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November 7, 2010

Are those gears on your staff?
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 10:12 AM * 444 comments

I’ve been reading the to-and-fro about steampunk with great interest since Charlie Stross posted his rant. And though there have been great sweeps of argumentation back and forth, there’s one teeny tiny footnote I wanted to make to the original essay. I haven’t seen it around anywhere.

See, for me there’s a rich irony in the fact that Charlie cites China Miéville’s essay on Tolkien. Because one of the guys who would have been nodding along to passages like this?

It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King’s shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers’ fortunes. In other words, it’s the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.

That would be JRR Tolkien. (Though he might have disagreed about contraception as a solution.)

There’s a lot of criticism, by Miéville and others, of Tolkien for his romanticization of a sanitized medieval era. I’m not sure I agree with that summary, even with regard to Rohan and Minas Tirith, but that ex-horse has worn out enough whips without me adding to it.

But there’s one society in Middle-Earth that is not based on the Middle Ages, not directly: hobbit society. It’s derived from a kind of intellectual Middle Ages 2.0, true, but not one of Tolkien’s creation. The Shire isn’t remotely medieval in its social structures: women own property (Lobelia Sackville-Baggins);§ a gardener’s son can become mayor; there are servants but there are no lords.

What hobbit society really is is an Arts and Crafts community. Possessions are few, handmade, treasured and beautiful: gifts circulate from owner to owner. There is work for all hands, but leisure time for parties as well. Even a gardener makes a living wage.

Using the Shire, Tolkien actually tackles the very subject matter that Charlie wishes the steampunk crowd would† **. It’s true that Saruman did not descend on Hobbiton in a zeppelin‡, and his zombies were cleverly disguised as half-orcs. Nor did his attempt at industrialization last long enough for Rosie Cotton to have to turn to prostitution to support her impoverished family. But the Scouring of the Shire is most certainly about the damage of empire, resource extraction and mechanization to a formerly peaceful society.

Now, I agree that Tolkien doesn’t really address the problem of the price of Victorian industrialization in any meaningful way, because he doesn’t engage with the roots of what created it. But neither did the Arts and Crafts movement itself; for all of its attempts at social engineering, its solution was basically to go back to a crofting and crafting society and try harder to make the economics work. Convince people on the upward curve of possessions-as-happiness to want less stuff. It was about as successful as any such movement in history has been (which is to say, not).

Though it failed, we still live with the legacy of the movement: ironically, many of the most beautiful steampunk artifacts draw heavily on the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the Arts and Crafts era. Meanwhile, the ecological slogan of “reduce, reuse and recycle”, and the pull of deep-value durable goods over disposable ones, comprise yet another attempt to get people to own fewer things and better ones. In other words, Tolkien’s proposal is still tempting.

Here endeth the footnote.


§ I stand corrected, and indeed did know that women in some medieval societies did own property. I’d still say that there’s a significant contrast between Lobelia’s agency in society and, say, Éowyn’s, but this is a distraction from my actual point.
† And do, but this essay is not about that.
** Note that none of this is in the films, apart from Sam’s brief vision in the Mirror of Galadriel
‡ Though Isengard would have been a fantastic mooring tower, with some pretty good thermals from the underground fires to boot

Comments on Are those gears on your staff?:
#1 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 11:31 AM:

For the most part, I have nothing to add to this; I admire it and want to think about it some more.

However, I wanted to note that this:

‡ Though Isengard would have been a fantastic mooring tower, with some pretty good thermals from the underground fires to boot

gave me something that might grow up to be a plotbunny. It seems like an Art Deco zeppelin rather than a Gilded Age zeppelin, though.

#2 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 11:46 AM:

The problem is that mooring towers, zeppelins, and thermals are not a good mix.

#3 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 11:46 AM:

If I may add my bit...

I know a few women who like Jane Austen, and who enjoy the fashion, but I doubt any of them would have wanted to live in an era where they weren't allowed to vote, or where childbirth could kill them. Austen glossed over that, although she did bring up the bit about not being allowed to own or inherit property.

#4 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 12:26 PM:

Contrary to so much popular belief, women were often allowed to own property in the Middle Ages, dammit. The Middle Ages lasted rather a long time (like... close to a MILLENNIUM!) , and took place in many places. Can we please dispense with the incorrect generalizations? Because dammit, there are enough actual practicing medievalists in the sff community that people should know better.
/that rant.

One of the things few things that I disagree with Charlie Stross about is that this is somehow a good sort of nostalgia.

When I read (good) Steampunk, I am always conscious of the Dickensian (or Victorian, or whatever) current running through. For me, it signals the same sort of seediness, inequality, false morality, etc., that existed in that world. I'm thus reading into the Steampunk world the dystopic nature of 19th C industrialism and colonialism. Even if the world I'm reading about seems to be a 'good' place, I *know* that all the rest is there. For me, *good* Steampunk is often just another way of exploring dystopias.

back to the Arts and Crafts movement and Tolkien -- Abi, if that were true (and I do debate it) , then how does the fact that the Arts and Crafts movement was itself a revivalist movement fit into your argument?

#5 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 12:34 PM:

TANGENT WARNING!!

I have no problem with steampunk per se, but I am getting REALLY tired of steampunk art that uses gears but the frigging gears don't MESH with each other!!1!1eleventy!

(the specific examples that set me off this time)

Okay, I'm done.

#6 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 12:35 PM:

Serge @3--What struck us at the end of the otherwise delightful "Lost in Austen" was the modern gal's romance-driven acceptance of living in the early 19th century. It makes sense for Lizzie to find the 21st attractive, but at the final clinch at Pemberley, my wife and I agreed that Our Heroine has a good chance of dying in childbirth within five years, even given the head start she has by growing up with good health not undermined by poor nutrition or early disease. We wouldn't go back there without a full collection of immunizations and a big box of antibiotics and other medical gear. Insist that the attending physician wash his hands, and for godsake, don't visit London or any other sink of cholera and tuberculosis.

#7 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:03 PM:

Just a VERY tangential note, while we are on the topic of Tolkien, since this seems as good a place to put it as the open thread -- Glen GoodKnight, founder of the Mythopoeic Society, passed away last week. There are some good memorials on the LiveJournals of some people who post here from time to time, and the next issue of Mythprint will gather what we are able to reprint. He was the founding editor of Mythlore, which I currently edit.

#8 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:05 PM:

Serge@3 -- I'm not sure that Austen "glossed over" women's ineligibility to vote, or the likelihood of dying in childbirth. They were facts of life. I don't think she thought much about the former--on a day to day level disenfranchisement was a less troubling matter than the role of entailment or property rights in the lives of middle-class women.* As for the latter, there was still a strong belief that death in childbirth was part and parcel of being a woman; without a scientific bent, why would Austen imagine that things could be different (she was not writing science fiction)? She didn't write about her own age with the benefit of hindsight; she was, as they say, soaking in it.

*I have absolutely no data to back this up, but I wonder if the rise of voting rights as a woman's issue didn't have to wait for the expanded property rights granted in mid-century.

#9 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:08 PM:

ADM @4:

I've pulled the point about Lobelia, though (as I say in the footnotes), I think her role in the situation fits better with the Arts and Crafts community's view of women than the medieval ones of which I am aware.

how does the fact that the Arts and Crafts movement was itself a revivalist movement fit into your argument?

My point is that Tolkien, though clearly not the target of the rant, rather ironically* did exactly what Charlie was asking of steampunk authors: engaged with the damage that the Victorian resource-exploitation and manufacturing did, and proposed a solution.

His solution was, in my opinion, formed by an aesthetic and cultural movement of his time and place. The fact that that movement explicitly hearkened back to an earlier time is peripheral to my argument, because what he was referencing was the contemporaneous iteration, not the original.

-----
* ironically because this is all peripheral to Charlie's point; Tolkien was not writing steampunk. The crossing-point is merely that Charlie referenced Miéville's article. That's why this is merely a footnote.

#10 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:25 PM:

Madeleine Robins @ 8... I chose my words poorly, and I agree. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and, thinking back, I'm aghast that smoking once was allowed in planes. Still, I expect that there were people who questioned some things that Austen and her contemporaries accepted or took for granted. Or maybe Austen didn't, but they weren't the stories she wanted to tell, and that's the bottom line.

#11 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:26 PM:

abi @ 9 -- "His solution was, in my opinion, formed by an aesthetic and cultural movement of his time and place. The fact that that movement explicitly hearkened back to an earlier time is peripheral to my argument, because what he was referencing was the contemporaneous iteration, not the original."

See, that's where I question your interpretation. I'm not sure that it makes sense in the context of Tolkien the professional medievalist to go through any contemporary mediation, given that the origins/roots/impetus for the rest of his world-building are so clearly medieval. It's an interesting argument, but I'm not sure it doesn't rest in part upon presuppositions of medieval society that might not hold entirely true under examination.

I think you need a stronger argument, given the other artistic movements that both looked back to the Middle Ages as a somewhat more 'natural' and 'pure' England than that afforded in the post-Industrial age. I'm not saying you're wrong, per se, but only that there are a lot of other factors that don't seem to be accounted for.

#12 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:36 PM:

I am standing on the sidelines, whistling tunelessly, with my hands stuffed under my armpits.

However, I'd like to take this opportunity to ask: just what was Tolkein doing during the war? I mean, he was clearly not a friend to Nazis, and was identified by GCCS as having a certain aptitude, but then turned down the job offer from Bletchley Park ...

Was writing "The Lord of the Rings" the only thing he got up to during the second world war? (I can feel a footnote for the Laundry books beckoning.)

#13 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:39 PM:

Russell Letson @ 6... Some time around 1995, I read a novel set in the 21th Century, in a History where I think the Cuban Missile Crisis went very badly. One woman is sent back in time to the early 1960s, but she can't stop it and decides that she has to take drastic measures and that involves going to the 19th Century and spend the rest of her life there. Before she does though, she has a dentist pull out all her teeth and replace them with implants.

#14 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:53 PM:

Personally, I loved Charlie's essay on steampunk. Steampunk was cute for a couple hours, but I'm bored sick of it, and every time something steampunky shows up on BoingBoing I want to pull my hair out, because it is so fucking OVER!!

That being said, I don't see how anyone can discuss Tolkien without reference to World War I. (There's a town in France called "Ourcs" for God's sake.) The Hobbits/Shire represents old good English preindustrial Society/Yeomanry as they were before being dragged into the sophisticated world of Elves, Men, and Industrialized Germanic Evil, and you can pretty much trade the unseen horror of Sauron for the unseen horrror (to a common footsoldier) of Kaiser Wilhelm.

There are tons of critics who will tell you that The Lord of the Rings is based in Auld Norse mythology, but as far as I am concerned you can stuff them all into a sack. Tolkein's psychology is damn fucking obvious to anyone who has studied World War I, and his abstraction from the sources of his pain and dread are a psychiatrist's wet dream.

#15 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:58 PM:

ADM @11:

My feeling is that if he wanted to directly reference a medieval society he would have done so, the same way that he did for Rohan and Minas Tirith. But can you find a medieval equivalent of the rather topless social structure of the Shire?

I'm not alone (pdf) in making this connection. And Tolkien certainly had been exposed to the Arts and Crafts movement; I've found references to him buying a William Morris book in 1914.

Obviously it's hard to tease out at this remove, but the movement (which is in many ways just the summing-up of the zeitgeist of the intellectual and artistic communities in England in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries) certainly presented itself as precisely the solution Tolkien chose to precisely the sort of problems that he was describing in the Scouring of the Shire.

Was Tolkien thinking specifically of Morris, or Cobden-Sanderson, or Ashbee, when he wrote this stuff? There's no evidence either way. Was the idea of the return to a simpler life, with fewer and more well-crafted possessions, as an antidote to the ills of the Victorian age, popular in his intellectual context? Yep.

#16 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:07 PM:

The problem wasn't that women weren't allowed to own property, per se. It was the combination of entailments (restrictions on who could inherit the property, typically closest male kin, and NOT all property was so entailed) and coverture (legal principle that husband and wife became one person, so the wife's property down to the last hairpin belonged to the husband) that made it so RARE for women to own property.

A widow whose late husband's property was not fully entailed, or a spinster heiress, might own quite a lot of property indeed.

#17 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:09 PM:

Charlie @12:
I am standing on the sidelines, whistling tunelessly, with my hands stuffed under my armpits.

I will not utter my reaction here. But this in the Common Tongue is what I said, close enough:

LOL

Was writing "The Lord of the Rings" the *only* thing he got up to during the second world war? (I can feel a footnote for the Laundry books beckoning.)

Why stop at a footnote? Write the whole book. I'll buy a copy. Get it to me in sheets and I'll bind it in red leather for you.

#18 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:17 PM:

Charlie Stross @12, if you really want to know what Tolkien was doing during WWII, read my book. Short version: He served in the home defense effort as an air warden, taught cadets at Oxford, and was the very worried father of two sons on active duty and a third training for the priesthood who got out of Rome in the nick of time. There is some question about the accuracy of the Telegraph saying he turned down the codebreaking job; the evidence we had up to that point was that Bletchley turned HIM down.

#19 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:21 PM:

Oy, Serge, I'd forgotten all about dentistry. (And me a Patrick O'Brian fan.)

I feel about the past the way I do about large swathes of the contemporary world: I'll do my visiting via books or even cable TV. Better oversimplification or even sentimentalization than infections, waterborne diseases and pre-anaesthetic surgical procedures.

#20 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:24 PM:

Janet Brennan Croft 18, "There is some question about the accuracy of the Telegraph saying he turned down the codebreaking job; the evidence we had up to that point was that Bletchley turned HIM down."

Weren't they in the process of shifting from linguists, phililogists, and related professions to mathematicians at the time?

#21 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:26 PM:

Charlie Stross @ 12 -- Obviously, Tolkien was engaged on research into the binding of parts of souls into necromantic artifacts, since such an informational structure bound into an appropriate solid form would allow the data to be accessed/processed more rapidly than otherwise, and potentially avoids some of the negative consequences of performing dangerous mathematical/computational processes in wetware. This has obvious benefits for the creator of such an artifact, so long as the creator retains control of it.

#22 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:31 PM:

Raphael @20, that could well be, since that's when Turing came in. With the Enigma machine, you'd need that kind of a codebreaker more than a linguistics expert like Tolkien, trained in WWI methods of code analysis. I think an article on this whole situation -- who turned whom down, really, and why -- would be fascinating. But I don't know if the records are available yet or not, of if there is more detail in some of the archives at Oxford.

#23 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:54 PM:

I can easily see Tolkien being too tied down, and also possibly not having quite the kind of brain that was good at their sort of puzzle (perhaps they had tests for that sort of thing?). But now that I think about it, whyever wouldn't they have recruited Dorothy Sayers? She seems like a natural for code-breaking.

#24 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 03:03 PM:

16
My mother and I found it interesting that, in a county atlas from roughly 1885, where the rural landowners were labelled, one landowner was 'H M White' - that's my father's maternal grandmother. (She died several years before her husband.)

#25 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 03:32 PM:

Alex R @ 14... Instead of tearing your hair out, you could simply tune the subject out. Less painful. :-)

#26 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 03:37 PM:

Russell Letson @ 19... I'll do my visiting via books or even cable TV. Better oversimplification or even sentimentalization than infections, waterborne diseases

It's amazing that the Time Tunnel's Tony Newman & Doug Phillips didn't die early on from puking their guts out, or that whatever the Tunnel brought back to the Present didn't cause its personnel to also experience intestinal discomfort.

#27 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 03:47 PM:

A bit off topic, but still related to steampunk... One thing that the genre allows are stories about lone inventors like Tesla pushing the boundaries of Science (Science!) out of a glorified barn.

#28 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 03:48 PM:

I wonder what Nazi codebreakers would make of a page full of Tengwar.

Oh, great. Now I've got this image of a spy zepplin full of SS commandos dispatched to capture JRRT.

#29 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 03:50 PM:

Madeline #8:

Yeah, it's hard to see why she'd have been at all aware of her peoples' annoying and tragic lack of good technology and scientific knowledge, whether that was the lack of understanding of the germ theory of disease, railroads, or electric lights. Those things were still to come.

More generally, most of us enjoy fictional accounts of stuff that we probably wouldn't enjoy in practice. (For all my reading and movie choices, I'm really quite alright with going the rest of my life without ever being caught up in a big war, on the run from some shadowy spy organization, or chased around by a crowd of shambling undead. I'll somehow suffer through the sadness of never getting to show my genius in designing weapons to resist a war of extermination against humanity by malevolent aliens[1], or by being among the few survivors of some godawful virus or other disaster that wipes out 99.99% of humanity. And so on.)

Similarly, even really loving _Persuasion_ or _Pride and Prejudice_, if I lived in that world, I'd probably end up in an asylum for my nutty attempts to claim that sickness is the result of tiny invisibly critters that can be killed with distilled alcohol or acids or washed off with soap. And let's not even get started on the weird cantelope-mold-growing experiments in the basement, or the attempts to build a steam engine, or....

[1] Those stories are overwhelmingly silly anyway. Anyone who can get here from another start and wants us exterminated will just exterminate us, without breaking a sweat or much noticing our attempts to fight back.

#30 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 04:07 PM:

Steampunk stories I'd like to read...

"A Brush with Atomic Death in Gay Paris" in which Marie & Pierre Curie, with the help of Toulouse-Lautrec and Albert ("The Kid") Einstein foil a mad man's plans for world domination.

"The Prussians Are Coming! The Prussians Are Coming!", in which France and Prussia have brought the world to the brink, and it looks like it's "Curtains" when a Teutonic submarine flounders near a Brittany fishing village.

#31 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 04:15 PM:

Lila @5: I've been a bit disappointed that the rise of steampunk hasn't led to a revival of interest in watchmaking. It seems like such a perfect fit -- the making aspect of it obviously appealing, its esoteric and intricate nature compelling for all the reasons steampunk is compelling, and obviously the interesting clockwork things one could make. I don't personally care enough to apprentice myself to a watchmaker, but someone ought to.

I confess that I don't have much interest in steampunk, but I'm not going to dump on it as long as there are new and interesting things being written in modes I do appreciate, which there are and in spades. Steampunk has interesting crossover potential as well -- was anyone else struck by how steampunk The Windup Girl felt? (That was also my immediate counter-example to Mr. Stross's rant -- that book is about the horrors of the underclasses in a neo-Victorian world, and how.)

#32 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 04:40 PM:

Serge #26: ISTR hearing (Asimov's The Ugly Little Boy?) that the modern folks wouldn't be the ones in trouble. They're the descendants of survivors, and would have not only their vaccine immunities, but background resistance to recent developments in the microecology. The folks of the past, on the other hand, would be in big trouble....

#33 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 04:53 PM:

David @32:

That resistance may depend in part on how old the modern folks are. I'm old enough to have been immunized against smallpox: but I was born in the Kennedy administration. Most of the population of the world today doesn't have that immunity.

And "descendants of survivors" can also mean descendants of people who were lucky enough not to be exposed: even the great plagues don't affect the whole world.

Serge, Madeleine: Austen and her characters probably wouldn't have thought much about the right to vote because almost nobody, male or female, in that time and place had the franchise. The reforms that did away with rotten boroughs were still decades in the future, and "Commons" didn't exactly represent the mass of the common people of Great Britain.

#34 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 05:07 PM:

David Harmon @ 32... on the other hand, would you want to eat something from the days before refrigration or canning? And there is a reason why restaurants today tell their kitchen people to wash their hands after going to the bathroom.

#35 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 05:14 PM:

P J Evans @ 24 -- I remember, in To Sail Beyond The Sunset, Brian telling Maureen the house was hers, and mentioning that it was legal for married women to own property in Missouri at the time (c.1906) if the husband signed a document waiving claim to it, and they'd get that legality taken care of on Monday; it seems likely that something to that effect could have existed in 1885 wherever your great-grandparents lived.

#36 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 05:40 PM:

#12 Charlie Stross

I have a fairly strong idea of part of what he was up to, at least, during WWII, a part that wasn't writing LOTR -- though my textual analysis of LOTR does tend to back it up -- as does his religion, where he was living and where he's buried.

Love, C.

#37 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 05:47 PM:

abi @ 15 -- ""Was Tolkien thinking specifically of Morris, or Cobden-Sanderson, or Ashbee, when he wrote this stuff? There's no evidence either way. Was the idea of the return to a simpler life, with fewer and more well-crafted possessions, as an antidote to the ills of the Victorian age, popular in his intellectual context? Yep."

That's pretty much my point -- there were other movements besides Arts & Crafts that were popular as Tolkien grew up and when he was at uni. I'm not arguing that he wasn't influenced, but there are many ways this could have happened, just as it's possible that the Shire is a purely imagined part of Middle-Earth based on an idealized version of the English countryside that goes back to the Romantics.

I think it's as easy -- and as pointless -- to claim that exposure to the pre-Raphaelites and their medievalism influenced Tolkien's choice of academic subjects. After all, how many of the medievalists that you know were drawn to the subject by fantasy lit -- or even by Tolkien himself?

All I'm saying is that correlation =/= causation.

#38 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 06:12 PM:

Vicki @ 33... True. In places like America though, voting was a big thing - for men. Probably in France too. (TexAnne, would you know?)

#39 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 06:23 PM:

Serge, 38: That depends. Which republic, empire, monarchy, republic, empire, monarchy, republic, republic, monarchy, republic, puppet government, or republic are we talking about?


(I'm sure I missed a few monarchies in there. The 19th century is not my period.)

#40 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 06:31 PM:

TexAnne @ 39... True, things were a bit chaotic in France in those days, as Edmond Dantès found out. How about during the Regency? (You're more likely to know than I am.)

#41 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 06:35 PM:

Darn it, who was it, upthread, who asked if there was a real-life model for hobbit society? Yes, there was. The Albigensians, or Cathars, immortalized in an inquisition (i.e. an investigation) which has been described recently (by my standards) in "Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324", by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, had a relatively egalitarian society, wherein men and women were more nearly equal and the rich were not very much richer than the poor. They were of course regarded with great suspicion by the Church of Rome, and not just because they refused to be Catholics, just because some folks who thought they were the King and all said they had to be.

That "equality" thing was a real irritant as well.

And yes, I agree, non-functional gears as decoration really annoy me too.

#42 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 06:44 PM:

Well, some gears might be better left unmeshed. Or maybe really, really well meshed.

#43 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 06:52 PM:

Serge #30: What the hake are you talking about? That's a completely cod idea. Submarines do not flounder, the idea is completely in-seine.

#44 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 07:06 PM:

Serge, 40: Oh gosh, the French Regency was what gave us the Fronde and Louis XIV's power grabs.

#45 ::: Dr. Psycho ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 07:07 PM:

Russell @6: No, it's not "insist that the attending physician wash his hands", it's "hire a midwife, and remind her to wash her hands".

In general, try to avoid the attentions of 19th Century physicians. Have your partner or servant wash and dress your wounds.

#46 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 07:10 PM:

Dr. Psycho (45): Have them pour whisky or brandy over the wounds before dressing them, too.

#47 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 07:22 PM:

Oh hell yes. Elizabeth Nihell pointed out the problems with men in a misogynistic society assuming control of the midwife's sphere back in 1760, although she didn't have the technical vocabulary we use today to describe the issue. Link: http://dohistory.org/man-midwife/controversy/071_nihell/071_title_img.html

#48 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:26 PM:

TexAnne @ 44... See? I did say you'd know more than me.

