Air Force One. ‘You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.’ It was also a useful meeting for Ríos Montt. Reagan declared him ‘a man of great personal integrity . . . totally dedicated to democracy’, and claimed that the Guatemalan strongman was getting ‘a bum rap’ from human rights organisations for his military’s campaign against leftist guerrillas. The next day, one of Guatemala’s elite platoons entered a jungle village called Las Dos Erres and killed 162 of its inhabitants, 67 of them children. Soldiers grabbed babies and toddlers by their legs, swung them in the air, and smashed their heads against a wall. Older children and adults were forced to kneel at the edge of a well, where a single blow from a sledgehammer sent them plummeting below. The platoon then raped a selection of women and girls it had saved for last, pummelling their stomachs in order to force the pregnant among them to miscarry. They tossed the women into the well and filled it with dirt, burying an unlucky few alive. The only traces of the bodies later visitors would find were blood on the walls and placentas and umbilical cords on the ground.
The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City are tricky creatures. They object to being categorized. However much you might want to fix them to the corkboard (with a neatly typed label beneath, identifying species, and date and place of capture) they’re going to wriggle off their pins, if they haven’t already fluttered right back out of the killing jar. Books like this are not easily susceptible to chloroform.
The best I can do is to talk a bit about what they are not, and how (I think), they avoid a particular trap. Here, I disagree with Abigail Nussbaum, so you likely want to re-read her arguments again before you read mine. Also, I owe much of this to a long email conversation with Eleanor Arnason, (whom you emphatically shouldn’t hold responsible for what I say, though she equally emphatically deserves my gratitude).
First – what the books aren’t – which is steampunk. It’s easy to understand how they might be overwhelmed by that voracious subgenre – it is obviously rather difficult to keep fantastical books with steam trains, ornithopters and submersibles safely walled away from it. But Gilman is using similar tropes for very different ends. Steampunk is self conscious Victorianism. Indeed, it’s usually a quite specific and unhealthily nostalgic Victorianism, an awkward romantic encounter between starched crinolines and awkwardly twenty-first century social values, lubricated by a compound of soot and engine-grease. Gilman isn’t even faintly nostalgic, and wants to play a different kind of game.
Borges famously wrote that Kafka invented his precursors. If you read Gilman as having done the same, one imaginary progenitor might be William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine. Like Gibson and Sterling, Gilman wants to look closer at the origins of the steel-hard casing of modernity, which was forged in the smithies of the Industrial Revolution, and which we are still confined within today. Even here, any ancestry is uncertain. Gilman’s Ada Lovelace figure, unlike her equivalent in Gibson and Sterling, never quite manages to get her version of the analytic engine properly up and running. It’s sold for cheap and then lost in a capsized riverboat. Ada’s past, or future, or whatever you might want to call it, emphatically isn’t the one that Gilman wants to tell us about.
Instead, he wants to tell us about America. As Cosma Shalizi has already noted, he’s specifically interested in the origin-stories that America tells itself about its own particular form of modernity. The two warring forces of the Gun and the Line in the first book represent two of the core myths of America. Anarchy comes from the barrel of the Gun, a bloody ideal of the West that owes more to Cormac McCarthy than Louis L’Amour (the spirits of the Guns, whispering to their Agents from their invisible Lodge, are surely a related class of daimon to Blood Meridian‘s Judge Holden). The Line, despite its malefic train-engines (never precisely described) is as much a realization of 1930s Fordism, and perhaps even the 1950s ideal of big organization and mass production, as Gradgrindian capitalism. There are motor-cars as well as Heavier-Than-Air-Vehicles. The Line’s name hints at the logic of the assembly line as well as that of the railway. The whey-faced proletariat are Victorian enough but they are very nearly indistinguishable from their immediate superiors, grey Organization Men who direct them towards ends that are both superficially rational and genuinely insane. All are disposable from the perspective of the Line’s tutelary spirits, the Engines, who seem to have no goal beyond seeing their system endlessly propagate itself outwards (just as the Gun has no goal or strategy beyond perpetuating chaos)
The second book canvases another American myth – the self-made man, inventor and entrepreneur who does his best to prevail in the face of hostility and lawsuits from established trusts. Professor Harry Ransom has bits of O. Henry’s Jeff Peters in his personal ancestry, but also L.Frank Baum’s Oz, and perhaps, bits of Mark Twain too (a charming and amiable narrator of uncertain racial background who likely isn’t nearly half as ingenuous as he lets on, and ends up lighting out for the territories). If the first book has the impending displacement of the Gun and the Line by the Red Valley Republic as its backdrop, the second book makes it clear that the Republic’s victory is no better and no worse than an escape into the unpleasantness and banality of America-as-it-is. Professor Ransom, and his unlikely ideal city of inventors, renegades, potterers and ne’er-do-wells disappears into the myth of the Far West, beckoning, but (like the multiple shadows cast by Ransom’s Leaf, and the ghosts of possibility thrown off by the workings of his Apparatus) not entirely present.
As Nussbaum rightly points out, all of this presents Gilman with a problem. These are recognizable versions of the origin stories that America tells itself about itself. But all of these stories radically displace another set of stories – the stories that native Americans had about themselves and their land before the settlers came, not to mention the stories about how the settlers treated them when they arrived. And this makes it difficult for writers like Gilman (who is nearly as pale, and quite as European as I am) to write about the Matter of America without dealing with difficult issues of representation. How do you faithfully reflect the story that got deliberately obliterated in the making of the stories that you are playing off? One choice is to try somehow to smooth the problem away as if it didn’t exist, either absorbing it within the colonial narrative (a la Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker books, where native Americans become a precursor to magic-fuelled Mormonism) or magically making it disappear (as in Patricia Wrede’s books, where a North America full of megafauna is there for the colonials to explore, conveniently free of any aboriginal inhabitants to complicate matters). This is inadvisable. Even when well intentioned (as I imagine Wrede’s books were well intentioned) the consequences are unfortunate.1
Yet the alternative – of trying somehow to represent the native American perspective – presents issues that are nearly equally as tricky. Representation, even when kindly intended, can become an act of cultural expropriation. This is especially so in a work of speculative fiction, where one almost inevitably is going to be creating imaginary cultures that cannot really fully and faithfully reflect the cultures that they are playing off. It’s not entirely impossible – there are a couple of writers out there, with deep anthropological knowledge, who seem to me at least to have represented possible alternative perspectives well (not that I should be anyone’s idea of an authoritative judge). Interestingly, the work that seems to me to be most nearly successful is science fiction rather than fantasy (“anthropological” sf such as LeGuin, Arnason, and Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child). Perhaps there’s some lesson one could generalize from here about how the tropes of SF make it easier to avoid boundary confusion than the tropes of fantasy. Perhaps not.
Still, this is really hard to do, and perhaps effectively impossible to do in a pair of novels which talk about the stories that make up America while being very deliberately unfaithful to them. I don’t think that there is enough imaginative distance there to avoid failing badly. Equally, it is impossible to ignore the challenge without at best making your account of the making of America into a strained exercise in pretending away the problem, and at worst a nasty ideological confection.
What Gilman does is something else. He makes it clear that there are other perspectives on his stories, perspectives that reflect parts of both the native experience, and the experience of enslaved Africans in his narrative, but refuses to represent those perspectives directly. Gilman’s “Folk” are both profoundly aboriginal to the land and enslaved by the settlers, when they are not entirely wiped out. They are crucial to the development of both books. Their story is a central one – arguably the central one – in how Gilman’s Half Made World develops and changes over the course of the two novels. Yet it is never directly told, and is only encountered glancingly, through the individually and collectively inadequate perspectives of the settlers. The only place where the Folk’s viewpoint is at all directly represented is a short and highly ambiguous passage towards the end of the first book, which very deliberately doesn’t provide us with much in the way of useful information. It tells us that there is a perspective (and almost certainly, many perspectives) that aren’t being described, and that the Folk are in principle intelligible, but very deliberately doesn’t do more than that. All that we know about the Folk’s actual motivations are vague and contradictory hints.
This allows Gilman to tell us a story, or stories, while making it clear that there is another, more important story that he isn’t telling. The two main protagonists of the first novel, with their all-consuming Quest to defeat the Gun and Line, become bit-players in Professor Harry Ransom’s tall tale about his rise and fall in the second. This story in turn is framed by Elmer Merrial Carson’s on-and-off search over decades for the different parts of Ransom’s tale, which he clearly finds amusing, vexing, more accurate than he might have expected, but not entirely convincing. And beyond all these stories is the deliberately untold story of the Folk, from which all these other stories are distractions.
