In the past ten days, I’ve increased my following on Twitter by a factor of eight, thanks mostly to a couple of awesome fellow writers who have made it their mission to boost other writers’ networking, which is one of my main foci this year. It occurred to me that as a history teacher, MANY people have said to me, “I wish I could take history again; I hated it as a kid, but love it as an adult,” or alternatively, “History was so boring; my teacher was a coach who sat around all day and handed out worksheets.”
So, in recognition of this need, I offered to blog on requested history topics. The first request I got was “Babylon or the Chinese Empire.”
Sigh. To this I can only say, “serves me right for asking,” because these two topics span, conservatively, about 5,000 years of history, concurrently, and trying to cover one, let alone BOTH, in their entirety would reduce the project to a joke. So, thanks very much to the requester: I’m going to talk about ONE aspect of Babylonian history that we all remember from school: Hammurabi’s Code.
I generally taught Hammurabi’s Code in my Honors World History classes for a couple of reasons. It’s pretty much our most influential surviving, readable code of laws. There’s little to compare it to in scope until you get to the laws laid out in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. And as we will see, the contrast between the two is interesting to explore.
Hammurabi himself is an interesting historical figure: he inherited a Babylon that had only just begun to expand power over the weaker city-states of the Tigris-Euphrates. These huge twin rivers are, of course, the reason that the Middle East was considered for so long to be the center of the world. The rivers meant regular irrigation for crops, easy travel for people and goods, and a useful sewer system to get rid of waste. As a young king, Hammurabi fought off an invasion by a more powerful kingdom to the east, and then, after fighting it off, turned on his allies who had been unwilling and unable to provide more aid. The upshot of this was that Hammurabi ended his days (1750 B.C.) in command of a sizable empire running most of the length of the rivers.
What would it have been like to live in Hammurabi’s Empire? One of the hardest things I had to impress upon my students was the utter difference between our own lives and people who lived almost 4,000 years ago. To us, even nobles would have seemed ridiculously poor. Oh, they would have owned much more than we do in terms of farmland, animals, personal weapons and precious metals. But consider how little that wealth could buy them. There were no medicines worth the name: if you got sick, you got better or you didn’t. Meat was an expensive luxury. Fruit existed only in season. Beer and wine were incredibly weak, with an alcohol content of something like 5% for strong wine. And beer was a necessity, because drinking water was a good way to die of diarrhea. And disease was endemic. You could expect to lose at least half of your children to disease before they reached adulthood. There was no real concept of hygiene aside from, “don’t handle poop,” which was not always avoidable. Humans had parasites: fleas, lice and worms all the time. Itching was a fact of life.
Entertainment would have meant religious feasts and celebrations where there was dancing, music and plays. Or it would have meant singing, playing instruments and storytelling with friends at home. Nothing else existed.
The primary difference in the lifestyle of the nobles, besides better food, was the ability to command slaves to do their menial work, and to remain clean. But they had no plumbing, and no machines, just prettier tools.
Literacy was a study for nobles, and took years to achieve, because the writing system consisted of symbols that had as many as eighty meanings, dependent upon context.
However, Hammurabi’s Code was unique in that it was written in the language of the common people, so they could have heard and understood it when it was proclaimed, rather than it being a secret code among nobles. Hammurabi’s Code introduced the concept of at least a moderate presumption of innocence (not a complete one — it was quite possible to be accused and have to “prove” your innocence by surviving, e.g. being thrown in the river). It was based on compensation to the victim and retribution to the offender. Imprisonment as a punishment was unknown, because no one had the time or money to lock a man up in idleness. Fines, maiming and death were the most common punishments.
Hammurabi’s Code bears many similarities to the code of the Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, not because the latter directly copied it, but because of shared culture and tradition in that part of the world. Notably, while both codes recognize the differences between a slave and a free man, only Hammurabi’s code recognize a state of nobility. The Israelites who wrote the Law doubtless were not wealthy enough to allow a noble class to exist. In addition, Hammurbi’s code is a bit freer with the death penalty, which again likely reflects a wealthier culture’s ability to kill off a greater number of its subjects without endangering itself.