In spite of what was going on at the top, I presume that way further down, people voted for the likes of the mayor and I wonder when French women were finally allowed to vote.

#49 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:30 PM:

Speaking of unmeshed gears... Here is something that Abi made.

#50 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:30 PM:

Charlie@12, even if you're on the sidelines, the line about steampunk being what you get when "goths discover brown" still wins you Teh Telegraphs for the day.

#51 ::: Stuart in Austin ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:33 PM:

Kevin #31: Watch making and Ornamental Turning are the two hardcore Steampunk hobbies but they are pursued by an older generation that is mostly unaware of and uninterested in the current fad.

Google: holtzapffel ornamental turning lathe and click on images for a look at 150 year old lathes that are still in use.

I pretty much agree with Charlie's rant. I just read Soulless by Gail Carriger and choked when I got to the description of the automaton/golem filled with clockwork machinery.

Clockwork gears represent an entirely separate line of development from power train gears. Clocks are micropower devices and the gear train is as light and as frictionless as possible. Not the kind of thing you would use in a creature that is strong enough to knock a human around.

Take a look at the copy of Babbage's difference engine at the Kensington Science Museum to see what real Steampunk machinery would look like.

#52 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:34 PM:

Fragano @ 43... A submarine might not flounder, but my attempts at writing the stories sardinely would.

#53 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:38 PM:

Speaking of medecine and women in the 19th Century... Anybody else remembers "Bramwell", with Gemma Redgrave as a doctor in the 1890s?

#54 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:52 PM:

When I saw the title of this post, I thought of 'your staff' as meaning "the group of people who report to you." My mind went some strange places trying to make 'gears' fit into that.

Sigh. I do not have a normal brain. This is often fun, but sometimes I get all confused.

#55 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:54 PM:

Stuart in Austin @ 51... That's an example of the fantasy approach to steampunk, which I prefer when it goes all-out like Girl Genius. What I really like though is when someone asks if this or that could have been built with 19th Century technology - like here, when the MythBusters built a hybrid rocket with Civil-War level technology. (It starts at the 4:30 point.)

#56 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 09:00 PM:

If I may ride a dead horse down a side trail of the Tolkien tangent . . .

I take issue with China Mieville's view of Tolkien's conservatism and nostalgia. It's not that Mieville's wrong -- he's not -- but he's not giving credit to what Tolkien might have said he's doing before condemning it as simplistic and reactionary.

Specifically, Tolkien's ideas of escape and consolation have a hell of a lot more in them than a wishful-thinking escapist reaction to modernity. Though, again, to be clear, China's right that that is in there -- but you see, it's not simply that, and the gist of China's critique is that it's a simple-minded nostalgia. It's a complex nostalgia.

I think Tolkien's "consolation" (as expressed in "On Faerie Stories" and the fiction) is religious/spiritual. He felt this literary effect was not escapist -- not because it would help his readers change the world in any way, but because it would help prepare readers spiritually for the wasteland of the 20th century. China's problem with it is that it doesn't help his readers want to change the world, and Tolkien would respond that that's a lesser point, I think.

I can see that a materialist political philosophy would look at Tolkien's spiritual consolation and boil it down to exactly what China called it. But I think a critic should mention that he is boiling down and oversimplifying because he rejects the underlying world of concepts behind the thing he is rejecting. It matters what the author thought he was doing, even if one contends that that isn't a thing that can be done.

#57 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 09:23 PM:

Serge, 48: If by "people" you mean "rich men," sure. Women got the vote in 1944, but didn't get to use it until 1945.

#58 ::: Anderson ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 09:41 PM:

"Oh, great. Now I've got this image of a spy zepplin full of SS commandos dispatched to capture JRRT."

Borges really should've written that one up.

... Re: Tolkien & Morris, I have nothing like the expertise of others in this thread, but I thought it was pretty well established that Tolkien was an admirer of Morris's prose fiction, and that it rubbed off a bit on his style. So it would not be odd at all if other aspects of Morris's thought rubbed off as well.

#59 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 10:01 PM:

TexAnne @ 57... If by "people" you mean "rich men," sure.

There go liberté, égalité and fraternité...

#60 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 10:12 PM:

Oh, and in the Shire they have umbrellas, and umbrella-holders. There are no umbrellas in Rohan. The foyers of Minas Tirith are not embellished with umbrella stands.

So -- I always took the Shire to be a 19th-century agrarian England.

#61 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 10:43 PM:

"The foyers of Minas Tirith are not embellished with umbrella stands."

I just want to sort of admire that for a while. I'm just in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. It needs to be, I dunno, on a t-shirt? a cross-stitched motto? It is a thing of beauty.

As far as Morris and Tolkien, there is at least this:
Amison, Anne. “An Unexpected Guest.” Mythlore 25.1/2 (#95/96) (2006): 127-136.
Traces the unexpected influence of William Morris’s Icelandic Journals and News From Nowhere on The Hobbit and the world of The Shire.

It provides a fair amount of background detailing Tolkien's knowledge of Morris's work, and references other scholarship on his influence.

#62 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 10:51 PM:

As I was already on my way out of doing SCA stuff (quite a long time ago, like early 90s), I had enough knowledge as well; as some education about diseases, etc. to be very mean to people who told me, "I'd like it to be as simple as this nowadays."

If they pressed, they got a lecture on social status (the average person was at the BOTTOM of the social structure, rather than the SCA's assumption that we were all gentry), that any idea of sanitation was very primitive. If one survived to be 20, one might live a long time. if they didn't die in childbirth.......

For some reason people didn't like that dissertation. And if they pressed onward with questions they'd get a lot more unwanted information.

#63 ::: laufeysson ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 10:54 PM:

Re the question of whether Tolkien could have been thinking of the Arts and Crafts social vision when modeling the Shire. It is easy to answer if one remembers that T was a painter and illustrator as well as a writer. His paintings, and particularly his lettering, were very Art Nouveau (there is an inspection proof for this) -- which was the contemporary successor movement in direct descendance from Arts and Crafts. So I don't think there can be much question he was an admirer. Apart from the fact that a man of his background and education could hardly be unfamiliar with everything William Morris had ever done.


Here is an hypothesis which is perhaps more speculative (tho I personally take it as certain): Tolkien's traumatic experience in the trenches in WW1 motivated him to rewrite the Ring myths, which were part of the shared Anglo-Saxon mythic heritage, so as to cut the Germans (i.e. Wagner) out entirely.


#64 ::: Edgar lo Siento ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 11:09 PM:

Charlie Stross, 12,
However, I'd like to take this opportunity to ask: just what was Tolkein doing during the war?
...
Was writing "The Lord of the Rings" the only thing he got up to during the second world war?

Well, Barbara Hambly once speculated that he did in fact do espionage, but ended up fighting vampires. (See Those Who Hunt the Night. It's worth noting that she had mentally cast Harrison Ford and Johnny Depp as leads, which shows tremendous foresight for Mr. Depp's future career.)

In any case, Tolkein's account of how the Palantír screwed with the user's mind takes on a different cast if he had first hand knowledge of spycraft and particularly of the ciphering work done at Bletchly Park.* Sounds all too much like incomplete intelligence about the enemy.

Also, Abi,
this is an excellent post, and you should feel good about yourself for posting it:)

*and I always thought his depiction of a dangerous demagogue, allegedly on the good guy's side to be spot on for any number of contemporary individuals.

#65 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 11:13 PM:

Digression: Serge #3:"to live in an era . . . where childbirth could kill them"

Thing is, childbirth can kill women right now.

(the figures there don't match thegapminder ones, and I trust gapminder more, so those are the ones I'm using. The link to the graph I'm using is as long as methuselah's tail, so here's a general link to gapminder instead)

In the worst places over 1.5% of live birthsleave dead mothers behind. In Sub-Saharan Africa, one in 16 mothers will eventually die during or around childbirth. Maybe their first child, maybe their fifth child. But eventually that many mothers will make orphans of their children.

The "developed world" does much better, of course, but that's unevenly distributed, and the figures have been getting worse in many places during this century (including the United States, which has gone from a low of 10 per 100,000 births in 1979 to the current level of 17 per 100,000 births), after improving throughout most of the twentieth century.

Reducing maternal deaths by 3/4s is a point in the Millenium Development Goals, but the Millenium Development Monitor page only offers a few pleasant anecdotes rather than a raft of statistics, so I can't say that I think that there's been much progress lately.

I guess where I'm going with this is that while I agree very much about not wanting to give birth under the conditions of the Jane Austen era (which was especially bad for women of her class as there was a fad for women to bear huge numbers of children, increasing the risk for both mothers and children), I also hope that my great-great-grandchildren will be born under much safer conditions than now.

(all you Bujold fans are going to talk about artificial wombs, but I'd be happy with universal free medical care and contraception on demand, which are technologically within our grasp right now, unless you think of social structure and economics as technologies, which I guess you could).

#66 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 11:17 PM:

Edgar lo Siento @64, ooo, a change to plug another Mythlore article, this on on Saruman's forked tongue:

Ruud, Jay. “The Voice of Saruman: Wizards and Rhetoric in The Two Towers.” Mythlore 28.3/4 (#109/110) (2010): 141-153.

#67 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 12:44 AM:

Kevin @ 31:

Not so much watchmaking, and maybe not steampunk-influenced (hey, the gears _have to_ mesh), but there are several websites for spectacular wooden-gear wall-clocks, which can be marvelous ...ummm... kinetic sculptures. (And I'm sure Wm. Morris would've been ecstatic about them.)

#68 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 01:15 AM:

Lucy Kemnitzer @ 65... What I had meant to say was that childbirth in that era was probably more likely to kill them than today, even if they were wealthy and living in the planet's most developed nation. Clumsy writing on my part. My apologies.

#69 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 01:20 AM:

Paula Helm Murray @ 62... The SCA had people that ignorant about the Middle Ages? What? Everybody got to be Ivanhoe and nobody had to be Wamba?

#70 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 01:45 AM:

Without trying to divert the conversation too much, I'd point out that, had I been born in my mother's generation, my second pregnancy would have been high-risk. Had I been born any earlier, any pregnancies past my first would have probably resulted in the death of the baby, and quite possibly my own as well.

I'm Rhesus negative. My husband isn't. And given that my first baby was footling breech and merited a C-section, there would certainly have been blood mixing in a traditional delivery.

Going back in time, I'd have to either be a spinster, devise an Rh-factor test under primitive conditions and find a way to get blood from potential suitors, or live with the risk (high, given the population of Rh+ in relation to Rh-).

So yes, the past is a nice place to visit, but I like modern medicine. I want everyone to have access to it.

#71 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 02:11 AM:

Here is an hypothesis which is perhaps more speculative (tho I personally take it as certain): Tolkien's traumatic experience in the trenches in WW1 motivated him to rewrite the Ring myths, which were part of the shared Anglo-Saxon mythic heritage, so as to cut the Germans (i.e. Wagner) out entirely.

laufeysson @ 63 :::

I think you're right, but the idea needs to be made more general. I don't believe that Tolkien set out to cut Wagner out specifically... You must remember that that Tolkien swore up and down that "Lord of the Rings" had nothing to do with World War I.

I regard the above position as pure denial on JRR's part - it's all too easy to imagine the destroyed landscape of Mordor as the description of a WWI battlefield; nothing but bare earth and death for miles, all full of great pits and scars in the earth, the landscape filled with fortifications and the blasted industries of death...

But the idea that he wanted, from someplace inside where he repressed the horrors of war, to take all culture and poetry, Wagner included, away from the Germans, that he wished to describe the Germans as creatures without poetry, art, or any music save the drumbeats of war - that's an idea I can agree with wholeheartedly.

#72 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 02:12 AM:

abi @ 70... a way to get blood from potential suitors

Good thing I've met you at a time of the day when the sun was shining otherwise I'd wonder about that statement of yours.

#73 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 02:19 AM:

(Translated from the very Low Elvish)

Yo, Elendil? You there? You know that sword,
Called wossname? Nasal? Nostril? That you broke?
We stuck it back together for some bloke
And told him it was good as new. Well, gawd,
How could we know he'd take us at our word?
He's gone now. Gondor? Mordor? No, no joke.
No warranty, of course - used goods. Still, poke
It in an orc and, well, you won't be bored...

Most likely though, he won't. Well, he's a Lord.
He'll just be waving it, or knighting folk.
For giving Uruk-hai a mighty stroke,
Or taking on an evil orcish horde,
Nah, he's a hero, soon to be a King -
Why, he's got people for that kind of thing.

#74 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 02:53 AM:

Serge@72, darkness had already fallen when we left that restaurant in Oakland. Are you sure you weren't bitten and then didn't remember because She told you to forget?

(More seriously, it was very nice to have met both of you in person that night, though you might also have been one of the many people at the party in Denver, only some of whose faces or names I remember.)

#75 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 03:43 AM:

I think people may be too inclined to see Passchendaele in The Dead Marshes, as being some sort of personal experience. But Tolkien was invalided home by then, suffering from Trench Fever. He didn't see that particular horror for himself.

(June to October 1916, 11th Lancashire Fusiliers)

This was part of the 25th Division, the 74th Brigade, and an outline of events can be traced here. Towards the end of Tolkien's front-line service the division carried out an attack in "appalling ground conditions".

So The Dead Marshes might have come as much from the Somme as from second-hand knowledge of Passchendaele.

#76 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 05:04 AM:

Alex R @ 71:
You must remember that that Tolkien swore up and down that "Lord of the Rings" had nothing to do with World War I.

I think most of Tolkien's "this is not an allegory of X" argument was focused on the Second World War, since that's what people have mostly tried to tie LotR to. I don't think he ever denied that the First World War had an effect on him and his writing, just that there was no allegorical intent.

From the Foreword to the Second Edition of LotR:

One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.

He also mentioned in a letter that "the Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme." (citation here).

#77 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 05:13 AM:

Can't help wondering also whether vestigial childhood memories of South Africa feed into all this - growing up. Compare Tolkien's illustrations with those of JH Piernief, and you can see the style and the landscape echoed pretty closely.

#78 ::: Edgar lo Siento ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 07:23 AM:

Janet Brennan Croft, 66
a change to plug another Mythlore article, this on on Saruman's forked tongue:...
Ooo! *stops to admire shiny thing*

#80 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 08:23 AM:

Bill @50: that's not my own line, alas -- trouble is, I can't find the origin of the quip via google so I couldn't credit it.

#81 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 08:58 AM:

abi and all, this is a fascinating observation, and full lovely lovely thinking-on stuff.

For those who really feel they need to know more about women's property rights in the UK, before the 20th century, a link. Bear in mind that approaches to women's property rights will vary by nation and, in the US, by state (and also, perhaps, by province in places like France and Spain.) Also, entail and women's suffrage around the world.

Texanne @44, and also Serge--which regency? Francis II? Charles IX? Louis XIII? Louis XIV? Louis XV? Some earlier regency?

#82 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 09:04 AM:

fidelio, 81: France had many regencies, but "la Régence" is always the one beginning in 1715 at the death of Louis XIV.

#83 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 09:35 AM:

Bill Stewart @ 74... But remember that, when I picked up Abi for the ride to the meeting, it was broad daylight. Of course, had I known about blood and suitors, I'd have asked if she had put some dirt from her native land inside her shoes.

#84 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 09:38 AM:

abi @ 70... Going back in time, I'd have to either be a spinster

...and besides the health problems, there'd have been the lack of educational opportunities - unless you were Ada Lovelace, whose dad I understand was a bit bonkers.

#85 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 09:55 AM:

Since we seem to be drifting into the Armistice season with some of this thread: The First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

If you want something different, there's a recreation of a WW1 trench system in Second Life. All it will cost you is time. Link on the web page: you will be provided with appropriate attire.

#86 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 10:39 AM:

One twist on possible work for Tolkien during WW2, coming to mind when the Palantir was mentioned upthread (and, yes, that part of the story does take on a different light if Tolkien had knowledge of the intelligence world. But remember he was responsible for signals for a while in WW1.)

We didn't just listen to the Germans, and break their ciphers. We deceived them with fake wireless transmissions. We transmitted fake German broadcast wireless, and faked the radio traffic of imaginary armies.

So there's this Palantir, sending a mix of real and fake information to Denethor and Saruman...

I'm not strongly inclined to think Tolkien was involved in any of that, but if the Foreign Office had considered him for codebreaking work, they might have considered him for this. Not very likely, though.

But, post-war, it's possible he heard a few stories. I'm not off-hand sure just where he was in the writing process and when. Post-war gossip, or something back in WW1? Will we ever know?


#87 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 11:08 AM:

Paraphrasing irreverent -- though not entirely irrelevant -- comments that spouse and I made while watching "Metropolis" on telly last night:

Spouse (as desperate worker struggles with dials): "Those machines sure aren't ergonomically designed."

Me (as the robot "Maria" is linked to the Whore of Babylon): "Yes, she does bear a strong resemblance to Nancy Pelosi."

Though insanely dysfunctional, clockworks and gears loom large in that film!

#88 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 11:32 AM:

I love this essay, and a couple of the other ones you linked to here. Abi, I am now your Biggest Fan, and I mean that in a non-creepy non-"Misery" sort of way.

#89 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 11:33 AM:

BTW, I also loved Charlie's essay on this discussion, as well as Scott Westerfield's. I am an equal-opportunity fanboy.

#90 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 11:33 AM:

Faren @ 87... Who cares about ergonomic design when you have plenty of cheap workers?

Nancy Pelosi?
I'd like to see a robot designed to imitate Diane Feinstein.
On second thought, maybe not.

#91 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 11:44 AM:

rm @60: Oh, and in the Shire they have umbrellas, and umbrella-holders. There are no umbrellas in Rohan. The foyers of Minas Tirith are not embellished with umbrella stands.

rm, may I use "There are no umbrellas in Rohan" on a cross stitch project?

#92 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 12:40 PM:

Dave Luckett @73, very nicely done indeed.

laufeyyson @63 and Alex R @71, you mihgt want to keep in mind two things: Tolkien's own statement on allegory vs. applicability (allegory being the purposed dominion of the author over the reader, applicability allowing the reader's own interpretation), and Tolkien's own long -- very, very long -- view of history in both the real and his subcreated world. I think you are right that he was, in part, depicting the dangers of a socity without art or poetry, solely focused on war -- but to set up an equation where orcs = Germans is far too simplistic.

I feel embarassed to keep plugging my own book, but -- War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Lots of the stuff we are talking about is in here.

#93 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 12:59 PM:

rm @ 60... There are no umbrellas in Rohan

Coming soon, "Monty Python's Lord of the Rings"...

With...
Graham Chapman as Frodo, Bilbo, Legolas, Eomer and Eowyn.
Terry Jones as Sam and Gimli.
John Cleese as Aragorn, Gandalf and Saruman.
Eric Idle as Pippin or Merry.
Michael Palin as Merry or Pippin.
Terry Gilliam as Gollum.
Carol Cleveland as Galadriel and Arwen.
George Harrison as Elrond.

#94 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 01:15 PM:

It's been decades since I last re-read Tolkien, but I do recall the first (US) generation of interpretations, and it was always WWII and Nazis that people reached for when allegorizing. WWI occupied a rather different part of our imaginations back then--it was our grandfathers' war, not our fathers', and not only distant but differently-obscured by popular-culture portrayals. My own understanding of the incredible trauma of the Great War developed gradually, years after I first read Tolkien in the 1960s. Peter Jackson's visualization of the blasted landscape now strikes me as right on the money.

About the Palantir--again, working from aging recollections, but you don't need any particular espionage experience to account for the dangers it presents. The books are full of devices that work two ways, weapons and tools that expose the user to manipulation or corruption. It's not a world of inanimate tools that are simple projections of the user's will--using magic swords or scrying stones or rings of power or whatever exacts a cost. And the cost of resisting evil is one of the things that the books are about.

#95 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 01:47 PM:

Paula, #62: Heh. Yes, for all the make-believe in the SCA, they do also encourage genuine historical study. I remember being at the hairdresser's once when the woman in the next chair started going on about the Evils Of Food Preservatives, and giving her the short course on "Well, y'know, that's one reason spices were so expensive in the Middle Ages. They didn't have any preservatives, or even refrigeration, and so a lot of what you ate was in the early stages of going bad. The spices were to disguise the taste."* She went, "Eewww!" and that was the end of THAT topic!


* Yes, I know that was a great over-simplification.

#96 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 02:33 PM:

Serge@10: thinking back, I'm aghast that smoking once was allowed in planes.

Smoking was once allowed in SPACECRAFT, according to an anecdote I can't track down... one of the astronauts was a nonsmoker and mission control said something like "Stop holding your breath up there."

@30: I keep thinking I've read those stories and Howard Waldrop wrote them.

#97 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 02:34 PM:

This may be missing the point entirely but...

What's wrong with a little idealism in your fiction? What's wrong with an alt history that is a little brighter than history? I certainly wouldn't want to go back and live in Kansas in the 1900s, but that doesn't mean I don't want to visit OZ.

Of course, Stross himself says he's a fan of Girl Genius, which is pretty much the kind of steampunk I'm most interested in. The rest of his rant makes little in that context. If you like Girl Genius but think that most Steampunk doesn't hew close enough to reality... I don't understand what your ground rules are. GG isn't about a realistic riffing on the Victorian era. In Girl Genius the fact that Agatha is a girl is relevant, but not in direct correlation to the societal mechanics of Edwardian-era Europe. And while the everyday people still have a lot of terrible problems, they are more related to the central premise of the universe than strict social or political structures of the time. At the same time the world of GG is earth, apparently, at least insofar as it has a UK analogue which is located roughly in the same area you'd find one here.

I suppose you could argue that both OZ and the world of Girl Genius are transformed enough that it's OK if they don't show the everyday horrors of their respective time periods, but where do we draw the line? When is it ok to say "But in this timeline we didn't colonize India," and when is that wrong? When is it ok to have women wearing pants and when isn't it?

One of the things I like most about Steampunk is that it's impossible. Rather than some Sci-Fi or Alt History that tries to be completely grounded and reasonable, we've already agreed to believe six impossible things before breakfast. We've accepted the mechanical spider. We've acknowledged the underground complex of whirling gears possessed of an eerie intelligence. We're on board the airship of improbability.

Stross is dismissing Girl Genius as an exception rather than embracing it as an apotheosis. For me, Steampunk isn't about nostalgia for the Victorian/Edwardian era... any more than LARPing is really about nostalgia for feudalism and the black plague. It's about co-opting the few neat things about the Victorian era to make a better, brighter, weirder, more impossible world.

#98 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 02:36 PM:

Lee, 95: It's also completely untrue. Spoiled food tastes bad because IT WILL KILL YOU. Have you ever smelled rotten meat? Or drunk bad milk? It's not a mistake you make twice, is it? The people who lived in the Middle Ages weren't stupid, you know.

They used spices because a) yum, and b) conspicuous consumption was popular then, too. And if you read actual medieval recipes, the quantities of spices are within modern tolerances, usually not more than a quarter-teaspoon for a whole dish.

Jeez. Sorry to go off on you, but I am *so* sick of hearing people say that.

#99 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 02:39 PM:

Somehow, in my not well-disciplined mind, "no umbrellas in Rohan" is starting to sprout into a rant along the lines of "There'll be no butter in Hell!" from Cold Comfort Farm. I realize this was not intended as a result when rm posted that comment, but I can't seem to help it.