The most important moment in the two books is in the middle of The Rise of Ransom City, where the narrator, Professor Harry Ransom, encounters a group of the Folk after the riverboat he was travelling on sinks. He tries to justify himself, and his whole vainglorious story about how he has used their knowledge to construct his Apparatus to them, but gradually realizes that they’re all quietly laughing at him. They obviously find him a little ridiculous. It’s a wonderful deflationary moment – and is the moment at which the reader realizes that there’s another story, around which the imaginary world could be pivoted like an axis, to reveal an entirely different understanding of what has been going on over the course of the two books.
Years ago, Michael Swanwick, another very fine writer, argued that the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that the first takes place in a knowable universe, the second in an unknowable one. At the heart of fantasy there is always mystery. The trick of writing good fantasy is somehow to sidetrack the reader’s desire for complete revelation of the mysterious without entirely frustrating it. Gilman does this, very consciously and deliberately, but employs the mystery at the heart of his two books to do something else besides. By making the mystery consonant with the hidden story of the Folk, he avoids having to represent what the Folk mean to themselves. Hence, he solves the problem of acknowledging them without directly representing them.
It’s a risky strategy – and for some readers, it may not work. Clearly, for Nussbaum, it didn’t work. Even so, I’m sure that it’s a risk he’s taking with eyes open and with good intentions. The two books are about both the stories that America tells itself, and the story that it doesn’t, because to tell that story would be to invalidate the others. The former are represented directly, the second only indirectly and ambiguously sketched. I contend that this shouldn’t be read as a statement that the Folk are alien in some deep sense, but rather, a statement of epistemological and cultural modesty. That all that a white British emigre can plausibly claim to represent or truly understand, are those bits of the culture closely related to the one that he himself grew up in. To talk on behalf of the other is to take liberties that he isn’t entitled to take – so all he can do is to acknowledge that they are genuinely different, that they have their own story, and that it is not only a valid one, but plausibly a better and more important one than the stories that he can tell.
I know, I know, it’s just another of those ‘How many of you know that Saruman used to walk in the forest, a friend of the trees!’ posts by Kevin Williamson. (See also: Rand Paul at Howard.) But it’s the comments that get me, and make me sorry for all the times I’ve said, ‘A-ha! so there are two Confusatrons!’ rather than saving that line for a more special occasion.
To put it another way: the inability of conservatives to keep their alternative reality stories straight is inducing a kind of minority outreach-as-Crisis On Infinite Earths continuity collapse. There’s our world – call it Earth-1, or Nixonworld – in which Dems got better on civil rights in the 60’s, and Republicans got worse. The Southern Strategy. Then there’s Williamson’s World – sort of like Earth-3, a reverse earth.
Its history is a mirror image to the Earth we know. On Earth-Three, Christopher Columbus was an American who discovered Europe; England (a colony of America) won freedom in a reversed form of the Revolutionary War (with Washington surrendering his sword to Cornwallis); President John Wilkes Booth was assassinated by actor Abraham Lincoln; and Lex Luthor (here called Alexander Luthor) is the only superhero on an Earth otherwise occupied entirely by villains, most of whom are reversed analogues of heroes on other DC Earths. The Earth-Three analogue to the Justice League is the Crime Syndicate of America.
On earth-3, it stands to reason, the parties reverse realigned. LBJ and the Democrats fought against civil rights, right through the 60’s, but Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley and Lee Atwater teamed up to stop them.
But there’s also Bizarro World, of course, where good is bad. And so it stands to reason that there would be Earth-1 Bizarro World, where everything is like it is in our world, only civil rights bad, so the Republicans are the heroes and the Dems the villains on civil rights in the 60’s. Last but not least, you have Earth-3 Bizarro World, where everyone flips places, hero-villain-wise, but good and bad are also flipped, so Williamson is right that Republicans have championed civil rights all along – but that’s wrong, not right! It shows how Republicans have betrayed their base!
In comments, near as I can score it, Williamson is fighting a three-front war, trying to stop an incursion of Democrats/historians from Earth-1 into Earth-3, while also trying to keep Bizarros from both Bizarro Worlds at bay.
Plus I’m convinced that at least a quarter of the contributors to the thread are false-flag trolls.
Until Grant Morrison gets around to writing a whole miniseries set on Bizarro Earth-3 – how has this not happened? – I’ll be grateful we’ve got Williamson. Who, I see, has a new book out: The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure.
“Nathan Leopold is not the only boy who has read Nietzsche.” So said Clarence Darrow at the trial of Leopold and Loeb, the two University of Chicago law students who had murdered young Bobby Franks for no other reason than to prove that they were Nietzschean Supermen who could.
When I’m feeling mischievous, I think of using that line as an epigraph for an essay on Nietzsche and libertarianism. How many teenage boys, after all, have found their way into the free market via Nietzsche? None, one insider tells me; a lot, says another. My impression is that the latter is right, but good data is hard to come by.
Every ten years, Liberty Magazine polls its readers about their intellectual influences. The magazine draws up a list of candidates to vote on. Nietzsche is never on it. Even so, he gets written in each time by the readers. So much so that the editors have been forced to acknowledge on more than one occasion that should they put his name on the pre-approved list of possible influences he might draw more votes than some if not many of the others.
Ask any scholar about this connection between Nietzsche and libertarianism and she’ll tell you those teenage boys don’t know what they’re talking about. Nietzsche loathed capitalism almost as much as he loathed capitalists, whom he loathed almost as much as he loathed economists. Still I’ve wondered: Might there not be more than the misguided enthusiasm of adolescents connecting Nietzsche to the modern movement for free markets?
Today The Nation is publishing an essay by me—”Nietzsche’s Marginal Children“—that attempts to provide an answer. It’s long; I’ve been working on it for more than a year. But it’s my best guess as to what the connection might be.
As I make clear in the piece, it’s not a connection of influence: Though there’s been some claim that Friedrich von Wieser, who taught Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, was taken by Nietzsche—and though Schumpeter, who plays an interesting supporting role in this story, was influenced by Nietzsche and Nietzschean theorists of elite politics—the evidence for claims of direct influence are thin.
No, the connection between Nietzsche and the free-market movement is one of elective affinity, at the level of deep grammar rather than public policy. It will not be found at the surface of their arguments but in the lower registers: in the startling symmetry between Nietzschean and marginal theories of value; in the hostility to labor as the source or measure of value; in the insistence that morals be forged in a crucible of constraint; in the vision of an idle class of taste-makers creating new values and beliefs.
Along the way, “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” makes a number of other claims.
First, ever since Walter Kaufmann, writers and readers have been convinced that Nietzsche is an apolitical or anti-political thinker. Four decades of postmodern and post-structural Nietzsches have done little to dislodge this belief; indeed, in a curious way, they have only amplified it. As this piece makes clear, I don’t think that position tells the whole story. The Nietzsche that emerges in this essay cares much about the fate of high culture, absolutely, but he’s also attuned to need for creating a polity or politics that might protect high culture from the masses, who’d been growing increasingly agitated over the labor or the social question, as it was variously called. (The fear and loathing of various working-class movements is a critical point of contact between Nietzsche and the economists who helped inspire libertarianism.) As Don Dombowsky has argued, if there is one consistent political position in Nietzsche’s thought, it is his hostility to socialism. Far from being a simple knee-jerk reaction or peripheral concern, Nietzsche’s antipathy to socialism was symptomatic of—and grew out of—a range of ideas about value, work, appearance, and caste that were central to his cultural and political vision.
Second, it’s long been noted that fin-de-siècle Vienna was a crucible of modernism in the arts and humanities as well as in politics, on the left and the right. The dying Habsburg Empire gave us Wittgenstein, Hitler, and Freud. But while there is now an academic cottage industry devoted to this notion, few have noted that fin-de-siècle Vienna also gave us the Austrian School of economics—Wieser, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, Hayek, Schumpeter (ish), and more—and that the Austrian economists have as much a claim to the modernist inheritance as Schoenberg or Klimt. “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” seeks to put the Austrians back in Vienna, where Nietzsche was a presiding influence, and to read them as contemporaries of fascism and Freud. If nothing else, I hope my reading of the Austrians restores them to their rightful place in the modernist pantheon, and reveals the philosophical range and cultural significance of the questions they were raising. For the economic questions the Austrians were raising were are also very much cultural and philosophical questions of the sort that Nietzsche and his successors wrestled with.
