Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thematic Citizens

“Thematic.” It means relating to a common theme; it’s a word I now associate with observing and seeking out.

Yes, that’s my word of the day, thanks to science fiction (sf) writer Gordon R. Dickson, best known for his novels in the Childe Cycle. At the end of a short story collection, Steel Brother, there is “The Childe Cycle Status Report” and an Algol Magazine interview by Sandra Miesal, “A Conversation With Gordon R. Dickson.” In both parts Dickson explains how his Childe stories, taken together, are thematic. I find the idea of “seeking out” intriguing. As he tells Miesal:
…I am writing something that I hope the average, wanting-to-be-entertained reader will pick up and absorb. That’s the whole point of the consciously-thematic novel. It’s a way of making a philosophical statement that the reader sort of swallows without having realized that they’ve swallowed it and only later realizes it’s in there. The propagandistic novel gives you no chance but to accept or reject the statement. The consciously-thematic novel makes the statement available to you but does not require you to choose either one. You can simply ignore it.
Elsewhere in the conversation he says of his Childe novels, “… that their message is not an accidental blurred thing but a clear statement for those who will look for it.” The trick, of course, is they have to be willing to look.

Written science fiction, of course, in contrast to Hollywood’s moving pictures, has always rewarded those willing to look and think. The novel Nineteen Eighty-four, by George Orwell, starts out with the clock striking thirteen as bits of grit are blowing into the doorway. With that opening line the reader may rush on past, or think, “How silly, to take metric to the extreme of having thirteen to twenty-four bells.” Combined with the grit, he realizes, “A powerful government has forced its metric ideals on the people, without the democratic check and balance of common sense. More than just powerful: Obviously that government is oppressive, since they don’t have the economical, and psychological, resources needed for having clean streets.” As an essayist, I see I’ve just done my own subtle-thematic-thingy, by leaving it to my essay readers, those who are willing, to ask: What “psychological resources,” what character traits, are discouraged amongst the public by oppressors?”

This realization in reading 1984, from the very opening line, comes before the reader has even encountered the first huge poster of Big Brother. Later in the novel, of course, it will be made explicit that “ideals” are but an excuse to exercise power, with power as an end in itself. A leader will reveal to a prisoner a fact of life: You don’t seize power in order to make a revolution; you make a revolution in order to seize power.

In my favorite sf novels, come to think of it, the theme is subtle, and not put in words by anyone, neither by the author nor by any of the characters. Sometimes the story is not, at first, even written with a conscious-theme. Lois McMaster Bujold wrote a novel (Cordelia’s Honor) of the adventures of Cordelia against a plot to overthrow the government, with Cordelia being a starship captain who has left the service for a planetside marriage. Bujold was most of the way through writing her novel before she (and Cordelia too) realized it was about leaving one’s lone career and fully accepting the ties of children and family.

I used to be subtle with my essays, too subtle. And so one day I had to go back to my older ones and edit in some explicit thesis. This was after my buddy Blair pointed out I was mistakenly writing for science fiction fans. Hence I was writing essays with a nice chain of logic but at the very end not nailing in a thesis. Blair explained it was better to be less artistic, and more patronizing of the readers, rather than expect people to create a conclusion. He was right, of course.

As for essays on the Internet, I am told there are artistic ones. Such a relief to hear. Unhappily, so far, I have almost only found writing for computer nerds who will read at their workplace, perhaps while their code is booting. These nerds will rush along the words wanting really short pieces, with their minds in neutral, wishing to be spoon fed. Call them “really bright guys who are common sense challenged.” One lady even wrote, “If you can’t make your point in 200 words, you shouldn’t even bother.” How queer, since I can think of classic essays where the beginning alone takes 200 words. Obviously in her world there are no classic essays... no classics to return to for creating new connections, insights and thoughts missed the first time. A pity.

As with essays, so with novels where, as G. R. Dickson notes, people have a choice about subtle things. It’s fine to read only for the adventure, of course, while there is also more to find if you are willing.

While I enjoy essays, more of my reading is fiction. Lately I’ve been intrigued by two subtle lines in the fiction of sf writer Robert Heinlein. I’ve lifted my eyes up from the page to ponder how so much can be unpacked from a simple sentence…

I can’t recall which of Heinlein’s novels, contains a spoken line to the effect that “any police service that goes in for wire tapping and bugging, ends up with the police chief himself being bugged.” Well. At my first fly-past I assumed that with so much bugging technology lying around some police officer, either a “keener,” or a “bad apple,” would end up spying “on” his chief. On the second time past I had second thoughts: could it be spying “against” his chief? Could it be that when bugging becomes easy and commonplace within the police service there is a change to the ethics and values of the “city’s finest?”

