Saturday, May 28, 2011

Thinking About the Revolution

I've read two books in the past two days, Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett.

Both were cracking good reads, by which I mean they kept me up until late at night, turning pages. Both I had read before -- Mote, not since I was a kid, Night Watch last year sometime, when I first discovered Pratchett. Night Watch is much more to my taste politically. Mote is somewhat to the right of my politics.

But as I lay in bed last night (or rather, very early this morning, given that I am suffering from the worst insomnia in my adult life, and am hitting the pillow somewhere around five a.m. these days) considering the differences between the two texts, and why one of them annoyed me so much, while the other appealed to me so strongly, well, it really was not just that one is more leftist and the other is hard right military POV.

Because it's not -- Pratchett has a bit of the practical military POV mixed in with his populist-Leftism, and I'm not bothered by that.

And clearly I am bothered deeply by Niven & Pournelle's ridiculous ideas of a women's place in the world -- and while what they do with the alien Moties sex-change and so on is interesting, it does nothing to negate their insistence that "real" people (by which they mean European-ancestry White Guys) will keep their women at home after marriage, doing the child-raising.

No, here is what bothers me most about the Niven & Pournelle worldview: its insistence that the correct attitude of the citizen toward his leaders is respectful trust. (I do choose that pronoun carefully. Only men are actually people in N&P's world, despite his tossing in of a token woman character.) It is assumed -- and then demonstrated -- in the N&P world that those in command, those who are born to command, and given command, know what they are doing, and having taken command, will do the right thing.

It is assumed, and then demonstrated in the text, that those who object to the actions of leaders -- rebels, outies -- are bad people, who deserve to die, who deserve whatever punishment, up to having their entire planet reduced to radioactive glass, is visited upon them: they deserve this simply for having questioned authority.

Since the story is told from the point of view of one of those in authority, Rod (yes, this is his name, nothing phallic here, move along) Blaine, who is written as an earnest hero type who works very hard to get everything right and worries about getting everything right, the reader is reassured that those in authority are Really Good Guys who Really Want To DO Right by those in their purview.

We're not meant to look at the way Sally (his wife) is stripped of her power ("Rod won't let me think about the Institute after the wedding.") or how everyone with any power is a European white guy or how the decisions are made by fiat behind the scenes by the few white guys with all the power -- oh yes, benevolently, and we are TOLD these guys know best, and since those guys have been written as so noble and brave and intelligent, not like the wicked outies, well, it must be true, yes?

This is the worldview of the conservative, who believes -- I guess -- that, so long as he is the right man, the big man in charge can be trusted; and that everyone in the empire will be happy serfs who will be happy to serve, so long as the big man tells them what to do, except for a few idiots, who can be happily shot, or shot down with cool logic. (One scene that made me dizzy with disbelief early in the book was when the parliament -- I guess it was parliament -- met on New Scotland, and everyone in the parliament "pledges allegiance" to a hologram of the emperor, and then bows to it. I guess N&P think this is realistic. I guess they think grown-up people would actually do this. And, since I can see Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and her ilk actually doing it, I suppose they aren't exactly wrong.)

Contrast this with Pratchett's worldview in Night Watch, which strikes me as much more realistic and adult.

For one thing, the leaders are mostly idiots, or crazy. (Which, watching our own Congress, Q.E.D.) The few who actually know what they are doing and actually intend to do what is best for the land under their purview know better than to expect the people to follow them from blind loyalty. Most people, as Pratchett well knows, are mostly interested mainly in their own lives and what is going to affect them. Who has time for more that that, mostly? Maybe five or six percent of us, tops. And even then, only part time.

"Do the job that is put before you," Sam Vimes says in Night Watch: that's what most of us do, and it's what Vimes, who is one of Pratchett's best leaders, and best heroes, mostly does. Vetinari, Pratchett's other best leader, and other best hero, though a more ambiguous one, also appears in this book, at the very beginning of his career. Vetinari is Practchett's demonstration for why we should and should not trust our leaders -- he is a tyrant, the all-powerful, brilliant, wily ruler of Ankh-Morpork, not exactly benevolent, though he may well have, ultimately, benevolent ends.

Still, Sam Vimes does not trust him; Sam Vimes is always wary of him, and always acts to keep him in check. Sam Vimes, at one point, arrests him, because no one should be above the law. In this book, Night Watch, when the leaders of the city are entirely powerful, Sam Vimes (under the name John Keel) leads a revolution: moving the barriacades, bit by bit, so that, daily, more of the city is under control of the law, and less and less is under the control of whim and tyranny.