Third, speaking of the F word, we know that many fascist intellectuals read or were influenced by Nietzsche. And while my piece takes that connection as a given—which is not the same, it should be noted, as saying that the fascist interpretation of Nietzsche is the only or correct one or that all of Nietzsche’s roads lead to fascism; empirically, we know, that’s not the case—it seeks to parse a different connection. Where one road from Nietzsche (I’m speaking figuratively) led to the fascist notion that heroic or high politics could be recreated in the modern world, another led down a different path: to the notion that heroic or high politics could not (and perhaps should not) be recreated but that it could be sublimated in the free market. Fascism and the free market, in other words, offered two distinctive answers to the labor question Nietzsche so acutely diagnosed. And while one answer would have a remarkably short shelf life, the other, well, we’re still living it.
Which brings me to the final point. While the disparity between the free-wheeling philosophy of the market and the reality of coercive capitalism has long been known, the last four decades have sharpened it. Partly because of the rise of an aggressive defense of untrammeled markets in the name of liberty, partly because of the assault on the welfare state and social democracy. For some on the left, today’s disparity between libertarian theories of the market and the reality of capitalism proves that the idea of the free market is a simple ideological mystification. “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” takes a different tack: it tries to show that the practice is built into the theory, that it is not elided there but embraced.
In writing this piece, I hope to begin—and this is really just the beginning of a long-term project on the political theory and cultural history of the free market—to make good on a promissory note in The Reactionary Mind, which is now available in paperback. There I briefly noted that the libertarian defense of the market—while often treated as a source of tension on the right because it conflicts with the conservative commitment to stability and tradition, virtue and glory—is in fact consistent with the right’s reactionary project of defending private hierarchies against democratic movements from below. But with the exception of a chapter on Ayn Rand, I didn’t really develop that argument. So I was often asked how Hayek and Mises and other libertarian thinkers fit in. Particularly since these thinkers seemed to voice a commitment to liberty that was out of synch with my portrait of the right’s commitment to domination and hierarchy, coercion and rule. So I’ve tried to show in “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” what liberty means for the libertarian right, particularly for Hayek, and how consistent that vision is with a notion of aristocratic politics and rule.
I’m writing this post in Luxembourg, where I’m presenting at a conference in honor of European historian Arno Mayer. I’ve known Arno and his work since I was an undergraduate history major at Princeton. As I said in The Reactionary Mind, Arno (along with UCLA political scientist Karen Orren) was one of the two most important influences on my thinking about the right. And it was from Arno’s Persistence of the Old Regime that I first stumbled upon a way of thinking about Nietzscheanism as something more than the philosophy of and for apolitical aesthetes. So it’s fitting that I write this post here. For in Arno’s vision of an aristocracy that manages to persist long past its shelf date, in part through it capacity for reinvention, we see a glimpse of Nietzsche von Hayek and Mises von Nietzsche, the Leopold and Loeb of modern libertarianism.
On the Meeting of Epic Fantasy and Western in Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World Duology – Abigail Nussbaum
Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City tell a familiar story in an unexpected way. There is a fantasy world. There is a fantastic menace plaguing it. There is a magical weapon that could destroy that menace. There is a plucky hero, or heroes, who undertake to retrieve that weapon. There is a war that emerges from, enables, and/or complicates their efforts.
It’s a story we all know, which Gilman seems very much aware of; in his telling of it, he seems determined to confound the expectations that emerge from that knowledge. For one thing, our heroes are neither particularly plucky nor, until forced to by the most utter extremes of circumstances, particularly heroic. One of them, John Creedmoor, is in fact a servant of The Gun, one of the Powers whose defeat is the books’ business. A former idealist who bounced from one cause to another, Creedmoor took up the Gun’s service after realizing that he lacked the strength of character to commit to any moral cause (and certainly not any that might require him to stay firm in his beliefs in the face of mockery and humiliation). Throughout The Half-Made World, he needles Marmion, the spirit animating his magical revolver, who has endowed him with strength, healing powers, and longevity, over the senselessness of the violence it asks him to commit. But in the end he always carries out his masters’ orders—most memorably, the kidnapping of the young daughter of an industrialist, which is so bungled that the child dies before her father can even be approached for ransom. As The Half-Made World‘s villain, Lowry, astutely puts it, Creedmoor is the kind of person who demands “to be admired both for his loyalty and for his disloyalty [to the Guns], and for his oh-so-tortured indecision between the two.”
For all his claims to independence, Creedmoor in fact doesn’t choose to turn his backs on the Guns in The Half-Made World. He’s forced to by the novel’s other protagonist, and the other unlikely heroine of this duology, Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, when she destroys his gun and breaks his connection to Marmion at the end of The Half-Made World.1 Despite this decisive action, Liv, too, is far from a heroic figure. A psychologist from the civilized East to which the half-made world is a frontier, Liv is characterized by short-sightedness and self-absorption. She accepts a post at a frontier hospital in part because she feels at loose ends after the death of her much-older husband, and in part as a sort of middle-aged voyage of self-discovery.2 For most of The Half-Made World, however, Liv remains blinded by the self-protective lies she’s brought with her from the East. Though a psychologist, she refuses to admit that the laudanum on which she’s dependent is anything but a “nerve tonic,” and when the healing demon at the House Dolorous, the hospital where much of The Half-Made World takes place, takes away the pain of her mother’s murder (the effects of which have reverberated through Liv’s life, leading to a mental breakdown, a loveless but safe marriage to a friend of one of her doctors, and finally the aimlessness that led her to the House Dolorous) she switches her dependence to it, all while insisting that she is conducting scientific research.
It’s only in The Half-Made World‘s second half, when Creedmoor kidnaps Liv to be the caretaker of the man in whose ruined mind might lie the secret to the weapon that could destroy the Gun and its opposite number, the Line, that she begins to look outside herself. But though The Rise of Ransom City occasionally gestures towards Liv as a heroine—when we meet her in that book, she has dedicated herself to the cause of finding the weapon and ending the war—this person sits uneasily with the frequently selfish Liv we knew in The Half-Made World. The folk figure that coalesces around her, half saint, half angel of deliverance, is so at odds with the real person that it undercuts our ability to take her seriously as a heroine. When we finally meet the real Liv again, towards the end of The Rise of Ransom City, she’s been shunted off to the war’s sidelines, muttering darkly about the leaders of the rebellion, to whom she gave her weapon.
The person who meets Liv at the end of The Rise of Ransom City, and who narrates that book, is perhaps the closest that either of these books come to a classic heroic figure. Harry Ransom is an inventor, a dreamer, an avid believer in the power of the individual to shape and remake his world, a person who believes—and who has the charisma, wit, and general affability to persuade others to believe—that he has been touched by destiny. In short, he is everything that the hero of the kind of epic fantasy we’ve been talking about needs to be. The crux of The Rise of Ransom City is Harry’s arrival in the great metropolis of Jasper City, and like Dorothy Gale when she arrives at that other city named for a precious stone, he is primped, pampered, and made much of, embraced as a conquering hero simply for the promise—in Harry’s case, a promise he makes himself—to deliver the city from looming danger. When Harry finally gets to meet the wizard, however—or in this case, Mr. Alfred Baxter, head of the Baxter Trust and Jasper City’s top businessman and entrepreneur, whom Harry has admired and emulated since childhood—he finds not simply a fraud, but a puppet of the Line, a role that Harry himself is soon forced to assume, delivering Jasper City into the Line’s hands. “I never said that this would be a story of triumph,” Harry tells us. “For the most part it is not.” And indeed, The Rise of Ransom City is mainly an apologia directed at an audience that views Harry not as a hero but as a traitor and a collaborator.
On top of having no traditional hero figure, the books defy the expectations raised by their story in the way they tell it—or rather, in the way they refuse to tell is. The Half-Made World is all about finding the weapon that could defeat the Line and the Gun, but in the space of the novel itself, no one actually finds it—though they often come tantalizingly close, only for it to slip through their fingers. This tendency, in fact, is carried to an extent that almost feels like Gilman trolling his readers—in one scene near the end of the book, Creedmoor is about to hear from one of the Folk, the magical natives of the half-made world who may be behind the weapon, what all their games and manipulations have been about, but just at the moment that she’s about to reveal all, a stray bullet blows her brains out.