So there you have a quick look at life in ancient Babylon. If you want to see a really excellent novel in which a slightly later Babylon is portrayed in fiction, I recommend S.M. Stirling’s brutally and beautifully vivid Island In The Sea Of Time trilogy. This portrays the Babylon of the Kassites, which is about 600 years later than Hammurabi. And it doesn’t show up until Book 2, but it’s worth the read.
So these are details you can use in historical fiction, but if you’re writing fantasy, these conditions may be useful to bear in mind too, unless you choose to give your characters anachronistic knowledge or magical remedies for them. Hope you find it useful.
One of the most popular tropes, especially in science-fiction, is that of the superweapon: the huge, iconic invention that will turn the tide of battle and ensure the ultimate victory of the side that wields it. The most easily-recognized of these weapons is, of course, the Death Star, the planet-killer with the Achilles’ heel exploitable by the scrappy fighters the Rebels had. But why is it that historically, superweapons tend to work, not just as badly as the Death Star, but even worse? After all, the Death Star vaporized a planet. Historically, experimental supposed-to-be war-winning weapons don’t usually get even that close to success. Why not?
Because The Wrong Side Has Them
Historically, superweapons are not developed by the equivalents of the Empire. Superweapons are developed by the Rebel Alliance. In other words, they are developed by the side that has the smaller army, the smaller economy, and that is in the most desperate straits. And the reason for this is easy to see: because the stronger side is already winning with the weapons they have! It was the Confederates that produced ironclads and submarines, not the Union with its overwhelming Navy. It was Nazi Germany that produced jet fighters and V-2 rockets in the late days of the war, not the Allies with their overwhelming air superiority. It’s only when you’re losing that you need a game-changing weapon to turn the tide of battle. The only exception to this rule is the atomic bomb, which is not actually an exception (see below).
Because They Tend to Come With A Whole Lot Of Suck
Superweapons are pretty much by definition untested systems, for reasons discussed above: the side that needs them needs them right away, and they don’t have time for refining the technology. Just to give a few examples, the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship in wartime, the CSS Hunley, went down with its target. This was predictable, as she had already killed two crews in training. Hunley was very good at the “submerging” part of “submarine,” and not so good at the “surfacing” part. The Nazi jet fighters performed excellently, but had ridiculously short ranges because of fuel inefficiency. Similarly, their V-2 rockets were a triumph of cutting-edge technology, and the Germans desperately needed artillery that could strike hundreds of miles away, but since they had no guidance systems beyond Doing Trig Very Well, this meant that they couldn’t hit anything smaller and more mobile than say, a city.
Because They Attract Attention
On the rare occasions when superweapons do work the way they are supposed to, they do tend to get dogpiled on by the stronger side that they are almost inevitably facing (see above). The Bismarck is an excellent example of this. Built with all the latest technology, the Germans decided to use her as a superweapon that would be tough enough to destroy entire convoys and fast enough to run from the British Navy.
She lasted nine days.
They were a very impressive nine days, and began with the utter annihilation of the battlecruiser Hood and the damaging of the battleship Prince Of Wales, but the result of the effort was that Bismarck attracted the attention of about five battleships and two aircraft carriers, along with many heavy cruisers. After air attacks damaged Bismarck’s rudder, this force pounded Bismarck to scrap. Lest we think this was mere coincidence, the Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz met a similar fate, being used in only one offensive operation over her entire career, and subject to something like 26 Allied operations mounted specifically to get rid of her, which they eventually did.
Because They Are Easily Reproducible
Generally, the better the superweapon is, the more it has been tested. And the more it has been tested, the better it is understood. And the better it is understood, the more easily it can be copied. This is what happened with the Confederate ironclads. With the bulk of the Navy remaining loyal to the Union, the Confederates needed to break the Union blockade of their ports. And since ironclads were being built in Europe, first by France (significantly, the weaker naval power) and soon afterward by Britain (the stronger), their incentive to build ironclads was high, and the technology was becoming known.
