Somewhither and Feminine Agency

In which I continue to discuss, without ever being so bold as to raise any argument in contradiction to any reader’s judgment, a certain review of SOMEWHITHER by a reader who struggled mightily to overcome his bigotry against the Christian worldview, which he confuses with predestinationary determinism where God Almighty punishes men for their political opinions, not their sins. (The confusion is deliberate on his part, of course. When I told him that I believed no such thing, he assured me condescendingly that I did.)

He struggled to read the book, because his false-to-facts belief about my beliefs jarred him out of the story three times or more. He concludes that this was due to my lack of skill as an author. I make no comment about this conclusion.

I was pleased to see that he is a fellow fan of A.E. van Vogt. I would be much more interested, frankly, in his review of my A.E. van Vogt book NULL-A CONTINUUM, which I wrote to be in the mood and worldview of Non-Aristotelian philosophy, not Christian philosophy.

If he or any reader doubts my ability to write outside my own worldview, I invite him to employ his skepticism in a tale where I am deliberately not trying to speak with a Catholic voice. A story told by a Christian in a Christian setting might make it hard for the weak eyed to distinguish the author from the work.

But, in the case of SOMEWHITHER, the reviewer concludes on two final points, which he calls troubling, not for few, but for many.

And now we also come to two underlying threads/beliefs in the text which may make this a troubling book for many.  One is Mr Wright’s position on abortion – he’s against it (which as a Catholic may be expected, and respected) but he seems to regard it as ‘so obviously’ the telling sin of our world that its practically our *multiversal identifier*  “the world where they kill their children”.

Leaving aside whether or not there *are* sins, or whether this *is* one – while I would be willing to read a book in which the angels sorrowfully consider this our problem and/or the actual ethics of the position were addressed, the ball is startlingly fumbled by placing the criticism in the mouths of the masters and lackies of the Dark Tower.

Reading a book in which our table manners are criticised by cannibals may be interesting and make a sly point – but it can also generate disbelief.

I don’t find it believable that (if abortion is evil as a given) it would not be used by the Dark Tower rulers to remove predicted malcontents [it could be argued that if they aren’t allowed to be born the evil yet working astrology can’t predict that they ought to be killed…but the evil yet working astrology has the rules the author sets for it, and it could as easily work from a moment of conception, which moment could itself be predicted when it resulted from lower nature.]

What benefit do they have not to sin; would not the Evil Power pulling their strings want them to be Evil in that respect also?

The other thing is ‘female agency’ and ‘depiction’ – all the things done by woman to advance the plot (and being fair there are many) are off stage and rendered secondary by the decision to run a male main character as the sole narrator.

The infatuation of the main character with the heroine isn’t checked / amended by circumstances in the first book – I was rather hoping he might see a better prospect and companion and equal in the Monkey-masked thief, but as this book ends it is looking as if the infatuation is being foregrounded [sic] as the correct and obvious way to find a lover/mate/wife and indeed to interact with girls/women in general.  I am not sure of this.

My comment: The reason why the baddies do not abort unwanted babies is given in the text: it is considered unsportsmanlike not to give the child a chance to be saved by a lactating wolf bitch or passing farmer.

Here is the exact text involved, and the only mention, in passing, of the matter. Our hero is talking to a plumber who fixes the cisterns and water closets of the Dark Tower. Sauron’s plumber, in other words:

“We call it Albion. It is the English-speaking world. The one where they kill babies in the womb, right?”

And here I was hoping we’d be famous for the Moonshot, or Democracy, or the Beetles, or something.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “That one. If there is only one… I mean, there must be some more places that have abortions?”

“Not likely. Expose infants, yes, lots of you barbarians do that, but when that happens, the spirits get their chance to save the baby by sending a shepherd or a she-wolf or something to find it crying. And the children are at least allowed to draw their first breath. Nope Albion’s the only one that kills them by the millions before they breathe.”