In The Rise of Ransom City, meanwhile, Liv and Creedmoor’s journey to finally find the weapon and use it against the Powers happens in the margins and background of Harry’s narrative. The two crusaders’ path crosses Harry’s early in the novel, and he helps them escape from a pursuing Agent of the Gun. But after this adventure, the three characters part ways, leaving Harry to make his own idiosyncratic path to Jasper City, during which his concern is not the war but finding a job and rebuilding his invention, the Ransom Process (the first prototype of which was destroyed during his encounter with Liv and Creedmoor), with which he hopes to forge a partnership with Mr. Baxter. For the rest of the novel, Harry gives us brief and vague reports about Liv and Creedmoor’s progress—towards the end of the novel, for example, there are dark hints about a terrible and bloody battle at Log Town, but no details about it are given. This is presumably because Harry—who is writing several years after the war—and his editor, Elmer Marriel Carson, who has compiled Harry’s writings after several decades of painstaking work, are both assuming that their readers are natives of the half-made world, and thus know the broad outlines of the war’s progress. For Gilman, however, it represents a deliberate and repeated choice to tease a certain, very familiar story, and then not tell it in such a way that draws attention to his refusal to play by the rules.II
As a literary tactic, this deliberate contravention of fantasy’s tropes and expectations is both familiar and a little old-fashioned. China Miéville pushed it into the limelight a little more than a decade ago with Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002), and for a while it was all the rage. But while some of the changes Miéville introduced to the fantasy genre in these novels have taken root—mainly his insistence that even in the genre of secondary world epic fantasy, issues of economics and politics should be paramount—the metafictional approach of calling attention to the genre’s conventions and then defying them hasn’t done so. It’s far more common, nowadays, for fantasy writers looking to defy the conventions laid down by Tolkien and his imitators to do so through George R.R. Martin-esque grittiness, also known, more pejoratively, as “grimdark,” in which all heroes are morally compromised and often abhorrent, and stories are frequently rife with senseless violence and rape.3 If Perdido Street Station ended with the shocking revelation that a heroic, sympathetic character whom our genre expectations had trained us to assume had been falsely accused of a crime was actually a rapist, a modern grimdark fantasy would probably deliver this revelation much earlier, and then challenge us to keep rooting for this character.
Gilman—whom it is no surprise to find following in Miéville’s footsteps, since his debut novel, Thunderer (2007), owes as much to Perdido Street Station as Miéville’s debut King Rat (1998) owes to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996)—joins a relatively small number of writers working in the Miévillian mode, a group in which we might also include Steph Swainston’s Castle quartet (2004-2010), the first volume of David Anthony Durham’s *Acacia* trilogy, The War With the Mein (2007) (and possibly also its sequels, which I haven’t yet read), and perhaps most blatantly, J.M. McDermott’s debut Last Dragon (2008), in which the tropes of epic fantasy and a decidedly un-epic reality are so muddled in the characters’ minds that not even they are sure what kind of story they lived through.
Where Gilman sets himself apart from Miéville and these other writers is the fact that he is playing with the conventions of not one but two genres. In this, he is again no trailblazer—the deconstructed Western has become so ubiquitous that one simply doesn’t see the regular kind made anymore, and the combination of narratives of Western expansion or 19th century Americana with the fantastic (sometimes knows as Weird West) has been a common trope since at least Emma Bull’s Territory, published in 2007, and probably goes back much further than that. If the Half-Made World books are unusual—aside, that is, from being well-written and engaging—it is because of the completeness of their merger between genres. Gilman builds a secondary world in which everything from our history of American Western expansion is present and yet different. Instead of the original, Eastern colonies of the United States we have nations with names like Koenigswald and Juddua. Instead of the Appalachians and their Cumberland Pass we have the Opals and their pass at the town of White Rock. Instead of Chicago and St. Louis, there is the triumvirate of Gibson City, Jasper City, and Juniper City, each of which suffers its own fate in the war between the Line and the Gun. The south is known as the Baronies of the Delta, and the dominant religion is the self-improving Smiler cult.
Alongside these parallels, however, there is one unique trait, the literalized metaphor at the center of the duology’s world. The further one travels to the West in Gilman’s alternate America, the less solid, the less made, the world becomes. The laws of nature break down and give way to magic, and at the furthest reaches of the West, “Sea, sky, land, day, night, [are] indistinguishable, not yet separated. … creation begins, or maybe hasn’t happened yet.” That creation occurs in response to human settlement, which solidifies and finally normalizes the half-made world, but the meeting between human fears and desires and the in-flux world’s magic has unexpected results. It gives rise to the Line and Gun, not just metaphors for capitalism and lawlessness run amok, but manifestations of it with minds of their own, who can conscript and enslave humans to their purpose. And it enables the Ransom Process, Harry’s machine for providing limitless energy which might be a perpetual motion machine, or a window into parallel universes, or a black hole.
It’s in that concept of making, unmaking, and remaking that the fantasy and Western genres intersect. The wilderness, the untamed, unclaimed territory, plays a similar role in both genres. It is where the restrictions of civilization, of the society that made us, can be cast off. It is a blank slate from which we can make whatever we want, remaking ourselves in the process. It is an emptiness that unmakes us whether we want it to or not. The second half of The Half-Made World sees Liv and Creedmoor journeying through the unmade lands, an increasingly surreal landscape that wears away at their defenses—her self-absorbed detachment, his devotion to the Gun. This is a familiar enough story in the Western mode—the civilized, Eastern woman and the uncouth, Western man who are forced to rely on one another in the wild and transformed by the experience—as well in other realist genres that take place on the frontier.4 But it’s also a common trope of fantasy. There is a very similar sense of increasing detachment from reality about Frodo and Sam’s slow progress towards and in Mordor, in sharp contrast to the rational, carefully described war that parallels it.5
The Rise of Ransom City brings these two genres together through Harry, and his dream—after having so many of his other dreams shattered—of building the titular city, a place lit and powered by the Ransom Process, where such abundance is free for the taking, and where there is no poverty or want. It’s a common dream that underpins the drive to the West—the notion that the wilderness can so remake us that in it we can cast aside human weakness and failings and build a new kind of society—and the Half-Made World books contain an example of another attempt at it in the form of the Red Valley Republic, a democracy founded “in accordance with the best possible theories of political virtue.” In reality, however, these principles turn out to be joyless and unyielding. When Liv and Creedmoor encounter remnants of the Republic in The Half-Made World, they are zealots who prefer to face death at the hands of the Line rather than run and live to fight another day. In The Rise of Ransom City, the Republic is resurgent, but its leaders are the ones who cast Liv aside as an impediment to their war. Nevertheless, Harry persists in his dream that he can build what is essentially The Big Rock-Candy Mountains (a concept that, naturally enough, has its own parallel in the half-made world). The framing story of The Rise of Ransom City concerns his journey to the West with a band of followers and believers in the hopes of finding a place where that city can be built, and the final pages of Elmer Carson’s narrative suggest that, in the magic-suffused unmade realms, he may have finally succeeded at making a new kind of human society.III
All of which leads to the question: why has Gilman written this duology? What does he hope to accomplish by mixing two genres and turning their conventions on their heads? When Miéville took the top off fantasy with Perdido Street Station, it was with a clearly stated political aim. By reacting against the conventions of epic fantasy, Miéville was striking out against the assumptions that underpinned Tolkien, and his followers’, worlds—that there are such things as clear-cut heroes and villains, that a person can be classed into one of those groups according to their race, that natural, prophesied kings exist and that it would be a good idea if they were in charge, and that an all-encompassing war can be the only way to save the world from endless evil—assumptions that can and still do underpin real-world political thought. The deconstruction of the Western genre comes from a similar impulse, which questions the core tenets—chief among them Manifest Destiny—through which an often bloody and brutal conquest was justified. Gilman’s books often gesture towards such a political awareness, through their nightmarish depiction of the Line, as an endlessly churning, perpetually-hungry maw of inhuman industry that swallows up and destroys humanity in its thirst for expansion, and through the feeling of claustrophobia and limited options that permeates The Half-Made World, and the later chapters of The Rise of Ransom City, as our three heroes realize how small they are not only before the demons of the Line and Gun, but before the political apparatus of the Red Valley Republic.
