Uncanny Valley Digest: Shadow Of The Torturer

don-maitz_the-shadow-of-the-torturer_ny-pocket-books-1981_82825-8Last night’s Shadow Of The Torturer discussion jingled and jangled! The book itself has lofty goals, and the prose style conveys them allusively. The tone of this book is equal in formality to Canticle For Leibowitz. High praise coming from this group. The women are much more real than in any science book we’ve read this year. As the plot thickens, so does the reader’s interest.


I’ll admit, it took me a while to get warmed up, about 50 or 60 pages. But then once I let go, sank in, and let the prose be what it was, I didn’t want to do anything but read this excellent book.
An orphan raised to Journeyman by the Guild of Torturers (Seekers for Truth and Penitence, some call it), is exiled upon showing mercy to a prisoner.

It’s part of Wolfe’s Solar Cycle: Three four-book series, each set in the New Sun universe. Which reminds me of Dark Sun, and – by the way – this book is a D & D nerd’s dreamscape! Such a powerful, dark, refined, rendering of a role playing vibe from the Gygax halcyon days. A real D & D world, and written with depth and beauty. So nerdy, so many cloaks, swords, lances, pikes, and thieves, giants, exotic mounts, ruffians, guards, warriors, gypsies and magistrates, shopkeepers, innkeepers, pilgrims, and dark arcana.

The Wolfe Man Cometh...
The Wolfe Man Cometh…

Literature? By Wolfe’s definition…
Wolfe said, in a letter to Neil Gaiman: “My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure.”

Very similar verbose, eloquent (and stilted), allusive prose as Miller, Jr. in Canticle. But less of a handle on humor.

Interesting note: Both authors are Catholics and I think they show it in each novel. The order of torturers, the guilds in general, the almost liturgical arcane-flavored style of prose, the tight are treated as churches or monastic orders. The same style of rules.
p.111 dressed as a holy man in a world without religion.

Very deft use of obscure language, most of it as refreshed Latin or ancient Greek. And very efficient use of macabre imagery. Just a few brief atrocities spread wide across the book, but they were all that was needed. The atmosphere of the prose, and the psychedelic descriptions of the world outside the citadel.

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Alienated From Their Origins
This theme has come up a few times this summer. The characters are so far removed from any epoch of time with which we are familiar (through our histories) that they have no idea what we “were” like. A medieval recreation of atmosphere, brutal monarch, walled feudal city, obscure punishments. Then we start to learn this is the far future, Jack Vance Dying Earth stuff. The place these people call the citadel was probably a starship, with all of its thick walls and corridors, all metal, and revealed ever so gradually, and most times downright eloquently, over the course of a three hundred pages of gothic prose.

Women Characters
Thank Wolfe-ness these women had some dimension. Distinct personalities and motivations. A little hetero normative, but excellent depth and texture.
Thecla, Agia, Dorcas – what characters!

Party dog want SNACKS!

Great Jack Vance Dying Earth Stuff
Red sun, FAR future.
Monochamy – formalized one-on-one mortal combat meant to resolve serious disputes. It is described as a social custom designed to eliminate murder.
super psychedelic, in a guilt ridden catholic way, not some poly-amorous Heinlein shit
Super bleak, but also adherent to the concept of duty
Like Leibowitz: A conservative religious approach that humans need very strict instructions and restrictions or everything falls apart. (Or  is it that the human solution to everything falling apart is strict social control?)
Looking for ancient earth, Like some Asimov Foundation stuff, and the predicament of the characters in Canticle For Leibowitz.

The Garden
The long road to the weapon he must pluck. Where each terrarium is a kind of holodeck on steroids. An immersive tour of what magic technology may become. A place where people become lost and the dead are stowed.

One of our visitors had to hop off.
Uh, is he Australian…?