I said casually, “English speaking, you said? But maybe there are lots of languages on that world.”

“Maybe. But if those other languages do not set the rules for the world, what good are they, eh? Just create confusion. Never understood why your barbarians tolerate it. Living in a mess of words like that! But who understands the slave-worlds, eh? Not even the slaves!”

It is also perfectly clear from the text that the native hour, the hour when the child is born, is crucial and paramount for their astrology to work. To hinder the predicted birth-hour hence disjoint all the predictions of the child to come, to them would be an abomination of which no worse can be conceived.

(Cesarean sections, on the other hand, might be allowed assuming they did not, for some reason, circumvent the astrologers’ predictions. I have never heard in stories, or from the lips of anyone in real life who believes in astrology, that being ripped untimely from one’s mother’s womb changes one’s destiny, aside from perhaps allowing one to slay usurping Scottish lords otherwise protected by a charmed life.)

The text implies rather strongly that very few other worlds aside from ours are ‘technomancers’ that is, worlds enjoying the benefits of anesthetics and modern surgical procedures. Anything our technology makes safe and commonplace (safe for the mother, of course) would be rare on worlds less advanced. Abortions were remarkably rare before modern medicine: babies were brought to term, and them exposed to the elements or cast into the pit of Apothetae.

If the reader finds it unconvincing that an evil pagan people would regard our American evils as remarkable and unique, again, the fault is my own for an insufficiency of the execution of my craft to make the unlikely counterfactual seem realistic.

If the reader, on the other hand, find it unconvincing because his worldview holds that wicked people forgive the wickedness seen in others, and that no one can, should, or would criticize any modern wickedness, that is not a failure of the author’s craft, but a lapse of the reader’s broad-mindedness: he is unwilling to look at the majority view, or at reality, or at either.

Again, the assumption that wicked people perform all fashion of wickedness is an idea so remote from reality that I did not deem it necessary to spend any time convincing any readers thereof. I do not see how someone reading that the Ur-Men of the Dark Tower are slavers and sadists would therefore also assume them to indulge in pandering, simonry, usury, sodomy, and disobeying traffic laws. It would be like assuming that Spartans were disobedient and slothful because they kept Helots in chains, or assuming the Fu Manchu, because he uses torture and mesmerism, also cannot be trusted to keep his sworn word.

So, call this a failure of the artist if you must, but every author must decide to create the illusion of verisimilitude by only writing what serves to counteract objections raised by the skepticism of the reader’s imagination that the author has reason to anticipate.

In science fiction this is particularly difficult because science fiction makes an unique challenge to the imagination of the reader. Only in this genre is the reader asked not merely to imagine people and events that never existed in real life, but to imagine a world, with history and technology unlike our own. The author’s task in that case is to make the counterfactual world internally self-consistent.

For better or worse, in this case, I decided that the Ur-Men held to the traditional values archaeologists tell us the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians upheld: respect for the god-king, a belief in the gods of Babylon, a very firm respect for law and order, and the laws written on public steles and tablets, and so on. Above all, they were creatures of tradition much as is seen in the ancient Chinese.

They had laws protecting the family and holding it sacrosanct. That such people would promote or adore the mass prenatal murder of babies by their own mothers is absurd. I think modern readers have no idea how abhorrent kin-slaying was to the ancients, or in what high regard the maternal bond is held in all other societies and generations save this one.

The reader, of course, who is unable to imagine cultures where things are done differently than his own has no business reading science fiction.

Consider that a pagan Roman who, if he were parochial, might be likewise skeptical to learn that other civilizations noted and remembered the gladiatorial games as the Roman’s most memorable feature, for it is an institution no non-Roman polity ever practiced.

All I did was use history as a baseline to make assumption about the what parallel timelines would be like. I assumed that anything rare back in time would be equally rare sideways in time. Since the text had established elsewhere that other aeons had a moonshot, some of the other likely candidates for which we might be famous, such as technical innovations, were already ruled out as being not unique.