#100 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 02:40 PM:

Sandy B @ 96... I keep thinking I've read those stories and Howard Waldrop wrote them

That's quite a compliment. If he hasn't writtn those stories, I wish he would. This is the man who wrote a story about what would have happened if HG Wells's Martians had landed in Texas and if they had run into one of the western characters played by Slim Pickens.

#101 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 02:46 PM:

Leah Miller @ 97... We've accepted the mechanical spider

The mechanical spider in fact was the best thing.
Just like David Bowie as Tesla was in steampunk movie "The Prestige".

#102 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 03:12 PM:

TexAnne #98: Plus mediæval Europeans had access to the best preservative in the era before refrigeration -- good, old-fashioned NaCl. Everybody (and not just in Europe by any means) salted and smoked meat, not to mention learning other tricks for keeping root vegetables as long as possible. Having had to help do both I have a lot of respect for the people who lived in the age before refrigeration. Come to think of it, I had to live in that age myself for several years (home-cured ham is wonderful, home-cured tripe, well, it doesn't kill you).

#103 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 03:13 PM:

TexAnne@98: Food that we consider spoiled, and that smells bad, will very often not kill you. I don't know about using spices to cover the taste -- that's a question of fact, and the experts I've seen express opinions seem to agree with you that that's not why they used spices in the Middle Ages.

I've cooked with meat reaching the end of its life, and smelling distinctly not fresh. And in fact I've used sweet spice mixtures to cover that up.

And 1/4 teaspoon for a dish is grossly insufficient :-). I tend to use multiple spices each in quantities significantly in excess of that, like 4x frequently. I use 3-4 tablespoons of the curry mixture in the dish I mentioned above, which is 36 1/4 teaspoons I believe. That doesn't count the garlic.

#104 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 03:15 PM:

LeahMiller@97: Speaking only for myself, I like a little idealism in my fiction.

Still, some kinds of ignoring rhinoceri lurking about the room throw me right out of the story. Probably not exactly the same issues as anybody else, but definitely with some overlap. Things that won't work presented as realistic, or powers to ignore physics that work only when the plot needs them, or such. Things that don't bear thinking about because they come apart in your teeth.

#105 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 03:40 PM:

ddb, 103: I am an expert. I deliberately didn't specify the numbers of spices used at the same time or the size of a dish because this isn't a discussion of medieval cookery. We've had enough of those around here that we don't need to hijack a thread for another one.

People who could afford enough spices to improve bad-tasting meat could also afford fresh meat daily. Spices were expensive because they came from India on camels, not because cooks used them in Costco-sized vats.

#106 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 03:45 PM:

Back to the Great War theme -- there was a documentary on the BBC on Sunday night, The First World War from Above. It included astonishing footage taken from an airship which cruised down the Western Front a few months after the ceasefire, plus a sampling of the 150,000 stills which survive from aerial photography over the trenches during the war.

My impression of LoTR was that it was a reflection of the Great War, not of the Second World War -- and my reaction on seeing Jackson's films was that his Great War atmosphere was *right* for the book in a way that an evocation of the Second World War would not have been.

#107 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 03:45 PM:

On spices - remember that some - salt in particular - were used as preservatives, themselves; as well as flavour-enhancers.

93 Serge: Of course, by "Merry or Pippin" vice "Pippin or Merry", you mean the single entity, right? And that the actor for each would change at random from scene to scene, and sometimes be called "Merrin" or "Pippi", ...

#108 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 04:39 PM:

Since nobody else seems to have said it, *Snnnrrrk!!* to Joel@21. (And isn't it fortunate that gold is such a good conductor?)

#109 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 05:10 PM:

There are no umbrellas in Rohan.

And we know this HOW? How, I ask you? Hmf!

Heck, Narnia has umbrellas. Why not Rohan?

#110 ::: IreneD ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 05:14 PM:

"But consider this: what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like?"

Hmm. The book Charlie Stross has in mind may already have been written, and by a Brit, at that. Has anyone here heard of Roy Lewis' The Extraordinary Reign of King Ludd? Too bad it doesn't seem to be in print anymore, at least not in English. But who knows? Some years ago, Terry Pratchett urged his publisher to re-print another of Lewis' novels, The Evolution Man or how I ate my father. Maybe now the steampunk craze can help give a new life to this one too?

#111 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 05:16 PM:

Leah @97: it's the fantasy/SF dichotomy in a nutshell. SF needs to make at least pay lip-service to plausibility (in the sense of being plausibly real), otherwise it risks blowing the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief; fantasy is under no such constraints, because it operates under different rules. In my view, a lot of steampunk is, at best, confused about which side of the SF/fantasy divide it wants to be on. Girl Genius is under no such illusions; neither are Pratchett or Mieville.

#112 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 05:22 PM:

Mycroft W @ 107... "Merrin" or "Pippi"

Legolas really was Pippi Longstocking.

#113 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 05:30 PM:

Charlie Stross @ 111... In my view, a lot of steampunk is, at best, confused about which side of the SF/fantasy divide it wants to be on.

Did you actually ask the authors? By the way, on which side would Blaylock's steampunk stuff of the 1980s be? Anyway, who cares? We like like what we like, and it's not my business to tell others they shouldn't like what they like. If I did, it'd be too much like high school, in the days when SF was not respectable.

Looking forward to reading "The Jennifer Morgue"...

#114 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 06:01 PM:

Serge, in the event that I did ask the authors, I wouldn't talk about it on the net unless they specifically wanted me to quote them: "the lurkers support me in email" isn't a good place to go, even if it happens to be true.

#115 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 06:01 PM:

Dave Luckett 73: Bravo! Man, that's brilliant. I bow in admiration, sir.

Russell 94: It's been decades since I last re-read Tolkien

Waitwaitwait. Stop right there. HOW did you let this happen?!?! Go at once and read it. You have 48 hours.

Honestly, some people. :-)

#116 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 06:09 PM:

Charlie Stross @ 114... In that case, why bring up the issue? Oh heck... This is going nowhere so I guess I'll just drop from this discussion.

#117 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 06:21 PM:

One does not simply place umbrella stands in Mordor.

#118 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 06:53 PM:

HelenS @ 109:
Heck, Narnia has umbrellas. Why not Rohan?

Yes, but Narnia also has Santa Claus. It's not bound by petty things like aesthetic or sociohistorical consistency[*].

[*] Granted that Middle Earth is not terribly consistent in any realistic sense -- Gondor's cultural and political continuity is matched by nothing in Earthly history, not even Egypt...

#119 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 07:31 PM:

Lila @5: Yes bleepity yes! If the gears don't mesh they might as well be putting bleeping daisies on it!

Saruman was well on his way to becoming a canonical Mad Scientist when his career was cut short. I don't usually find LOTR alternate histories interesting, but that one ...

And now, for those who think steampunk is unmindful of the existence of orphans ...

#120 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 07:53 PM:

@93: Terry Jones as Arwen.

#121 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 07:56 PM:

The man behind "Steampunk is what happens when Goths discover brown" appears to have been Jess Nevins, author of The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana*, and sometime Fluorospherian.

Cherie Priest attributes the aphorism to him, and he has claimed it in a Twitter message.


*Which sounds like an extremely interesting book!

#122 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 08:06 PM:

eric @ 117... a doombrella?

#123 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 08:09 PM:

I don't know what Tolkien was doing during the war, but the Manhattan Project had a general named Ent.

#124 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 08:49 PM:

Alex R. @14:

Steampunk was cute for a couple hours, but I'm bored sick of it, and every time something steampunky shows up on BoingBoing I want to pull my hair out, because it is so fucking OVER!!
No. What's over is me having to repeatedly explain on Boing Boing that steampunk is anything but over. Stop ranting and get used to it. Want proof? Go to eBay and type "steampunk" into the main search box. See how many items are for sale. Steampunk is even turning up in mainstream clothing and jewelry styles. You're in for a long siege.

I don't think I got through a week at Boing Boing without having to do that song-and-dance number.

Stefan Jones @28:

I wonder what Nazi codebreakers would make of a page full of Tengwar.
If Tolkien had lettered it, I think I know what they'd have made of it. As others have pointed out, Tolkien's lettering has a strong Arts and Crafts/Art Nouveau flavor. The German message analysts would have said "Oh, this is someone's invented alphabet -- notice the nonstandard number of letters? It's very pretty, but hardly practical." I like to imagine them double-checking that by handing the page over to the philologists.

Kevin Riggle @31:

I've been a bit disappointed that the rise of steampunk hasn't led to a revival of interest in watchmaking.
Er. In my copious spare time. I've most recently gotten an adorable tiny Wittnauer movement running again.

I didn't mean to get so interested. I was going to use them as jewelry components. But there's this moment when. ... Okay, Jo Walton said it best, when I unwrapped a set of clockworks and it promptly spun, clicked over, and tried to strike a full Winchester chime: "Oh, it wants to be a clock!"

They do. You blow the dust off some much-abused mechanical wristwatch movement (the high price of gold has thrown a lot of those on the market because their cases were melted down), and next thing you know the balance wheel is in motion and it's ticking. It's almost as bad as kittens, which should also not be picked up and examined if you know what's good for you.

Stuart in Austin @51:

Clockwork gears represent an entirely separate line of development from power train gears. Clocks are micropower devices and the gear train is as light and as frictionless as possible.
True. And the insanely complicated ones, the quarter-chiming split-second chronographs with perpetual calendar, moon phases, and tourbillon (I'm not sure that's even possible), are weird-ass obsessive masterpieces: wonderful, but they move nothing but themselves.

Serge @55, one day I'll figure out the earliest date at which the mimeograph would have been possible.

Don Fitch @67, I've been particling those for a while now.

Dave Luckett @73, that's brilliant. Timely, too.

Dave Bell @75, the Dead Marshes are a lot of no-man's-lands: mud, standing water, and the unsteady ground full of corpses.

Peter Erwin @76, has anyone ever looked into what exactly Tolkien meant by "allegory"? A background in medieval literature could give you a stricter and more limited notion of what qualifies for that term.

Nancy @79, thank you for bringing up those lovely irregular wooden gears. I thought I particled those recently, but I may have just swooned over them.

#125 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 08:54 PM:

But can you find a medieval equivalent of the rather topless social structure of the Shire?

No, because it has "power vacuum" written all over it. The Shire is a pleasant land with abundant natural resources that produces plenty of food to feed its people *plus* a cash crop that is apparently renowned internationally (never mind that it's a highly addictive drug that eventually kills the user, speaking of authorial blind spots) and is occupied by politically unorganized people with no professional military or other warrior class, few if any weapons, and probably at a strength and/or reach disadvantage against practically anyone else -- it wouldn't last five years in a world where not all evil comes from Barad-Dur.

It's hard enough to believe that all the hobbits themselves are inhumanly too virtuous and humble to become hobbit Napoleons, but they are after all not human; why aren't the bandits, Vikings, and ambitious neighboring kings coming out of the woodwork? You don't have to be an orc to be an ambitious, greedy SOB, even in Tolkien.

#126 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 09:03 PM:

Topless in the Shire?
(...must... behave... must resist!...)

#127 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 09:06 PM:

Jon Meltzer @ 120... Terry Jones as Arwen

I shudder to think.

By the way, I once learned that the Beatles were such fans of "Lord of the Rings" that they considered making it into a movie. If I'm not mistaken, Lennon would have played Gollum.

#128 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 09:08 PM:

Teresa @ 124... one day I'll figure out the earliest date at which the mimeograph would have been possible

Didn't Tor.com publish a steampunk story this year where GD Falksen pretty much did that - with feuds and flamewars thrown in?

#129 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 09:17 PM:

It's an old branch of the conversation by now, but Serge, don't apologize. You didn't phrase that badly (it was quite clear what you meant). What happened was that you gave me a handle on which to hang a thing that bothers me a lot (modern maternal mortality). So instead of saying "I'm sorry," you should be saying "You're welcome."

#130 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 09:19 PM:

Lucy Kemnitzer @ 129... You're welcome. :-)

#131 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 10:03 PM:

Teresa #124, thank you. I try.

Can I interest you in my steampunk (sorta) SF novel?

#132 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 10:16 PM:

Thank you, Nancy #79, those gears are awesome. Such craftsmanship and such mathematics and such beauty and whimsy!

#133 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 10:25 PM:

Thanks to everyone who said something kind about my umbrellas in Rohan/Gondor quips. Y'all are welcome to use such quips any way you please.

Unfortunately, I looked back into The Two Towers this evening, and Tolkien clearly states that when the Riders of Rohan descend upon Aragorn, Legolas, & Gimli, they are all carrying open parasols. For harsh is the sun of the Westemnet.

#134 ::: Sarah E ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 10:37 PM:

60, 61, 133

Now I sort of wish Grima Wormtongue had carried a big black umbrella. I think it would have enhanced his aura of menace.

#135 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 11:01 PM:

Sarah E, 134: Eeesh, that would make him look like a City financier. LOTR isn't supposed to be a horror novel!

#136 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 11:27 PM:

Leah Miller @ 97: "When is it ok to say "But in this timeline we didn't colonize India," and when is that wrong? When is it ok to have women wearing pants and when isn't it?"

Your last line irresistably reminded me of Jo Walton's King's Peace world. It's a story about a woman warrior,* which has been done approximately a zillion times with no particular attempt to explain why it is that in this medieval society, as opposed to all historical medieval societies, women are able to become warriors. It simply is, and the story is invariably about something else. But Walton does tackle that question, and comes up with a terribly and wonderfully clever answer: the difference, the critical, world-changing difference is that in this world women don't get pregnant unless they want to. Everything else flows from that.

You can argue if that's really plausible, if that change would really lead to a society where female fighters are uncommon but unremarkable, but at the very least it's an argument, not a demand to suspend disbelief. It asks what would have to be different in order for this to be different? You can write good books that don't do this, even great ones, but it's so much better when you do.

Sadly, an awful lot of steampunk doesn't. It's got the steam-powered automaton, but it doesn't know why. It's got female airship pilots, but the rest of the social structure is straight Victorian. Some of it does this because the author is interested in something else, and just wants something shiny over here. That's fine--awesome for the sake of awesome has its place. But when the whole story is nothing but awesomene ridiculosity for no other purpose, when it's turtles all the way down, I get a bit irritated.

If you want a steam age where uranium-powered steam cruisers rule the high seas, or where England has become a matriarchy, then fine: but tell me why. Give me a reason. Dispute the facts of history, show how this oppression or that atrocity wasn't necessary, or could have been avoided, or was averted by whatever, but engage with the history. Dig into the complex inner mechanisms of society, and find the little cog to replace that will create the world that you want to write about. Or build something new with it: attach some new speculative thingamajig and show me how it changes the balance of the whole.

And maybe the gear you add on there is made of crystal and glows with an occult intelligence. That's awesome. I like fantasy, and I like steampunk fantasy. I'm a diagnosed heterodynaholic.** It's not that I demand that people to adhere to a rigorous realism, because gawd but that would be boring. I just want there to be a point to the stories I read beyond "Hey look! Shiny!" Shiny is good, but solid-world building is better.

*My possibly really obvious theory is that the point of divergence from the standard King Arthur myth is jurer Ynaprybg v.r. Fhyvra'f oebgure, qvrf naq fur unf gb gnxr uvf cynpr, fuvsgvat gur pragre bs gur ybir gevnatyr.

** Some of my best friends are steampunk!

#137 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 11:30 PM:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden @ 119: "Yes bleepity yes! If the gears don't mesh they might as well be putting bleeping daisies on it!"

Speaking personally, I am offended whenever I see flowers depicted without a properly functioning root system. Those petals don't grow themselves people!

#138 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:17 AM:

Chris, #125: a cash crop that is apparently renowned internationally (never mind that it's a highly addictive drug that eventually kills the user, speaking of authorial blind spots)

I don't believe that the addictive and lethal long-term effects of tobacco were widely known at the time when Tolkien was writing LOTR.

Re "why nobody else ever took over the Shire," wouldn't that be one of the things the Rangers were out there preventing? And do I get a No-Prize for that answer? :-)

Also, it seemed pretty obvious even to a 14-year-old me that there was at least a mild form of aristocracy in hobbit society; the Bagginses and several other families were Landed Gentry, while others like the Gamgees were worker/servant class. What was missing was the feudal baron at the very top of the heap.

#139 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:35 AM:

Speaking as someone whose gears don't mesh, it's because I can't get them to lie on the leather in reliably meshing positions before I imprint them into the leather with my book press. And because my gears come from multiple sources.

Speaking personally, I am offended whenever I see flowers depicted without a properly functioning root system. Those petals don't grow themselves people!

And please put parallel-veined leaves on your six-petaled flowers and save the branching veins for the five-petaled ones!

#140 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 01:20 AM:

Also, I'm having mild trouble with the words "Merry", "Pippin" and "umbrella" in such close proximity...

In ev'ry trip you undertake
There is some trouble you can make
You spy on councils. Whoosh!
You're on your way.

And ev'ry boring bit of quest
Will gain some interest
More thrills! More threats!
That's what your mischief gets…

For a...
Spark in the tinder helps the fireworks go up
The fireworks go uh-up
The fireworks go up.
Just a spark in the tinder helps the fireworks go up
In the most delightful way.

A hobbit journeying in haste
Has very little time to waste
While hiding from the
Nazgûl that pursue

Though venturing into the unknown
He has an eye for any stone
To drop, or shy,
Or steal and see an Eye.

For a spark in the tinder helps the fireworks go up
The fireworks go uh-up
The fireworks go up.
Just a spark in the tinder helps the fireworks go up
In the most delightful way.

#141 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 03:28 AM:

heresiarch @ #136
I understand what you're trying to say. But I'm not going to concede the point. I disagree with it most strongly, in fact. It's very late and I may not be at my most coherent, but let me try to explain my problem:

Imagine a very kind (but slightly condescending) man going up to a precocious and intelligent ten-year-old girl, who is just starting to read grown-up books and who likes Steampunk. He kneels down in front of her, pats her head, and says "Hey little girl. We can change the physics of aerodynamics and the behavior of gasses, to allow for super-maneuverable fleets of airships. We can change the composition of the very earth to allow sufficient deposits of these gasses to fill an army of zeppelins. But the one thing we CANNOT just change without explaining it is the fact that your biology shackles you away from all the fun stuff. Sorry: all of history, even radically altered pretend history, is closed to you unless you explain how some huge, fundamental change in the nature of the world has occurred that frees you from the curse of being female, which has crippled women throughout history. Now if you'll excuse me, these boys and I are going off to fly some airships."

I know that's not what you mean to say, but "gender inequality as a mark of true realism" is a drum that is beaten far too often. It's why I never liked Tolkien or Lewis as much as I liked Baum. It's why you see little girls dressed as Buzz Lightyear on Halloween - because the only way they can be a believable popular science fiction hero is to be male.

It bothers me a lot that so far everyone who has criticized Steampunk for its failure to depict women as realistically trapped and powerless seems to be male. (Maybe I just haven't found the commentaries to that effect by the ladies of SF, I'd be interested to read some).

I've met steampunkers. I've talked to them, I've been to their panels, I've inspected the gatling gun they built for the girl who doesn't have a hand, that goes where her hand should be. Believe me, they know the reality of history, they just don't let it get in the way. To insist that the default starting point for EVERY remotely historical reality must put women (and or minorities) in a position of total subjugation is just... frustrating.

That's an underlying implication I get from your post, and Stross's: that no tale that borrows from the past is well-constructed unless women are realistically powerless, and if you want to break that rule you have to have a pretty good reason for it, explicitly stated somewhere.

And that idea just makes me very sad.

#142 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 03:30 AM:

Serge @116, I didn't bring up the issue; you did (at least, from where I'm sitting -- real-life's continuity editor is only intermittently reliable).

#143 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:55 AM:

Leah, #141: Wow. You've just given me a whole new way to look at the casting of Will Smith in Wild Wild West. Thank you.

#144 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:58 AM:

Leah @141: no tale that borrows from the past is well-constructed unless women are realistically powerless, and if you want to break that rule you have to have a pretty good reason for it, explicitly stated somewhere ...

Okay, I got your sense of exclusion from the adventure right here. And I understand where you're coming from. (Play "late nineteenth century England" straight, and I'm part of the "teeming Asiatic hordes overrunning the East End" who the gentry despise. Not so much excluded as cannon-fodder. But I digress.)

However, having a reason to deviate from the historical record helps, if the tale is intended to be remotely consistent with our own recorded history. It doesn't have to be complex -- see, for example, heresiarch's mention of Jo Walton's books -- but remember, in world-building, all decisions have consequences. If you don't want to borrow from Jo, there are other approaches: have 18th century explorers in North Africa rediscover Silphium and figure out how to cultivate it (whereupon its use spreads as a herb, and then as a pharmaceutical, in the 19th century). Or have the germ theory of disease catch on a century or two earlier -- Van Leeuwenhoek's discovery of microbiology in the 1670s laid the foundation, and once you get the germ theory of disease (which hung fire until the 1860s in our world) you get antisepsis and a much higher childbirth survival rate. Add movements for the education of women and you have a framework for emancipation and the demographic transition and second-wave feminism a century ahead of schedule -- but you get to keep the fancy clothing: nothing in there makes textiles or tailoring cheaper, so you still have expensive outfits as a manifest indicator of social status.

Look, this stuff isn't hard. It's the meat and drink of SF, the nuts and bolts of world-building. It's not impossible to do it in steampunk; China Mieville's New Crobuzon has it by the shovel-load (along with the darker, less explicable stuff). If you want to map out a time line to an alternate 1870 which is far more gender-egalitarian than our own, it's entirely do-able.

The lack of manifest effort going into such world building gives me the impression that the authors in question don't care: they're not doing the world-building because they're taking a half-understood off-the-shelf universe and playing games with it without necessarily understanding how all the bits fit together.

NB: I am reminded of a tale by Lee Modesitt, about why he started writing high fantasy. As I recall, he was an economist by profession, and had been sitting in on a panel where the works of $FAMOUS_FANTASY_AUTHOR were being discussed, and he began getting steamed when he calculated just how many peasants were needed on the farms that produced the hay to feed the chargers ridden by the number of knights mentioned in a climactic battle -- and realized that they'd need levels of productivity associated with combine harvesters and modern GM crops to make it work in the land area of the country in which the story was set.

That's about how I feel about a lot of steampunk: it hasn't been fully thought through so when it aspires to be something a little more than "wow! shiny!" it falls flat on its face.

This argument also applies to space opera, of course, although if you throw enough Treknobabble into the mix you can make anything fly the Kessel run in twelve parsecs. That's been annoying me for long enough that I'm about ready to write a Mundane SF space opera, just as proof of concept. I'm not yet at the stage of writing a Mundane SF steampunk novel, but if I'm subjected to it for another few years ...

PS: on a related note to Lee Modesitt's gripe, there's an argument that the static western front in World War One was the result of a logistics bottleneck -- 20% of the entire Anglo-French transport effort consisted of shifting the bales of hay required to keep their transport -- horses and mules -- alive. Hay is a very bulky low energy density fuel; diesel oil and kerosene are not, and permit much greater mobility at the end of the supply chain.

#145 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 05:32 AM:

Charlie @144:
This argument also applies to space opera, of course, although if you throw enough Treknobabble into the mix you can make anything fly the Kessel run in twelve parsecs.

And yet you haven't written a rant about it.