Niven and Pournelle's worldview, it came to me, as I was lying sleepless last night -- that is exactly what they want. When you want the government to be under the control of some powerful man who you are forced to trust to be benevolent and good, what you are trusting in is whim and tyranny. Sam Vimes/Terry Pratchett's worldview -- where we do not trust, but hedge the rulers around with laws and rules, and then, warily, warily, keep the rulers at heel with those laws and rules -- that worldview puts the government under our control. Perhaps it means the government is less able to act; it also means the government is less able to put its boot on our throats.

I suppose it all depends on what you want from a government: death to the rebels, or people who are free to quarrel in the streets if they damn well feel like it.


dorki said...

Mote in God's Eye - That brings back memories!

I agree with your assessment of the gender and political problems with Niven and Pournelle. That was many years ago, maybe they have seen the light since then.

My memories center around the Moties - the alien race that was discovered. What was a lasting memory was the Moties solution to the parking problem in their crowded cities. Their cars were adequate Motie-carriers that got them to their destinations. Upon arrival, they would get out, give a swift kick to the rocker panel, and it would snap shut to a thin slab that took less space.

I am still tempted to try to build one of these puppies even with knuckles worn out from years of wrench-slinging.

delagar said...

Yes, the Moties are the best part of the book, despite N&P's hating on them -- despite how the book is stacked against them, I mean. (They're written so that they can't win -- so that they can't stop overbreeding/destroying their civilization, which frankly makes no sense at all for such an intelligent and inventive culture.)The solutions the Moties have come up with for dealing with pollution, for overpopulation and overcrowding, for having 1/3 of the population pregnant at any given time, these are all far more interesting to me than the multiple space battles. (There's a line mid-boot where one of the Earth characters -- I think it's actually Sally -- is "struggling" to explain to her Motie guide about "how useless" pregnant Earth women are.)

OTOH, even in the Motie culture, N&P's political stance shows through. The Moties are doomed -- they can't stop breeding. They are also doomed because of their ingrained fatalism. (No word for entrepreneur, apparently.)(Clever wogs, but...)

And the "master" moties? The ones with the biggest brains? Why that would be the white ones! Whereas interbreeding (miscegination) among the 'races' of the moties leads to sterile mules who are unstable and insane, and oddly liberal.

j0lt said...


this is OT, but wanted to send you a link to this piece by ta-nahesi coates regarding the latest of those "lists of books to read" that, shockingly, is yet again all white dudes.

Hugh Mann said...

Thanks for the link to. I would like to offer something of a rebuttal. It's true there seems to be an undercurrent of conservativism to the whole story of Mote. But most of it can be attributed to the fact that the Second Empire of the book is still in a dark age of sorts. Apparently female population numbers are still low in Empire space as humanity is still recovering from their own 'Cycle'. That is the given reason in the book anyways for the lack of women in the military- the society places a large emphasis on protecting women since so many colonies were brought to the brink of annihilation. In a book all about cycles of destruction and reconstruction (and the attendant interest in reproduction rates) the lack of women is simply one more way for the authors to underscore the major theme.

As for the awkward feudal system... it seems to be one more scar of the recovering Empire. I'm sure the authors weren't suggesting a return to an elite ruling class. Renner (a character we are meant to relate to more than anyone else) rejects the idea of a ruling elite. Dune too had the same sort of social structure to it's galactic empire and Dune is pretty liberal with its ecological themes.

Blaine is the main culprit if your looking for some conservative hero warship. Blaine isn't perfect but he is pretty close. He is definitely touted as an example of how good breeding and upbringing can forge a leader of men. It ends up reminding me of British dramas with the blokes staying out the way of the nobs and their affairs.

All together I agree that Mote doesn't quite sit right at times. But I feel like you go a bit too far in your analysis.

delagar said...

Hi, Hugh,

I probably do go a little far. It's hard not to be reductive writing criticism.

Still, the "women are scarce that's why we need to keep them locked up" is a familiar canard. How likely is it, really, that any sort of war would leave women more rare than men in any given society, much less a SF society? I know N& P make that claim in their text, but just because they say it's true doesn't make likely.

Have a look at Eleanor Arnason's Ring of Swords for a truly interesting look at aliens with a m/f dichotomy, btw.

I also don't read Renner as rejecting the ruling elite. It's more as though he supports it, but believes that the ruling elite owes him something for his support.