At the same time, however, these two books are underpinned by a fantasy that is, if not quite reactionary, then certainly a counterpoint to the way that the sources they draw on deconstruct their genres. It’s not just that Harry does manage to build Ransom City, but that he does so because of the very nature of the half-made world, the fact that the laws of nature—and perhaps of human nature as well—don’t apply in it. But the concept of the half-made world is rooted in some of the assumptions that the deconstructed Western tries to combat. By literalizing them in fantasy, Gilman validates notions that the Western has long since abandoned. The idea of the West as an untamed, unpeopled wilderness, which Gilman takes to such fantastic extremes in his books, ignores the very real people who were living there and taming it (even if their ideas of taming might not have been the same as ours) long before the American Western expansion. If the half-made world, on the other hand, only solidifies in the presence of human settlement, then that means that the Folk, the analogues to Native Americans in these novels—novels that otherwise take such care to present a skewed but accurate mirror image of the real West—are not human. This view is confirmed through the little that we learn about the Folk in the two books. Most notably, they are said (and seen) to resurrect after death, seem to have superhuman strength, and are able to comprehend the irrationality of the half-made and unmade lands, being themselves a part of it.
This is sadly in line with the way that narratives of Western expansion have tended to either erase Native Americans or deprecate their humanity, but while that tendency has eroded in the Western genre, it has resurfaced in fantasy. In her 2009 novel The Thirteenth Child, Patricia C. Wrede imagined an alternate North America populated by megafauna, and simply wished Native Americans away. That decision resulted in a fannish uproar, one that I am somewhat surprised that the Half-Made World books escaped, but perhaps that’s because Gilman’s handling of the Folk is more subtle and, sadly, more insidious. There is, for example, no evasion in either novel of the sad fate that awaits the Folk in the war—during which the Line raids their few remaining encampments with murderous abandon, looking for the equivalent to Liv’s weapon or Harry’s Process—or after it, when they can expect little more than enslavement and dispossession.6 There are also some nicely cutting observations about the treatment of the Folk in The Rise of Ransom City—when Harry takes a job on a riverboat, he notes that the wheel is turned “the old-fashioned way.”
This was what the learned Professors of Jasper City would call a euphemism, which is to say a magic word to make the world seem better than it is. What I meant was that the wheel of the Damaris was turned by a team of Folk, who were kept in chains below.
Later, when the Damaris sinks, a waterlogged Harry encounters its wheel-turning Folk and realizes that neither he nor anyone else on the ship had given a thought to their survival during the evacuation (the suggestion that the Folk are strong enough that they could have broken their chains at any moment, but only did so to save their lives, is raised but not explored by the remainder of the novel). So unlike Wrede, Gilman is acknowledging the ugliness on which his analogue to the West was built. But that still leaves the Folk’s inherent irrationality, and thus their inhumanity. The Half-Made World is a novel about systems of the world, the various ideologies through which the forces in both novels—Line, Gun, Republic—seek to remake the world. That the Folk are left out of this scheme, that they seem to have no system and indeed exist outside of human rationality (something that is also expressed through their being the source of both Liv’s weapon and the Ransom Process, and through the sense in both novels that they are guiding events towards an end to the war and yet that that story can’t be told because humans couldn’t comprehend it) plays into too many conventions of the unreconstructed Western, in which Native Americans are “savages” with no notion of civilization or organized, complex society. While reading The Half-Made World, I hoped that its sequel would complicate this problematic approach, but instead The Rise of Ransom City, in which Harry has closer encounters with the Folk, only to realize how foreign they are to him, and how incomprehensible their worldview, only validates it.
I want very much to like the Half-Made World duology. Quite apart from the fact that these are engaging, well-written books set in a rich and beautifully realized world, they are doing something with the fantasy genre that I hadn’t even realized I had missed seeing. And there is much more to talk about in these books than I’ve touched on even in this long piece—someone should definitely say more about the Ransom Process and the way that it brings touches of surrealism (crossed with science fiction) into this fantastic Western, and there’s certainly more to say about Harry’s sojourn in Jasper City, for example his relationship with the brilliant, psychologically scarred inventor Adela. I hope that some of my fellow roundtable participants have expanded on these topics, if only because I would like to read some more about them in order to settle my own thoughts. But when I sit down to write about these books, I can’t get past the Folk and their inhumanity, or the way that the metaphor of the half-made world plays right into notions that realist fiction has left long behind. Felix Gilman remains one of the most intriguing writers currently working in fantasy, but the flaw in his most ambitious and interesting work leaves me unable to embrace it.
Sometime ago (just after the 2001 general election), I was listening to a senior adviser to Tony Blair at a non-academic public policy conference. He started saying some things that were quite critical of the promises New Labour had made, and implemented, in education, and I found myself, at first, thinking how sensible and well-thought out the criticisms were. Then, I started thinking that I recognized the language in which they were couched, and, eventually, realised that the reason it all sounded so good was that it had been taken, more or less verbatim, from something I had written. My first, momentary, response was to be irritated by this—but, once I remembered where I had written it (the cover story of a magazine that was distributed widely at the previous Labour Party conference) I was, simply, pleased. Of course, he is not going to cite me in a speech, and if you write in that sort of venue you should be hoping that somebody like him will take your words and ideas and make them their own.
If an academic had done that, I would have remained irritated (for about 20 minutes, I imagine, I really don’t care that much), and I think that it would have counted as plagiarism. If a student did the same thing I would regard it as serious academic misconduct. But in the context it seemed just fine.
I remembered this during a discussion with a grad student recently. Grad Student is going to be the lead instructor in a large lecture course that I, also, teach. We were discussing how to develop a syllabus and teaching materials, and the topics to be covered, and I observed that my (primitive) syllabuses, and plenty of my powerpoints and class exercises are all deposited online, accessible to the whole department, and I suggested (not very modestly, I admit) taking those on the topics to be covered and adapting them as GS sees fit. GS looked horrified—“But that feels like plagiarism”. I understand the impulse, but it doesn’t seem at all that way to me. As a teacher your job is to devote your time energy and effort to ensuring that the students learn. Obviously, it would be impossible to give a lecture (well) that you hadn’t already put a lot of thought into. But starting from and adapting a good template saves time and thought, which can be turned, instead, to thinking about what questions to ask the students, developing thinking exercises for them, even just to meeting and talking to them (save 5 minutes on prep, and get to the room 5 minutes earlier than you would and chat with the students who are there). I’m proud of some of the teaching materials I’ve developed (eg this and this) and it really gives me a thrill to know that other people use them (without attribution); probably more than it does seeing my work cited in academic research (with attribution).
I’ve been trying to figure out why it seems to obvious that Government Adviser was doing nothing wrong, and Grad Student would be doing nothing wrong, by taking my material and using it without attribution, whereas another academic who did the same would be doing something wrong. It seems to me it is something to do with the role. The job of academic qua academic is to produce new ideas and present them in a way that makes it easy to see how they fit with existing ideas. But the job of government adviser/politician is to make use of existing ideas in improving their policies, and spread those ideas; and the job of the teacher (and academic qua teacher) is simply to make learning happen. It just doesn’t matter whether the audience understands the provenance of those ideas or the materials being used.
So. Share your teaching materials as widely as possible and, when developing a course, feel free to take anything you can from anywhere you want, as long as it is legal.
(X-posted at ISW)
The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City are both rich books, full of pleasures for the reader; but the pair of them are also, to an unusual degree, in the business of being deliberately frustrating, of withholding from readers a set of expected pleasures that seemed to have been virtually promised us. I mean pleasures that are usual to fantasy – pleasures, even, that are usual to the implicit contract a plot makes between writer and reader. And it’s this I want to concentrate on a little, because it seems to me that what Felix Gilman holds back, what he refuses to deliver, is essential to the power of the effect he does create. (Spoiler alert, by the way. I can’t talk about what Gilman doesn’t do, in plot terms, without sometimes revealing what he does.)
There’s a sense, of course, in which refusing to provide the expected is absolutely basic, phrase by phrase, word by word, to all writing which aspires to be adequate at all: to fulfill Operation A of any newly-made row of words, which is to convince us that is new, or at any rate new enough to persuade us that it has some particular effort of communication behind it. A cliché by definition is a lump of expected language. All writers of narrative prose who wish their stories to live – at least, to twitch from time to time on the slab – must therefore be engaged in a ceaseless low-level effort to keep refreshing the unpredictability of the surface of language. Even just at the level of gesture. As Gore Vidal (I think) pointed out, while crapping from a height on some bestseller of the day, it doesn’t do much to write ‘by crook or by hook’ instead of ‘by hook or by crook’ – but it at least shows willing. Since Felix Gilman writes taut, witty, lexically-adventurous prose in a variety of voices and registers, he is necessarily signed up to denying expectation in this minimal sense.
