Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Boskone Panel: The Appeal of the Lawless Elite

Panel report one of two. I usually turn my at-panel notes into something resembling grammatical sentences, and I started doing that with this . . . but I realized that this takes a (surprisingly) long time and that I have a lot of obligations in the next few weeks. So let's see how much I can get done in the way of really minimal unpacking while waiting for a morning doctor's appointment.


Editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden has said, "Much of the genre works by appealing to our wish that the world's extra-legal violence be under the control of the kind of smart people we admire. The Second Foundation and the X-Men — and, for that matter, the Scooby Gang and the Laundry — are all, to some extent, basically the Ku Klux Klan, except that the extrajudicial violence they carry out is (we're assured) merited and just." Discuss.

Alexander Jablokov, Beth Meacham (m), Paul Park, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Karl Schroeder

(Park ended up performing much of the moderator function, which Meacham stated later she was fine with because she was quite ill.)

This was also videotaped; maybe it will eventually show up here?

Panel notes:

PNH: doesn't remember the context of saying the quote, and is not sure he actually agrees, but it's useful to start discussion.

Richard Campbell, a Making Light reader, e-mailed him to suggest that Max Weber's definition of the state provides another POV: lawless elite groups are in essence competing states, perhaps better-run than the default? Anyway, this wish seems to devolve to a wish for a better state.

Schroeder: wrote a book where a completely amoral princess destroys the assets of an entire country, which was very freeing. (I missed a lot of this comment, as the mikes were inadequate to the shape of the room, and also the panelists, like so many people who don't normally talk into hand-held microphones, were inconsistent about their use.)

Park: written number of books where characters have taken violence into own hands; what's important to readers, is not necessarily that they trust wisdom of extra-state actors, but that thing actors are responding against is a bad thing (morality of actors is less important). Ex. Birth of a Nation movie-POV. As writer, how make reader sympathize with lawless people doing bad things? Not just a Manichaean divide.

Jablokov: additional requirements: problem must be soluble in photogenic way (cf. zoning meeting); bunch of people around who all agree with you

Meacham: if at zoning meeting: don't you wish you could pull out sword? "Violence is the solution sometimes!"

Jablokov: but would not solve the problem!

Meacham: but impetus for the fiction

PNH: SF & SF culture very split on attitude toward democracy, authority. Most is vaguely pro-democracy, but enormous sympathy for anarchism which flips to absolute authoritarianism at a moment's notice

These groups' fundamental idea: most people's lives don't matter, few people's ideas should matter for history to work right

chances are if this is really going on, you wouldn't be one of the elite

Park: not elite, people in novels not usually; have to come up with something where small renegades matter

PNH: don't want to write naturalistic novels where everything same at end, unless you're PK Dick and can pull it off

Park: so brings into artificial world where actions of people have increased significance

PNH: SF's central politicial stripe (? not sure about that): technocrats (very anti-democratic, -egalitarian)

Schroeder: his book does also have emergent democracy systems, one is form of currency that gets traded, remains in background because not actor in the normal sense. When princess (? not sure) is standing over body (of a monarch?) with smoking gun, she says: she knows she would have been better ruler than dead person, but not better than all of you.

Park: the early history of the genre: technocrat against past social structures, looking forward to new kind of society. Less easy to sustain 1930s+, post WWII easier to think of oppressive societies originated on "modern" scientific principles. So renegades against that are different entirely, in the interstices of power, which is radical shift

PNH: KS Robinson's 40 Signs of Rain, could not be more old fashioned, scientists organizing to save world

Jablokov: the Bolsheviks were self-appointed elites who were successful at their single goal--one reason why doesn't believe KSR scenario.

PNH: Bolsheviks were SF readers too! no, really

Jablokov: Current intellectual thread is economics rather than technocracy

Park: writers: how to make goals of renegade groups sympathetic (especially given means); think it's more complicated than just, they're going against people who are clearly bad, since that's largely matter of perspective

Schroeder: Nietzsche: triumph of particular movement will exhaust itself and turn into own worst nightmare. So show those steps happening, then have the outsiders as focus

Park: is this nothing to do with actual ideals of group in power? because always falling away from?