Of course, the Union also knew this, and having discovered that the Confederates were building ironclads, quickly did the same. The first battle between ironclads saw the Union rushing its own ironclad to the battlefield only a day after the Confederate fielded the CSS Virginia. Despite the fact that the Virginia had faced three Union warships the previous day and had destroyed two while taking only minor damage to itself (a successful superweapon if anything was), the Monitor proved a match for it.
And that was the beginning of the end. Because the Confederacy was the poorer and less-industrialized of the combatants, they managed to produce only 30 ironclad vessels during the war in total, while the Union turned out about 50 ships of the Monitor class alone. If a superweapon really works, it won’t work fast enough to stop the stronger side from building more of them faster.
If Matching Them Doesn’t Work, Countermeasures Often Do
One of the most successful “superweapons,” pioneered by Germany, has been the torpedo-armed submarine. It was created to destroy the British Navy, and had many advantages that scared the pants off naval planners at the time: The submarine could travel invisibly. The submarine’s torpedoes attacked below the waterline, potentially killing a battleship in one shot. The submarine could scatter and hunt merchant ships in the ocean, killing them at will. The submarine could pass underneath blockades, rendering them ineffective.
In some ways, this appeared to be the perfect superweapon, especially because it didn’t matter whether the British matched it! What would it do with its subs? Guard the convoys? Submarines in the World Wars couldn’t hit each other with dumb-fire torpedoes except by sheer luck. Kill German merchant ships or naval vessels? The British Navy could already do that!
Well, it turned out that the British (and Americans) could do a number of things that weren’t terribly complicated. They could develop long-range patrol aircraft that could hunt and track the subs when they inevitably had to surface for air. They could create armored belts below the waterline for their ships, and anti-torpedo screens that could make the torpedoes detonate prematurely. Faster and stronger destroyers could guard the convoys and use cannon and depth-charges to sink the subs. As it turned out, subs could only effectively threaten surface warships (which were all bigger and more heavily armed and armored) when they managed to line up a shot unseen, and the torpedoes themselves tended to suffer from copious amounts of the aforementioned suck.
But Wait! What About The Atomic Bomb? Doesn’t That Disprove All Your Points?
Not at all. In fact, it reinforces them. First of all, the United States and the Allies were not yet fighting the war when Albert Einstein sent his famous letter to FDR, recommending its development. They were losing it when the Manhattan Project began. Most importantly, it was triggered by the belief that Germany, the weaker side in the wider war, was already researching them. By the time the bombs were actually built, of course, things had changed, and they were no longer necessary to win the war. To shorten it, yes, but that’s a different thing. And it attracted enough attention for the Soviets to place spies in the Manhattan Project, which they reproduced in only four years. Finally, the atomic bombs, contrary to appearances, really did contain a lot of suck. They poisoned the battlespace with fallout, and the bombers then necessary to carry them were vulnerable to interception. As a deterrent to large-scale war, the atomic bomb is a wonderful weapon. As an actually usable weapon system, it is not.
And that’s why, although superweapons are an awesome ingredient in fiction, they really don’t show up in history very often.
Dear Stabby: I’m in the process of molding my patient’s political views. He’s fifteen and just waking up to the idea that politics are interesting. But which political viewpoint should I strive to instill in him. I know that the best way is usually to simply make him rebel hard against his parents’ political positions, but they hardly pay attention to politics. Haven’t voted in years, in fact. So I have little to help me there.
I can see little in America’s political situation to help me either. On the one hand, steering him toward the Democratic Party has the advantage of making him hostile to Christianity, and would put him strongly in the camp of a majority that generally despises the Church.
On the other hand, the Republican Party has the advantage of alienating him from most of his peers, and being just as hostile to the spirit of the Gospel while hypocritically claiming to support it. Which is better for making sure the vile little creature never comes to Christ?
Wondering In Wichita
What I’m wondering is whether you haven’t spent so much time among humans that you’re starting to be as dull and taken in by appearances as they are. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to you that you are beginning with the wrong question entirely.
