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From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" <ddanehy@siebel.com>
Subject: (urth) Son of Scattered Shots
Date: Fri, 3 Aug 2001 10:48:25 

To John Bishop:
> Personally, of the Narnia books I prefer _The_Magician's_Nephew_,
> because it has that wonderful vision of a dying world, and because
> the Empress castigates the English, "You treat your slaves poorly",
> to which they reply "But they aren't slaves".  That exchange could
> make a middle-class child of the time _think_ about the status of
> the working class.

That was my favorite when I first read them, at age -- well, third
grade or so, wossat, about 9? Something like that. Perhaps I reread
it too many times, perhaps it has palled as I discovered the more
subtle stuff in the two books I mentioned, and just maybe it's a
hidden resentment at the renumbering of the books that puts TMN at
the front, where it clearly does not belong. But it's a good'un.

> But which ever book is your favorite, they're clearly in the
> short list of "possible best juvenile fantasy of the 1900s".

I concur. It manages to, as Alga says, push an agenda, but does
it without direct preaching. Translation: It's _about_ something.
If Pullman (or Alga) happens not to like what it's about, if it
ain't philosophically correct, well, tough. I never cease to be 
amazed at the closed minds of many (what used to be called) 

To Alex David Groce [re what-if alternate histories]:
> I fail to see why they are silly; 

Please note I said I considered _most_ of them silly; that's just
a specific application of Sturgeon's Law. I mentioned one specific
counterexample (THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE), I could mention others
-- you for example mentioned PAVANE, which is also not-silly. (It
barely escapes silliness by sheer brutal force of being so damn 
good.) And I also like and admire the work of Howard Who, but I 
_do_ consider much, maybe most, of it silly, in a good way, like 
Monty Python at their very silly best. (Hint: My favorite Waldrop
story is "Save a Place in the Lifeboat for Me.") Silliness is not
a bad thing when it is intentional, when it is used for humor --
Connie Willis does this brilliantly (i.e., "Spice Pogrom," "Blued

What I consider almost-always irredeemable silliness is a writer 
who begins by making a fairly dramatic, major change in the past, 
and then, decades or centuries later, floating the same people, 
with the same names and (more or less) personalities, to the 
foreground that we had in our nominally-real history. 

It's easy to dismiss this as "the crushed butterfly theory," 
a name that clearly derives from Bradbury's "The Delicate Sound
of Thunder." But if you actually think things through, it's much 
harder to ignore the basic fact that _actions have consequences_, 
dammit. If Nietzsche hadn't written _Also Sprach Zarathustra_, 
would Hitler [whom Nietzsche, who detested anti-Semites quite as
much as he detested Jews, would have detested] have risen to power?
Probably. But if some time-traveller were to strangle Hitler in his
crib, I'm willing to bet the Holocaust would turn out not to have 
happened, at least not in the form and to the extent it actually 
did. ("Horror, We Got.")

> considering them to be science-fiction rather than fantasy
> strikes me as odd, but that's another story.  

I tend to agree, except that I question the distinction. The 
two are not mutually exclusive; this distinction comes from a 
tendency to treat genre as a pigeonhole rather than an 
adjective, a tendency I suspect of coming from the innate
conservatism of the SF community, its desire to preserve the
"purity" of SF, a purity which (simply) never existed and never
will exist. You can't have pure SF any more than you can have
pure blue. It has to be blue _something_, even if it's blue

Alternate-history can be SF depending on how the writer thinks
of (and, possibly, justifies textually) the existence of the 
alternate world -- is it one of them ol' debbil quantum manifold
things? Then it's science fiction. (But only if the fact that
it is a quantum manifold thingy actually has some effect on the
story -- whether it be style or plot or whatever.) Are we just 
playing make-believe, what-if? Then the terms "sf" and "fantasy" 
(at least in the sense of generic fantasy) are pretty much 

> The examples I came up with and (how on earth did I not think 
> of this?) _There are Doors_ are not perhaps in worlds as 
> radically different as Pullman's, but they're not simple "Ghandi
> becomes a car salesman" stuff, 


> which often _is_ silly (I'm thinking of some Baby Boomers
> obsession with putting JFK and other historical figures through
> every possible profession, 

... and so am I. To me, most alt-history books seem to be more or
less this sort of thing.

Okay, there's a kind of blurry line. Is TGC, is TAD an alternate
history? I think TAD isn't and TGC shouldn't be but is, which is
precisely my point. For all its many and varied flaws, at least 
TAD doesn't try to make its alternate world look as much like ours
as possible: I think it should have been _more_ different, but the
failure is of degree, not kind. In TGC, the failure is of kind; 
Pullman can almost be seen bending over backwards to make his 
otherworld as much like ours as he can get away with, given the
differences and the points he wants to make.

> Expecting fantasies to follow a rigorous logic that (a) is in a
> sense as hypothetical as the logic of these stories and (b) would
> destroy the fictional aim of the author and much of the enjoyment
> of the story for many people strikes me as unfair.

I do not expect fantasies to follow the logic of our world; I expect
them to follow the logic of the world the writer has created, 
whatever that is. If the writer chooses to create a world where
there are no rational numbers, I can go with that, but I want to see
the consequences. If the writer wants to create a world where the
concepts of "true" and "false" statements are not useful, I can go
with that too. (In fact, that may be _our_ world.)