I had also established that our world was one where the practice of black magic was so rare as to be unknown, even unheard-of. The logic of this counterfactual background does not allow many options for the side effect of this: The people who are otherwise drawn to black magic, witches who eat children and so on, in our world were lured by the dark powers to the political version of black magic. Casting about in the imagine as to what best fits this description only leads to one authentic result, I am afraid. Inverting the love bond between mother and child simply has no parallel in the history of abominations.

Whether or not abortion is worse than other institutions, such as slavery and torture, routinely used by the wicked civilizations such as the one depicted in my book, clearly the people within such civilizations, to whom their own institutions are normal and honorable, would regard an institution alien to their way of life, alien to nature and natural affections, as abnormal and dishonorable.

Again, I am judging from history. Sacrificing children to gods is commonplace. Eliminating anywhere between one fifth to one half all children conceived as a routine practice is not commonplace.

My conclusion: even a civilization that routinely practiced child sacrifice would regard mass prenatal infanticide for secular reasons to be monstrous.

Now that conclusion is not assuming there is not an innate or instinctive love woman have for their own babies. If such an instinct exists, then even those who favor the institution of abortion would tend to be, at least early on, somewhat circumspect about their support, and talk about it as a regrettable necessity, something to be kept safe and rare.

If universal human instinct says our institution of mass abortion is worse than the practices of a Maori cannibal, if we Americans kill more innocent babies than all the human sacrifices of the Aztecs put together, it is reasonable to expect Aztecs and Maori to voice disgust for our practices.

Of course, in my story, I do posit that there is one aeon, Cainim, where the mothers have no instinctive maternal love, but then again, the Dark Tower creatures regard them as abhorrent was well.

I think any readers who do not compare the number of babies aborted in the modern world with the sum total of all babies aborted in the previous ages of history will indeed find it unbelievable that persons raised in conditions somewhat like those previous ages would find our number extravagant.

While I do not believe it myself, I have it on good authority from many intellectuals that the purpose of art is to dislodge such comfortable and parochial assumptions.

What else?

Regarding female agency, whatever that term means, I am myself not sure what the criticism here is.

The reason why I selected a first person male narrator was because I felt like it. I did a book with a first person female narrator already.

My daring innovation, like the recent Ghostbuster movie, was to tell a gender swapped version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and make my vampire killer a young man trained since birth in feats of arms, rather than a cheerleader with no such training.

So an adventure story starring a man doing manly things, such as fighting bad guys, protecting the weak, and saving the damsel in distress, for some reason, is problematical, or evidence of a belief in the author sure to offend many readers. If this is what the reviewer means when he says my work portrays woman as lacking in agency, he is using the term opaquely.

I can understand reviewers repelled by the infatuation of the hormone-poisoned young man for the world-famous, beautiful, glancing-eyed, callipygous yet buxom and leggy daughter of his boss who spurns his clumsy advances. Romance is an embarrassing business at best, and young men, alas, are often attracted to shapely, high-class, and unapproachable sirens in real life. In myths, sometimes the sirens are sirens.

Sirens in myth lure sailors to their deaths with their siren songs. They are explicitly alluring due to their sex appeal: men get infatuated with them. The reader may fault me for following tradition, if he wishes.

Since the siren in this case is basically in control of everything that happens since chapter one, except where the hero’s mother behind the scenes has outsmarted her, the criticism that women have no agency is at best unclear. (Although the reviewer does allow that I do have women do things in this plot, if not most things.)

No mention is make of the agency or lack of it for the talking birds or familiar unclean spirits. For some reason, that is less problematical or offensive to potential readers.

For that matter I note that in the whole story no one has agency, properly so called, because the astrologers can predict and preemptively countermand the actions of each and every character save one. She happens to be a girl.

How a boy being infatuated with a girl offends against the mystical shibboleth of agency is opaque to me.