Schroeder: nature of power

Meacham: any large organization has attributes that can be portrayed as something evil (? I think)

Jablokov: disenfranchisement: Turner Diaries, Birth of a Nation: effective works of art promoting something that feels visceral disagreement with. About way of life that want to maintain, is being taken, and cannot oppose through system. Wants example where way of life is good

Schroeder: theory about evil: what happens when consider self to be the victim, because then capable of anything

Park: consider Turner Diaries: white supremacists clearly casting selves as victims

audience member: important whether people feel economically in control of destiny

Schroeder: Nazi rise to power

audience member: Schroeder theory on evil, conflicts with his experience, requires additionally: severe lack of proportion/perspective

Schroeder: yeah, but doesn't that happen all the time?

Park: another requirement? part of group that feels same, otherwise just one person & we all have our complaints; something powerful when group can circle around common complaint

Meacham: need reinforcement

[inaudible exchange with audience]

audience member: but groups in description are possessed of special qualities: X-Men have special powers, Scoobies are correct

Meacham: don't all fanatical groups believe that?

audience member: yes, but here author has given magic token to show right

Park: yes, in fiction they do need to be right, and everyone else must be wrong, so need to skew the world somehow

PNH: one basic way of thinking of story in Foundation Trilogy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: systematically, gradually undermining superficial truth to show deeper truth: Buffy, all seven seasons undermine metaphysics of first season. Which is a gigantically powerful metaphor for experience of growing up

Park: something about Turner Diaries

PNH: but no-one ever learns better in those, completely fixed

Park: but if writing larger story for more kinds of people, find dynamic that has resonances: not just abstract feelings of victimization, but tap into animating sense of grievance

Schroeder: "the orcs are ugly and they want to kill us"

PNH: JRRT just good enough writer that can't make them just faceless monsters, give some depth

Schroeder: (I am not at all sure of this next bit): centripetal pressures on writers when trying to represent classical liberalism means that they end up using elites; writers may have sympathy for classical liberalism but they like to undermine things, and end up with ambiguity

Jablokov: "the ultimate elite in any book is the author," "that reversal [in Foundation, Buffy] is intended to prove to you that only the author is elite"

audience member: related strain, elite force not restrained by government is part of government itself: Bond, Laundry, G.W. Bush

[couple of responses didn't hear]

Park: depends on credible sense that fighting against something bigger & therefore handcuffed if play by rules

PNH: SF full of those stories, small brilliant cadre of warriors protecting liberal democracy which couldn't possibly protect self

Jablokov: but also take advantage of legal protections of being part of government

PNH: [something funny that I couldn't hear]

audience member: is this unique to SF? Cop shows, cop goes over line when really needs to, which is about once a show

PNH: no, just scope [something inaudible]

Jablokov: in cop shows, going over line is right up front; SF pretends not really happening

audience member: orcs: isn't that the minimal possible sympathy given terrible things done to them? Compare Humbert Humbert in Lolita: isn't it more than what author does in a technical sense, but down to POV?

PNH: orcs just to point out that JRRT couldn't help give even tiny bit of sympathy

Park: fantasy full of races that don't just *seem* inferior and subhuman

PNH: point is when create conscious entities, end up investing them with some level of sympathy

Park: anyone a writer describes conscientiously, this happens to

PNH: just decent narrative pulls in a lot of different directions. Orwell horrible misogynist, but in book Clergyman's Daughter displays levels of sympathy that weren't accessible to him as a political essayist: narrative pays more attention to details

Schroeder: RC Wilson, best at sympathizing with truly evil characters, not so much in Spin but in earlier books, spend 100 pages sympathizing then eventually realize that is evil

audience member: Schroeder evil theory: sense of victimization with PRIVILEGE, don't think of Tibetans as evil

Schroeder: yes, power, wealth, sense of victimized by people weaker than you!

