Monday, May 30, 2022

Addressing the dead

Adam Roberts, Sibilant Fricative: Essays & Reviews (2014)

(attention warning: this is only about Adam Roberts' book in a tangential and self-indulgent sense)

"Boo! Now the only time I'll get to read you is when I buy your books, which I can't do, because they're not on the Kindle. Boo!" -- blog comment, SEK 30 June 2012 12:42:00 GMT-7

1. Rohan Maitzen, The Worth of our Work (2012)

This quite good blog post sets out the basics of what happened: Adam Roberts decided to close down one of his blogs in order to publish collected excerpts from it as a book.  (Future textual critics may be confused: the blog closed down was called Punkadiddle, the book of excerpts from Punkaiddle was called Sibilant Fricative, and a new blog of essays and reviews was started that was also called Sibilant Fricative.).  The post quickly gets into the basic matter at hand: why should anyone write anything?

There are almost immediate complications.  By "close down", Roberts didn't mean that he was merely not writing on that blog any more and perhaps closing comments: he also deleted the blog posts themselves in an effort not to affect sales of the book.  As a result, all of the links in Rohan Maitzen's first paragraph are broken.  Perhaps that doesn't matter because after all these pieces made it into the book?  It is true that Roberts' posts about Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time were the most popular posts on the blog, and were printed in the book, but Maitzen goes on "As a Victorianist, though, I found posts like this one of the greatest value to  my own thinking."  What is that cryptic first link?  Something about G.K. Chesterton and Charles Dickens, and therefore not reprintable in a book of science fiction and fantasy essays and reviews.

The core sentence here -- quoted in Maitzen's blog post, from Adam Roberts' blog post -- is "If the sort of thing I write is worth paying for then I’m a mug to give it away for free; and if it isn’t worth paying for (of course a great deal of online writing isn’t) then I’m wasting everyone’s time, including my own, carrying on."

There are clear problems with this, but -- wait, there's a quote by one Rich Puchalsky, which reads "It’s very easy for people to say that the value of an activity is not measured in what it earns… but part of the monetization of attention is that yes, really, it is hard to say whether written work that people don’t pay for is valued."  I seem to have agreed, but this doesn't quite sound like all I would write: I must have written something else as well.

Of course most of this material is not really *gone* in a final sense.  I went to the Internet Archive, I navigated their horrible calendar interface, and found:

And there it is, if you scroll down to the 10th comment: the quote above, prefaced by "it's a continuous question as to whether I should be participating in blogging / commenting at all".  This, in an American idiom, should perhaps be called "joshing", and it means "If you're wasting your time by carrying on writing things that people won't pay for, think of what mugs we must be for writing comments on things that people won't pay for."  

Because of course writing-about-writing is, in contemporary terms, primarily a fan activity. People do it because it's fun and they are interested in the material, not because of the horrible monetization of everything that our society tries to impose.  The most characteristic form of fan writing, the fanfic, is completely unpublishable for money because it violates intellectual property rights (with rare exceptions such as 50 Shades of Grey, originally a Twilight fanfic.) People attempt to escape monetization by doing precisely things like this, and while (as Rohan Maitzen quotes Tom Lutz) "the future for every writer requires food", a writer who wrote purely out of determination to make money would find much easier paths to this end.  Non-hack writers seem to write because they want to write, and continue writing even when not paid.

And this seems true of Adam Roberts as well. In other places (citation needed), he has mentioned that writing down things on a blog somewhere is a part of his process, and it seems probable to me that he's going to continue doing it even with no one fronting the bills.  The immediate continuation of Sibilant Fricative the blog is a case in point.  A second and soon a third book of essays and reviews have been published from this blog, with the blog posts ceremoniously deleted once published, and so it goes.

Web publication is a form of publication, and the replacement of a Web publication in favor of book publication is a kind of death: the traces of a community replaced by a fossilized object.  This is what our society does to everything: dead labor becomes a commodity, dead trees become paper, dead links become a internet archive that is now critical for the functioning of society but must be supported as a wealthy person's hobby because after all it does not make money.