For what it is worth, Ilya’s infatuation may or may not outlast the trilogy. As the reviewer himself notes, he is too early to make to call to see how that one turns out. On what ground he also, in the same paragraph, says he exact opposite, I cannot speculate.

But his criticism is apparently that I, as a Christian, uphold the lust of the eyes as the correct approach for male-female relationships.

Again, honor forbids me from arguing any point of judgement about the work with the reviewer, but I am allowed to correct errors of fact.

As a matter of fact, the text emphasizes that infatuation is foolish, over and over again. I hold it to be impossible that a sober reader could miss this point, so I assume the reviewer in this case was deeply in his cups when he read chapter one, and two, three and four, then had several vodka chasers before reading chapters ten through fifteen, drank tequila when reading chapter seventeen, and whiskey sours when reading chapter twenty. And then did boilermakers when reading chapter twenty-one and twenty-two. Whereas when chapters twenty-six to thirty-two he was quaffing hot rice wine and wood alcohol. Or his political beliefs are an intoxication more poisonous and more deleterious to the judgment than these spirits.

Aside from those chapters, of course, someone might have missed the point of what is going on between Ilya and Penny as completely as did this reviewer.

On the other hand, the reviewer was shipping for Ilya, who is seventeen, to form a romance with Abby, who is eleven. I think a Catholic writing a pederasty story might be even more problematic than a story where a shallow youth is attracted to a voluptuous blonde.

 

I establish in chapter one, page one, paragraph one that the guy is infatuated with a very attractive girl. When he is told she is in danger, and he wants to be a hero, so he wants to rescue her.

If that motive strikes any reader as unrealistic, untoward, offensive to the dignity of woman, offensive to the dignity of man or wombat or frumious bandersnatch, again, I will merely point to my predecessors in my field: the conflict in Homer was prompted by Achilles’ wrath over the confiscation of his pretty slavegirl Hippodameia.

Girls make guys do things. Sometimes crazy things. If you find that offensive as a theme in literature, then take up another pastime.

On the other hand, I am no Homer: if the execution is inexpert, then I have no excuse to make, and acknowledge the fault without ado.

However, the criticism of women lacking agency is not a criticism about the execution, it is allegedly a criticism of my worldview, which the reviewers deems to have poisoned the execution of a story taking place in a world where that worldview is by hypothesis the correct one. Me being a Catholic, I hold that all sin in the world was introduced by the disobedience of a solitary woman named Eve, and all salvation introduce by the obedience of a solitary woman named Mary. Saint Augustine was converted according to the prayer of his mother, Saint Monica.

And so therefore the Progressive review finds himself possessed of the notion that portraying the actions and decision of womenfolk as unimportant must be presumed seen inside every story told by a Christian, even and most especially in stories where it is not seen. The important part is that the accusation be leveled, and the narrative maintained, not the accusation have even the slightest passing resemblance to the facts.

Indeed, fact-free accusations are even better: since the reviewer here quotes no lines and refers to no scenes where women are portrayed as if their decisions and actions matter not, obviously I cannot quote those lines or scenes in dispute. A definite falsehood can be definitively contradicted. An outrageously preposterous falsehood cannot be: one cannot box fog.

So I cannot figure out that this reviewer means here, and I am not curious enough to write him and ask. It reads like the boilerplate of Progressive jabberwocky, a word-salad that sounds like speech, but is merely goose-gobble. The geese scream to warn the sleeping watchmen that a Christian is approaching, so he must sound the tocsin.

If a reader is so bigoted against Catholics that he cannot stand our make believe sci fi yarns and he can never laugh at our jokes, I invite him to go read GAME OF THRONES or WHEEL OF TIME. Neither thinly disgusted version of the Catholic Church in either of those thinly disguised Medieval backgrounds has any hint of Christ in it, so you will be safe. The books are well written and fans adore them. Read and be happy!

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