Consensus Reality
Strong and weak minds and the porous boundaries of reality (PKD was hooked on this concept, how a more grounded or aggressive mind could actually alter the contours of the reality of a less grounded or less aggressive mind.) He’s making an important distinction between the signifier and the signified.
P.66 “Weak people believe what is forced on them. Strong people what they wish to believe, forching that to be real.”
p.127-9 This whole passage (culminating in “…an object will be brought into existence.”) on light and refraction is beyond me. Help…
The octagonal mirror room of optics. It’s like they are creating material objects by perceiving their reflections first. It also reminds me of interstellar wyrmhole ansible kind of stuff. The mechanics of it are described using writing that’s meant to be misunderstood. Complex esoterica bullshit.
p.195 “unseen is as good as unbeen”
p.110 – a child’s sight of other worlds, and hidden parts of the self

Screen shot 2015-07-08 at 8.04.29 PMScreen shot 2015-07-08 at 8.04.39 PMHow does Wolfe make a torturer character likable?
By making him more compassionate than his compatriots. The narrator professionalizes their order so they are just doing their jobs. Severain developed an emotional bond with one of the prisoners immediately.

Unless Severain is lying, he’s almost unscrupulously honest, but at the most peculiar times. As soon as he gives Thecla the knife, he goes and turns himself in.

p. 182 On Clemency: One less one is more than nothing.

A note from Wikipedia: Wolfe intentionally uses the unreliable narrator perspective and writes in the first person, as the character Severain. He believes any narrator would be unreliable, fallible. It also makes for more interesting literary problem solving for the reader.

Wrap up: LOVED IT! The only other book we’ve enjoyed more this season was Canticle For Leibowitz.

Thanks for reading. See you next week!
Thanks for reading. See you next week!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Starship Troopers

starshiptroopersvintagecoverLast night’s Starship Troopers discussion was the hobbyist’s jetpack! Notes follow. We were pleased to welcome new arrivals to the group from Nebraska and Brazil! Thank you Nate and Eren! Starship Troopers is cannonical sci fi, but it also validates all of the major criticisms of sci fi. Consensus: on par with Flatland.


Heinlein’s Premises
Man lacks a moral compass beyond the will to survive. The rest is taught.
Dan – “An emphasis on the individual heroic act.”
Really simplistic dualistic human condition stuff. Right wing radio style polemics.
Rights are conferred, not innate. What right to life does a father who must protect the lives of his children? All rights must be redeemed with blood every few generations. (He does a lot of this right wing radio stuff.)
“Some B.F. Skinner shit going on here.” The Skinner box. Human beings are as human beings do.
Codified scientific theories will solve all moral and ethical problems. No accounting for intangibles.

His big premise: If we don’t kill them, they’ll kill us. Life is a Hobbsian war of each against all.

It’ ain’t that, Heiny.
Darwinian competition, sure, but there are as many examples of cooperation. Those cooperative interrelationships are more complicated than his world view will admit.
“Just because you have one opinion on one subject, doesn’t mean you’re going to act on it.” – Nate.

“What a book, man. It’s fascinating how many things it influenced.” – Nowell

The protagonist is a Spanish kid named Juan, Johnny Rico, from Buenos Aries. He’s training in Canada and the U.S. Some implicit stuff there about one world government. But Heinlein thinks it’s a great idea. He thinks it’s the farthest mankind’s ever advanced.

Screen shot 2015-07-01 at 8.57.57 PMPublishing History
He wrote the book as a break during Stranger in a Strange Land. Took a break to write a “juvenile book,” for 12 year olds.
The G. I. Joe style of writing. He’s intentionally pandering to 12 year old boys.
Published as teen fiction in a magazine serial by Putnam and Sons. “Let’s let the readers decide who likes it!,” said their PR man. (That sounds like something out of Space Merchants. [I’m glad Space Merchants comes up so often.])

Is This Satire?
It’s definitely some kind of social commentary.
Reminded Nowell of Camus’s the Stranger. Camus is writing as a tool for espousing a philosphical politcal view. Meant to convince you of an ideology.