"I heard something about what you’re going through, and is there any way I can help distract you?  If you want to be distracted." -- Email from to, sent Nov 19, 2016

2. Rich Puchalsky, Yawnpiphany, 2009

As a work of SF criticism I think that this holds up, although it also has highly cringy phrases like "strapping your inner fanboy down Clockwork Orange style".  Why would a reasonably skilled SF writer purposefully write a boring book?  If SF is the literature of ideas, then the only way to rebel is to be anti-ideas.  If fantasy is about adventure, then the way to iconoclasm is anti-adventure.

This idea was sparked by the parody neologisms in Adam Roberts' piece on Neil Stephanson's Anathem, which includes"yawngasm".   This piece is in the Sibilant Fricative book, it's one of the better ones, and the neologisms are still there, some used in other essays in the book and, really, of use in general SF criticism.  

But this is not the core puzzle in Sibilant Fricative.  The core puzzle is about the boring books that were *not* written for aesthetic effect.  Bad writers exist and some write boring books, but why do these get published and, in some cases, become extremely popular?

Adam Roberts suggests an explanation, credited to someone else, in the section on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time.  (Though the piece on Wheel of Time comes at the end, it's the core of the book).  This is a well-known syndrome in which an author first writes something relatively good or at least competent, which becomes popular, then the writer extends this to a series which becomes progressively less edited and more stretched out as they keep the profitable content alive at all costs.  One can hardly fail to see this in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, or you prefer film the Star Wars movies and their following prequels.  

This is part of it.  But part of it is that boredom is what, in many cases, readers are looking for.  I refer to the "tired mind".

"Why do we become intellectual masochists when suffering from mental fatigue?" --, 2006

3. The shadow of the waxwing

In exasperation at his own masochistic decision to read through thousands of pages of the Wheel of Time books, Adam Roberts writes that he understands the desire to escape (pg. 254):

"We're all a bit ground down by life, I know.  We all want to get a little drunk, from time to time, so as to ameliorate the grind, to step through the portal to somewhere more appealing.  But getting drunk doesn't have to mean sitting on a park bench with a 2-litre plastic bottle of strong cider.  It is possible to get something more refined from the experience.  [...]  With books the difference in quality is not reflected in the cover price! Maybe it should be.  Maybe it ought to cost 1.99 to buy a Robert Jordan novel and and 45.99 to buy a Vladimir Nabokov one. But it doesn't!  Amazingly, it doesn't!  There is nothing stopping you going for the higher quality experience!  Honestly!"

But there really is.  I suggest that Adam Roberts is clearly an unusually prolific writer and reader and is not well qualified to judge from his own experience.  I'll try not to generalize from my own experience, but it is inconceivable that I could simply read through all of Vladimir Nabokov's books.  I have read two of Vladimir Nabokov's books decades ago, and I still think about them whenever something calls them to mind.  I could scarcely dare to just jam a third one in there: who knows what would happen.  No, I spend most of my days researching and thinking about how global warming is steadily destroying life on Earth, and when I'm done with that I don't want to really think at all.  I want to read something that is completely predictable and will not surprise me, especially not with some kind of unpredictable aesthetic effect.  Currently I'm reading R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt books, which hold my interest well enough in the half hour before I fall asleep.

Of course, no one who would be reading this could subsist on endless, interchangeable descriptions of Drow matron mother plottings alone.  Some kind of stretch is required sometimes, even if one doesn't feel up to Nabokov's oeuvre.  This is why I read Adam Roberts: his books have structure yet are not clones of each other.  This lack of predictability is one of the reasons why they are not fit for occupying the tired mind, and really most of us are most often tired minds.

"That's real money for him, which you've denied by passively looking for his books." -- blog comment, SEK June 25, 2010 at 2:24 PM

4.  Rich Puchalsky, Coda (2010)

This piece does not work.  Nothing happens, the end is wincingly male-gaze (sparked by Adam Roberts' comment that in the later books of Wheel of Time Robert Jordan really likes to depict women who like to be spanked), the whole best left unlinked even here.   Even the comments concern an attempt at joshing, once again, that did not work.  