But if the writer wants to create a world that is radically different
from our world, and then make it so much like our world that the
differences almost seem not to have made a difference -- no, I won't
buy that.

See my response to Tony Ellis below for an example of the kind of 
logic I am talking about.

> That [Pullman] disdains fantasy except for Terry Brooks is what
> should really worry me...

If this is true, I'm ... shocked. That is one of the most astounding
lapses of taste I have ever heard of. I mean, the man _clearly_ has
a sensitive ear for style; he clearly understands plot and character.
(The only possible conclusion is that he has not read _The Lord of the

To Joel Sieh:
>	I noticed that a few people listed _A_Wizard_of_Earthsea_ as 
> one of their best books.  I was just curious why....  

Personally: because I found it incredibly engaging; because the
whole trilogy (again I implicitly condemn myself for judging TGC
on its own!) is, perhaps, the best demonstration I have ever seen
that one can write for children about serious matters (growing 
up, responsibility, identity, love, death, impermanence, 
balance...) without preaching or talking down -- better at that, 
in fact, than the Narnias; and, while it suffers from Le Guin's 
characteristic humorlessness, that's actually a relief when 
compared to the Narnias' broad, guffawing humor (which I have 
never found terribly funny; I think it must be a British thing). 

Also because, though a Christian, I have always been deeply drawn
to the Taoist view of life, which I consider to be the highest
form of "natural" wisdom to which humanity has ever aspired, and
Le Guin's work (especially here, and in her three great adult
books of the same period [THE LATHE OF HEAVEN - a glorious 
exception to her humorlessness - THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and 
THE DISPOSSESSED]) beautifully encapsulates the Taoist view. No,
not "encapsulates," you can't do that -- illustrates? Demonstrates?
I dunno. If I could find the right word for it, it probably 
wouldn't be the right word.

> ... I didn't feel like I could get close to the characters or
> even really know them or see them as anything more than 
> 2-dimensional.  

How odd. I felt quite the opposite; I felt that I knew Ged
better than many of the people I was going to school with when
first I read it.

> I did read Susan Cooper's _The_Dark_is_Rising_, however, and at
> the time was more impressed with some of the books, most notably
> _The_Grey_King_ than I later was with _A_Wizard_of_Earthsea_.  

They are darn good books. Now go read KING OF SHADOWS; it's much,
much better.

> I guess I'd put _The_Hobbit_ and maybe even the rest of LotR,
> even though LotR is probably better suited for adults.  

The reason I excluded THE HOBBIT is that (a) it is full of awful
moments when he talks down to his reader and (b) it isn't really 
a twentieth-century novel at all, it's a Victorian fairy-story.

Mind you, I love it, but it's deeply flawed in a number of ways...

To Tony Ellis (who quotes Michael Straight):
> > All of human history and society would be very, very, very
> > different if men died immediately after having intercourse.
> Different, certainly. "Very, very, very different" is conjecture.

Ummmm... no. For example, the following things are absolutely 
true of such a world:
 o There would be none of the historical contests between two 
   sons of one king by different mothers. 
 o While there might (possibly) be some concept of marriage, 
   they would certainly not have the concept of marriage 
   as a chattel ownership of the woman's sexuality that 
   protects the "right" of the father to make sure that all 
   her children are his.
 o In fact, the concepts of legitimacy and bastardy, as we 
   know and hate or love or ignore them, would not evolve. 
 o No father would ever raise his children.
 o The entire concept of the Oedipal conflict (however you 
   choose to interpret it) would be missing from the culture.
   (The psychology of sex and sexual competition would be
   very, very different in general.)
 o There would be no, or very few, old men. (These would 
   probably be either revered (as wise) or reviled (as
   cowards who didn't perform their "duty").)
 o Hell -- _marketing_ would be radically different 8*).
 o The classic problem of a (straight) woman trying to find
   a "good man" would be greatly exacerbated. (On the other
   hand, men probably wouldn't worry very much about 
   whether they were "good in bed.")

> Would the changes you describe necessarily all work in the
> same direction, and shift history onto a completely different
> track, or would half of them cancel out the other half, and 
> the overall shape of history remain more or less the same?

Possibly there would be some "cancellation," but given the 
absolute differences that _must_ follow from the premise, I
can't see history simply healing over. 

Mythology, literature -- all the arts except music and maybe
painting would be very different in their form and content.

> I don't see how dismissing two of these theories in favour
> of a third, when in fact no one knows what happens when
> human history is altered, has anything to do with logic at
> all.

Well, it's like this. If you postulate something, you have to
accept what follows from the postulate, or you are not playing
the game honestly. If you create a world of the sort Wolfe
creates in TAD and then show a father raising his children
in that world, you are either stupid or dishonest

_Unless_, of course, you have something more in mind (he's not 
from that world, a la Green in TAD; or he's some kind of mutant 
or other bushwah -- though I should think that simply exploring 
the ramifications of the differentia would be interesting enough 
without having to screw around with an additional improbable
mutation; or something of that general sort...).

I am trying to hold a space open for that "something else in
mind" in Pullman's case. If the subsequent books convince me
that Lyra's world is so similar to ours because they influence
each other, I'm jiggy with it. If not, then I will conclude that
Pullman is cheating his readers and -- more importantly -- his

To Spectacled Bear:

I have always suspected that the climax of NOVA was influenced 
by the shower scene in PSYCHO.


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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