His characteristic and individual refusals, though, start to come into view when you look at his attitude to describing the central inventions of the invented world of the two books. At what he will say, and what he won’t, about the mythological linchpins of his own creation. Gilman’s world is demon-haunted. Beyond the mountains that stand in for the Atlantic in dividing old settled kingdoms from new territories, in a west where colonisation literally fixes the terrain out of the primal murk, two sets of dark powers rule, literalising the anarchic violence of American expansion as the demons of the Gun, and the devouring order of industrial mass society as those of the Line. Far more than merely metaphors, these beings are central to the books’ translation of history into fantasy, to the imaginative reconfiguration of qualities and consequences of human history into its independent drivers. Causation has been upended. From being merely epiphenomena of unpoliced spaces full of firearms, now massacre and mayhem have become the point, the goal, the chief delight of Marmion and Belphagor and the other spirits of the Gun, muttering in their blood-warm Lodge somewhere between the stars. From being merely side-effects of the industrial revolution, now noise and sickness and ugliness and uniformity have become the positive vision, the plan for the world, of the thirty-eight unkillable Engines who travel the network of the Line. Humanity’s relations with these rival lords of destruction are fully Faustian, and where they and their human followers collide, catastrophe spreads. Reading The Half-Made World, we hear quite a lot of the voice of the particular Gun that speaks in the mind of John Creedmoor, one of the novel’s three protagonists; and we see (since hearing would destroy human ears) the telegraphed orders of the Engines, as they drive onwards their representative in the plot, the matchstick man Lowry and his army of lurching, coughing, bullying, agoraphobic little grey-clad men. But it’s all consequences, it’s all secondary. Of the Guns and the Engines themselves, we get only the most minute and occasional glimpses. Their motives and modes of existence are said to be beyond human understanding, not as the preliminary build-up to some full-on evocation, ripe with paradox, but as the plain warrant for the book not including them: there they aren’t.
The nearest thing in either book to a visual description of an Engine is this, significantly enough given us indirectly, through a character’s journal entry:
What did the Engine look like? I saw it on the Concourse, but only in shadow, and besides the memory fades. I cannot quite express it in words. I might try to sketch its machinery, as I have sketched in these pages the neuron, the cerebellum, the pituitary gland – but to do so, I think, would miss its essence. I can say that it was long, very long; it was four, five men tall. It was jet-black and it smoked. It was plated with extrusions and grilles and thorns of iron that might have been armour, and might have been machinery, but which in any case made it rough, uneven, asymmetrical, and hideous. It reminded me somewhat of the inkblot tests devised by Professor Kohler. It reminded me also somewhat of storm-clouds. From the complex cowling at the very front of the engine two lights shone through the gloom and the smoke of the Concourse. The light was the grey of moths’ wings or dirty old ice.
Liv Alverhuysen, doctor from the East, voice of civilised neurosis and of mercy in the books, has passed the Engine at a run a few pages before, ‘and perhaps that was fortunate, too’. Now, in an icy black compartment within the beast’s mile-long body, she struggles to remember it. The first-person filter is a favourite device of Gilman’s – he is going to use it continuously, on the grand scale, in The Rise of Ransom City, where the world of the book is passed to us exclusively through the unreliable voices of Harry Ransom and his editor – and there is certainly an element of pure gameplay to his preference. He likes the tricky and the partial for their own sake, just as (as in the passage above, and in all the oblique descriptions of the ‘half-made’ chaos of the west) he is interested for their own sake in things of uncertain shape. But we can see that his objection to reliable description isn’t a reservation about vividness, perhaps a sign of a non-visual sensibility at work. Far from it. Vividness, he likes: the dirty ice eye-beams here, the comparison soon after of the train racing across salt flats to a line of ink running across clean paper, are brilliant, if carefully minimal. He doesn’t mind allowing himself the occasional wild pulp ululation, either. ‘Their boiling black blood, their breath!’ the novel suddenly cries out, Lovecraftianishly, as the Engine’s smoke billows back at Liv.
No; the objection is surely to definiteness. Take it away, Edmund Burke, theorising the sublime in 1757:
But let it be considered that hardly anything can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds; but to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, is one and the same thing. A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea. There is a passage in the book of Job amazingly sublime, and this sublimity is principally due to the terrible uncertainty of the thing described: ‘In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, fear came upon me and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face. The hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof; an image was before mine eyes; there was silence; and I heard a voice — Shall mortal man be more just than God?’ We are first prepared with the utmost solemnity for the vision; we are first terrified, before we are let even into the obscure cause of our emotion: but when this grand cause of terror makes its appearance, what is it? Is it not wrapt up in the shades of its own incomprehensible darkness, more awful, more striking, more terrible, than the liveliest description, than the clearest painting, could possibly represent it?
‘Terror’ for Burke was a pleasure to be found here and there in literature as the Book of Job, or Milton, pushed particular pyschological buttons for particular momentary effect. But it was about to start being produced deliberately, generically, in bulk, in the emerging gothic; and the whole cluster of 20th century popular literatures of the fantastic, fantasy/SF/horror, are among other things deliberate factories of grandly indefinite Burkean terror; to an extent therefore routinising the sublime, making it over itself into a predictable clause of the writer-reader contract of expectations. And there are certainly aspects of Gilman’s use of sublimity which might seem to come under this kind of good-management heading, to be routine and (as it were) tactical. For a start, Gilman has a strong negative motive for not letting us know too much or see too much about the Engines. As Burke goes on to point out, both literal pictures and writing that is too pictorial tip over easily into ‘the ludicrous’ if they try for terror. The danger of bathos yawns very nearby, in The Half-Made World. Gilman is writing villains (as he’s said himself) who are ‘Giant Evil Trains’: he really, really needs to avoid specifying himself down into writing a kind of satanic Reverend W Awdry adventure, featuring Belial the Bad Engine.
But I would argue that he belongs in the much rarer category of fantasists for whom the Burkean sublime still retains its original expectation-confuting power, and with it its power to shock and confuse. He is interested in it for the sake of its disruptive potential, not for its efficiencies as a recipe. If there is, so to speak, a ‘normal’ sublime lodged in fantasy now, it comes with a promise that what is withheld in one way will be restored in another. If writers have learned from Lovecraft how to milk the terror of the not-quite-seen, of monstrosity asserted to be unimaginable yet equipped with a few delicately phobia-inducing qualities of texture – then the implication is that a compensating resolution will be supplied in plot terms. We won’t ever quite see Cthulhu, but we’ll be led through a narrative catastrophe which is very clear, very definite, very distinct. Resolution will not be withheld.
In Gilman’s case, though, the pulp energy and violence are there (the body count of the two books is enormous) but the delicate non-resolution of the sublime descriptions – the way in which stormcloud, Rorschach blot, hint of a crown of mechanical thorns, all become visually active without settling into visual coherence – is, instead, matched on the scale of narrative by a particular kind of non-resolution there, too. The monsters you can’t quite see are, if anything, metonyms for plots you can’t quite declare finished.
Gilman rules one plot closure out in THMW before he even begins. The war of Line with Gun is the Matter of America, transmogrified, but the consoling, canonical reconciliation of America’s violences and America’s masses within America’s civil religion has been pre-sabotaged. The Red River Republic has already risen, failed, and vanished from the scene. The remnant of it in the wilderness that Liv and Creedmoor stumble on is a repellent, simple-minded little Sparta. Then in The Rise of Ransom City, Gilman brings the Republic back, but casually, almost dismissively, without ever letting it occupy the focus of the book. I don’t know which is more successfully shocking: the original abolition, or the Republic’s return on terms which make it clear that Gilman cares far more about not providing a conventional sequel, in which we might have seen the double possession of the land by Line and Gun exorcised within our view. He’s willing to reverse the political withholding of the first book, but only because it has been trumped by another opportunity for withholding resolution that he cares about more.
For meanwhile, he has lured us with the Macguffin of a secret weapon possessed by the land’s indigenes, and led us out into the wilderness while Liv and Creedmoor develop a relationship of considerable conflicted intensity, but no conventional romantic form; and then stopped, at the moment when we’re told the search for the weapon against the demons is just beginning; only to resume again in the second book through the eyes of a minor character who seems to be coming along on the search, but then doesn’t, and follows a destiny of his own irresolvably suspended between innocence and con-artistry, with the consequence that we never find out what the Macguffin was, or how Creedmor and Liv ended, or how, with the maximum ironic tidiness, the world of the books seems finally to be converging with, secularising and dwindling into, one much more like our own. Boxes that won’t close are his specialty; beautiful discords; inventions that, having taken the license of fantasy to curve away from our world, then refuse to curve reassuringly back again.