Will any of these references still be comprehensible when you read this?  They are still there as of May 30, 2022, but of course at some future time link rot will take them.  This piece itself may last somewhat longer.  But of course it will certainly never be published in the traditional sense. Even if it is archived, it will not remain meaningful.

I bought a copy of Adam Roberts' book Sibilant Fricative in 2022 because someone decided to make a TV series out of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, and Adam Roberts' blog posts about it were gone from the Web and I wanted to see if they held up now that there was a somewhat coherent TV series to set out the derivative story.  In the main, they did.  I laughed a good deal at the joke about how Perrin should be nicknamed Reginald, because of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, although probably fewer and fewer people will now get that reference.  It's uneven, but basically a good book.  You should buy it.


Monday, May 31, 2021

global warming activism II (a poem)

 black-swooping over a land of no ice

I will reincarnate as a corvid

(don't know what kind nature will provide)

I will fly and see your body lying bloated

I will alight and eat your eyes

in compassion I will feed and they will be gone

no one will ever again see as you did

did you hide in a bunkered place?

that lasted you for years the door too thick for pounding

then you died and got thrown out,

a body will smell up a dead place fast

and there it lies outside

nothing particular about eyes

just easiest to pull out, skin is tougher

did you die innocent outside?

poor soul none of us are innocent

you scrabbled then your kids killed you

after all you cursed their lives first

and they left you uncovered

nothing particular really about how we see

all of us saw the world the same way

only one life is pledged though

being a corvid doesn't seem bad

but only one life to remove this way of seeing

then go on and let it go, let it rot in the heat

and fly and see something else at last

Friday, August 21, 2020

Solar / Lunar

Rooftop ripples
Sun swings lazy
Down the gleaming gutter
And the tiles hot
Baking brittle, peeling
Chimney a squat idol
Golden brick worship

Sidewalk snail
Walking along slow
Heat rising
Concrete cracks
In rectangular pattern
Step step look down

Sea-bird swirl
Over the salt wind the silica
Beach blanket
Rough-weave, grainy
Glistening glare
Of the sun-bake
Low wind whisper

–- 'in the context of some art we must disintegrate and be reconnected with the passion of destruction' --

The moon's rare sinuousness
I can’t put my hand on it
Unearthly. It’s unearthly
How it looks warm and buttery from far
“A bit of handiwork – and he destroys the moon!”
But it always came back somehow

When I was young I thought about sight
A ground plan that burns and gnaws
Down all the formless places

what happens when
The sun goes down again? The pattern wears,
It's gone, no sudden flare will bring it back
The words where I scraped away the white part

(history shown to the sun looking on)
Autumn wind blows through my sleeve
Fallen and windblown, I can return to the fixed stars

Thursday, April 9, 2020

In a time of the plaque

walking in the park I
cleverly avoid the pave
pinecones crunching under
foot ant hills a resolute
few inches apart their
definition and industry
somehow a shock
the surround sound of
twitter and caw
all of that breeding
and working and
here is a bench
in memory of
someone wait if
I touch that plaque
I can't my face
your memory or my face
and wet sneakers
as I walk back
on the sodden grass

Friday, October 20, 2017

A bit more on left theses

Back in July, Bruce Wilder wrote a comment in reply to the post below. I wrote an answer which promptly and discouragingly got lost, but I'll write a bit more now, as well as some replies to other comments.

First, on fatuousness. Ideology is supposed to be more or less fatuous. What we need now is a system of belief that is actually widely believed: I wrote it as an outline because I think that those are the major elements that are required. Going into too much justification doesn't help. The "predictably produces" bit wasn't meant to be a claim of historical inevitability, only an observation that whatever supposedly differing choices are being made in different places now are leading to the same outcome everywhere.