For over a hundred years now, one of the grand strategies we have been pursuing is the division of humanity into two great warring camps. In fact, the beginnings of this struggle can be seen as far back as human history goes, right into their earliest codes of written law. And like all of our greatest attacks on their virtue, it has its genesis in the fundamental contradictions of their very creation.
As we and the humans share the distinction of being spiritual beings, we know that we are unequal to each other. The fact that the Enemy insists, in the face of every bit of evidence, that spirits are somehow “equal before Him” is the most ridiculous piece of propaganda He has ever spouted. But spiritual inequalities can be, and usually are, concealed by lies of our own. But humans are also animals, and they are, of course unequal in that plane of existence as well. And the absurdity of any pretense that they really are equal in strength, health, intelligence or cunning, let alone possessions and wealth, is what drives their separation into two camps: what humans often call the haves and the have-nots.
Now the human response, and ours, seeing that the worlds are unequal, is the same: war for conquest. What I have, I propose to keep. What you have, I propose to take. It is the only rational response. The Enemy, of course, calls these obvious truths Sin, as he always does when His irrationality is challenged, naming them respectively Greed and Envy. But whereas we disdain to conceal the truth, the humans, who never stop pretending to love “justice” and “virtue,” must conceal with any number of justifications, coming up with reasons that they are “allowed” to keep what they have and take what they want. Being an American, your patient will probably soon encounter the terms “the politics of greed” and “the politics of envy.” The fact that they are being discussed in such bald-faced terms is actually a setback for us: we would much prefer to cloak their natures in politically-obscure terms such as “conservativism” and “liberalism,” or “capitalism” and “socialism/communism,” or whatever fatuity the humans are espousing and denouncing today.
But so long as the humans are taught to refer to the other side as “the politics of sin” and taught to embrace their own sin as righteousness, we have already won. In America we are closer every day to the time that the humans in each camp will clutch their own sin to their breasts as they would their children (even tighter than their children. Their children, after all, might join the other camp) and fight for its triumph over the sins of their fellow humans. And therefore, whoever wins, we do as well. We have exactly what we want: two groups of people living in a house that is burning down, fighting each other over whether gasoline or kerosene will best extinguish the blaze.
The humans never even consider the Enemy’s way: that there might be a politics of gratitude. That there might be a politics of humility. It is, of course, written in that wretched book of theirs that they should take no thought for what they should eat, or what they should wear, and trust the Enemy to provide “daily bread.” But it is no more in their nature to obey such ridiculous commands than it is in ours. And if anyone ever does suggest that such qualities might be the bedrock upon which a strong state could be founded, as some Americans did two centuries ago (Yes, Americans!) then it is a simple task (which has taken far longer than it ought to have) to point out the hypocrisy of it, and to bring in those who will make others’ “gratitude” an excuse for their own hoarding, and others’ “generosity” an excuse for their own theft.
So rest easy and pick a side. It doesn’t matter how your wretched patient goes to Hell, just that he gets here in the end, believing that he is blazing a trail to heaven.
Your sincere well-wisher
Ladies and Gentlemen,
You don’t know me, and you never will. That, I suppose, is what this whole issue comes down to, really: who will get to be “known” for their work and education, and who will remain in obscurity. So I suppose an introduction is in order.
My name is Scott Huggins. In 1992, I graduated from Wichita High School South. I was born into a middle-class family, where both my parents worked. My father was an aerospace engineer and my mother was an elementary school teacher.
I graduated with National Merit Scholarship, which I had earned by virtue of scoring something like 224 (I don’t remember exactly) out of the then-perfect 240 points on the PSAT. My SAT score was 1510 (a perfect score was 1600 in 1992) and my ACT score was 33. These scores were mine. I earned them fairly, and by dint of much study, practice, and the aid of some half-dozen books and the coaching efforts of my public school’s college counselor.
You see, I had been told that study and hard work, coupled with intelligence, could get me into any school in the nation. And I believed that. I went through the process of applying to Georgetown, which was my dream school because of its academy of Foreign Service. I wanted to be a diplomat. I wrote, as I recall, at least six separate essays.