Park: doesn't work for people who are truly victimized?

Meacham: need certain amount of elite [something?]

Schroeder: if have capacity to strike back, almost by definition not fully victimized

Jablokov: need to have loss to feel victimized, if you didn't have anything to lose?

PNH: [something]

Park: example: groups favored under colonialism, victimization caused by special status being taken away

audience member: well, yes, but possible to be genuinely powerful & still genuinely victimized

panel: general noises of agreement

audience member: panel brings up theme of oppressed becoming oppressor: what moral justification for oppressed acting if destined to be oppressor eventually?

[Nb.: it may be relevant that this question was from someone who appeared to have African ancestry. Application to the experience of African-Americans is left as an exercise for the reader. I did not get the impression that this influenced the responses of the panelists.]

Schroeder: that's one of places where authors shy away, never take the story that far. Possibly it's a moral truth that it happens, but if so, if follow through, might undermine moral lesson telling

Park: I think that's writing a story with a single arc, can't imagine ending LotR with old King Aragorn slipping into senility

PNH: JRRT sketched sequel The Long __? about the post-Aragorn decline of Gondor

audience member: Animal Farm

Schroeder: Children of Hurin; puts lie to China Mieville's statement that LotR all about consolation

PNH: no consolation WHATSOEVER in Children of Hurin

Schroeder: makes clear JRRT's main theme, supremacy of Morgoth; LotR turns out to be tiny moment of happiness

audience member: RC Wilson exampl: add Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas, Look to Windward

PNH: (joking) who would have imagined author of Wasp Factory would have insights?

Jablokov: one possible plot is self-denying conspiracy, that sets up a sunset regulation over itself; and then someone refuses to comply

People always conscious of ambiguity [something inaudible] but still appeals to us, don't think can evade notion that we're right / have unusual insight, and can come up with some other way of expressing

PNH: original flippant comment, didn't mean that should stop reading/writing/enjoying

Meacham: would have been stupid thing to suggest

PNH: and he didn't, though happy to suggest many other stupid things

Park: does the power of story come from that it's not possible or that is?

Meacham: thinks escapism, let sword-in-zoning-meetings feelings out in fiction

PNH: mythology is not just simple escapism, consolation itself not simple

Schroeder: reminder that taking about Romantic literature; if went into irony or tragedy, outcome different; almost never get anything but Romance in the technical sense in SF

audience member: 1) is it possible? how about American Revolution? 2) appeal: writing for group of very intelligent people who aren't in control of things; why wouldn't it appeal?

PNH: roots of technocracy SF in 1920s, 30s

Jablokov: 2) is a reluctance to sit on bleacher seats at 11 at night in zoning meetings, which is what politics comes down to; 1) if group of wealthy people had seized control of apparatus

everyone: they did!

Jablokov: could've seen much different political system emerge from events

PNH: [inaudible]

Park: something about if kill person responsible for building crosswalk, that's a way to ensure that the crosswalk wouldn't get built to your specifications

PNH: soemthing about Heinlein and political victories always being contingent, never sufficient

audience member: George Washington re: sunset regulation

Meacham: because they all had a jones for the Roman Republic

PNH: American Revolutionists heads full of Roman Empire fanfic, which is not a bad influence; book called Cincinnatus about images of George Washington (maybe by Garry Wills?)

Park: other possibility, going back to Mt Vernon power enough, or more so because more direct than Presidency? give up only if have in reserve

Jablokov: back to comment about literature versus life: PNH's comment interesting because example of way influences work back & forth

PNH: one of favorite scenes in modern SF: MacLeod, Cassini Division: flashback to political argument between young black woman & man which cited 20th, 21st century SF, because politics will be/is informed by this!


Feel free to ask for clarification if I didn't unpack any notes sufficiently.

Tags: boskone, boskone 2008, cons

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