Contrast with the way this type of alpha voice worked in Space Merchants. Heinlein rants would have been ironic in Space Merchants. He would have been demonstrating it to demonstrate the wrongness of its existence. But not Heinlein, he loves that stuff. He idealizes the militaristic hierarchy. It’s prescriptive polemic, designed to make a point. Here’s what you need to do to be a bad ass.
“Does he buy what he’s saying, or is he saying it to make fun of it?”
“I don’t see how anybody could make the argument that this is satire.” – Gill
“Satire would have to have some element of clever humor. But this is humor-less.” – Nowell
“It could be satire through exaggeration.” – Dan

Detail of Plato and AristotlePlato’s Republic?
Is this book like Plato’s Republic, where he says this is how it ought to be. Or was there a satire in there?
It didn’t smack of satire.
The characters are stamps, icons, taking us on a tour through this military government he’s imagined. Fine, why is it so long? Make it 150 pages.
“I’m going to show them what the perfect military of the future would look like.” – Gill
“I think one reason it’s annoying is that the arguments he makes are compelling, at least logically speaking.” – Rafidi
“Yes, but is it the best possible logic for the situation?”
“Like in war, his arguments are a zero sum game. So you have to completely destroy the other side to say anything against it.” -Dan

Screen shot 2015-07-01 at 7.37.21 PMPolitical Agenda
It is trying to impose a mindset, but’s just one we don’t necessarily agree with.
“Similarities between the militaries. They’re all controlled by this remote brain, and so was Rico.” – Dan
Reference to the brain bug in the movie: “All that macho military stuff and you’re trying to kill a vagina?!” – Dan
The twist of his father. It’s so weird when he sees his dad
“That was cool. But a build up would have been nice. That character arc was interesting.” Nowell.
“That’s what happens in Atlas Shrugged.” -Gill. That’s when it gets Ayn Rand oversimplistic, dualistic, rhetoric designed to get you to think something. Sales. It’s an ad, an advertisement for that viewpoint.
HA! A straw man. Flat characters that exist to prove a point. It is what was passing for a story in this.
Sorry Heiny, maybe next book. You’re just not seeing the politics because you agree with it.

Nowell, “I think the gear lust is a big factor in this. Let me take a minute to talk about the suits!! It influenced the movie Aliens big time. James cameron had all of the actors read Starship Troopers.

20150701_210339“What’s the modern equivalent of this book?”
“Ender’s Game.”
A long diversion into Ender’s Game.

Screen shot 2015-07-01 at 8.38.33 PMHeinlein The Man
He idealized military life.
He had the blue balls of war combat.
Got squeezed out of military service in 1938 after contracting Teberculosis, and never got help to liberate the world from the Axis. [this could be why he so gives such unqualified idealization of military service and combat glory]
Heinlein’s traversal of the political spectrum, ending on conservative to the point of fascist.
He attracted people from both ends of the political spectrum because of his emphasis on personal responsibility.
Heinlein liked The Fountainhead.
Strongly affected by P.D. Ouspensky
Heinlein liked the social credit movement of the 1930s. Interdisciplinary distributive philosophy by C.H. Douglas. Absolute economic security for the individual. “Not that we shall be put into somebody else’s utopia, but that we shall be put in a position to construct a utopia of our own.”
Interesting idea that both Miller, Jr. and Heinlein were writing in a way that was processing their personal military experiences.

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What would Zizek say?

Violence is not the expression of power, but the expression of powerlessness. The father who has to hit his kid to make him be quiet has no power over his child. He has more power over a friend or acquaintence.

Heinlein validates all the major criticisms of the science fiction of his era:

  • Clunky writing (He’s got a knack for sentences that prematurely diffuse suspense)
  • Weak to nonexistent story lines
  • Escapist politics
  • No women characters, but women make good pilots. (He’s a mess. THIS is his gender equality?)
  • And he peppers it with indulgent politcal rants
  • Bugs: total colonialist “Othering” of the non-white world.
  • You never see out into the civilian life. It doesn’t exist.
Sad Puppies, Hugo Awards Esoterica 2015
Don’t let them get you down.

Current Events, Sad Puppies, and The Twilight of the Hugo Awards
A group of conservative sci fi writters (Brad Torgerson among them) rigged this year’s hugo awards. The Sad Puppies slate. They stacked the ballot with conservative writers. Because of this, many members are likely to vote No Winner. This could effectively end the Hugo Awards. It’s about time.

Supplementary reading:
Haldeman’s “The Forever War.”
The liberal leftist response to Starship Troopers.

Wrap Up:
Starship Troopers is a canonical book for the time being. We can’t wait to see other books knock it off its smug perch.