The main point I'd make in reply is that ecological value can't really be our gold, because it's not tradable or exchangeable. Human work can not replace or make up for ecological work. If the reports of 75% of insect biomass going away are accurate and represent a widespread rather than local effect, there's no way we can work to make up for that, no way we can say that we'll exchange lower insect biomass for greater something else. We can try to stop doing whatever we're doing that's causing that effect, but that isn't an exchange: it's us trying to get out of the way of a disaster. Even in less fraught circumstances, you can't do things like say that we'll make up for taking more from an ecosystem over here by taking less over there: ecosystems don't generally work that way.

Money does loosely coordinate over scale, but that mechanism is exactly one of the things we should give up. The coordination is not very loose, as evidenced by the observation that we're in a world-system that is producing the same results everywhere despite local differences.

What would coordinate? Culture, essentially. The post below has a heading for "Societal values" where I was going to write something about how you can't very well have an anarchistic system (which this would be) unless people widely believe in it. The chicken-and-egg problem of how this would come about is best handled elsewhere, but cultural values are coordination over large distances.

Lastly there was another comment about how the left is based on universalist grounds... I don't see what can be more universal than the fact that we all live on and depend on a single planet whose systems are increasingly stressed by all of us. That is why US style "libertarianism" -- not liberators socialism, but the right-wing version -- is so attracted to science fictional dreams. Elon Musk describes his position as "I'm somewhere in the middle, socially liberal and fiscally conservative" and so can be taken as a representative of a type, and he would like Mars colonies. Why? Because that really is the only way to separate oneself from the universal community at this point.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Theses towards a left ideology

It's common, on the left, to talk about historical materialism without acknowledging that the primary theories that the left uses have no connection to our contemporary era or its material conditions. Here are my best ideas to correct that.

1. Ecological value

a) The primary constraint on human economics is the production of ecological value: powered primarily through solar energy and processed through biomass.

b) Ecological processes are what create and maintain our air, water, and food. They can not be replaced by human labor. They are not "natural resources" but products of cycles with limited replacement times and limited surpluses.

c) All human value depends, in the end, on ecological value. We can't live without it, and no human labor can take place without it.

d) The primary surplus that capitalism, as well as state capitalism, feeds on and appropriates and changes into human value is ecological surplus.

e) No future left ideology can succeed unless it internalizes the maintenance of ecological value as an ideal and constraint

2. Democracy and scale

a) Representative democracy is the primary reproductive and maintenance mode of late capitalism. It predictably produces the exact results that we see around us now.

b) Large state structures run non-democratically also predictably produce those same results, but with extra misery. Even idealized, democratic left states would make popular decisions that, when averaged over millions of people, are predictably bad. See "ecological value" above, but also racism, xenophobia etc.

c) The best way of making decisions is to limit the decisions to the people closely or strongly affected by them. Large-scale decisions have to be minimized.

d) What scale counts as small? From the beginning of the Western political tradition, we know that even city-states are too large. Probably best is groups of less than 100 people.

e) The anarchist idea of confederalism is an attempt at small-scale democracy with some degree of large-scale coordination. The main element of what needs to be coordinated is built infrastructure, which is the main limit on what people can do.

3. Work and money

a) Human labor is no longer a limiting factor of production. We have more than we need, and there is no particular power in withholding it.

b) All attempts to call on person power as worker power are going to fail, and fail counterproductively, in part because being a prole is now a social identity that puts someone a step up from the class of lumpenproles, and more and more of us are lumpenproles. These two classes have different interests and can no more naturally cooperate than elites and proles do.

c) For this reason a social revolution requires devaluing work. We don't need everyone to do it: most of it is useless or ecologically harmful. Wage labor should be phased out through shortened workweeks until it disappears: people who believe in the value of work can do it, with most necessities provided through automation.

d) In a world where necessities can be provided to everyone, there is no reason to use money. Money only results in ridiculous situations like less than 20 people having half of the world's amount of it. Let's abolish it and educate people not to replace it with a new money system.

e) Without money, there is no real reason to forbid people from doing whatever kind of economic activity they want to do. If they pile up a big pile of some kind of valuable material, someone will eventually take it, and non-violently taking something that someone can't possibly use should not be a crime.