Speaking personally, I think this is one of the reasons this Steampunk thing has blown up quite so much. From the perspective of a woman who reads pretty much everything from hard SF to fantasy, what I see is that a genre written and read primarily by men—chrome-and-technobabble SF—never gets ranted at as a "thing". It's background-radiation implausibility; no one does more than roll their eyes at the wildly unrealistic social structures and completely impossible physics.

But as soon as a genre with a heavier proportion of women writing and reading it starts, suddenly all these rants appear. There's far more vitriol here than there is about FTL and the proportion of habitable worlds and future economics that proliferate in the books with rockets on them. And that's leaving aside the unrealistic gender and sexual orientation mixes in the "future" of so much of milSF, which needs at least as much explaining as the early appearance of women's rights in steampunk.

And it does kind of make me wonder if it's the fact that there are too many pigtails in the treehouse that turns this from Just One Of Those Unrealistic Things About SF/F to Grounds for a Good Rant. And I'm not the only one wondering, which is probably why there are so many Rants Back.

Shorter me: I note there's a lot of irritation about brass but not so much about chrome. I note that there are more girls in Team Brass than in Team Chrome. I wonder if it's a coincidence.

#146 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 06:23 AM:

Well, abi, let's hope that your perception isn't accurate, because if it is, it would suggest that there are a lot of people out there who just need to grow up a bit. For the appropriate humanistic values of 'grow up', of course, which sometimes include the ability to see things as children are wont, which is to say as they are.

#147 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 06:59 AM:

abi @ 139... We want our stempunk to be realistic, and to include references to the bugs that infest the plants.

#148 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 07:07 AM:

Abi @145: And yet you haven't written a rant about it.

Yes I have. (You may have noticed me poking the space cadets with a pointy stick on a regular basis, in-between rants denouncing movie and TV SF in broad-brush terms. What did you think that was all about?)

I haven't ranted much against the evils of MilSF, but that's only because I got it out of my system before I discovered blogging: you might have noticed a novel of mine that took the piss out of the entire Napoleonic Navies in Spaaaace!!! thing. (Published in 2003; written circa 1995-98.)

(I hope you're not accusing me of getting annoyed because I think there are too many pigtails in the treehouse. That would indeed annoy me!)

#149 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 07:17 AM:

Teresa @ 124:
Peter Erwin @76, has anyone ever looked into what exactly Tolkien meant by "allegory"? A background in medieval literature could give you a stricter and more limited notion of what qualifies for that term.

That's an interesting question, and I certainly couldn't claim to have made such an investigation.

I can note, though, that what Tolkien says in the Foreword to the Second Edition of LotR (right after he explains how very different the story would have been if he had intended an allegory of World War Two) is

... But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse `applicability' with `allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. [emphasis added]

Which to my mind suggests a fairly broad notion of "allegory."

#150 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 07:18 AM:

Charlie @ 142... Sigh. I know I said I was going to drop this discussion, but I'll try one last time.

The 'issue' I referred to was your saying "...a lot of steampunk is, at best, confused about which side of the SF/fantasy divide it wants to be on..." You brought that up first, and I then asked how you knew.

That being said, you and I seem to have problems communicating with each other. From the very beginning. My original comment about 2006 being when steampunk took off, you took to mean there had been no steampunk before then. To say that I found your interpretation insulting is an understatement, and had me wonder if maybe people think "Oh, Serge is good at making silly puns, but that's all he's good for because he's an idiot, albeit a nice idiot". My response was more polite than I really wanted it to be. Then further misunderstandings occurred. It went from my saying "This story is steampunk" to your replying "No, it's a Wellsian pastiche", but your not responding to the valid points I then made, again and again.

I'll (politely) say this...

First... You have no right telling people what they should like or not like.

Second... I know more about steampunk than you do.

#151 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 07:46 AM:

Leah @ 141:

It's why you see little girls dressed as Buzz Lightyear on Halloween - because the only way they can be a believable popular science fiction hero is to be male.

I hope it cheers you to know that my seven-year-old daughter was a huge hit this year dressed as Velma from Scooby-Doo. It's not quite science fiction, but I have hopes for next year.

#152 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 07:54 AM:

Lee@138, Chris@125

As far as the "why nobody took over the Shire?" question is concerned, it seems to me that the key issue is whether it's plausible that that whole portion of Middle-Earth remained as relatively empty as it did. Given the situation as actually presented in LoTR, it's plausible that the Shire would remain unconquered. There simply AREN'T any kingdoms nearby that are likely to turn expansionist. And there isn't enough population in the area to support large bands of bandits, etc. (the hobbits are quite capable of dealing with small bands of bandits).

#153 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 07:59 AM:

Serge @150, Personal taste is something nobody other than the person in question can account for. Anybody who writes fiction for a living very rapidly learns that whatever they write, a bunch of folks will inexplicably hate it. I write fiction for a living. Ergo ... (feel free to fill in your own syllogism here.)

I'm not in the business of telling people what they should or should not like, because I don't (and can't) know what's going on inside their heads. However, by describing stuff that irritates me (myself, and I, singular) I hope that someone out there will find it useful -- that it will help them identify what they do or do not like. (I'm also half-hoping to goad people into writing stuff that I will enjoy, but that's purely a selfish motive.)

You are clearly not being aided by my line of argument. But you seem to be reading something into it that I certainly didn't intend to put there, and don't think is there -- namely, you're reading it as an attempt to suppress something you're in favour of. Hint: even if I wanted to do that, I couldn't.

#154 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 08:00 AM:

@152: Or, at least, bands of small bandits...

#155 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 08:15 AM:

Charlie @ 159... Being married to a writer, I quite intimately know what the whole business involves, thank you very much, so you can go refrain from waving your pen. Since I am obviously not smart enough to understand how one is not telling others what to like while also telling us on-and-on-and-on what irritates him, this time I shall truly retire from any discussion of steampunk with you. I do reserve the right to make stupid jokes to others though.

#156 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 09:02 AM:

Gentlemen...

#157 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 09:06 AM:

TNH@124 -- if you've been looking at last season's Paris fashion shots, it's clear that steampunk isn't over at all -- it's won. The fashions that actually look wearable are very much inspired by steampunk.

And to combine the clockwork from here, and the smoking discussion from elsewhere -- have you seen the art-deco style cigarette lighters with watches in them? Were you on the correct coast, I'd show you a nice one that recently came out of my storage locker....

Charlie Stross @144 -- that history of silphium you linked to changed my reading of Robert Frost's poem "A-Wishing Well" significantly. In it Frost refers to a Greek myth of the creation of the moon, where the only people who survived the creation process held onto that plant, which was impossible to uproot. Let's see -- the only people who survive are those who can grasp a natural contraceptive....

#158 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 09:43 AM:

Serge @127, the definitive article on the never-made Beatles movie of The Lord of the Rings is:

Foster, Mike. "Ringo and Samwise: Paradigms?" Concerning Hobbits and Other Matters: Tolkien Across the Disciplines. Tim Schindler ed. 2001. U of St. Thomas.

It's a little hard to find, being conference proceedings, but if you want a copy contact me off-list.

#159 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 09:47 AM:

a lot of steampunk is, at best, confused about which side of the SF/fantasy divide it wants to be on.

Hmm. A bit like stories about a British secret agent using an app on his iPhone to dispel summoned demons, then.

145: abi, I'm surprised that you say steampunk is a female-heavy genre. I believe you; I just somehow assumed that a combination of Victoriana and heavy engineering would tend to be a bit of a male ghetto, and that people like Sydney Padua were something of an exception. Delighted to find that I'm wrong, of course.

#160 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:04 AM:

Years ago, on a long-dead forum (in on-line time, 15 years constitutes an eternity), I made a comment about a movie I enjoyed. The person hosting the topic saw the movie, and tore it a new one. She went to great lengths to say where the movie sucked and why. Not once did she say anything about me or my taste. She didn't insult me or call me names.

Still, it stung. People are defined by many things, and one of them is what we like. And our taste in books seems a bit more meaningful than our liking of other things. After all, we spend hours reading books. And as silly as it may sound, emotionally, it feels more like what we believe (or don't) about God.

Also, we weigh opinions on who is uttering them. I wouldn't have gotten nearly so annoyed if some acquaintance had seen the movie and thought it stunk. But the opinion of recognized writers or editors carries more heft than others.

Logical? Nope. Real? Definitely.

#161 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:31 AM:

Ajay @159: I am perpetually startled at how many people mistake the Laundry books for SF. They're about magicians, dammit! They feature demons and sorcerers and spells and cults and things with too many tentacles! Fantasy, dammit! At least, I hope they're fantasy, because if I thought that universe had even the remotest claim on plausibility I'd be a gibbering wreck.

#162 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:39 AM:

Chris, #125: a cash crop that is apparently renowned internationally (never mind that it's a highly addictive drug that eventually kills the user, speaking of authorial blind spots)

Not to mention, ah-hem, that tobacco, like coffee, like cotton, grown in the kinds of quantities that can make it an international cash crop, demanded slavery -- or at least vast quantities of very very very cheap labor, even after a certain amount of mechanization was in effect.

Nevertheless, this reader bought JRRT's Shire cash crop back when and she still buys it now, because it was / is a Really Great Story for a reader to read, and the tobacco was such a marvelously homely touch, that even became a teeny plot device. That kind of fictional finesse is more than admirable, and more writers should develop it.

Back then I couldn't have articulated it this way, but now I can: the Shire's safety indeed depended on the Rangers, but beyond that, the very conditions of the vaster Middle-earth created an accidental pocket where a very egalitarian culture and society could flourish -- very small, but still flourishing. A world that fell out of time in many ways -- like, um Cuba, for about 3 and a half decades -- receiving the attention of only wise rhythmic wizards.

Love, c.

#163 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:43 AM:

Sorry, Charlie, but the Laundry stories are just as much science fantasy as "Waldo", Conjure Wife, and The Complete Enchanter, as they apply scientific and mathematical methods to the subject matter of fantasy.

#164 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:54 AM:

161: and yet they include a huge amount of sciencey-sounding justification for how 'magic' works. A lot more justification than is attached to the average hyperdrive or transfer booth.

#165 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:05 AM:

Ajay, John Arkansawyer: well, that's because I'm right and all those other fantasy writers who don't write just like me are clearly wrong. (Ahem.)

#166 ::: laufeysson ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:11 AM:

Ianet @92 and others -- by no means would I suggest that Orcs equals nasty Germans. My original suggestion that Tolkien was trying to cut Wagner out could have been better phrased this way: part of Tolkien's multivalent motivation for his major work was that he felt himself in competition with Wagner, as an artist, for use of certain mythical material.

So let's follow up Abi's original insight as follows. If Tolkien wanted to make a particularly _English_ variation of the Ring myths, could he have hit upon any better solution than to plunk an Arts-and-Crafts utopia down in the middle?

#167 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:15 AM:

I think that whenever people are having spontaneous fun, especially if it's something new, there will be other people explaining that there's something wrong with it. There may actually be something wrong with it, but the reaction will happen whether there is harm or not.

My short version is that if something is emotionally intense enough for some people to love it, it will be emotionally intense enough for other people to hate it.

I can't imagine any real world harm coming from even the silliest most light-hearted steampunk.

I think of dressing up as upper class people from past eras as comparative advantage. We're better at making lots of stuff, they were better at dressing up.

This being said, I don't get steampunk. I don't hate it, but I don't feel intrinsic delight at it either, and I rather wish people would put all that energy into something I liked better.

****

I don't get the impression that anyone in Middle Earth except Gandalf smoked very much, and he's presumably immune to the physical ill effects.

#168 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:21 AM:

Constance, #162: Re tobacco being an "international cash crop" for the Shire, I think that's seriously overstating the case. The impression I always had was that it was more like "spices from the Far East" -- common enough right in the area of the Shire and Bree, but beyond that, rare and expensive and a luxury item for the very rich. Under those circumstances, you don't have to export a whole lot of it to bring in quite a bit of money.

#169 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:30 AM:

Charlie @148:

You're right, you have written such rants.

I hope you're not accusing me of getting annoyed because I think there are too many pigtails in the treehouse. That would indeed annoy me!

Let me try to unpack my reaction here.

I had, and still, have a problem with the phrasing "foisted on the SF-reading public," which has a fastidious feel, like steampunk is covered in cooties. Reminds me in deep and unpleasant ways of gays "foisting their lifestyle choices on the rest of us". It's an emotionally aversive phrase rather than an intellectual one. I'll take your word that it wasn't meant that way. (You'll note it rubbed others the wrong way, too.)

And (pace Cat Valente) most of the people replying all over the internets (and in your comment threads) with explosive iterations of "Thank you for saying this" have been male. It's probably uncharitable of me to wonder how many of them have bored their friends witless about the Singularity, or said "ALL UR BASE ARE BELONG TO US", or displayed their Geek Code on their webpages.

I think, basically, that your other rants have been matches dropped in pools of water. This was a match dropped in a pool of oil, and the rants have spread all over the place. I can't really blame you; you just drop matches. But I think the gender issue is an accellerant, and that not everyone who thinks steampunk is overplayed has figured out why it bothers them more than other, overplayed, things that they've simply ignored.

#170 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:39 AM:

#168 ::: Lee

Those spice crops were also farmed and gathered by slave labor. For an excellent description of one of these spice slave industries see The Sultan's Shadow (2010).

Tobacco, on the other hand, is very bulky, and to raise and sell enough of it to be profitable outside its region, demands vast land expanses and vast amounts of labor. It's a persnickety crop as well, that does attract insect pests, that must be hand-removed, even to this day.v It also quikcly burns out the fertility of the land on which it is raised.

"International cash crop" as you could see in the quote wasn't my iteration.

Love, c.

#171 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:42 AM:

168: well, given that there was basically no trade at all between the Shire and the rest of the world, pipeweed was hardly an international cash crop.

Note that even very well-educated and well-travelled people reacted to the sight of hobbits smoking with phrases along the lines of "bloody hell, Gandalf, I think your midget is on fire". And Gandalf was surprised and suspicious to find barrels of leaf in Isengard, remember?

Very few non-hobbits actually smoked. Gandalf, yes, and Saruman (or whoever was smoking the stuff found at Isengard). I don't think Gimli did, though he knew about the habit. Strider?

#172 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:47 AM:

Actually, ignore that - Tolkien made it clear that tobacco grew all over the place, but only the hobbits had thought of smoking it, everyone else just thought "oh, a nice looking plant".

#173 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:47 AM:

Someone needs to write a parody where Middle-Earth discovers Happy Fun Weed. Just think of a hobbit with the munchies.

#174 ::: Narmitaj ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:58 AM:

They just about still grow tobacco in the south of France, and though EU subsidies are running out, I don't know that actual slaves were deployed there even before much mechanisation, though no doubt peasants were. Apparently plantations began mid-17thC according to http://www.france-tabac.com/us/histoire.htm

In fact a modern-English-in-Dordogne lifestyle might not be so uncongenial to Shirefolk. See Rip Hopkins' book of photos of Brits living there, Another Country (Caveat/NB/Warning... I know quite a few of the people in these pics: http://www.riphopkins.com/works/54 )

#175 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:07 PM:

As far as the "why nobody took over the Shire?" question is concerned, it seems to me that the key issue is whether it's plausible that that whole portion of Middle-Earth remained as relatively empty as it did.

the implausibility is because the Shire is anachronistic within LoTR. Most of ME is (broadly) early mediaeval - you can't be specific and say "Late Merovingian" or "Northumbrian" or whatever, because JRRT's imagination was his own and the Visigoths didn't have wizards (Wizigoths?), but the historical epoch seems fairly clear to me. And in early mediaeval Europe the depopulation of whole areas for a few generations seems to have been something that happened.

But in the middle of all this we find, as has been pointed out, a late Victorian enclave (I hesitate to say reverse steampunk), from whose modern perspective the emptiness of the surrounding wastelands seems harder to explain.

I'm sure JRRT does explain it somewhere, but his backstory stuff never gripped me much, so somebody will have to educate me.

#176 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:08 PM:

Abi: I don't like being marketed at aggressively (and that's what I perceive the steampunk marketing bandwagon as being: an aggressive attempt to monetize a literary genre that has recently become popular).

Looking deeper, I think part of what I stubbed my toe on was the result of steampunk having developed a degree of autonomy as a genre in its own right. It's not a sub-field of SF or fantasy, any more than the paranormal romance category is a component of the horror genre these days; there's something different going on here.

(Maybe I'll have another go at it on my blog once I finish beating up on the automobile culture ...)

#177 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:25 PM:

Tolkien called it "pipe-weed" for a reason. To assume that it was tobacco, and had the same growing conditions and physiological effects as tobacco, is to ignore the fact that he could have just as easily called it "tobacco".

It's not the same stuff. It might even be "happy fun weed". Tolkien's comment on it, in the Prologue to Fellowship, says "a variety, probably, of Nicotiana", and much more about it; but it's clearly not simple tobacco.

#178 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:29 PM:

There are two points about the shire and one about Tolkien's whole cosmology which I want to bring up. First, Tolkien makes it clear that there's something unnatural and perhaps even a little childlike about the position of the shire. IIRC, he puts the words in Gandalf's mouth, when the latter is remarking about how the shire is sustained very much through the protection of greater forces (the rangers, the wizards, the elves) who keep the pressures of the larger world out. Second, I think his picture of shire life is romanticized, but I think he intends the reader to understand this. That is made more obvious by the third point: that the big picture (as spelled out in the Silmarillion) is rather a Milton/Wagner remix, in which the Shire is a synecdoche for a world in which the titanic and magical forces have either been beaten back or have retreated. 1420 is a year of great blessings, but the overall direction is to bring the world to a place that is not only normal but ordinary. Sam arrives back home, in the last scene, to a decided domesticity.

Miéville misses one key element of all this, though.1 There's a tendency in LotR for things to get a little silly whenever the hobbits are around, and the scenes of the shire, from start to finish, are filled with caricature, exaggeration, and often more than an hint of the ridiculous. The shire exists as a Neverland within the greater fantasy; in its unrealism even within its own story, it seems to me to represent a hunger for simple and small pleasures; if Tolkien has a beef with the likes of Miéville, it is not only the Big Picture of the humorless ideologues of the 20th century tearing up world2, but also that they won't leave him alone to smoke his pipe in peace.

Finally, I think it is impossible to understand either Tolkien or Lewis without taking into account the way that longing runs as a trope throughout their works--longing both good and bad. So many people want the ring, to the point where Gollum's existence is tied to it even up to destruction. Feanor and his sons want the Simarils. And the shire stands for a great deal of longing, appearing to Frodo and especially Sam whenever they start wondering how they will survive the quest. And of course, the point of all these longings is that whoever has them cannot have the object of their desire. And thus Frodo goes down to the sea, and in the very end, Sam follows.

1 In his rant against Lewis he also seems to have forgotten all about Orual, not to mention (as most people seem to) the specific content of Susan's fall at the end of Narnia. Be that as it may.

2 Tolkien's and Lewis's war may have been the Great War, but the Bad Guys in LotR and the space trilogy are more obviously connected to the Nazis and Communists and their English sympathizers.

#179 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:32 PM:

Am I the only one who reads the title of this thread and keeps thinking of that classic folksong of Discworld, favorite of Nanny Ogg, A Wizard's Staff Has a Knob on the End?

#180 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:35 PM:

in the middle of all this we find, as has been pointed out, a late Victorian enclave

In what sense?
Not in a technological sense. Hobbits don't have anything more advanced than a water mill.
Not in a social sense. It's an agrarian society. No cities, no industry.
Why is it incongruously late-Victorian?

#181 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:37 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @79: Implausible gears

I am innevitably reminded of Gary Farber's comment about watching new concoms trying to organize their Worldcons.

"It's so cute watching them reinvent the wheel. It's hard, however, listening to them discuss how many corners it should have."

#182 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:45 PM:

OtterB @ 179:
Well, there's a part of my mind that's trying to add "or are you just happy to see me?" to the end of the title, though try as I might I can't make a plausible joke out of that.

#183 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:51 PM:

abi @139: Speaking as someone whose gears don't mesh, it's because I can't get them to lie on the leather in reliably meshing positions before I imprint them into the leather with my book press.

Depending on the mechanism you use to do the pressing, would the following work?

Lay out a stretch of clear packing tape, sticky side up. Lay down your gears on the adhesive, in desired positions. Press into place. Flip the whole business, burnish to make sure the adhesion is firm. Apply to leather surface; press. -?-

And because my gears come from multiple sources.

Use a bigger hammer?

#184 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 12:59 PM:

Jacque @ 181 -

I love it, and I'm stealing it.

#185 ::: SKapusniak ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 01:03 PM:

Charlie @ 176

Yes, it's one of these modern promiscuous subgenres, with their free and easy ways. Coming over here and breeding. They'll do it with anything you know, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Comic Books, RPGs, even sotto voice Romance. /shocked tones

:)

...Okay now I'm wondering what the Steampunk subgenre of Literary Fiction is going to/does look like.

#186 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 01:16 PM:

I don't recall, is it ever stated explicitly that the stuff they're smoking is tobacco? Or is it, maybe, um, "tobacco," if you take my meaning?

#187 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 01:21 PM:

Jacque@186:

Tolkien's preface explicitly identifies it as a variant of tobacco.

#188 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 01:29 PM:

SKapusniak @185: Gormenghast Reloaded?

#189 ::: SKapusniak ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 01:40 PM:

Charlie @188: ...as directed by the Wachowski siblings?

#190 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 01:49 PM:

Steve C @173, since Tolkien really took off here in America during the 60s/70s, it was pretty widely assumed that if pipeweed wasn't Happy Fun Weed, it might as well be, so somebody probably did write that. (I never got more than a few pages into Bored Of The Rings.) And hobbits did have the munchies all the time, or at least if they weren't too full from breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, ...

#191 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 01:52 PM:

James @187 -- re-read it. Page 18, in the first edition (I don't have a paperback handy, oddly enough). As I say in 177, Tolkien says "a variety probably of Nicotiana", which is explicitly saying that it's not tobacco as we know it, and he isn't saying what it is.

#192 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:02 PM:

Yes, but it's also pretty clearly not Cannabis.

#193 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:03 PM:

I can see small-scale tobacco cultivation as a viable possibility in the Shire. They weren't trying, as the tobacco planters in the southern US were, for an export crop (tobacco saved the Virginia colony--it was their first, and for a long time, only cash crop), after all. Once one gets away from the Shire and Bree, the only people we see using it, besides a certain Ranger, are Gandalf and Saruman, and occasional dwarves. The model would probably be closer to the original Native American approach--grown for home consumption and local trade only.

The rest of this post descends into rampant agricultural trivia and history. You can stop reading now if you like.

Tobacco here in Tennessee and Kentucky tends to be grown in small fields, in large part because of the intensive handwork it requires, both in cultivation and in harvesting. (There are now machines which will help the transplanting from the seedbeds, which was done, slowly and tediously by hand in the old days.) Most of the tobacco plantings I've seen here run from an acre to ten acres in size--much larger and they aren't manageable unless you mechanize, which is not common with the special varieties typically grown around here. Googling suggests the larger farms in Kentucky top out around 20 acres. I can't think of too many who grow it in large quantities in this area--hiring the labor would be prohibitively expensive, these days. (Which is why, as Constance notes, large tobacco farms pre-Civil War relied upon slave labor; post-Civil War they were a good venue for share-cropping.) Tennessee and Kentucky both were settled to a significant degree by tobacco farmers from Virginia and North Carolina who were looking for new soil to ruin. One of Edmund Ruffin's more useful accomplishments was the study of the combined use of lime and fertilizer to replenish old tobacco land, along with crop rotation--in fact, his work as an agricultural researcher and publisher helped him push his political agenda.