And I got in. I want you to understand that, because I’m not quite sure that any of you grasp what that means: I got in on my own merit. I did what you had to pretend to the world that your children are capable of.
But the problem, you see, is that the National Merit Scholarship that I won was only $2000 per semester. $2000, matched against the cost of a Georgetown education which was, at that time, $20,000 per year for tuition alone. I called Georgetown and asked what merit scholarships were available there. And I listened as they explained that no such things existed. Only need-based scholarships would be offered, and the only people considered to have genuine “need” were those in abject poverty. I remember being taken through the formulas and having it explained to me that, according to Georgetown, my parents should have no problem expending over a third of their combined salaries on my education.
I remember my father sitting me down and explaining – and he hardly needed to: as should be evident by now, I was not stupid – that this was impossible. And of course it was. I remember him bitterly saying that perhaps the best thing he could do for his children would be to quit his job and begin drinking himself to death. That would have established “need,” after all. Or I could have taken on about $100,000 in student debt.
So I did not go to Georgetown. Instead, someone like your children went to Georgetown. Someone whose scores were paid for, whose essays were paid for, and whose tuition was paid for, so that they could be our country’s leaders. I wonder if that person is a Congressman, or a Senator, or a bestselling author because of the connections they made. And I wonder if, without people like you, there might have been merit scholarships for me. Because the qualified pool of students would assuredly have been much smaller. I will, of course, never know. Because I went to Kansas State University. Both it and the University of Kansas offered me full rides because of the National Merit Scholarship I had earned.
At Kansas State University I received excellent opportunities and a good education. I got to know some brilliant professors. I was able to do two years abroad, studying for one year in Russia and for another year in Germany. I ended up graduating with only about $6000 of debt, which put me ahead of the game. I went on to get a Master of Arts at Michigan State University, where I earned another fellowship. That education cost me nothing but my efforts.
In time, I came to see that the opportunities and lessons that I learned at Kansas State were at least the equal of those that I would have learned at Georgetown. There, I could never have taken two years to explore the world. I would have been locked into that course of study. I suppose the power and credentials I missed at Georgetown are also gone, and they will never come again. Even so, I would not trade them for the experiences I did forge in my travels. No, not for the world.
I wonder if you understand yet what this is about. You see, it’s not about me being cheated out of what I earned, though you and those like you surely did that. It’s about the fact that you have cheated, not me, but your own children, out of the knowledge and experiences that are now mine. They will never know that they could have won admission to Georgetown on their own. They will never know what it is like to explore the world by their own power and merits. They will never really have an education. Because you have ensured that they will never really need one. You have bought your children credentials, and you have sold their self-knowledge, their earned merit, and their true experience of the world they live in. Socrates would have said that you only damage their souls and yours by your behavior, but then, neither you nor they will ever have read Socrates. And for that I pity them. For that, they should curse you. Unfortunately, neither you nor they are likely ever to understand why.
So I do not curse you for depriving me and those like me of our educations. You cannot take education from those truly determined to have it. Because we educate ourselves wherever we are – or we fail to – every day. And your incomprehension of that earns not my anger, but my contempt. No, what earns my anger is that you have taken those credentials from young men and women who would have earned them, and placed the power that comes with them in the hands of little minds. Minds forever stunted and shrunken because you would not allow them the failure and the effort needed to grow them. Much like the “athletic” scholarships you also bought, given in the name of bodies that never needed to grow as strong as the athletes they pretended to be would have. And the power that you have given, unearned, unwept for, untrained for, will determine the course of our nation. You will influence what you do not understand in place of all of us who understand what we will never influence. This nation, for whom generations of my ancestors toiled, sweated, and bled: for this nation you and your children not only show contempt, you will contemptuously direct it until either you or it – or, God help us, both – will come to ruin. Because they will not have the education or the experience to do otherwise. For that, unless you repent, may you be damned.