4. Societal values (in progress)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Eyeroller: a short comedy in three acts

I haven't been blogging much lately: I've been Tweeting. But given the recent back-and-forth over the NY Magazine climate change article and the instant suggestions about individual volunteerism e.g. that people should have fewer kids if they want to do something, I think it's time to repost this short play. (Originally from Crooked Timber comments.)

EYEROLLER: A short comedy in three acts

Act I:

FIRST PERSON: “I put solar panels on my roof. That cost a lot! Why are people always scolding people for not doing more? They should encourage them instead.”

EYEROLLER: “Micro-decisions about personal consumption or production will have no real effect, even en masse. The only purpose in talking about them is to give people something useless to do so that they can feel like they’re doing something.”

SECOND PERSON: “Of course you should tell people to put solar panels on roofs. That pressures the “market signals” to expand production and to further innovation, encourages politicians to get on board, etc., among other complex responses.”

EYEROLLER: “OK.. If we’re going to talk about complex responses and signals, let’s talk about what other signals the act of putting solar panels on your roof sends. It says that you’re interested in volunteerism, not collective action: it tells the market that you want middle-class equipment, not large-scale equipment.”

THIRD PERSON: “What? That’s unworthy. How could you say that putting up solar panels makes things worse?”

EYEROLLER: “Well, it might, and anyways if people invest in personal middle class solutions, they’re not going to want to also invest in community solutions.”

FORUTH PERSON: “Wait. Did you just say that I should have spent my money on the poor rather than putting solar panels up?”

(EYEROLLER rolls eyes.)

Act II

EYEROLLER: “We’re stuck inside a neoliberal system within which all messages get turned into messages about personal consumption and personal virtue based on consumption, even if they weren’t intended that way. It becomes impossible to say anything about incentive structures without this being interpreted as whether personal decisions are good or bad, or anything about whether putting solar panels up or not is really a good idea overall without this being interpreted as a personal attack on people who put up solar panels.”

FIFTH PERSON: “You described reducing overall energy use as a kind of Puritanism, but we need to reduce overall energy use so what’s wrong with using Puritanism to do that? It mobilizes certain limbic system anchors for collective social behaviors you need, like the appeal of common sacrifice as a form of civic action and the kind of righteousness you need for altruistic punishment of deviants.”

(EYEROLLER looks disconcerted.)

EYEROLLER: “Puritanism and its focus on individual virtue is part of this, yes. Are you sure that’s a good idea? Once you start mobilizing limbic system anchors for righteousness to punish deviants, it’s pretty difficult to control –“

THIRD PERSON: “Are you saying I’m a goody-goody? I want you to apologize.”

(EYEROLLER rolls eyes.)


EYEROLLER: “One more time. You can reach a kind of limiting case in which certain messages become literally unintelligible. Even if someone starts out thinking that they are doing public health work, how is the public going to interpret that? The public is going to see it as another opportunity for personal status competition–“

THIRD PERSON: “Are you trying to trash my reputation?”

EYEROLLER: “– everything comes back to a discussion of personal virtue and who has it, personal decisions and whether those are moral decisions –“

SECOND PERSON: “So you’re saying that people who put up solar panels are just motivated by feelings of moral superiority?”

EYEROLLER: “– and any kind of system critique can only be heard as personal critique — “

THIRD PERSON: “I have an orientation to public health in my work, and certainly that would never turn into just sanctioning people who didn’t agree with the program! Now talk about this how I want you to or I’ll tell the moderators on you.”

(EYEROLLER rolls eyes, but has a muscle spasm part way through, eyes pointing in different directions.)

EYEROLLER (in Captain Kirk tones): “FACE… FROZEN! Can’t stop … rolling eyes! CAN’T! STOP! ROLLING! EYES!”