A “change?” Better call it a “corruption.” Wait—is not the police force embedded in society? More change, then, to society as a whole, as we are each of us, as the Reverend Martin Luther King noted, bound up in a web of mutuality.

According to rumor, the FBI started by spying on the activities and love lives of communists and union organizers, and then moved to keeping files on the sex lives of congressmen, as well as the activities of my favorite reverend for civil rights. Finally, it is rumoured, they escalated to covert actions, such as cointelpro and the killing of Karen Silkwood. It is said that as early as President Truman the White House daren’t fire Hoover, for fear of secret files. Mutuality: It is a short crooked line from Hoover to the Watergate tapes. After sober thought: Better to keep to using specific wiretaps subject to specific warrants by a named careful judge.

Perhaps, then, the Patriot Act is too trusting of human nature.

In Heinlein’s novel Glory Road the hero, an athletic expert fencer, magically ends up on a quest wearing a sword, with a sidekick to set up his nylon tent, and a princess by his side. The hero starts out, though, in the US army in a jungle war in Asia, near a bustling port where people will pirate-copy western things like Irish Sweepstakes tickets. (This was before digital) While Glory Road is technically a fantasy, it also has the thoughtfulness so appealing to readers of science fiction. The scene I am recalling is where they are about to unpack to camp in a beautiful park-like glade. The hero peers around and the princess assures him, “It is safe.” Still nervous. She adds, “It is defended.” Then the hero relaxes.

When I first unpack and expand her six words… I envision a young handsome blond in a denim jacket in a pool hall. The lad probably won’t have the character to have become skilled at a musical instrument, a performing art or a sport such as fencing (not unless he is desperately grasping at straws as a way to escape the slum) Finding everyday life challenging enough, he totally rejects taking up cliff climbing or hiking. This means, secondly, that outdoor pursuits can be used for character training for juvenile delinquents, and firstly, that remote parks are safe enough, defended well enough, simply by having park rangers with radios. Meanwhile, gambling in the pool hall, his winnings are safe from violence only if the other patrons and the police will defend him. If no one will help, or at least be willing to serve as a stool pigeon, then the boy is left helpless.

Speaking of character training, or lack thereof: If the lad goes to prison, then "safety" will mean "a gang." His fellow convicts will form no justice committee, nor even an escape committee, not like normal people dropped into a WWII P.O.W. camp. This makes sense: Persons unfit for society are unfit to form a civil society “in the joint.”

When I unpack the dialogue still further, I see the Asians in Glory Road could not prevent war or piracy, not without having the character, the civilian resolve, for “effectiveness” in their police and armed forces. Today, of course, the communist police lack the will to stop economic piracy, while the South Vietnamese army, so infamously unbrave, is now history. It was in one of his essays, not in his fiction, that George Orwell remarked that civilized men are safe at night only because other men, inevitably less civilized, are guarding the frontiers while they sleep. (A remark used by Jack Nicholson’s character in the film A Few Good Men)

Expanding still further—how far I’ve come from six words! …Safety is not the default: Rather, from bustling ports to remote parks, safety follows conscious defense. This could mean responsible citizens like in Athens, or less responsible civilians like the hero’s Asian friends, or, as one of Heinlein’s characters once muttered, really pathetic guys “paying Danegeld.”

Perhaps, then, the pacifists who are anti-army are too trusting of human nature.

OK Blair, here’s my thesis: Good reading takes work, and, it takes work to have a healthy society. This idea, thematic to novels of Heinlein, is also thematic of many of my essays. Believe in democracy, yes, but don't be too trusting. For me, it’s fun to slow down to think about essays and fiction, especially when such prose reminds me that, on this planet, fully responsible citizens are not the default.

Sean Crawford
Where “the pursuit of happiness” includes reading,
Calgary, February 2012

Danegeld, claims my hard drive dictionary, is a land tax for defence against Norse raiders. No, not quite. My old high school textbook explains that the English occupiers of old Roman Britain (Saxons, Jutes, Angles and others) paid the Danes "Danegeld" to come and do their fighting for them against other would-be occupiers... only to find that they had no power to make the Danes leave afterwards!

The same text noted that while our sympathies are with the sophisticated merchant city of Carthage against the crude agricultural city of Rome... the Carthaginians, in the end, deserved to lose: They tried to use foreign mercenary troops against unpaid Roman volunteers, rather than volunteering themselves. I am reminded of the South Vietnamese parliament refusing to lower their draft age from 21 to 19 because they had young American G.I.s to do their  fighting for them... Robert Kennedy said the Vietnamese were too unmotivated, as in too noisy, to make contact with the enemy while on patrol. They declined from one patrol in a hundred making contact to one patrol in two hundred. The G.I.s? One patrol in 38.

Truly, civilians get the army and government they deserve...
(That goes for us too, see my essay Alive and Alert, for Life and Work, July 2011)  

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