I cherish no illusion that you will. I cherish no illusion that you will ever read this letter. You pay people to keep you and your children safe from the truth. God, how sad is that? You do not believe in damnation, you do not believe in God, and most importantly for the purposes of this discussion, you do not believe in people like me. You do not believe we are people at all. Not real people. We are only your audience. The unwashed masses whose very purpose is to cheer you on and buy what you sell us. This letter is, in the final analysis, not really for you, unless you by some miracle really do choose to change. It’s for those like me who will recognize themselves in this. It is for those of us who earned their own way, whether or not we ever got to travel it. Those of us who worked our own jobs. Those who read their own books. Those who wrote their own papers. Those who really learned. Those of us who did must remember that we will always have what you have taken from your own children: ability and knowledge of what is real.
One last word, and this to you children, who have found yourselves in college by such means: I do not blame you, especially you poor souls who were told that you had won your places by your own merits. You are not to blame for your parents’ sins. I don’t even particularly blame you children who knew what was going on, and cheated anyway. I can at least say that I know I would not have cheated – at least, not as I am. But if I had been raised by your parents, and had these things explained to me as being just what was my due and how the world works, I might well have done so. You are not as innocent, but you are even more to be pitied. At least those who were ignorant were not told that cheating and lies were what education was all about.
No, the blame lies with your parents. Make no mistake: you and they have taken the education that people like me earned fairly. Neither I nor they will never know what the cost of that was. But justice will come to you. It always does. In the most profound sense, it already has.
What do I want you to do? I sincerely doubt that anyone who should be asking that question has read this far. But in case you have, I ask only this:
Parents, repent. I mean that. Confess your guilt. Admit it without excuse or bargaining. Accept the consequences freely. And then, when that is over, spend the same money you spent to get your own children into a top-ranked college to give someone in my position a scholarship. A merit scholarship. A scholarship that can be earned by anyone – ANYONE – who applies. And see that it is given fairly. That is what you should do.
Students, repent. Go to your deans and confess what happened. Admit it without excuse or bargaining. Accept the consequences freely. Go to a different school if you have to. One you can earn your way into. If your parents can still pay for that, by all means let them. There’s no shame in that: it’s what honest parents do for their children if they can.
And if you can stay in the school you’re in? Then learn. Make the most of those opportunities. Don’t slack off. Don’t pay others to do the work you have been trusted to do. We’re all counting on you. Be worthy of it.
And I hope you enjoy our education.
In honor of the massive number of new followers I have on Twitter, most of whom are writers themselves, I thought I would post some of the things I have learned about marketing so far this year. This is the year I try to teach myself marketing and self-publishing, and it is a long, slow road. See, unlike writing, I haven’t been actively trying to learn this stuff since I was fifteen, nor have I been building up an unconscious core competence in it since I learned to read at age three. So, two warnings:
- This is VERY basic stuff, which I provide to those more ignorant than myself. Yes, they’re out there.
- Some of it is probably wrong. Feel free to correct me.
I got the massive number of new followers on Twitter as a result of the latest thing I learned that no one told me about regarding building a Twitter following: There are people who will essentially throw out invitations to reply to a thread and follow everyone on it for follow-backs. This is a tedious process, but I went from ~70 followers to ~300 followers in less than 24 hours by jumping on one of these. I realize that’s VERY small cookies in the Twitterverse, but its about four times as many cookies as I had before. So, without further ado:
THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT MARKETING/SELF-PUBLISHING IN 2019
- Learn to convert your WP documents into Kindle/.mobi format. It is challenging, but worth it. Just one of the benefits is that it makes life a lot easier for your beta readers. And it’s essential to doing self-publishing. I used Calibre. It’s not the most intuitive, but it gets the job done.
- Know your beta readers. Friends, even friends who write, aren’t good enough. You really have to find people who are down with specifically the kind of thing you write. Be aware also that your perception of what constitutes any given genre (horror, epic fantasy, YA) may not be the same as THEIR perception. And you need to read them back. Do a good job.
- Do not be afraid to ask people more experienced than you are at this for their advice. Many of them are happy to share.
- Do not be afraid to ask elder authors for blurbs. You will get a lot of “nos.” That’s okay. That’s the same as getting published. The default answer to not asking is always “no.” You lose nothing.