One possible analogy that strikes me is with David Foster Wallace’s explicit promise, in Infinite Jest, that the parallel lines of his two plots would eventually meet, only for the novel to end with them still as separate as ever. But that, I take it, was a high-modernist point being made about the real, and about its unrepresentability except by means that included the mimetic sensations of not-fitting, not-solving, not-ending. Whereas this is –
[I had a beautiful formulation of what this is, but alas there is not room for it in this margin]
“All successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” – J. K. Galbraith
Kickstarter is glorious insofar as it is a well-earned kick to a rotten door.
That’s why a lot of people are griped about Zach Braff funding his Garden City sequel this way.
The idea – and it’s a great one – is that Kickstarter allows filmmakers who otherwise would have NO access to Hollywood and NO access to serious investors to scrounge up enough money to make their movies. Zach Braff has contacts. Zach Braff has a name. Zach Braff has a track record. Zach Braff has residuals. He can get in a room with money people. He is represented by a major talent agency. But the poor schmoe in Mobile, Alabama or Walla Walla, Washington has none of those advantages.
I found that link via BoingBoing, where Michael Schreiber notes an obvious problem with the argument:
This argument assumes, however, that Hollywood doesn’t make mistakes… that when they hear a pitch for a good movie, they always fund it. That’s certainly not true. Plenty of good ideas never get made and plenty of bad ones do. Maybe Braff barked up every tree he could, and still couldn’t get it funded. Or maybe he just wanted to make sure, as he notes on his Kickstarter page, that he would be able to maintain creative control. All of that seems fair to me. Successful actors, even rich ones, should have an alternative to the company store.
The perfect case in point has gotten no discussion in connection with the Braff case – not that I’ve seen anyway: Charlie Kaufman’s more pioneering Kickstarter project last year. (I’ve been absolutely kicking myself that I missed it. I didn’t hear about it until it was over.) He crowd-funded a stop-motion film, Anomalisa, that he had no hope of getting funded any other way. Kaufman is even more a Hollywood darling than Braff. Yet he’s got projects he can’t get funded – even with Jack Black signed on. Obviously neither Kaufman nor Braff is a sympathy case – a ‘poor schmoe’ living in Mobile, Alabama (in a double-wide, one might as well add.) But this just brings us to the other half of the point.
People who succeed on Kickstarter aren’t people with no contacts, no networks, no access, no nothing. They are people who have substantial amounts of social capital, looking to trade it for actual capital capital. (Well, obviously rich people can always fund their own stuff. Braff and Kaufman are rich, but let’s set aside that point. It doesn’t strike me as an a priori truth that every rich artist needs to be a financial speculator on his/her own art. Maybe you should pay your dues before you pay the rent, but worrying about losing your shirt isn’t necessarily the root of good artistic quality. If you don’t have to do it.) Kickstarter isn’t for nobodies. The real success stories, so far as I’ve seen – the crazy, over-the-top successes, like the Order of the Stick reprint drive – are cases of creators cashing in on years and years of producing stuff fans love.
This isn’t to say that nobodies couldn’t break in this way. Maybe it is more the norm for tech and gadget kickstarts to be made by garage tinkerers nobody has ever heard of before. But the ‘cultural stuff’ seems to be creators tapping into existing social networks.
So what’s the bottom line? If you are a genius ‘nobody’, it seems unlikely that even Kickstarter can help you. Information wants to be free, and good art wants to get funded. But information still has to be propagated through social networks in these cases. Lonely poets are going to be left out in the cold.
If you are a rich somebody, you might have a legitimate use for this tool. You want to produce something Hollywood won’t. Suppose lots of established authors and artists start deciding they can just plain make more money and maintain more control, doing it this way, cutting out the gatekeepers and intermediaries? If Stephen King decides to Kickstart his next novel, because for some crazy reason he thinks that makes more sense, I have no problem with that.
Michael Schreiber suggests that maybe the way to deal with the unseemliness of the latter scenario would be some sort of profit-sharing investment model. You can buy shares in Stephen King’s new novel, then. I guess that would be fun, and therefore welcome, but it seems that the real concern here – getting back to Ken Levine’s gripe (my first link) – is that the Braffs of the world will suck all the oxygen out of the Kickstarter system. And Braff is obviously the spearhead. Hollywood will colonize Kickstarter and the little guy will have to go somewhere else. Again.
In a sense, it seems inevitable that this will happen. Kickstarter will lose its newness and the excitement that comes with the sheer novelty of it. Nothing stays punk rock forever. Not even blogging! Big money is not going to ignore a model that works. I predict hybrid Hollywood/crowdfunding models within five years. Disney commits to match crowdfunding of slightly unconventional Project X, dollar-for-dollar, and to produce the film if they can reach $10 million. Publishers could use Kickstarter for preliminary ‘test research’ of the viability of projects, instead of taking a blind flutter. They are only committed if the thing is clearly not going to fail.
I guess I think even a co-opted Kickstarter model, like we will inevitably have, will still be a lot better than the world before Kickstarter, even though it will be sad when the punk rock stops and some people get left without chairs.
Apropos nothing at all I thought I might address the suggestion, sometimes raised, that John Maynard Keynes’s “love” for Carl Melchior, German representative at Versailles, might substantively have influenced Keynes’s position on what reparations the Germans ought to pay.
Keynes made early calculations for what Germany should pay in reparations in October, 1918. In “Notes on an Indemnity,” he presented two sets of figures – one “without crushing Germany” and one “with crushing Germany”. He objected to crushing Germany because seeking to extract too much from the enemy would “defeat its object by leading to a condition in which the allies would have to give [Germany] a loan to save her from starvation and general anarchy.” As he put in a revised version of the same memorandum, “If Germany is to be ‘milked’, she must not first of all be ruined.”
Keynes also worried that too large a reparations bill might distort international trade. “An indemnity so high that it can only be paid by means of a great expansion of Germany’s export trade must necessarily interfere with the export trade of other countries.”
The point of mentioning it is that Keynes developed these concerns prior to going to the negotiations and meeting Carl Melchior.
Which is not to say that Melchior did not make a great impression on Keynes; as Keynes wrote in 1920,
A sad lot they were in those early days, with drawn, dejected faces and tired staring eyes, like men who had been hammered on the Stock Exchange. But from amongst them there stepped forward into the middle place a very small man, exquisitely clean, very well and neatly dressed, with a high stiff collar which seemed cleaner and whiter than an ordinary collar, his round head covered with grizzled hair shaved so close as to be like in substance to the pile of a close-made carpet, the line where his hair ended bounding his face and forehead in a very sharply defined and rather noble curve, his eyes gleaming straight at us, with extraordinary sorrow in them, yet like an honest animal at bay.
Keynes was so impressed by Melchior’s account of German suffering – both his implicit and explicit account – that he would illicitly confer with Melchior to try to strike a deal whereby the Germans would receive food relief in exchange for giving up merchant ships.
In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes criticized the treaty not only for what was in it – the reparations demands – but what was not – “The Treaty includes no provisions for the economic rehabilitation of Europe, – nothing to make the defeated Central Empires into good neighbors, nothing to stabilize the new States of Europe, nothing to reclaim Russia; nor does it promote in any way a compact of solidarity among the Allies themselves; no arrangement was reached at Paris for restoring the disordered finances of France and Italy, or to adjust the systems of the Old World and the New.” He warned that without such provisions, ” “depression of the standard of life of the European populations” would lead to a political crisis, such that some desperate people might “submerge civilization itself in their attempts to satisfy desperately the overwhelming needs of the individual.”
At the conference, Keynes himself had made such a proposal, suggesting refinancing the international debts to provide funds for reconstruction and development. Here it is worth noting that Keynes developed the plan after hearing Jan Smuts’s account of “the pitiful plight of Central Europe.”
So it seems that Melchior did matter to Keynes, and inspired him to propose relief for Germany. But as for his critique of the peace, what really mattered to Keynes was British self-interest, which inspired him to warn against reparations before he even went to France, and sympathy for the people of Central Europe, which inspired his “grand scheme for the rehabilitation of Europe” – which of course was only one of many “grand schemes” that showed Keynes’s interest in the long-run welfare of humanity.