I can easily see a farmer in the Shire including it as part of their other plantings--people here combine it with livestock, soy beans and corn, as well as truck crops, but very few are all-tobacco, unless it's a very small farm. Limited demand is part of it, but the labor is a big factor as well. In addition to regularly checking it for pests, and pulling the blossoms so it will keep growing, a good bit is still harvested by hand around here, where there is a tendency to grow specialty tobaccos. (Traditionally, people go down the rows, with a tobacco knife, cutting the stalks, and someone follows, threading them on a stake, so they can be taken to the tobacco barn for drying and curing. Some types also involved pulling individial leaves by hand as they reached a certain size. Tobacco workers, especially harvesters, are at risk for nicotine poisoning.) Wherever it's grown, tobacco will be a labor-intensive crop, whether that labor comes from a farmer's family or cheap laborers. (I suspect that cocoa cultivation shares some of the same problems, which is why "indentured" labor is such an issue in cocoa cultivation these days--once you study up on that topic, free-trade chocolate tastes much better--maybe because there's less blood in it.)

Tobacco is still a high-value crop, if you can control the labor costs. This gives some idea of yields this year in Virginia per acre; 2008 prices suggest that the 1800 pounds of burley tobacco an acre mentioned in the Virginia report might bring in well over $3K, at the 2008 price of $1.70/pound. In comparison, Virginia soybean production this year is averaging 24 bushels/acre (it's been a dry year, so this is a significant drop), and the current price for January delivery on the Chicago Board of Trade is $13.22/bushel--this works out to a tenth or less of the price you'd get for an acre of tobacco. Maize yields were around 56 bushels an acre, with March delivery prices at $6.085/bushel; again, this is a tenth of the money from an acre of tobacco. Tobacco is thus a good money-maker, but only as long as the labor costs are controlled; crops like maize and soybeans sell for less but their cultivation and harvesting is mechanized, which tobacco's is not entirely so in the US, even now. This means that large-scale production is both feasible and essential, if one is to break even.

It's a tempting crop in less-developed countries because of the high value for small area of cropland--but as Constance notes, it's a soil-killer, unless you are careful to refertilize and rotate, and because of the relative lightness of the work, it's a focus for child labor.

#194 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:05 PM:

um...last time I checked, tobacco WAS "a variety of Nicotiana." Nicotiana tabacum to be exact.

Also, going back a bit further, yes Gimli does smoke (and judging by his reaction in the ruins of Isengard, he's suffering from withdrawal). So does Thorin in The Hobbit. Aragorn is smoking when the hobbits first meet him in the Prancing Pony.

#195 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:10 PM:

re 193: Tobacco has been an important crop for Amish/Mennonite farmers in this (MD/PA) area.

#196 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:16 PM:

Bill Stewart @190 -- John Boorman certainly made the assumption that pipeweed was Happy Fun Weed in his (fortunately never filmed) film script for The Lord of the Rings.

#197 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:27 PM:

ajay@180: I think what's late-Victorian about the Shire are the manners and mores. Umbrellas, as I so famously mentioned above, calling-cards, sitting rooms, gardens, rooms full of furniture and bric-a-brac, a sentimentalized view of the comforts of rural life, moralistic prudish gossips, conformity.

I think you're right that it's not of that historical era, but it's of that cultural/literary era. It's out of a novel of the time.

I have read very little steampunk, but I'll guess that part of the appeal to female readers of that time is that the literary 19th century, in contrast to the real history, is full of many of the great heroines of literature. Anyone who reads voraciously in the English language has a room in her/his mind full of great female protagonists in a Victorian English setting. Why not let some genre-fic protagonists join that party?

#198 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:34 PM:

Janet 196: Fascinating. Where can I read that to see the evidence of it? Or is that from an interview or something?

#199 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:34 PM:

A useful term for this discussion: Horror Victorianorum

#200 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:34 PM:

Leah Miller @ 141: "That's an underlying implication I get from your post, and Stross's: that no tale that borrows from the past is well-constructed unless women are realistically powerless, and if you want to break that rule you have to have a pretty good reason for it, explicitly stated somewhere."

I understand why you see that implication in my comment, but it makes me very sad because that's not a hurt I meant to recall or add to. I wrote so much about women because I was spinning off of Walton's neat finesse of it, not because it's the center of my argument. I'm talking about the implausibility of the airships and clockwork golems your man accepts just as much as I'm talking about ahistorically empowered women; more so, really, because as you say depicting strong women has material social benefits, and not doing so has real costs.

But I do not believe any man who would say that can possibly be described as kind.

I don't think that every change from reality as we know it must be explained or have its effects worked out to the nth degree. The world's far too complicated: that kind of requirement is a de facto demand for mundanity, which isn't an outcome I'd want at all. Some things can and must simply be authorial fiat, so they might as well be awesome. But stories ought to have something at the heart of them that's not simply decreed but is being thought through; otherwise they're no more than an exercise in trope recycling.

Let me try to illustrate where I'm coming from. Girl Genius. Plenty of strong female characters all over the place, not explained.* Comically implausible technology abounding on every side. But I don't care, because the story isn't about gender roles or electrical engineering; it's about mad science, and what the ramifications would be if mad science really worked. So maybe the engineering isn't being taken seriously, but the problems of dealing with a society ripped apart by mad super-beings is.

See what I'm saying?

(Also, it is not "biology that shackles [women] away from all the fun stuff," it's society that does that.)

*Though one could argue that gender-neutral distribution of sparkiness would create more egalitarian societies all by itself. Ahem.

#201 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:35 PM:

Lila @ 194 -- but Tolkien says, explicitly, "probably". That little word makes a very big difference here. It would have been so easy to leave that word out. Add in the closely following comments on various herbs ("some fouler, some sweeter") being smoked by hobbits (same page); it's clear Tolkien wanted some distance from tobacco-as-we-know-it. And what he says does not rule out cannabis; it points away from it, but doesn't exclude the possibility.

fidelio @193 -- thanks for posting those details. I found them fascinating.

#202 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:57 PM:

re 197: I think perhaps you are almost 3/4s of a century off there. "The Scouring of the Shire" plays off of "Jerusalem", which was written in 1804; there is also some allusion to the Luddites and the Swing Riots. The one anachronism which does pull towards a later date is the absence of anything manorial, but Bilbo does play something of the role of local gentry and there is something of the patronal relationship between him and the rest of the community.

#203 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 03:05 PM:

Xopher @198, the original film script is in the archives at Marquette. My article about that and other scripts is: “Three Rings for Hollywood: Scripts for The Lord of the Rings by Zimmerman, Boorman, and Beagle.” In Fantasy Fiction Into Film. Ed. Leslie Stratyner and James R. Keller. McFarland, 2007. 7-20. (If you want a copy, contact me off-list at jbcroft on hotmail!)

#204 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 03:22 PM:

C. Wingate #202: Bilbo does play something of the role of local gentry and there is something of the patronal relationship between him and the rest of the community.

You mean the reversed birthday present custom?

#205 ::: Narmitaj ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 03:37 PM:

I think of the Shire as being late-18thC. Without allegorising it, it also has a feeling of representing the happy (country) childhood that Tolkien experienced before being dragged off into the maw of mechanised trench warfare in the mud.

#206 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 03:53 PM:

Jacque @183:

Lay out a stretch of clear packing tape, sticky side up. Lay down your gears on the adhesive, in desired positions. Press into place. Flip the whole business, burnish to make sure the adhesion is firm. Apply to leather surface; press. -?-

No, because then the tape would leave a residue on the leather. And I re-use specific gears that I like a lot.

I reckon anyone who doesn't like my stuff doesn't have to get given it.

#207 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:19 PM:

re 204: Partly, but also the trail of deference that he leaves behind him. There is something of the character of the landed gentry about him, excepting that his wealth does not lie in land.

#208 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:24 PM:

abi @206 -- the techniques of managing precise placement in intaglio prints (wood engravings, copperplate engravings and the like) have been around for a long time. I'd expect something similar would be possible with the gears you're wanting to emboss into books.

A simple thought, which you've probably already tried: fix the gears on a sheet of paper larger than the binding material you're wanting to emboss them into. A drop of rubber cement entirely hidden behind the gear is one method; I'm sure you have others that would work better. Registration marks on the paper to show where it fits relative to the binding material. Run decorated sheet and binding material through a proofing press. Remove gears from backing sheet, afterwards, for re-use.

Getting the gears to be properly in registration is much easier than managing color registration, I would think: true?

#209 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:28 PM:

From an economic point of view, the Shire looks very Eighteenth-Century-Without-Enclosures as idealised by the late Nineteenth Century -- something that never existed but is effectively "the" late-C19 version of Pastoral.

Similarly, it's social hierarchy looks like an idealised C18 squirearchy -- it's worth noting that many of the early movements documented in Thompson saw themselves as trying to preserve/restore old rights and not to create new ones. Again, it is idealised: deference is not so much a structural element as a grace note to a society of hardy freemen.

I don't think that there can be much doubt that Tolkien knew that this was an idealised picture -- it's an implicit ideal norm against which failures of the real world can be measured, and as such it's more, not less, critical of the failures of the real world.

On pipe-weed -- there's also a description of the plants growing wild in Gondor in an extract from Merry's pamphlet somewhere in the appendices. Although it's not a really precise description, it matches the flowers of the tobacco plant better than it does any form of hemp.

#210 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:32 PM:

tnh@124: Well, that's how we know Steampunk is over -- it's reached the mainstream. :-)

#211 ::: jnh ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:34 PM:

Apropos of nothing at all, have I told you recently how much I adore your 'stuff', abi?

#212 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:36 PM:

Speaking of movies that could have wind up differently... Disney's "20,000 Leagues" was originally going to be an animated feature. As for "War of the Worlds"... Eisenstein almost filmed it in Hollywood. Later, some young director tried to convince HG Wells that the story could be modernized. The young director? Some kid called Hitchcock.

#213 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:38 PM:

abi @ 206... I for one welcomed the honor of being given some of your handiwork.

#214 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:39 PM:

And here's an example of a steampunk band, performing in LA (Rick Albertson pointed me to this, for those of you who know him). Reminds me of Dead Can Dance, musically; and the instruments are worth watching the video for!

#215 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 05:14 PM:

abi @206: No, because then the tape would leave a residue on the leather.

Oh. Ick. Hm. (Was afraid of that.)

And I re-use specific gears that I like a lot.

This implies that the adhesive would damage the gears...?

Would sticks-to-itself food wrap be sticky enough to hold the gears? Would that leave residue, too?

Oh! How about a sheet-magnet, like for those advertisement-refrigerator-magnets? ('Course, this only works for gears made of ferrous metals. Hm.)

This question, in case it's not obvious, has set off my monkey-tinkering compulsions. Hm.... Don't mind me.... ::wanders off staring into space::

#216 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 05:16 PM:

abi @206: I reckon anyone who doesn't like my stuff doesn't have to get given it.

Well, yes, of course. Clockwork gift-horses and mouths and all that. :o)

#217 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 05:32 PM:

Abi @145: As regards the pigtails-in-the-treehouse, I have to say that, besides the Boingboing comment mutterers, I've never heard much negative criticism of Steampunk as a genre. Then, last week, I read not one, but two rants from SF writers about it. The first was Charlie's, the second was from a female SF writer, here, which starts "I am sick to death of steampunk." Though I should point out that she followed it up later with 10 Things I Actually Do Love About Steampunk. So, pretty inconclusive, really.

Still, it hadn't occurred to me, simple creature that I am, that the muttering about steampunk had anything to do with sexism. I can see that some of it might be, the same way that the muttering about anime and manga might be. Damn mutterers.

Still, again. I can't agree that space opera and "hard"* SF doesn't get muttered about or is not the subject of more substantial negative criticism. That hasn't been my (admittedly subjective) experience. "Hard" SF gets a lot of invective; you can make the most obscure mistake in your science and get a mass kicking for it. And that's just from inside the sub-genre.

And MilSF, well, it's very popular, but that doesn't mean that there aren't lots of people who hate it.


*I'm putting "hard" in skepticism quotes, because it doesn't seem to mean the same today that it did when I was a young slanling.

#218 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 05:34 PM:

Telling Urban Fantasy from Paranormal Romance: does anyone have any good advice? I've recently run into a couple of books that looked like UF but turned out to be clearly PR. (Specifically, I'm thinking of the TSTL heroine in one, and sitcom-level implausible excuses to get near-naked with hunky guys in the other.) I may have been Too Stupid To Buy, but I made the same mistake twice so clearly I need guidance.

On the leathery gear thing, where I have the chance of usefully contributing: how THICK are these gears? Are they all the same thickness?

#219 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 05:51 PM:

fidelio, #193: When I was living in Nashville, a regular (as in, every 3-5 years) feature in the local newspaper would be an article about tobacco growing, generally with a quote from one of the local farmers to the effect that "tobacco has been very good to my family". And every time I saw one of those articles, I mentally transplanted it to somewhere in Colombia, where the coca farmer would be saying exactly the same thing. In both cases, that's blood money -- and if anyone in their family uses the stuff, blood money from their own relatives.

No real point here, just that your little historical overview triggered that memory.

#220 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 06:07 PM:

193 Fidelio

Very impressive.

What I hadn't known about the growing of tobacco and its role as actual cash in VA and MD before, I've learned with a vengeance since here.

Considering my raptures over the quality of the foodstuffs here on the Eastern Shore, it was a splendid discovery in Lord Leonard Calvert's rules and regulations for the colonists he was bringing to the Baltimore propriatory colony (or Palintate, as a descendent of VA's Lord Claiborne characterized MD in an address to MD's historical society back after the Civil War) that they were not allowed to grow the cash crops, including tobacco, until they had enough food crops to support themselves and their dependents and their animals.

Supposedly VA's Company had said the same thing but did not enforce it, thus the times of famine and starvation, which MD did not endure, where these regulations were enforced.

Or as in the Barbadoes and other West Indies colonies -- where every inch was planted in the cash crops and all food had to be imported, including that to feed the slaves who did the work of the cash crops. Another reason that the average life expectancy of a slave there was ten years, and why here in MD and the upper South, the slaves could reproduce themselves, and thus become yet another cash crop.

Love, C.

#221 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 06:45 PM:

heresiarch #200:

I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me that I want to know that the author has thought through some reasonable fraction of the "how did it get this way" questions, and that they will show up as needed. I don't need an analysis of the economics of airships or the progression of gender roles in the steampunk timeline, but well-written fiction has that stuff in the background, often not appearing at all directly, but there, like Heinlein working out the orbital dynamics of his space station.

There's some kind of distinction between different kinds of literature here, but I am not sure SF/alt-history/fantasy/steampunk is the right distinction. For example, I think the WOT books have a lot of underlying "how did it get this way" thinking behind them, despite being fantasy in genre. And by contrast, the Star Trek world doesn't really seem to have that, perhaps because of the large number of writers over lots of time building the cannon parts of the world.

#222 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 07:01 PM:

Weird almost-OT questions for SCA-types and others:

I'm used to reading sword-and-sorcery stories in which women are commonly top-tier warriors. Before I read these, I had the sort of default assumption that, in the world of muscle-powered weapons only, women would end up at a big enough disadvantage relative to men that there would be few women trying. My question is, is this basically right or wrong?

In general, if two people are equally skilled at fighting, but one is 6'3 and 220 lbs, while the other is 5'10 and 160 lbs, the fight tends to be rather one-sided. That's why they have weight classes in boxing and wrestling--otherwise, once you got to the level where everyone was seriously good, little guys would have almost no chance in a boxing match[1].

In almost all sports, women and men have to have separate teams/competitions once you get to a high level of play, presumably for the same reason[2]. My impression is that it's not uncommon for a girl to be able to keep up with the boys' team in high school--where she may just be at the 99%ile in talent and skill, and thus be able to keep ahead of bigger, stronger, but less skilled and talented guys. But I don't think that works at a competitive college level, and it certainly doesn't at a pro level. (Even for sports like tennis and golf.)

But I really know just about nothing about either swordfighting or the level of selection involved in being a professional fighter in a muscle-powered-weapons society[3]. In a meritocracy, do we get a sex distribution among professional fighters more like the Protectorate (very rare super-talented women are knights) or more like the Bearkillers (lots of women are professional fighters) or the Rangers (about half the professional fighters are women)? Is there good historical data on this?

[1] Again, this assumes equal skill. I'm a big guy, but if I pick a fight with an Olympic featherweight boxer, I'll be waking up in the hospital with a hell of a bad headache.

[2] My 14-year-old cousin who played juniors tennis could and did wipe the court with me when I was 18, simply because she was just a whole lot better than I was. But I'm pretty sure she couldn't have done that with someone at about her skill level of male players.

[3] For example, I'm pretty sure few armies could be as selective as any modern pro sports team, where almost everyone playing is in the 99th percentile for talent and skill and physical condition, so it probably doesn't tell me anything that the best women basketball players couldn't compete in the NBA. But would the normal kind of selection have been more like high school sports, or intramural college sports (where the best women absolutely can and do compete with the men), or is it more like competitive college or AAA baseball teams (where I think a woman able to compete would be incredibly rare, though I may be wrong).

#224 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 07:26 PM:

Serge @ 150: For what it's worth, I don't think you're only good for puns (if being "good for puns" is not an oxymoron). I tend to like your comments, though I do sometimes wish you'd stick with the idea a bit more, develop it a little more thoroughly. Me defending the virtues of loquaciousness might be a bit like a porcupine admiring the aesthetic qualities of needle coats, everyone should have one, no really!

#225 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 08:10 PM:

heresiarch @ 224... Everyone should have a porcupine? Me, I champion musk rats.

IKind of funny that you should say that about the brevity of my comments. A couple of years ago, Abi wrote about how some people's posts have such a distinctive style that, if they were published anonymously, their authors would be easily recognized. In my case, the shortness would give me away.

That being said...

Thanks.

#226 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 08:38 PM:

abi 169
"foisting their lifestyle choices on the rest of us"

Like my friend Ralph Choiceterfoister?

145 "pigtails in the treehouse" makes me think of a young Rapunzel playing with her friends.

#227 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:24 PM:

Abi at # 140: Let's be thankful that Peter Jackson didn't put Dick Van Dyke in the movie.

Michael I at # 152: There simply AREN'T any kingdoms nearby that are likely to turn expansionist. And there isn't enough population in the area to support large bands of bandits, etc.

Tolkien could have come up with a better explanation for the emptiness of the surrounding lands. They were depopulated by plagues after the fall of the northern kingdom IIRC. But if the Men in this tale are meant to be members of our own species, they would have expanded into these lands in a couple of generations; they wouldn't still be empty centuries later. Tolkien isn't the only one who does this; a lot of sword & sorcery novels have one or two centers of population surrounded by vaste empty wastes. I recall in particular Lankhmar or more recently Tom Deitz's tetralogy where the books are named after seasons and blood or war.

C. Wingate at # 178: the shire is sustained very much through the protection of greater forces (the rangers, the wizards, the elves) who keep the pressures of the larger world out.

And yet they are too understaffed for the job.

Bill Stewart at # 190: Bored of the Rings references every kind of drug you can think of in the Tim Benzedrine/Hashberry episode.

#228 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:27 PM:

albatross @ 221: "There's some kind of distinction between different kinds of literature here, but I am not sure SF/alt-history/fantasy/steampunk is the right distinction."

Yeah, I don't think what I'm talking about--whatever that is exactly--maps onto any kind of science fiction/fantasy genre divide. There's plenty of it in fantasy, and no small measure of sf comes up short on it. (To cross subthreads, Tolkien: case in point. LOADS of working-out-the-consequences-of-X in there.) It's a decent fit for "stuff I think is amazing," but not perfect. Hmm, I ponder.

#229 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:35 PM:

But Walton does tackle that question, and comes up with a terribly and wonderfully clever answer: the difference, the critical, world-changing difference is that in this world women don't get pregnant unless they want to. Everything else flows from that.

That really seems vastly insufficient to me. Someone would still have to take their place, in terms of reproduction, or the society would fail to maintain its population and cease to exist. There's a certain zero-sum quality to the individual decision not to reproduce as long as the women in your society who *are* doing it have such a high loss rate (both of infants/children and of themselves).

Technology has made it possible to have more of your society's children survive to adulthood (so you don't need to bear quite so many in the first place) and made it less traumatic and dangerous to have them, but if you don't have the technology, then you have to replace your population every generation the hard way. Now that doesn't mean that literally every woman has to bear children, but I think at a low tech level it seriously does have to be a solid majority that at least attempt reproduction repeatedly (and, at a low tech level, risk their lives at it), which makes females who are free to adventure *at least* rare, even if you don't have conformism enforcement operating against them.

On the other hand, a lot of fantasy male characters do settle down and have families -- *after* the story, which often takes place during a kind of Wanderjahr between some level of maturity and assuming family responsibilities that would make it hard to go on having adventures. So why were (and in some places still are) women pushed to go straight from adolescence into marriage and family life, with no side trips to Mordor or an airship pilots' academy in between? Virginity fetishizing seems an obvious suspect, but is it really enough to just knock that out of the culture?

Not all of the males come back from their adventures, but from a societal point of view, that's OK -- they're expendable. Expendability is a *great* asset in an adventurer, in the sense that nobody will pressure you to stay at home if they don't really need you at home -- look at all the younger sons, in reality and in fiction. Young men, and especially young men of little patrimony, which includes all the younger sons in primogeniture societies, seem practically programmed to do reckless, risky, often stupid things -- some of which turn out to be cool and/or world-saving, but most of which tend to be the kind of thing that makes your family and neighbors happy to see you head off down the road to somewhere else.

That kind of behavior may not be productive, or admirable, or wise, but it's *interesting*. Few adventure stories chronicle how someone saved the world through meticulous contingency planning or shrewd diplomacy -- it's always the ones who took reckless gambles and got lucky, or sometimes the ones who took reckless gambles and died tragically. The ones who take reckless gambles and die pointlessly don't make it into the stories -- but neither do the ones who don't take reckless gambles at all. Adventure stories are a distorted view of any society, even a fictional one.

So there's a lot of factors (some of which I edited out for length, believe it or not) that converge to push the majority of women toward heavily reproduction-oriented lifestyles in low-tech societies in general, even if the society isn't actively misogynistic or patriarchal; as depressing as it may be to acknowledge all that and try to work with or around it, I think it's bad worldbuilding if you don't -- biology isn't necessarily destiny, but it takes either technology or magic to avert it.

ObSF: Professora Vorthys's comments to [spoiler] about the likely consequences of a sudden reduction in technology in _Komarr_. They're not good for anyone, but particularly for women. Conversely, the effects of a substantial *improvement* over our timeline in reproductive-medicine technology, throughout most of the same universe.

#230 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:43 PM:

the shire is sustained very much through the protection of greater forces (the rangers, the wizards, the elves) who keep the pressures of the larger world out.