- Always be polite. Never suck up.
- When you ask for criticism, be willing to take it, no matter how much it hurts.
- Most importantly, BE WILLING TO LEARN.
- Equally most importantly: ENGAGE WITH QUALITY MATERIAL.
This is the first novel that I have written from scratch to be accepted for publication.
I’m afraid this blog post does have to be brief, because along with this good news, I have a nasty stomach bug. But thank you all for reading, and I hope you will enjoy it.
Sometime around Bilbo’s fiftieth birthday.
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save me and a dozen idiot dwarves and a hobbit from wolves and orcs?”
A few months later.
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save a dozen idiot dwarves and a hobbit from wolves and orcs despite the fact that the morons wouldn’t be in this situation if they’d just split off some treasure for some folks who frankly earned it by slaying the dragon they stirred up?”
About eighty years later
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save me from the tower of an evil wizard powerful enough to lock me up in it?”
Gwaihir: “No problem.”
Gandalf: “Hey, while we’re on the subject, can you save the entire continent from literally the most evil being on the planet? The only thing he has that can fly are on horses hundreds of leagues west of here. You just have to drop us off at the big mountain.”
Gwaihir: “Fuck, dude, we’re not your taxi service.”
Gandalf: “Okay. If I call you in about a year, can you pick up a couple of hobbits for me out of Mordor?”
This one’s going to be fast, because I’m running out of time, but it’s one I hope is useful to other writers.
Recently I was reworking a story because of length issues. Amazingly, it was because the story was too SHORT for a market by about 3,000 words, and if you don’t know how rare that is, then oh, my sweet summer child. As I worked on it, I realized that I had made a blithe assumption about how possible it was to do something involving helicopters.
So I consulted an expert and simultaneously realized that a) there were two really obvious workarounds if “something” turned out to be impossible. As it turned out, the expert got back to me and told me that “something” was quite workable so long as you did, in fact, have really GOOD helicopter pilots.
So now I had three possible ways of solving my problem, but the following issues:
Most Dramatic/Awesome Approach (i.e. “something”) is also Least Plausible Approach.
Least Dramatic/Awesome Approach is also Most Plausible.
Most Plausible Approach also is Most Likely To Surprise Protagonists (which needs to happen).
Middling/Plausible Approach makes it difficult for the protagonists to ever find out what happened.
I turned to my research to see if it could nudge me along the right track, here. No such luck. The research basically said you could do whatever and justify it from there. So what should I do?
I still don;t know. But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going with the high action/drama, because that shit is FUN, and why the hell else do people read science-fiction?
If there is one thing I have learned in my life about arguments — and would that I had learned it sooner — it’s that there are some where you’re just not going to win. The issue has long since been decided before you ever entered the room. In fact, you’re not even witnessing an argument so much as the self-congratulatory talk after the argument has been decided against you. And you are as welcome in such venues as a drunken Rams player would be trying to get the Patriots’ defense to line up for one more play while Tom Brady is holding the Vince Lombardi trophy.
The only possible reason to keep arguing in such a case is if enough undecided observers are present that they might be swayed: Internet arguing is a spectator sport. But if the vast majority of spectators are Patriots fans, then you might as well not bother.
It’s a cheat, of course, because unlike sports games, there’s no timer. And the people involved in such arguments always want to appear as if they are fair-minded and brilliant, annihilating their opponents with superior knowledge, while in fact they are simply guarding their preferred outcome. To do this, they will characterize their opponents’ arguments in emotional terms and then admit the proper half of the facts into evidence while denying the other half. They will then congratulate themselves on their subtlety and insight, while mocking you. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I got into the edges of one of these earlier this week and quickly showed myself the door.
The issue in this case was a defense of Susan Pevensie as the true hero/victim of the Narnia chronicles, because she was the only one who grew up and told the tyrant-king Aslan where to stick it. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that one could read Narnia this way: people have been reading their pet philosophies into works of literature since Blake and Shelley declared Satan to be the true hero of Paradise Lost.
