Ranting: Four authors, and why I feel stupid

July 24, 2011

Jack Cady's "Rules of '48"A number of literary elements come together: What could Douglas Adams, Steven Brust, Jack Cady, and Michael Thompkins possibly have in common?

Well, other than the obvious fact of all being authors.

The late Jack Cady once explained that if you need a soapbox, if you have a point to make, then write an editorial for a newspaper; don’t make the story subordinate to politics. I always had a hard time with this. To the other, though, I still cringe whenever I try to start a story with a preposition, or an article, or … never mind, that’s a separate issue.

Michael Thompkins put the resolution in front of me; among the tidbits he picked up along the way was to give those problems to your characters. Problem solved.

No, really, it was that easy. I was just making too much of the question. For years and years and years.

Steven Brust provides an example, but more than that, Douglas Adams described a certain phenomenon, the “Somebody Else’s Problem Field”, a.k.a., the S.E.P.

The S.E.P. is essentially what happens when you fool yourself into making things more complicated than they actually are insofar as we always say that we find our keys an hour later in the first place we looked. In such a case, since we have it in our minds that the keys are lost, those keys sitting in plain view just couldn’t possibly be the keys we are looking for. Those keys sitting in plain view are somebody else’s problem. It’s a phenomenon worthy of Freud.

Michael Thompkins' "Gun Play"I need to disclaim the presence of politics here, though, because that’s what this particular S.E.P. was about. In the twenty-first century, I personally am unsettled by the number of people who seem not so much to disdain history as not recognize it at all. Rube Goldberg is dead insofar as, say, few people I know understand how a coup in Iran in 1953 started a chain of events that saw the United States in Iraq twice to stop Saddam Hussein. Personally, I just find it ironic that it was the father in 1953, and the son in 1991. The Schwarzkopf cycle. Look it up.

In this case, the question had to do with racism. I have encountered a number of people in recent years who seem to think that racism doesn’t exist, and the only reason there are disparities between diverse cultural heritages in American society is because some people are smart and industrious, and some people are dumb and lazy.

The point isn’t to argue racepolitik, though. Rather, it just sets the stage for the next bit.

One day it occurred to me that my complicated explanations needed to be simpler, and also that I knew of a simpler explanation. All I had to do was read through a couple of books in order to find the passage. I knew it was Steven Brust, but for some reason, I couldn’t find it. Over and over again I searched, and over and over again I failed.

I probably read right through it without noticing at least once.

It is a piece of social commentary, and Brust, in a series of books now at its thirteenth primary installment (add in a five-book trilogy splintered from the originals, as well) over the course of twenty-eight years, has often experimented with narrative voice. Most obviously are Athyra (1993), written in the third person; Orca (1996), an epistemological novel featuring two narrators; and Tiassa (2011), which employs a minimum of four narrators. But there are other classifications we might apply.

The first two novels in the series, Jhereg (1983) and Yendi (1984), can be described for our purposes as “gangster” narratives, in which we meet our hero and the world he lives in. Teckla (1987) and Phoenix (1990) feature much social commentary and allegory in the narratives. Taltos (1988) can be said to blend the two. And those are the minor classifications at hand; we can forego the rest for now.

Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy"Since it was a piece of social commentary I was after, I kept searching through the social commentary narratives; it seemed a reasonable enough proposition. It’s not that I didn’t read any of the other books through the period, but at the same time, I was reading those for the sake of enjoying anew adventures that have delighted me in the past.

It so happened that my father had asked a while ago what I wanted for my birthday, so I described to him collections of Brust’s novels with titles like The Book of the Jhereg and The Book of Taltos. After twenty years, some of my paperbacks were, shall we say, well used.

Ironically, I was reading through one of these, The Book of the Jhereg, which includes Yendi before dinner the other night, at my father’s. When called to the table, I had only a page and a half or so left to read. And, yes, a friend points out that it is remarkable that I should put a book down with so few words left to read, but I’m well familiar with these stories, so it’s not like I was cliffhanging myself.

Or, maybe I’m not so familiar.

Half a page after I stopped reading came exactly the passage I have sought. For years. And it was in a gangster narrative, not a social commentary volume. I probably read through it a couple times during the period of my search, and simply didn’t notice because it couldn’t possibly be in one of the gangster narratives. The passage in Yendi, then, was somebody else’s problem.

Head, meet my good friend, Wall.

I mention Cady and Thompkins because, frankly, the passage is also an excellent example of the question and resolution about stories and politics. Brust essentially put an obvious point, one that translates almost nakedly from our own real world, into his character, and makes me feel stupid for not figuring out what the Shooting Shrink author learned from a Hollywood legend.

See if you can spot it in the following passage:

Steven Brust's "Yendi"Picture an old man—an Easterner, almost seventy years old, which is a very very impressive age for our race. But he’s in good condition for his age. He is poor, but not destitute. He has raised a family in the midst of the Dragaeran Empire and done it well. He has buried (an Eastern term for “out-lived”; I’m not sure why) a wife, a sister, a daughter, and two sons. The only surviving descendant is one grandson, who nearly gets himself killed every few weeks or so.

He is almost completely bald, with only a fringe of white hair. He is a large, portly man, yet his fingers are still nimble enough with the rapier to give a good battle to a younger man, and to shock the sorcery out of any Dragaeran who doesn’t understand Eastern-style fencing.

He lives in the Eastern ghetto, on the south side of Adrilankha. He ekes out a living as a witch, because he refuses to let his grandson support him. He worries about his granddson, but doesn’t let it show. He’ll help, but he won’t live through his children, and he won’t live their lives for them. When one of his sons tried to make himself into an imitation Dragaeran, he was saddened and felt his son was doomed to disappointment, but he never offered a word of criticism.

I went to see this old gentleman the day after Laris’s death. Walking through the filth in the streets made me want to retch, but I hid it. Anyway, we all know Easterners are filthy, right? Look at how they live. Never mind that they can’t use sorcery to keep their neighborhoods clean the way Dragaerans do. If they want to use sorcery, they can become citizens of the Empire by moving into the country and becoming Teckla, or buying titles in the Jhereg. Don’t want to be serfs? They’re stubborn, too, aren’t they? Don’t have the money to buy titles? Of course not! Who’d give them a good job, seeing how filthy they are?

I tried not to let it bother me. Cawti tried too, but I could see the strain around the corners of her eyes and feel it in the purposeful way she walked. I should have felt good about coming back here—successful Easterner boy walks through the old neighborhood. I should have, but I didn’t. I only felt sick.


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