To protect the land without ruling it over a long term, you and all your successors have to be inhumanly incorruptible -- which those groups conveniently are (the rangers are human, but presumably the wizards and elves keep them on the level), but it neatly knocks out the Shire as a model for human societies, even aside from questions of how much technology you *really* want to do without, unless you can also find some wizards and elves to protect *your* bucolic idyll. (Of course the self-protection issue becomes even harder if you're voluntarily renouncing technology and your neighbors aren't.)

#231 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 01:55 AM:

albatross @222:

I had an order of fighting nuns in three of my books. They ran their own quasi-State, claiming sovereignty. The Order was a military body, whose retirees filled civil positions to administer their territory. They actually ruled.

How did they do it? Well, I assumed advanced midwifery and practical asepsis, though I only mentioned it in passing. And a really, really thoroughgoing military drill-training and effective command structure, unknown to the States around them at the time of the Order's founding.

And I didn't imply that the situation was stable. At the time of the action, the Order was being challenged by the armies of a new sort of ruler who had learned (from them) the benefits of genuine military discipline and training.

Nobody actually commented at all on the fact that such a polity has never existed, to the best of anyone's knowledge, unless you give credence to Herodotus and the Amazons and such.

But I don't know whether that was because the gaping cracks were satisfactorally papered over - enough, at least, for the reader to skate over them, to mix a metaphor - or whether the explanations were made actually convincing. I take Charles Stross's point - the problems must be addressed. But I wonder how much and how far that has to go.

There's that thing about willing suspension of disbelief, again. How willing? For how long? Disbelief in what, precisely?

#232 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 01:57 AM:

Ok, I have two more things to say about steampunk. I will introduce my statements with famous quotes from great, important works of art, possessed of the utmost dignity. Ahem.

1."It's not FOR you."

This originates from those great minds at Penny-Arcade, in the strip where they created Twisp and Catbsy, a fanciful, pseudo-victorian partnership of demon and cat, who live in a world with zeppelin spaceships and mice who unionize. They were created to be a one-note absurdist joke; to be unfathomable and pointless... but they tapped into something heretofore untouched, becoming monstrously beloved. They're my favorite part of one of my favorite comics, now. But if you don't like them, don't get them, it's fine. They're not FOR you. They're for me. To a large extent that's what I think Steampunk is itself... it started as boundary-less fooling around, but it hit an untapped reservoir of passion and belonging. Basically if you've decided you don't like steampunk, then leave it alone. I don't like wrestling, so I turn off the Sci-Fi channel when it comes on. I don't write rants about how stupid it is. I also don't try to delineate why it's not good science fiction. If you see a thing in most of steampunk that you do not like, but everyone else seems not to mind it, maybe the writers aren't trying to please you. For instance, it bothers me when there aren't any good female characters in a TV series. Still... I acknowledge that there are good stories that don't have strong female characters in them. Those stories just aren't FOR me. No work of art can satisfy everyone's conditions.

2. "Why do we always come here? I guess I'll never know. It's like a kind of torture to have to watch this show!"

I like Steampunk. I go looking for it. I talk to the girls with the twenty-five-foot polished-brass sniper rifles. The vast majority of steampunk I've come across either is clearly fantastical (Girl Genius), historical parody (2D Goggles), or it offers a decent reason for plausible Super Science! (Deadlands.) Deadlands in particular does the exact thing heresiarch claims Steampunk doesn't often do... provides a specific technological difference between the worlds that allows for super-science (A mineral called "ghost rock" that burns cleaner, hotter, and longer than coal. Also used in the creation of stronger, lighter metal alloys. Some of its powers may be occult rather than purely physical. May cause madness. Void where prohibited. Do not taunt happy fun rock).

I'm looking for steampunk, and finding mostly good stuff. Every once in a while something strikes me as kind of meh, but I haven't come across any of the "trying soooooo hard to be Science Fiction, obviously not fantasy, but doesn't understand the fundamental premises of Science fiction, playing on a badly-built stage" stuff that Stross and hereisarch and everyone else anti-steampunk seems to be constantly stumbling upon. So I have to ask: Where are you finding it? And why do you keep going back there?

Steampunk is its own thing, not just a variety of something else. People who like it seem to be able to find the good stuff. Granted, I'm not looking for the bad stuff, but I haven't come across it in any of my normal perusal of steampunk, either. The only thing I can find that fits the specific negative qualities you've listed IS Girl Genius (which hasn't gotten into fundamental differences in female reproduction at all), and you've all already said you like that one!

(I've got another post in the oven about worldbuilding and adventure stories and Oz. I spent an hour trying to figure out how to link it to this one but I couldn't... so it will come in a bit.)

#233 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 01:59 AM:

Ok, I have two more things to say about steampunk. I will introduce my statements with famous quotes from great, important works of art, possessed of the utmost dignity. Ahem.

1."It's not FOR you."

This originates from those great minds at Penny-Arcade, in the strip where they created Twisp and Catbsy, a fanciful, pseudo-victorian partnership of demon and cat, who live in a world with zeppelin spaceships and mice who unionize. They were created to be a one-note absurdist joke; to be unfathomable and pointless... but they tapped into something heretofore untouched, becoming monstrously beloved. They're my favorite part of one of my favorite comics, now. But if you don't like them, don't get them, it's fine. They're not FOR you. They're for me. To a large extent that's what I think Steampunk is itself... it started as boundary-less fooling around, but it hit an untapped reservoir of passion and belonging. Basically if you've decided you don't like steampunk, then leave it alone. I don't like wrestling, so I turn off the Sci-Fi channel when it comes on. I don't write rants about how stupid it is. I also don't try to delineate why it's not good science fiction. If you see a thing in most of steampunk that you do not like, but everyone else seems not to mind it, maybe the writers aren't trying to please you. For instance, it bothers me when there aren't any good female characters in a TV series. Still... I acknowledge that there are good stories that don't have strong female characters in them. Those stories just aren't FOR me. No work of art can satisfy everyone's conditions.

2. "Why do we always come here? I guess I'll never know. It's like a kind of torture to have to watch this show!"

I like Steampunk. I go looking for it. I talk to the girls with the twenty-five-foot polished-brass sniper rifles. The vast majority of steampunk I've come across either is clearly fantastical (Girl Genius), historical parody (2D Goggles), or it offers a decent reason for plausible Super Science! (Deadlands.) Deadlands in particular does the exact thing heresiarch claims Steampunk doesn't often do... provides a specific technological difference between the worlds that allows for super-science (A mineral called "ghost rock" that burns cleaner, hotter, and longer than coal. Also used in the creation of stronger, lighter metal alloys. Some of its powers may be occult rather than purely physical. May cause madness. Void where prohibited. Do not taunt happy fun rock).

I'm looking for steampunk, and finding mostly good stuff. Every once in a while something strikes me as kind of meh, but I haven't come across any of the "trying soooooo hard to be Science Fiction, obviously not fantasy, but doesn't understand the fundamental premises of Science fiction, playing on a badly-built stage" stuff that Stross and hereisarch and everyone else anti-steampunk seems to be constantly stumbling upon. So I have to ask: Where are you finding it? And why do you keep going back there?

Steampunk is its own thing, not just a variety of something else. People who like it seem to be able to find the good stuff. Granted, I'm not looking for the bad stuff, but I haven't come across it in any of my normal perusal of steampunk, either. The only thing I can find that fits the specific negative qualities you've listed IS Girl Genius (which hasn't gotten into fundamental differences in female reproduction at all), and you've all already said you like that one!

(I've got another post in the oven about worldbuilding and adventure stories and Oz. I spent an hour trying to figure out how to link it to this one but I couldn't... so it will come in a bit.)

#234 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 02:42 AM:

Leah Miller @ 232: "...hereisarch and everyone else anti-steampunk..."

Leah, I'm not anti-steampunk. I like steampunk; I defend it all over the place. I'm not standing outside shaking my fist, I'm inside trying to take apart a genre I like and see why it works for me when it works for me and why it doesn't when it doesn't, and maybe take a few stabs at saying something interesting about genre and writing along the way. And if at this point you think I'm arguing that bad steampunk is "trying soooooo hard to be Science Fiction, obviously not fantasy, but doesn't understand the fundamental premises of Science fiction, playing on a badly-built stage" then I really don't know what to say.

Shorter me: please differentiate between the people critiquing steampunk and the people who are denigrating it.

#235 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 04:43 AM:

Why is it incongruously late-Victorian?

To me at least, because it's a Chestertonian fantasy, redolent of The Flying Inn. But I'm not married to the specific of this, and I fully recognise that Chesterton was out of his time in many ways. the larger point is that 18th or 19th century, it's incongruous with the rest of Middle Earth.

#236 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 05:04 AM:

The only political difference I can see LOTR having made is that it may have contributed to opposition to capital punishment.

The book looks monarchist to the casual glance, but Aragorn sets the bar so high that I can't see LOTR-based support for any real person becoming a monarch.

I never got the impression Tolkien thought the Shire was a model for a possible human society, just that it was a pleasant thing to think about, and that restoring it was an unalloyed good.

Would anyone care to expand on what Saruman did to the Shire? That always seemed like the most anachronistic thing in the books-- a satire of state communism.

#237 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 05:05 AM:

Shorter me: what heresiarch said @233.

#238 ::: soru ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 07:03 AM:

@235, on modern monarchists:

I think you may be underestimating how far how you would have to travel from contemporary US mores to be a monarchist. And how, when you are that far away, your judgement of character would not be that of a contemporary American.

Probably the biggest and richest country in the world today in which monarchism is a significant political force is Saudi Arabia. There, there are circles whose response to the various troubles of that land is to call for the replacement of the dynasty claiming the title 'custodians of the Holy shrines'.

The ideal candidate for True King would obviously be someone less weak and corrupt, more virtuous and righteous. One who pursued a straightforward strategy of attacking the enemy, rather than calculating the odds on the assumption the Divine wasn't going to ensure victory. One who considered, but rejected, the temptation of using the Enemy's strongest weapon against them. Perhaps someone who spent time in exile fighting evil in the North...

http://mideasti.blogspot.com/2009/12/jihadis-and-lord-of-rings.html

#239 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:25 AM:

It's all very well talking about a Victorian Age, but there were some big changes that took place. And I'm not sure that the general feel can't be extended at both ends, certainly up to WW1. Waterloo to Mons? Stretching it a bit, but I would point to the 1832 Reform Act as a better marker for the beginning of the process. Of maybe the Rainhill trial of 1829. There's a lot of possible markers.

#240 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 11:40 AM:

I got into a lot of unnecessary research. In 1982 apparently 68% of men could lift 110 lb while only 1% of women could [ http://www.warandgender.com/wggendif.htm ]- as they point out, 1982 was not a year where a lot of women lifted heavy weights.

Using blacksmithing as a proxy for sword-swinging, I found this:

http://www.abana.org/resources/discus/messages/4/261.html?1249118139

which suggests that women did the work, they just started later to give them more time to grow, and around 5% female blacksmiths is a reasonable guess. Blacksmiths love leverage and hate to actually lift big heavy things if they don't have to, but that probably applies to infantry just as much.

I also find the idea of screening people to find the best soldiers to be a little odd; footsoldier was a job that very few people did if they had a choice, in [say] 1500 Ireland or 1750 Prussia or 1200 Geatland or 1860 New York.

#241 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 03:08 PM:

#218: How to tell Urban Fantasy from Paranormal Romance: I like Urban Fantasy and despise Paranormal Romance. Simple. If I'm reading it, it can't possibly be PR, right?

Some years ago, there was a panel of authors at Arisia who really wished this Urban Fantasy thing would die already because it was old hat. I am, no doubt, simplifying and mistaking actual stuff that was said. But, see, I still read Urban Fantasy, and I rather resent hearing "That stuff you read, there's too much of it. It should go away."

Maybe one factor in this if one is an author is that if bad urban fantasy or steampunk or paranormal romance is in, there's pressure to write it and it's harder to sell other stuff. Maybe not.

Maybe one factor is that it's hard to find books that aren't clones of [Pick One: Tolkien, Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, Steampunk, King Arthur, Harry Potter] to read. Goodness knows I get grumpy if I see all that romance stuff crowding out the stuff I like.

And, yes, it's misreading to assume that one is being told, "You're dumb for liking this." But, it still feels like a slap in the face. "Hey, we've moved on -- why are you reading this uncool stuff?" is what I hear when someone says "I am so tired of this stuff [that just happens to be what I like], and I really wish people would stop writing it [which means that people like me should stop buying it, as that encourages more people to write it]."

I am, no doubt, oversensitive to this -- these words that, you'll recall, have not actually been said -- after an only tangentially related incident. I decided to run a different kind of roleplaying game than the one I usually ran. And, the author of that game was generous with his time and advice.

He also said that this was a game he'd written way back when such games were just being created, and the new stuff was ever so much better, and this game was pretty much a cripple in a wheelchair compared to the New Hotness.

This stung. I am not cool enough to ditch the stuff other people have moved on from.

And, I even understand part of this from a design point of view. Some RPG designers are bored by their old games because they've written them and solved the design issues involved with them. They want to move on to something new.

Another factor: At World Fantasy years ago, there was a panel about quest fiction, and one of the authors expressed a wish for a moratorium on it.

Patricia McKillip said, "Does this mean I have to stop writing? Because that's all I write."

After much discussion, very civil, the other author said, "Yes! I have seen the light! There should be a moratorium on Bad Fiction!"

And with this we all agreed.

Of course, just what constitutes Bad Fiction is another question.

But, back to the question of telling Paranormal Romance from Urban Fantasy: I grew up with Urban Fantasy being defined as What Charles De Lint and Emma Bull Write, never mind that this is ignoring the Other Books that Emma Bull Wrote. It includes the Borderlands books. So, for me, it involves artists and music and elves and, of course, cities. It's set in more or less some version of our world, in whichever century the author is writing, but not necessarily a version of our world that could ever exist.

Paranormal Romance has vampires and werewolves and lots of sex. It's also usually part detective story.

And, to my chagrin (because of my tastes), Paranormal Romance is the new Urban Fantasy. They're playing the music too loudly and should get off my lawn. Well, the ones I like can stay. After all, if I like them, they're definitionally Urban Fantasy, not Paranormal Romance, right?

#242 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 03:57 PM:

Lisa Padol (240): I'm with you on the definition of Urban Fantasy. My definition doesn't require the music, but it does require elves. The rest of it, if it doesn't have a primary emphasis on the romance, I call Contemporary Fantasy. And Paranormal Romance *used* to mean any romance that wasn't set in consensus reality, whether contemporary or historical. So it included futuristic romance (most of it very bad as science fiction, imo) and light fantasy romance as well as the current kick-ass-heroine-in-love-with-a-mythical-being stories that took over the label.

#243 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 04:01 PM:

My wife's paranormal romances aren't clones of what's out there.
Just saying.

#244 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 04:12 PM:

Lisa Padol @ 240, Mary Aileen @ 241 -- Would you not count Gaiman's Neverwhere as urban fantasy?

#245 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 04:12 PM:

Lisa, Mary, I agree on "Urban Fantasy", and although I don't like the sex-and-vampires genre that now has that name, I don't mind that it exists or is popular; I mind that it has appropriated the name of something I like, so that the thing I like no longer has a name I can use to find more of it. It's as though "science fiction" suddenly came to mean mundane stories about the lives of modern-day scientists; there's nothing wrong with that per se, but if that's what everyone else points to when you say the phrase, it does make it hard to find the stuff with rocketships. Presumably the solution is to settle on a new name for "stuff like the Borderlands books and War for the Oaks", but that doesn't seem to have happened yet.

#246 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 04:37 PM:

#229 ::: chris

You might be surprised how it all works out when women can control their reproductive systems.

For instance, here's a 1975 song by conservative C&W star, Loretta Lynn, "The Pill."

Listening to it today, a song written from the point of view of a woman who was married at 13, had 9 pregnancies and 6 children, including a set of twins, is enormously enlightening as to exactly what it means to have pregnancy likely happen to a woman every time she has sex when not pregnant.

If this were allowed and possible in the past think of how different the world might be.
Love, C.

#247 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 04:40 PM:

Which is why I think the birth control pill is the absolutely most important and culture changing technological achievement ever -- and it hardly ever even shows up, even at the bottom! of lists of world changing events.

I know what it meant in my own life.

Love, C.

#248 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 04:48 PM:

#230 ::: chris

Fortunately for the Shire, the rangers, the wizards, etc., have Rivendale and other Elvin enclaves to succor and honor and cherish them ... and their courts are so sophisticated, as compared to the homely lives of the hobbits, who only have pipeweed to possibly recommend their community to the Great.

Thus only the truly Great such as Gandalf and Aragorn do know the Shire.

Does this not make for a tremendous Story?

Love, c.

#249 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 05:17 PM:

lorax (244): although I don't like the sex-and-vampires genre that now has that name [Urban Fantasy], I don't mind that it exists or is popular; I mind that it has appropriated the name of something I like, so that the thing I like no longer has a name I can use to find more of it.

Exactly! 'Paranormal Romance' now has the same problem.

Joel Polowin (243): I've never read Neverwhere, but if it doesn't have Faerie intruding into everyday human reality, I would characterize it as contemporary fantasy, not urban fantasy. I realize that this puts me at odds with the term as it is in common usage, but that the way my mind insists on drawing the definitional lines.

#250 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 05:24 PM:

Lisa, #240: IMO, the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is the amount of emphasis put on the "romance" part of the plot. If the romance is the main item and the mystery or whatever else appears to be a secondary subplot, it's paranormal romance. If the non-romance plot is the primary focus, then it's urban fantasy, sub-genre romance crossover. And yes, sometimes the lines are blurry, and sometimes it's a judgment call. But we're readers of SF and fantasy, so we should already be comfortable with that, right? :-)

#251 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 06:16 PM:

Constance @ 246

Which is why I think the birth control pill is the absolutely most important and culture changing technological achievement ever -- and it hardly ever even shows up, even at the bottom! of lists of world changing events

I have thought something like this - except for the not having noticed how it never shows up in lists (which I'm sure you're right about) - since about the time, twenty years ago, when I had to think hard about why, despite the various kinds of deep-rooted emotional attachment that I might feel to it - I wasn't any kind of Burkean conservative. (The fact that Burkean conservatism was apparently incompatible with my tribal loyalty to the British Labour Party didn't really seem to come into it; partly because, growing up and coming to political consciousness in the 1980s, I'd already formed the view that among the more important of the deep-rooted organic institutions of the UK were the National Health service and the Trades Union Congress.)

And yet, there's something that puzzles me about this as well. Because it's not as though this is the only form of contraception known to the human race. So why did the contraceptive pill have this effect, when barrier contraceptives did not. (I've got a vague memory of being told at school about a historian - possibly Lawrence Stone - in the 1970's working out what forms of contraception were in use in the seventeenth century by estimating failure rates on the basis of births recorded less than 9 months after marriage.

(Real historians, please don't jump on me too hard for my garbled recollection of a methodology that has, no doubt, now been thoroughly critiqued. For I mention this at least in part as a way of recalling my younger self's geeky delight at the thought that one might be able to access such unrecorded facts about the past through the awesome power of mathematics. ))

#252 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 06:17 PM:

C Wingate @ 199. Though I don't agree with Charlie Stross about steampunk (I've only read a little, and have liked most of what I have read), I do think that Horror Victorianum is a real and significant force in some people's psychological and aesthetic make-up (including mine).

The Wikipedia link seems a bit tendentious, though, insofar as it spoeaks of an irrational aversion to Victoriana. I don't feel my aversion is at all irrational - it seems like a natural reaction to seeing, during a particularly formative time in my life,institutions which I cherish (vide supra) attacked in the name of a return to 'Victorian values'.

I wonder whether there's some of that going on in Charlie's response to steam-punk? (He's older than me, but will, I'm sure, know exactly what, and who I am thinking of).

It's probably worth adding - to anticipate an obvious objection - that even where authors are well aware of the darker side of the Victorian Age, it's often easy to feel that books with a Victorian theme are packaged in such a way as to draw on a presumed positive buzz about the Victorian Age. And this can be somewhat alientating, if one does not have the presumed positive feeling; or - perhaps to an even greater extent - has it, and is at the same time deeply suspiciuous of its place in one's make-up.

(It's also worth saying that it many cases the appeal, at the level of marketing to a presumed positive buzz about Victoriana also cuts against what the author is themselves trying to do: a good, non-steam-punk example of that sort of thing might be a book like Sarah Waters' 'Fingersmith' which relies for its force on making dramatic to us a fact about Victorian fiction which we can easily make invisible to ourselves. Come to think of it, I'm even wondering whether the fact that there is this disconnection between what it is that is presumed to make the fiction seem appealing and what actually makes the story tick explains some of the sense of disconnect that Scott westerfield noticed between what people have been saying about steampunk and what you actually find in prominent examples of the genre.)

I'm also wondering whether the particular role that appeal to 'Victorian values' played in British political debate in the 1980s might be leading to a certain amount of trans-Atlantic cross-cultural miscommunication here. I'm not quite sure I can well explain some of the resonances that apparently innocuous talk about the great Victorian age has for me. But - to take an obviously risky comparison, it's perhaps like a milder version of what many people here might feel when hearing a politician from, say, Tennessee, talking about the values and virtues of the ante-bellum South.

#253 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 06:19 PM:

Oh, and while we're in the vague vicinity of the topic: while it's neither as conspicuous nor as extreme as the impracticality of (middle and upper-class) Victorian clothing, barking spiders! but the detachable starched collar (with studs, fore and aft) is one of the most ludicrous and uncomfortable garments I have ever had the misfortune of wearing.

#254 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 06:31 PM:

Dave Luckett @ 231:

And a really, really thoroughgoing military drill-training and effective command structure, unknown to the States around them at the time of the Order's founding.

This shows that you appreciate something that a lot of fantasy writers miss: warfare, even medieval warfare, is quite a lot more than a bunch of knights bashing each other (and their horses) up. Knowing something about military operations is important even if you're not writing about the battles; IMHO this is another one of those places where not thinking things through weakens the story.

#255 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 06:59 PM:

praisegod barebones @250, the contraceptive pill was the first contraceptive method (since Silphium) that a) was entirely under the woman's control and b) could be deployed in advance, rather than at the time of coitus.

No more relying on a man to pull out, or wear a condom, and no messing around with a diaphragm in the moment, which might trigger objections from the man. That was a major advance.

#256 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 07:01 PM:

praisegod barebones @250, you asked "So why did the contraceptive pill have this effect, when barrier contraceptives did not."

On a very simplistic level, because the woman is in complete control of the contraception. She does not need the cooperation of her partner in any way whatsoever to use it.

#257 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 07:06 PM:

praisegod barebones @ 250:

My own theory is that the pill is a major paradigm shift because it is not only a contraceptive technique that is controlled by women without any requirement for action by men, but even more because it can be used secretly by a woman without her male partner(s) knowing about it. So it's possible for a woman to be in control of her reproduction in spite of anyone else. Remember that contraception was illegal (and strongly opposed by patriarchal organizations like the hierarchy of the Catholic Church) in a lot of places when the pill was first developed.

#258 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 07:20 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 248 -- Neverwhere has something intruding into everyday human reality in an urban setting (London). It certainly has elements in common with Faerie: noble families, people with magical abilities, monsters, and so on. But it's not much like the traditional Faerie, and there aren't any elves as such.

#259 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 07:32 PM:

I usually read the whole thread before posting because someone usually beats me to the punch. However, I just can't help myself.

Charlie Stross at his initial steam-spout article....