Over a decade ago now I had an interesting experience. I was listening to a senior advisor to Tony Blair at a non-academic public policy conference. He started saying some things that were quite critical of the promises New Labour had made, and implemented, in education, and I found myself, at first, thinking how sensible and well-thought out the criticisms were. Then, I started thinking that I recognized the language in which they were couched, and, eventually, realised that the reason it all sounded so good was that it had been taken, more or less verbatim, from something I had written. My first, momentary, response was to be irritated by this—but, once I remembered where I had written it (the cover story of a magazine that was distributed widely at the previous Labour Party conference) I was, simply, pleased. Of course, he is not going to cite me in a speech, and if you write in that sort of venue you should be hoping that somebody like him will take your words and ideas and make them your own.
I remembered this event during a discussion with a grad student recently. Grad Student is going to have full
I was going to get started listening to Ian Tregillis, Bitter Seeds today. It’s book 1 of a trilogy whose conclusion is getting a boost on Boing Boing:
Milkweed began in 2010 with Bitter Seeds, an alternate history WWII novel about a Nazi doctor who creates a race of twisted X-Men through a program of brutal experimentation; and of the British counter-strategy: calling up the British warlocks and paying the blood-price to the lurking elder gods who would change the very laws of physics in exchange for the blood of innocents. These elder gods, the Eidolons, hate humanity and wish to annihilate us, but we are so puny that they can only perceive us when we bleed for them. With each conjuration of the Eidolons on Britain’s behalf, the warlocks bring closer the day when the Eidolons will break through and wipe humanity’s stain off the universe.
Sounds like fun!
But not today! Henry tells me I’m late to The Rise of Ransom City. Which is, come to think of it, probably similar, rock and hard place-wise. In this faux-19th Century America fantascientifiction alt-history, and the previous installment, The Half-Made World, Gilman’s human protagonists spend most of their time on the run, or watching for their chance to run, or just laying low, for fear of being crushed between sinister, inhuman, vaguely unworldly forces of Line and Gun. The Line is technological, but also demonic – demon trains, running on rails laid down by regimented, reduced human servants. And how long are such masters likely to need even such machine-servicing specimens as we humans can be made into? I listened to Audiobook versions of both books, so I can’t flip through to transcribe tasty quotes. I’ll just crib from Hermann Melville, The Confidence-Man, which is public domain and – eh, close enough:
“About that matter,” exclaimed the impulsive bachelor, going off at the hint like a rocket, “all thinking minds are, now-a-days, coming to the conclusion — one derived from an immense hereditary experience—see what Horace and others of the ancients say of servants — coming to the conclusion, I say, that boy or man, the human animal is, for most work-purposes, a losing animal. Can’t be trusted; less trustworthy than oxen; for conscientiousness a turn-spit dog excels him. Hence these thousand new inventions—carding machines, horseshoe machines, tunnel-boring machines, reaping machines, apple-paring machines, boot-blacking machines, sewing machines, shaving machines, run-of-errand machines, dumb-waiter machines, and the Lord-only-knows-what machines; all of which announce the era when that refractory animal, the working or serving man, shall be a buried by-gone, a superseded fossil. Shortly prior to which glorious time, I doubt not that a price will be put upon their peltries as upon the knavish ‘possums,’ especially the boys. Yes, sir (ringing his rifle down on the deck), I rejoice to think that the day is at hand, when, prompted to it by law, I shall shoulder this gun and go out a boy-shooting.”
The very metaphysics of the universe conspires against the continuation of our kind, it would seem.
“Yes, sir: — boys? Start my soul-bolts, what a difference, in a moral point of view, between a corn-husker and a boy! Sir, a corn-husker, for its patient continuance in well-doing, might not unfitly go to heaven. Do you suppose a boy will?”
“A corn-husker in heaven! (turning up the whites of his eyes). Respected sir, this way of talking as if heaven were a kind of Washington patent-office museum — oh, oh, oh! — as if mere machine-work and puppet-work went to heaven—oh, oh, oh! Things incapable of free agency, to receive the eternal reward of well-doing—oh, oh, oh!”
The forces of the Line are opposed by those of the Gun. Again, I’ll just quote Hermann Melville:
… while another peddler, who was still another versatile chevalier, hawked, in the thick of the throng, the lives of Measan, the bandit of Ohio, Murrel, the pirate of the Mississippi, and the brothers Harpe, the Thugs of the Green River country, in Kentucky — creatures, with others of the sort, one and all exterminated at the time, and for the most part, like the hunted generations of wolves in the same regions, leaving comparatively few successors;
The Gun are few and the Line are many. There’s a romance to the Gun but, really, all these demons do is select a few humans to render nigh unkillable, driving them forth to wreak destruction on the Line, and any innocents caught in the crossfire. Agents of the Gun appear dashing and distinctive, compared to dreary drones of the Line, but beneath the surface, the bloodiness is just as much an awful, alienating sameness – unsuitable as a model for a human life. (Strictly, Gilman’s Line-Gun struggle is three-corner, with that weapon left behind by the mysterious First Folk playing a crucial role. Not to mention Harry Ransom’s somehow Folk-related Process. But the First Folk – metaphysicalized analogs of Native Americans – are just as alien and inscrutable as Line and Gun, if less sinister.)
It’s a good trope: tear back the veil of the world to reveal clash of cosmic forces, drawing our hero out of his or her formerly snug, or at least ordinary life. But, rather than cosmic revelation giving the hero’s life Meaning, converting him or her into the linchpin in some struggle between good and evil – the Chosen One, the Boy Who Lived, the Ring Bearer (hell, Dante’s Divine Comedy) – the glimpse of forces from beyond only makes for an especially anxious bystander experience, rubbernecking metaphysics. It’s like Dante’s Inferno meets The Lonely Crowd.
Harry Ransom, inventor, makes his rambling, enthusiast’s way through the land, always close enough to events to get his eyebrows singed. He does great things in his way, or at least stumbles onto them, but never quite understands or even sees the big picture, even though he’s very much a big picture-type guy. (It would be fun to write a really classic, Lord of the Rings type trilogy, all from the point of view of someone who is the sort of guy/gal who sort of craves a good quest, but nevertheless doesn’t happen to be part of the Fellowship. He/she just sees the indirect effects the unfolding quest is having on the world.)
Now I know what you’re thinking: wow! if there’s, like, a section of Melville’s The Confidence-Man in which our boy heroes, on the run from the sinister Hoosier Bachelor and his infernal, cider-powered Boy-Husking Device, fall in with the Harpe Thugs of Green River, who aren’t dead after all, and there’s a shoot-out in which the cider explodes, taking out Bachelor and Thugs, leaving our heroes stunned and wandering in the wilderness …
No, no. The Confidence-Man is not about Gun versus Line. It’s about the dangerous potency of belief, and the hazards of its manipulation. Confidence-Men are the threat, and yet the only salvation. Jesus was the original Confidence-Man. Belief is what makes us. And yet the things we believe, when they take solid shape, are so alien and deceiving – even demonic.
And really that’s what Gilman’s novels are about as well. The Wild West as Will and Representation. The world made by the wash of belief against some inscrutable, metaphysically primordial shore that both is and is not already us. (Did we make Gun and Line or did we delve too deep and release the awful stuff?)
In the first novel, we watch an agent of the Gun, Creedmore, racing against an agent of the Line, Lowry, out into the unmade West, seeking after [REDACTED: plot-spoilers]. Liv Alverhuysen is our accidental hero, caught between Line and Gun. But Harry Ransom is, in some ways, an even better prism through which to view this world, because he’s a Confidence-Man who believes in what he’s selling. In a world half-made of belief, he’s a cross between Don Quixote and a wizard who can tap into forces beyond his ken that are, perhaps, best not meddled with.
The novel isn’t really about the Rise of Ransom City, by the way. That’s just Harry’s dream. Or is it?
In some ways – maybe this is a stretch – it’s kind of a upside-down “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. In that classic film, the railroad is colliding with the savagery of the Wild West. What ordinary folk need, at the point where Gun and Line meet, is a kind of humanized higher synthesis of these two forces; which are, after all, human forces, even if they are, individually, extreme and one-sided. (Plotspoiler: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance didn’t shoot Liberty Valance!) Gilman’s book, like the film, has an outer frame of journalistic revelation about a story of a glorious battle long mis-told, and the rather accidental hero in the middle of it.
I was thinking of comparing Gilman’s books to The Sixth Gun, which is a really, really great comic, working somewhat similar thematic terrain: demon six-shooters, most notably. But I’ve probably said enough.