I could tell I was on the wrong team when I made an observation that Susan Pevensie had given up on Narnia and was immediately told that this read of Susan’s character had made the respondent furious. This was also the first indication I had that there was even going to be an argument. It was immediately supplemented by others’ contentions that a) Susan had not given up on Narnia, but had rather been kicked out of Narnia for growing up and becoming a contemporary young woman and that b) Aslan was a God who didn’t want anyone in heaven who had grown up, and that c) she had gotten kicked out for discovering lipstick and stockings and courtship and marriage and d) because of that had her entire family taken away from her.
Of course, the only way you can get to this reading is to believe that everyone else in Narnia is a complete and utter liar who hates Susan from the outset. Such a thing may be true, I suppose, but it very much involves reading that into the text rather than reading any part of the text itself.
Firstly, any reading of the text will show you immediately that “growing up” was no bar to a final re-entry to Narnia/Heaven. Professor Kirke and Aunt Polly were both there, and had, by any reasonable standards, “grown up.” So were the Pevensie parents, who as far as we know, never had heard of Narnia. So the simple process of aging is by no means a bar to entry into Narnia. In fact, when Jill says “She was always a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up,” Polly (the old lady) responds, “Grown-up indeed. I wish she would grow up… her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.” Susan’s fault is not in growing up, but in embracing a false notion of what ‘growing up’ means. The only way this equates to becoming a contemporary young woman is if we admit that such women are defined by their acceptance a false notion of adulthood. Hardly a flattering notion
Did Aslan, then, bar Susan from re-entry to Narnia/Heaven simply for being a young woman who liked the idea of looking pretty and getting married? Again, not at all. Susan’s real fault is that she has decided that Narnia was merely a game. According to Eustace, when Narnia is brought up, she says, “Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.” Susan simply no longer believed. And since she no longer believed, she could not be brought into Heaven, any more than could the dwarfs who would not be taken in. By contrast, the rest of the Friends of Narnia believed and took action on behalf of Narnia in the real world, by mounting an expedition to get the traveling rings.
Finally, did Aslan take away everyone from Susan? In a sense, I suppose He did. On the other hand, her absence from the rest was very much her choice, so I suppose that everyone was “taken away from her” in much the same sense that a high-school dropout by choice “loses all his friends” when they graduate and go off to college and the professional world and never contact him again. It’s more the result of his choices and the way life naturally works. Remember that Susan is the only one still “alive” at the end of the books. Everyone else is “dead.” The argument the defenders of Susan are making is that if Aslan really loved her He ought to have killed her along with everyone else, regardless of what she wanted! In a sense, all the characters got what they really wanted, and what they believed in. Just like Ebenezer Scrooge got all the money he wanted.
I really would like to believe that Susan, like Ebenezer Scrooge, got a second chance somewhere down the line. But to attempt a defense of her as she behaves in the seventh book is like defending Scrooge as he behaves in the beginning. It requires one to ignore all of the text explored above. It is replacing what is in the text with what is not in the text. It requires one to believe that Susan alone is honest, and her relatives, friends and God are judgmental liars. That there are people are eager to do this, of course, surprises me not at all. They are on Susan’s side, and not Aslan’s, and there is no changing their minds.
It’s probably a bad habit to tack a coda onto the end of the essay, but I will, lest a misunderstanding arise. Justifying the treatment of Susan Pevensie who made the decisions Lewis tells us she made, is completely different, of course, from saying “I don’t like that Lewis made her make those decisions.” That, of course, is completely a fair statement, and one I might even agree with. From an author/theologian’s point of view, I think Lewis was presenting the question of whether one can turn away from grace. Hos answer is that one can deliberately do so. Then who should have been his example of this? Peter the High King, Edmund the redeemed, and Lucy dearest to Aslan’s heart all would have been more heartbreaking and would have undercut the story more. Eustace and Jill were integral parts of the action in the novel Lewis had just finished. Polly, perhaps, would have been a less heart-breaking option, but also one of much lesser consequence to us. Susan, I sometimes feel, got elected by default.