I guess I define steam punk^ differently than you do. I've never considered steam punk to be alt-history. I've always considered it to be "retro-futurism." Mostly it's an aesthetic grouping of concepts that include: neo-industrialism, expansion, exploration, alchemistry^^ and/or paranormal physics. In short, it's the opposite of an i-podish Star Fleet aesthetic where all you have are smooth surfaces, rounded corners and flashing lights.

Leah at 141 reads as though she has issues with lack of character development that allows for women to be adventurous and have adventures. She has a right to complain. There are damn few SF/F heroines worthy of the title.

The classic SF/F response to her complaint is to re-write world to allow women the freedom to be heroic. Which is what you suggest in post #144. The romance response is to damn the world and have adventures anyway, believable science or not. That is why I think a lot of paranormal romances are getting shelved in the SF/F section. They're women's adventure stories written by women for women. Men can come along for the ride if they want. Or not. Paranormal romances have different world building requirements~ than science fiction or fantasy novels.

Charlie Stross at 144
I read this post and all I got from it was "Charlie has issues with poor world building and handwavium science."

I have to say that I'm with you on that one, but I still liked Carriger's first book enough to buy the second one. (I haven't had time to read it yet, but a quick skim of the first chapter tells me it's more of the same.) This is because I expected it to be a paranormal romance from the first~~.

I haven't read Cherie Priest's steam punk efforts yet, but from the descriptions, they sound very Indiana Jones-ish. I also like Indiana Jones.

-----
^I also don't consider Gail Carriger's series to be SF/F. It falls firmly in the Paranormal Romance* genre. Just like the other new genre urban fantasy is what happened when romance writers/readers realized "I can has horror AND romance? Together?"

^^ a cross of alchemy and chemistry

~ I read multiple genres quite happily. I get something different from each one. SF/F is for a full immersion experience where I'm engaged in the story. It's mental meat-and-potatoes. Romance and its various sub-genres is mental popcorn. I don't have to think, I just have to go along for the ride.

~~ Having read the earliest examples of paranormal romance, the stuff on the shelves now is truly master class when it comes to successfully working with SF/F world building criteria. That's why a lot of them are getting shelved in the "wrong" category. The SF/F and Romance genres are truly crossing, possibly even cross pollinating.

-----
* I also parsed your original article as kin to the "hate" part of the love/hate dichotomatic response Bujold got from the SF/F community with her Sharing Knife series. Your article sounds remarkably similar to the cries of outrage at "romance cooties" in what should have been a standard Extruded Fantasy Product. Bujold had the (dis)advantage of going into her series knowing she was mixing Fantasy and Romance on purpose in a genre experiment.

#260 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 07:56 PM:

Joel Polowin (257): I'll have to try Neverwhere eventually. Whether or not I wind up classifying it as urban fantasy, it does sound good.

#261 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:01 PM:

#227: Which part would Dick Van Dyke have played?

#262 ::: NelC sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:17 PM:

And what spam!

#263 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:20 PM:

#261: tl;dr

#264 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:28 PM:

Good god! 261 is like someone set a bot to harvest random phrases from every right-wing blog in existence. It's epic.

#265 ::: Xopher joins the chorus against the log-stupid tl;dr c&p SPAM SPAMMITY SPAM ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:31 PM:

Jesus Maria. What an archetypal example.

#266 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:53 PM:

I didn't like the way it ended in mid-sentence just as it was getting interesting. Can't we have simple infinite-length posts around here?

#267 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 09:04 PM:

Bruce, #256: Yes. And, being of the generation that came to sexual maturity just as the Pill was coming into general use, I remember a noticeable amount of fuss about the fact that a woman could "cheat" her husband by using it. There were stories about men who, on discovering their wife's (or girlfriend's) store of Pills, would flush them down the toilet and then rape the woman repeatedly -- enough of them that the concept made it into one of my otherwise-completely-unremarkable creative-writing class submissions. The idea of a woman being in control of her own procreative ability was really anathema to an awful lot of people... and still is; one of the tactics used by forced-birthers has been to claim (falsely) that the Pill is an abortifacent, and that's one of the excuses commonly offered by pharmacists (who are supposed to know better!) who refuse to fill prescriptions for it.

rikibeth, #263: Seconded. Somebody's off their meds, and on the wrong thread to boot.

#268 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 09:04 PM:

266
It probably hit the comment-size limit. I think we've had it happen before, and with that kind of comment.

#269 ::: linnen ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 09:27 PM:

Forgive me if I address something that was answered already, but here are three reasons why the Shire has not been taken over and / or why humans have not expanded into the near-by areas.

I) Humans are not the top of the food chain. When even a prosperous (mid-sized?) town like Laketown is considered by its neighbors either as nuisances that can need slapping down or, on the other side, as food, where is the incentive to expand in those directions?

II) On the Misanthrope side of things there is Aragorn's people, the Dúnedain. Rangers at the time of the books aside, what evidence is there that their fore-fathers were good people? That they came second in a one-on-one fight with the Witch-King's (first of the RingWraiths) armies proves nothing. Not having one of the Rings of Power even less. Any out-breaks of the 'Noble Savage' condition would occur generations afterwards.
In any case, here is a group of refugees with a royal tradition of hunting occupying war ravaged lands. Any herd animals at best going feral. Anyone with traditions of farming would have been slaughtered as cannon-fodder during the wars or as atrocity-bait after. I do not see how the Dúnedain would ever pick up any traditions of improving the land. And given that they do pick up a tradition of 'Protect and Serve', I do not see that they would subjugate those that have one. Thus they can only expand as far as being hunters will allow. I am surprised there was no mention of migrations to boot.

III) Finally, consider the town of Bree. On one side there is the Old Forest and on the other the Midgewater Marshes. Were there any other towns? Possibly, but this was the only one closest through in the direction of Rivendell.
On the Forest side, there is Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow, amongst other implied Powers. None of whose would look favorably on Mankind doing any sort of logging in the area.
On the side towards WeatherTop are the Midgewater Marshes. Reclaiming marshes is problamic at the best of times.

#270 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 09:32 PM:

So, back to the thread:

I certainly view the Pill as a game-changing moment; and in the time I was becoming sexually active (the 1970s) it was viewed as such very widely. The mid-70s feminist movement listed it as one of the primary world-changing events. I'd definitely agree. The whole sexual revolution wouldn't have happened without it.

#271 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 10:41 PM:

#243: Yes, I count Neverwhere as Urban Fantasy.

#244: I believe David Hartwell once explained that, originally, "Urban Fantasy" meant fantasy set in cities, as opposed to fantasy with a pastoral setting. I think he said that it began in the 1950s, but I could easily be forgetting the decade.

And, you know, I can't really argue with that as a definition of Urban Fantasy. It's clean. Anything else is what Urban Fantasy is at the moment to the folks reading it. Really, why should my elves and artists definition trump sex and vampires, apart from the obvious fact that My Urban Fantasy is better than Their Urban Fantasy?

More seriously, I suppose there's a generally unspoken "Modern" before "Urban Fantasy". Going by the broad definition, many of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories are Urban Fantasy, but no one is going to confuse them with either War for the Oaks or Guilty Pleasures, which have more in common with each other than with the Leiber.

#272 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 11:31 PM:

Lee @ 250... If the romance is the main item and the mystery or whatever else appears to be a secondary subplot, it's paranormal romance. If the non-romance plot is the primary focus, then it's urban fantasy

True, up to a point. The real difference though is that, in a paranormal romance, the whole story leads to two people coming together. (Don't say it, you filthy-minded people.) Darcy & Lizzy get married and that is their story. The end.

In an urban fantasy, the heroine (usually a heroine) may have romantic involvements that may be pursued into other stories, or new romantic liaisons come along, but the liaison is not where the story is leading.

That being said, can you guess where the following hackneyed plot comes from?

A prim woman hires an uncouth hard-drinking man because she has no other choice. They fight constantly. In the process, they both change, and discover they love each other. And, at least once, the man takes off his shirt.
#273 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 11:32 PM:

The pill was the most effective method of birth control developed at the time is was first used, and it's still up there in effectiveness. Not only did it give women more control, when they did want to have a child, they could just stop, and become pregnant when they wanted to. It's still probably the first choice for many women. Compare it to tubal ligation, which is minor surgery and permanent. Depo-provera has far more side effects, and is riskier. IUDs have a tarnished history. I could tell you LOTS more - I worked for Planned Parenthood for 4 years in the '90s.

#274 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 11:37 PM:

Serge 273
Gur Nsevpna Dhrra?

Or were you thinking of another example?

#275 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 11:45 PM:

Erik Nelson @ 275... Yup. Had it not been based on a book by a man, and had the movie not been directed by a man, I wonder if it'd have been dismissed as romance garbage. That being said, it's a great movie, especially the part with the improvised torpedo.

#276 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 12:19 AM:

I thought Robert Mitchum did OK, especially with the rat. (Not so great with Deborah Kerr, who has much more class.)

#277 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 12:21 AM:

Serge, #273: I think we're saying the same thing in different words.

#278 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 12:24 AM:

Lee @ 278... Agreed.

#279 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 12:26 AM:

Dave Luckett @ 277... I thought Kerr did well with Granger, especially after she gave herself a haircut.

#280 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 01:18 AM:

Serge @ #276, "dismissed as romance garbage." Ah, you mean like that movie with essentially the same plot, Romancing the Stone.

#281 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 01:27 AM:

I agree with Serge @ #273 that the current urban fantasy (that I've run across) usually has a female as the leading character, but Jim Butcher has proven with The Dresden Files that that's not a requirement.

It would have been fun to have the TV show of Butcher's books continue if for no other reason than to see how Harry and Chicago matched up in popular culture against True Blood's Sookie and small-town Louisiana.

#282 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 01:28 AM:

Linkmeister @ 286... Ever seen the 2006 movie that pretended to be an adventure flick, but which really was about a spy falling in love with an accountant?

#283 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 01:45 AM:

Serge, no. Please identify it for me.

#284 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 01:51 AM:

Linkmeister @ 284... The boss of the spy and of the accountant is never named, except by one single letter of the alphabet.

#286 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 06:58 AM:

Lisa Padol @272: Much of contemporary-setting urban fantasy is hard to distinguish from horror: bits of Lovecraft fall into that realm, but Leiber (with "Smoke Ghost"), Manly Wade Wellman (with the John Thunstone stories) and others were seriously mining that area in the 40s. There's an argument for the 30s with the rise of Doc Savage and the pulp heroes, based to some extent on the evolution of hard-boiled mystery fiction.

Non-contemporary-setting urban fantasy: Pat Hodgell's Godstalk, Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles, Mieville's New Crebuzon stories, as well as Leiber. There's not a lot of it, I think, but it's been done well by those folks. A certain amount of it was published in the magazine Unknown in the late 30s/early 40s.

#287 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 07:06 AM:

Before I read these, I had the sort of default assumption that, in the world of muscle-powered weapons only, women would end up at a big enough disadvantage relative to men that there would be few women trying. My question is, is this basically right or wrong?

A few points:
1. muscle-powered weapons differ. From personal experience, lack of upper body strength doesn't affect the use of the rapier or sabre. Fencing is one of the sports in which men and women can compete on roughly equal terms.
2. But it does affect things like the longbow. English archers' remains can be easily identified by the degree to which their abnormally developed arm, back and shoulder muscles have actually distorted their skeletons. I am sceptical that many women would have been able to reach the same degree of upper body strength.
3. "There seems to be an irreducible need throughout history for infantrymen to carry 50 pounds of weight on their backs" - John Keegan. Better upper body strength and greater size means that (again, in my experience) the average man is far more able to move with a heavy load than the average woman.

So, while women-at-arms might be as able to fight, they might not be as able to march. And marching's most of the battle.

#288 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 07:11 AM:

Afterthought to 287 -- how could I have left out Pratchett? He's the best non-contemporary urban fantasist I can think of.

#289 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 07:45 AM:

Maybe it was just reading that Moorcock essay Charlie linked to (and thanks for that), but I'm reminded again that Fritz Leiber is maybe the best least-read author in all of SF.

If I knew how to kick off a revival of his works, I'd do so.

#290 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 08:35 AM:

John A Arkansawyer @290, oh my yes -- Pratchett's urban fantasies of Ankh-Morpork certainly owe a lot to Lankhmar, not least in the guild structure and the economic divide. And he did tend not to let Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser take themselves too seriously. Ooh, there's a paper in there somewhere if it hasn't been written already (wanders off, distracted)...

#291 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 08:45 AM:

Janet Brennan Croft @ 291: The one time I talked to Fritz Leiber I had to admit that the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, of which I am quite fond, were my least favorite of his work. I only wish I'd had wit enough to quote back to him his words about Heinlein at his worst (and I don't think there's any Leiber which can be called "worst"--I can't think of a single story of his that isn't at least really, really good) being more interesting than most writers at their best. It would have been a graceful way past that thoughtless blurt.

#292 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 10:00 AM:

Oh, what did he say about Heinlein at his worst? I have to admit I recently cracked open Number of the Beast and just couldn't read it.

#293 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 10:40 AM:

291: overtly and consciously so - remember that the Colour of Magic opens with the city burning, seen through the eyes of a couple of rogues called Bravd the Hublander and the Weasel. (In the first of many jokes, these viewpoint characters - who have been set up to be the heroes - then disappear and never appear again in any other book.)

#294 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 10:50 AM:

ajay @ 294, yes, he does have that very overt parody at the start. But then as he gets more serious, Pratchett really starts working with the trope of the Lankhmar-type fantasy city and figuring out how it ticks. One of the things I like about Pratchett -- he may toss in some handwavium when he's in a hurry, but it seems it often niggles away at the back of his brain and a few books later he has to come back and figure out how it really works. (In contrast to Tolkien, who tended to work out whatever he was going to work out in advance and in his notes, and occasionally in letters.) Right now I'm doing something on Pratchett's golems, and the question niggling at ME is how they obtain self-awareness. Is it on the same model as the spare belief sloshing around in Hogfather until it finds a locus around which to crystallize? But I don't doubt that if Pratchett does return to the golems at some point that issue will be addressed.

#295 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 11:09 AM:

Linkmeister @ 282... True there are exceptions like Harry Dresden. As for where the female-centered urban fantasy came from... I presume that Buffy has something to do with it (you think?), but I wonder if Dana Scully might be one of the genre's mothers.

#296 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 11:54 AM:

Leiber was a true gentleman as well as an impressive author. I treasure the postcard he sent me commenting on one of my reviews of his work. He thought I got it right....

Fritz may not be read a lot these days, John A. @290, but he's very much remembered by many of us. His 1941 "Smoke Ghost" may well be the archetypal contemporary urban fantasy story.

#297 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 01:00 PM:

ajay @288:

"There seems to be an irreducible need throughout history for infantrymen to carry 50 pounds of weight on their backs" - John Keegan. Better upper body strength and greater size means that (again, in my experience) the average man is far more able to move with a heavy load than the average woman.

Couple of thoughts here.

Women have less upper-body strength, but more in the lower body. So we do better carrying weight there, which means we need a wide, well-placed hip strap on our packs. The shoulder straps become merely a balance aid to keep the pack from falling off at the top.

Really, the determinant is body mass. When you go by percentages, my experience is that men and women can carry about the same (25 - 30% was the norm when I was last active in the backpacking world). So the problem is generally that we're lighter rather than weaker in the upper body.

I'd submit that the historically irreducible 50 pound load is partly determined by the average strength of men, and that a military where everyone couldn't sustainably carry that would not just give up and stop being soldiers. They'd re-engineer the load.

But while looking into this, I found a really neat study (pdf) on what factors affect female soldiers' ability to carry varying loads over a set distance. These are fit soldiers rather than woman-on-the-street subjects, so they're easily over the 25 - 30% line. Their average mass was 61.3 kg (135 lb). The description of the loads used kind of spans your 50-pound figure:

The “fighting load” weighed 14.2±0.59 kg (31 lb) and consisted of the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU), boots, body armor, Kevlar helmet, equipment belt, loadcarriage vest, dummy grenades, ammunition clips, and M-16 rifle. The “approach load” included the fighting load plus 13.6 kg of weight in a backpack, totaling 27.2±1.2 kg (60 lb), while the “sustainment load” included the fighting load plus 27.2 kg of weight in a backpack, for a total of 40.6±1.1 kg (90 lb).

And there's some additional information of interest about typical loads carried by soldiers:

The loads selected for the study are similar to those cited in the U.S. Army field manual on foot travel ... It states that up to 72 lb may be carried on "prolonged dynamic operations" and that "circumstances could require soldiers to carry loads heavier than 72 lb, such as approach marches through terrain impassable to vehicles or where ground/air transportation resources are not available. These ... loads can be carried easily by well-conditioned soldiers. When the mission demands that soldiers be employed as porters, loads of up to 120 lb can be carried for several days over distances of 20 km a day" and "loads of up to 150 lb are feasible.” Soldiers in actual combat operations have often reported carrying loads well in excess of 100 lb (45 kg).

The conclusion of the study was, basically, that people with higher masses of muscle tissue can carry heavier loads, but it was only variant at the highest load levels. General fitness also correlated well to the ability to carry heavy loads at speed across distance. Body fat, however, did not (within the test sample of fit soldiers).

Sorry.. got sidetracked by the shiny shiny data there...

#298 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 01:50 PM:

Sandy B. at 218

You mean there is urban fantasy out there that's not paranormal romance?

There's a romance rule of thumb in the RWA that the hero and heroine have to meet in chapter one. So scan the first chapter or two. I've come across one writer that was obviously a SF/F writer who does Urban Fantasy. In every case, the male love interest was known by the female love interest before the book got started or they were on seemingly opposite sides in the opening conflict.

I'm one of the reasons the big chain stores have comfy chairs. I won't buy anything unless the first chapter hooks me.

#299 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 02:23 PM:

Albatross @ 222

I know for a fact that my local collegiate women's basketball team scrimmages against male athletes even if they don't practice with the men's BB team. My nephew, D, was on the practice team because his buddy was in the ROTC. The ROTC were the only males who wouldn't go easy on the female BB players. In return, the women didn't go easy on the men/their opponents. D got a lot of bruises during practice. He said their level of play was much more aggressive than the high school basketball teams allowed - male or not. The WNBA recruits all their players from college teams for what that's worth to you.

I'm also reminded of the story my former crew-captain friend tells about how the ROTC Commanding Officer approached her and her rowers about the best way to get a workout from the ergs they practiced on. The women were consistently out-performing his recruits.

I also go to the gym and do strength training. I can lift as much as a man -- as long as he's not a competition weight lifter. I also have large bones and heavy muscles. So much so, that I will never get below a size 12 in clothing unless I become a famine victim.

The short answer is, regarding sports and physical activity like combat, it depends on how you use what you have available.

Perception also matters. Otherwise, Title IX in the USA would not still be invoked on a regular basis. Most US colleges use their sports teams for a sideways sort of advertising. Men's sports bring in more advertising dollars than women's sports do, so men's sports get more of the Athletic departments' operational budgets.

#300 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 03:41 PM:

Tom Whitmore@214, Abney Park aren't just a steampunk band, they're pretty much the canonical one. (I suppose that a band like The Brassworks could try to redefine the genre, but you'd have to interpret the "punk" part pretty broadly, to include polkas played at Ramones speed.) They did a concert in conjunction with the Steampunk Con here in the Bay Area a couple of years ago, and they arrived late after taking the inaugural flight of the Airship Ventures zeppelin service, and apologized for not having hijacked it, which a band with songs about Airship Pirates really ought to have done.

#301 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 06:07 PM:

Tom Whitmore @ 297:

Many of Fritz Leiber's books remain in print today, and periodically get reprinted. I was very happy to see a new printing of "Our Lady of Darkness", my favorite of his urban fantasies, not too long ago.

abi @ 298:

Those weight limits are why the US Army is so eager to use NPCs, er, cargo walker robots. Officer class soldiers in the past (medieval knights, later cavalry officers, etc.) often had subordinates whose job was to carry and maintain the officer's equipment, and fight (if they were combatants) with lesser weapons and armor so as to be able to carry the extra weight. For the knights this was absolutely necessary; no one man or horse can carry a full set of plate armor.

#302 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 06:15 PM:

abi 298: What about those African women who know how to carry loads on their heads?

#303 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 07:27 PM:

Linnen at # 270: I think your first reason explains the most within the context of Middle-earth. Humans are not the top of the food chain. Other creatures and forces are keeping humans out of the empty lands.

Your second point, about the ethos and values of the Dúnedain, would IMO explain how they kept their hands off the Shire for a few generations. But like Gondor, I can't see their culture remaining unchanged across so many centuries.

Your third is more or less an example of the first.

Thanks, that was thought-provoking, the second one in particular.

#304 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 07:40 PM:

Dick Van Dyke would have played Tom Bombadil, of course. (Cue one chorus of people screaming "AAAAAGGGGHH!" and one going, "You know, I can kind of see that.")

#305 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 07:42 PM:

# 261 (after some spam-related renumbering?): The part we are grateful Dick Van Dyke did not get would have to be one requiring a distinct accent which Van Dyke only imagines he can do.

But my memory of accents in Lord of the RIngs is shot after spending part of yesterday evening leafing through Bored of the Rings.

#306 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 08:37 PM:

Dick van Dyke would have made a great Ent.

#307 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 09:19 PM:

Magenta Griffith, #274, sure but that only works when the pharmacists will fill orders for birth control.

#308 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 09:22 PM:

Dick van Dyke would have made a good Tom B., or a good Ent, but especially a really great Saruman. As long as we can imagine Tolkien characters with American accents.

#309 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 11:04 PM:

"Oh, hit's a jowly 'oliday wif Merry,
Wif Pippin and wif Frodo and wif Sam..."

#310 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 11:39 PM:

Agggghhh! Where's the earbleach?!?!?!?

Joel, thou'rt evoll.

#311 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 12:10 AM:

Which I mean as a compliment. My admiration, sir. I owe you chocolate.

#312 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 12:25 AM:

Re Dick Van Dyke: No, no, no, not an Ent! His voice is ALL wrong, and he's far too hasty.

I can quite see him as the annoyingly erudite herbalist, with Aragorn going "Will you STFU and get me some athelas here?"

#313 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 01:43 AM:

Oh, it's got to be Tom Bombadil. Who else has spontaneous outbreaks of nonsense?

Chim-chim chiminey
Chiminey cheree chen
Lucky is a sweeper
Luckiest of all men.

Chim-chim chiminey
Chiminey cheree chim
Lucky is a sweeper
Lucky those who meet him.
Shake his hand for fortune,
Luck to all who greet him.

Now, if life is ranked,
Ladder-like from roofs is hung
You may think a sweep
Dwells upon the bottom rung.

Though Tom spends his time
Working in the ash and soot
In this whole wide world
Is no bloke the happier.

Up where smoke hangs
Billowing and softly curled
Between street and stars:
There remains the sweeper's world.

When day is scarcely here
And lingering the night, O.
Things half in shadow lie
And halfway in the light, O.
Rooftops in London then
Present Sweep Tom a sight, O!

Tom chose bristles
Chose with pride the sweep's broom.
This one for the shaft,
And that one for the black flume.

Though Tom's soot-black
Covered up from head to toes
Still is he welcome
Everywhere that he goes.

Chim-chim chiminey
Chiminey cheree chee
Travel with a sweep means
Travel in good company.

Nowhere is there more
Happiness in company
Than with they who
Sing chim-chim cheree-choo
Chim-chim chiminey
Chiminey cheroo-oo!

#314 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 03:10 AM:

Tom Whitmore @201: "[...] but Tolkien says, explicitly, "probably". That little word makes a very big difference here. It would have been so easy to leave that word out."

I don't read as much into the word. Recall that the voice Tolkien is aiming for in this section of the book is "introduction to translation of historical work from extinct culture". Our knowledge of such cultures is always incomplete, so such introductions usually talk in terms of hypotheses about what certain elements of the work may actually refer to. So dropping in "probably" in front of a fact like this simply reinforces our view of Tolkien as translator, rather than author, which is the way he wanted us to think of the work.

#315 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 06:35 AM:

314: clap! clap!

Perfectly awkwardized and solemnificated.

I use that song from the movie to illustrate what "liminal" means in lit class (especially when I teach myth or fantasy).

#316 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 06:46 AM:

Janet @ 293: The interview was in The Alien Critic number (I think) three and I don't have it to hand, but I believe it was in the context of I Will Fear No Evil that Leiber said that (paraphrasing closely) Heinlein at his worst was more interesting than most writers at his best.

Note he said "interesting" and not "better"--I'm almost certain of the word choice there.

I'd also say Leiber would have appreciated I Will Fear No Evil more than the average critical Heinlein reader (and I can't believe Leiber didn't read critically as well as for enjoyment). I've gone back to read that one relatively recently myself. It's much better than it's given credit for being, and a pity Heinlein didn't get a good final pass at it.

#317 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 07:27 AM:

Bruce @302: For the knights this was absolutely necessary; no one man or horse can carry a full set of plate armor.

As I have been led to understand it, this is bullshit, invented out of whole cloth by Victorian romantics. A full suit of 15th or 16th century plate had to be light enough that the knight could go from lying prone face-down to a twenty metre sprint and into the saddle of their charger, unaided; it's comparable in weight to modern helmet and flak jacket. (You can get a feel for this from modern mediaeval reenactors and/or a trip to the Royal Armouries in Leeds).

Plate armour's weaknesses lay elsewhere -- (a) it was ferociously expensive (had to be tailor-fitted to the wearer), (b) you needed a helper to maintain it (clean and oil and remove rust) and strap you into it, (c) heat exhaustion was a very real possibility, (d) the wearer had limited visibility when it was buttoned up (just like a modern tank crew), and (e) after 1500 or thereabouts the enemy could always build a big enough gun (or array of guns) to punch through the armour: the force balance had shifted from defense towards offense.

Knights needed a support train because the cavalry horse they'd use in combat would also be armoured to some extent, and would be specially trained -- not an animal you'd want to ride routinely -- so they'd need a regular mount along with the charger, and a mount for their page (armourer), and a mule or something to carry the charger's armour ... think in terms of main battle tanks, which require engineers, support vehicles, and tank transporters.

But plate armour being too heavy to walk in, or requiring a winch to help the knight into the saddle? That's just bollocks.

#318 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 08:05 AM:

Mr Stross is quite right. The reason a knight rode a rouncey on the march, and not his warhorse, was comfort and endurance more than anything else - he and his armour and his horse's armour, if any, weighed less than what a troop horse of WWI was expected to carry. Prescribed loads were then anything up to four hundred and twenty pounds. A later destrier was not like a Clydesdale, and certainly not like a Percheron, but more like a heavy Irish hunter. Earlier, they were lighter and more warmblooded. Even so, they were not easy to ride, not being chosen for paces or temperament - and they were generally all entires, which must have made for some difficulty. They lost condition on the march, but more so under load, and had to be conserved as much as possible. They were eye-wateringly expensive, too.

A fifteenth century field plate harness would have weighed between fifty and seventy or so pounds, but this was spread over the whole body. This, as has been said, is acceptable for a fit soldier, especially one who is riding, and nothing out of the way for the well-conditioned horse he rode.

And it should be remembered that even in the fifteenth century and later, only a small proportion of the best-equipped gentlemen were wearing full plate.

#319 ::: MIchael I ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 08:07 AM:

Allan Beatty@304

Another point is that the settled areas in Middle Earth that border on the empty territory mostly seem to be decreasing in population.

#320 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 08:17 AM:

318 is correct. Especially with regard to expense - I've seen a suit of plate compared with a sports car or even a small house in cost, though that's always difficult to do. Also, heat exhaustion. It's not just the plate, it's the heavy padded clothing you wear underneath it.
Big problem at the siege of Malta - Malta gets HOT, especially if you're using Greek fire as a weapon. The Knights had tubs of water placed along the battlements, so if you caught fire (or just started overheating) you could jump in.

#321 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 08:22 AM:

Charlie, 318: THANK YOU.

OK, everybody, we've recently had the spices-in-meat thing, the plate-armour thing, and the women-owning-property thing. Does anyone else have a cherished misconception about the European Middle Ages that we can clear up? (The droit du seigneur was propaganda from the French Revolution. There's no evidence it existed anywhere in law.)

#322 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 08:50 AM:

TexAnne: How about the "life expectancy of 35" one? I cannot tell you how many times I've had to explain that no, it doesn't mean that everyone died at 35. It means that at birth the average life expectancy was 35 years--and considering how many children didn't make it to 5 (see also "Why We Vaccinate"), that means a fair number of people had to get old to make up for it...

#323 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 08:54 AM:

Tex Anne #322 - that they never washed?

Whereas it would have been rude not to wash your hands before a meal (Shame they didn't know about possible cross contamination from the towel), and I'm pretty sure people would have swum in lakes and rivers when it was warm enough.

Anyone got any about alchemists?

I saw bruce's post and kind of assumed he meant carry long distances and fight at the end of them, rather than "knight in armour was too heavy for horse" stuff which others seem to have decided it meant.

#324 ::: Throwmearope ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 09:06 AM:

#324--Texanne

delurking for only a moment (and I SO do not want to pile on)--

http://www.dnaancestryproject.com/ydna_intro_famous.php?id=niall

DNA studies do support droit du seigneur, at least if you're Irish.

I consider myself a medievalist manquee who went into medicine for survival--oh, and half Irish, of course.

I will now resume lurking (which consumes a lot less of my spare time) and return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

#325 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 09:20 AM:

Throwmearope, 325: That's proof that a powerful man had lots of sex (with or without the consent of the women involved, but I think we all know how the world works), not proof that the ius primae noctis existed in law.

#326 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 09:25 AM:

Texanne@322: Have we done "everyone thought the Earth was flat"?

#327 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 09:27 AM:

Carrie S #323:

I think that's just not getting statistics, and largely a problem of boiling down a distribution to one parameter and then misinterpreting that one parameter. You see the same basic error all the time in other areas.

#328 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 09:27 AM:

"Everyone died at 35". Yes, that's a canard. It was pretty bad, mind you. The infant mortality rate was horrifying - probably around 20% died before the age of three. Worse in bad times.

On the other hand, the monastic catularies - there are three series available in England, as I recall - provide strong evidence that few peasants survived past fifty years of age, and this is backed up by the (very spotty) churchyard evidence. The upper classes did better, of course, but hard evidence of population statistics is maddeningly difficult to find.

Washing. Lying around in bathhouses was railed at sufficiently by the Church to rouse suspicions that the gentry did it rather often, although the purpose was not bodily cleanliness, so much.

But the gentry were about one in a hundred of the population, and the one thing that fiction writers, including me, don't say about medieval societies, is the smallness of the agricultural surplus and the low productivity. Of any medieval population, nineteen people in twenty had to be working directly on the land, at least part of the time. Stoop labour, hard labour, that has to be done or you starve rather makes adventure a bit out of reach.

#329 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 09:44 AM:

Bathhouses! Yes! Paris had hundreds of them, with giant heated tubs. They had curtains down the middle so men and women could bathe at the same time. The Church shut them down because...well, bathhouses. You know. (Somewhere there's a woman's testimony that HONEST REALLY she hadn't had sex, she was only pregnant because SOME GUY'S SPERM had traveled through the bathwater OOPS WINK WINK NUDGE NUDGE NO SEX HERE.)

And plenty of castles had holes opening straight down into the moat. A horrible smell in summer, no doubt, but it would have been better than Versailles, where people used the corners of the staircases.

#330 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 09:52 AM:

Thanks all for help with the Urban Fantasy/ Paranormal Romance division. A moratorium on bad writing, indeed! I suspect that I'm judging bad PR by the wrong standards- Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones said something once like "If you call us a ska band, we're a really bad ska band. If you call us a country band, we're even worse."

I've rewritten this a few times, and I'm still not saying what I want to say, but I think there are standard suspensions of disbelief in the field (TSTL, for instance) that I'm not used to yet. I have no problem with two starship passengers having a conversation that is a page and a half of pseudo-physics textbook, and yet I'll look at a woman doing what, in fact, a lot of actual people do and go "No! Why? You make no sense!" ["I know the correct thing to do is go left. I am a smart educated woman, it says so on my resume, and I will continue to talk about why I should go left... and I will continue to go right."]

So yeah, I'm reading romance with my SF glasses on.

#331 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 10:02 AM:

"Died by 35"- I got schooled on this once by someone doing industrial revolution-era population studies. I should have written it down because I want to quote it all the time. Apparently in cities you had an average lifespan of 35 IF YOU MADE IT THROUGH EARLY CHILDHOOD. Something like 16 if you were born alive. In villages it was lower, and before the industrial revolution it was even worse. So yeah, if you made it to 30 you might well make it to 60. Might.

#333 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 11:08 AM:

fidelio #333:

Damn. And I thought the Cambridge wall-mounted sundials were tremendous. (I have a picture of one set, six sides of a base for a pepper-pot tower) almost directly behind me as I type this.)

#334 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 11:08 AM:

Dave #329:

This is one of the common explanations for why evolution has left us with massive systemwide failures starting in our 50s-60s. For most of human history (hunter-gatherer land to agriculture to early industrial revolution), most people just didn't make it past 60, so there was little selection for genes that would help you survive, continue to procreate, and continue to care for your kin late in life. If only one person in 100 or 1000 makes it that far in any shape to do any good for his gene line, then even genes that give a huge advantage in survival probability at that age don't offer much advantage. If they have any negative effects on you earlier at all, they're going to be selected against.

#335 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 11:10 AM:

Does anyone else have a cherished misconception about the European Middle Ages that we can clear up?

The dragons were real, right?

333: nice. Veerry nice. Will have to take a look at that...

#336 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 11:39 AM:

One medieval misconception that I no longer have, but that my students certainly did was the idea that everyone was roaring drunk (confusing small beer with modern beer and the amounts consumed in the medieval era). I've been clarifying this to my students with the detail that small beer was on the order of 1-2% ABV... is this in line with what is known?

#337 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 12:01 PM:

Benjamin Wolfe #337 - re small beer, that sounds about right. My understanding is that you need a percent or so to make sure nasty organisms can't survive. I'd like to have some primary evidence on this but searching online for it is tricky given all the confounding factors.
Also there's plenty of calories in such ale. I've drunk several different lots at events and it is rather cloudy with a fair body to it. It does taste a little odd though to a modern palate.

#338 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 12:15 PM:

@335 - there is NO selection for genes that influence post-reproductive lifespan, except as a side-effect of something else. How could there be? I think you're probably acknowledging this implicitly, but it merits spelling out.

Oh, and on the women/strength thing. Anywhere in Europe, any time before industrialisation, and for quite a long time afterwards, you could find women by the tens of thousands performing physical labour of an intensity and duration that would knock the average desk-jockey into a coma [and test quite a few gym-bunnies to their limits]. They did it because they had to.

#339 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 12:23 PM:

Small beer sounds like what is called "session beer".

#340 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 01:28 PM:

Anchor Brewing makes (or has made) a small beer. It's, um, interesting.

#341 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 01:36 PM:

alex @ 339:
there is NO selection for genes that influence post-reproductive lifespan, except as a side-effect of something else. How could there be?

Aren't there arguments that if post-reproductive life has some influence on the survival of one's children, and if genes affect this, then there could be (weak) selection operating?

#342 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 01:47 PM:

alex #339:

Kin selection and group selection can both give an advantage of one kind or another to genes that are useful post-reproductive-life.

Kin selection is basically where my genes "know" (or "suspect") that you have copies of them, and so direct me to help you out. The obvious example is parental care--protecting your offspring is selected for because your offspring carry copies of your genes.

Group selection is basically where my genes "know" that the survival of them and their copies is dependent on a larger group surviving, and so direct me to do things that work out to keep the group surviving. The obvious example is in social animals, where a larger group (termite mound, pack of wolves) is the effective unit of survival/selection.

#343 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 01:58 PM:

Follow-up to 333--
There's a video.

#344 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 02:15 PM:

albatross @ 222: In the equestrian sports, men and women compete equally (in horse racing the fillies may have their own races, but not in eventing, jumping etc.). So I'd expect gender to not matter hugely in cavalry.

In the "real world", as I recall, a surprising number of women successfully fought, disguised as men, in a variety of wars. Some were not even in disguise (there's some useful info. in chapter one of Kate Adie's book "Corsets to Camouflage").

In the modern sport of fencing, men and women often compete against each other except at the highest-level tornaments. One of my nieces played football (soccer) with the boys until she reached the magic age of 13 or 14 after which they didn't allow mixed teams; the boys were not happy to see her go, because she's a good player.

Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance: I'm with Lee @ 250. I'm happy with a very broad definition of Urban Fantasy (with or without elves, modern or not, etc.), but can't be bothered if it descends to fangs-and-fucking as the raison d'etre of the book, any more that I want to read the sex-and-shopping books. If the female lead immediately falls for the alpha-male jerk, despite everything that's been suggested about her character indicating she really wouldn't be interested; if the main characters pause in their escape from the bad guys to have sex, even thought this is substantially increasing their risk of getting caught; if the plot holes are a mile wide, so that things work out for the romance: then it's almost certainly not for me. If there's real character development which includes development of a romantic relationship, alongside the main plot (or even as a major part of the plot -IF it fits the rest of the story), that's fine.

#345 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 02:29 PM:

guthrie @ 324:

I saw bruce's post and kind of assumed he meant carry long distances and fight at the end of them, rather than "knight in armour was too heavy for horse" stuff which others seem to have decided it meant.

Actually that is what I meant, but I was still wrong, because I remembered that a full set of plate weighed about 120-150 pounds, which appears not to be correct. At that weight plate would be too heavy for a single person to carry, but it would be possible for a strong person to wear and walk around. But if a suit weighs half that, it could even be carried by a single person if the pieces were reasonably distributed. I wouldn't want to try to carry the suit and supplies on a long march, though (not that I could even carry the cuirass after the last surgery, but I'm working on it).

fidelio:

Wow. That Chronophage is like something out of M. John Harrison. Any relation, I wonder?

#346 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 02:35 PM:

Bruce #346 - it was carrying stuff on a long march I was thinking of, since I do know a weeee bit about medieval history.
The thing about plate is that it is rather heavy to carry in your arms or on your back (although there it would be much easier to carry, but when in place on your body it is much more distributed and works rather well. I know people who fight in it, I've helped them get it on and off and so on.

#347 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 02:36 PM:

Alex @339:

As others have said, kin selection.

If a sixty-year-old woman is sufficiently fit to be able to help her grandchildren survive, either by (for instance) obtaining food directly or by watching the kid while her own daughter, the kid's mom, is gathering food, that grandkid is more likely to survive than one without a healthy, living grandmother. Whatever genes she has for longevity are going to thus be selected for.

It appears that female elephants, for instance, also have a lengthy post-reproductive stage (going through something like menopause at fifty, and living to seventy or so). It is also well-known that elephant herds with an old, experienced matriarch do better than those without (it's been suggested that the older animals are more likely to remember the last big drought, for instance, and where the water holes were then); I don't think it's coincidence that two intelligent, social species both have long post-reproductive phases.

#348 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 02:46 PM:

ajay @ #336, The dragons were real, right?

Well, in some parts of the world. I'm reading James Owen's Imaginarium Geographica in which Dragons play a key role.

#349 ::: individualfrog ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 03:21 PM:

Dave Luckett@329 said:

the smallness of the agricultural surplus and the low productivity. Of any medieval population, nineteen people in twenty had to be working directly on the land, at least part of the time. Stoop labour, hard labour, that has to be done or you starve rather makes adventure a bit out of reach.

I have been wondering lately if this was true of the whole Middle Ages or is it a result of the Little Ice Age? I've never really studied the period, and I'd never even heard of the LIA before, but recently I've been interested in the Medieval economy. Before the cooling, were people required to do this kind of unrelieved miserable toil all day every day (as my ill-informed picture of the Middle Ages has it?) Or was that a result of the climate change?

#350 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 03:23 PM:

#251 praisegod barebones

Prior to the 1930's there were "treatments to resume suspended menstruation" in women. They weren't abortions since abortions affected fetuses. A woman who does not menstruate is not necessarily pregnant. If a woman were educated enough to know she could claim "female troubles" and go to a doctor for something to re-start her cycles, she could since "female troubles" was a handy catch all category. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2287919/pdf/brmedj05110-0001.pdf for an early collection of 19th century possible causes for "suspended menstruation"

It was also possible that midwives did more than just deliver babies.*

Before modern medical science advanced to the point where people able to detect fetal heartbeat or create a reliable pregnancy test, the generally acceptable definition of a viable pregnancy began with "quickening" (the mother feeling the fetus kick and move). With better premature infant survival rates, better medical diagnosis, and a better idea of fetal development, the criteria for conception kept getting reset to earlier and earlier in the pregnancy.

The pill and other forms of reliable contraception were considered "lewd and lascivious practices" when they were first discovered. They reduced or negated the consequences of sex outside of marriage.

The political history of women's medicine and contraception is fascinating.

-----
* I haven't heard/read/learned much about early midwife practices before the late 19th century when the male-only AMA and other doctor-oriented medical practices did their best to run midwives out of business. Early medical practices were as much about expanding the "market share" as it was about making people well.

#351 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 03:41 PM:

Medieval maybe-canards... late puberty, figured by reversing the secular trend??

#352 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 03:53 PM:

So just how much (or how little) did they bathe in the Middle Ages?

#353 ::: Stuart in Austin ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 04:06 PM:

Bruce @ 346

Did you mean M. John Harrison or did you mean John Harrison of Longitude fame?

The Chronophage is a visual pun on the grasshopper escapement that was invented by John Harrison. See the illustrated edition of Longitude for a steampunk's wet dream.

The purpose of a clock escapement is to meter out the power of the spring or weight as uniformly as possible. Sculptor David Roy builds spring powered kinetic sculptures that are escapements that release energy in a slow random way.

See: here

There are some fine wooden clocks here: rabbit's clocks In particular see Time Warp about half way down the page.


They just announced on the local classical station that composer Henryk Gorecki has died.

#354 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 04:18 PM:

INdividual frog #350 - the little ice age is generally taken to start around the 16th century, which whilst generally being taken as post medieval/ rennaissance no doubt had a great deal of overlap in farming methods with the earlier time.

As for the 19 out of 20 working on the land most or some of the time, that seems waaaayy too high for me. I'd accept 80%, or 16 out of 20, but 19 out of 20 makes it hard to see the monks, the inhabitants of towns, the gentry and nobles and artisans and so on. Medieval population studies is something I've not looked at much before, so there is a gap in my library needing to be filled. The only thing I have to hand right now is in a book on the clothes of Henry VIII's servants, which has a wee diagram showing 58% of the population as labourers, 1% as paupers, 23% as artificers and yeomen, 7% as burgesses and citizens and 3% as nobles and gentry. Obviously having more than half your population labouring to produce enough food to feed the other half is not ideal, but a long way away from 19 out of 20. Perhaps it was much worse in the early medieval period.
Basically, I refuse to accept the 19 out of 20 thing without some pretty good evidence for it or a suitable re-definition of what is meant and when it is meant.

#355 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 05:10 PM:

Alex @ # 339, indeed.

"That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?"

#356 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 06:09 PM:

Well, since this thread is already discussing nitpicks, I might as well note that the "Ain't I a woman?" version of Sojourner Truth's speech is itself rather embellished, according to the historians I've read on the subject.

("Ain't I a woman?" was first published by Frances Gage in 1863, some 12 years after the speech. Gage's version includes lots of heavy dialect, much of which is removed in most modern quotations. The Gage version differs a fair bit from an earlier account of the speech published in 1851, shortly after it was delivered. It may be that the earlier version left some things out, but on the other hand Truth doesn't appear to have anywhere near 13 children, as she is quoted to be claiming in Gage's version.)

Truth does say she works as hard as a man in both versions, though not as colorfully in the 1851 version as in the 1863 version.

#357 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 07:08 PM:

Steve C.@353: So just how much (or how little) did they bathe in the Middle Ages?

Most times and most places? Bearing in mind that "in the Middle Ages" covers roughly a thousand years and -- if you're being Eurocentric about it -- an entire continent, the answer is, probably as often as they could manage it, when "managing it" usually involved either finding a natural source of (probably cold, unless they were lucky enough to be living someplace with natural hot springs, like Iceland) water and immersing themselves in it, or carrying cold water by buckets-full to a heat source, then carrying the heated water by buckets-full to a bathtub.

Under those circumstances, managing to bathe -- or at least wash oneself all over -- once a week is doing really well. (The Old Icelandic word for "Saturday" was laugardagr="bath day." So presumably even the Vikings washed when they were at home.)

#358 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 07:25 PM:

Dave L. at # 329? Catularies? Neither Wiktionary nor the OED know this word.

#359 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 07:50 PM:

Allan, 359: Try "cartulary" instead.

#360 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 07:54 PM:

Speaking of horses and speaking of Tolkien, where did Shadowfax learn to go home all by himself?

#361 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 08:07 PM:

Benjamin Wolfe @337 One medieval misconception that I no longer have, but that my students certainly did was the idea that everyone was roaring drunk...

But every now and then everyone would be thirsty hanging around in their armour waiting for a battle, and it happened that this batch was stronger than usual... I don't think that every unusual decision or occurance that appear in medieval histories can be blamed on people being drunk, but some can be.

There's a story about Alexander the Great's army; they would add wine to their water, and the worse the water, the more wine they added. As it happens, the further East they got, the worse the water got, and they're running around all day in armour in a hot dry climate, so they were all half cut. Which goes some way to explain the wierdness that starts to happen as the army heads East.

#362 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 09:39 PM:

Favorite misconceptions about the Middle Ages:

—they all rode around all day on pigs. Sows, mostly; only the nobility rode boars. It was a sumptuary law.

—the cone-shaped hats are, if anything, understated in Hollywood movies. These were worn in imitation of the Coneheads who dominated Europe from their home in the south of France.

—third-through-nth sons were often sold to traveling Romany bands to avoid dividing the estate.

—European royalty really did have blue blood. They tended to die young, however, and eventually the blue-blood strain died out. Some Euroyals are still kind of blue, but if you prick them they bleed red nowadays.

#363 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 10:10 PM:

Shadowfax was sentient.

#364 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 01:01 AM:

Sorry about the length of this. It is a contentious argument. Prof Lumsden, who taught this at UWA, was very much a "peasants" rather than a "Princes" historian. And I might be wrong.

Still, I stand by the nineteen out of twenty, at least some of the time. Monks worked the land - they were probably the best of all at it - and that labour actually absorbed most of the man-hours available to an average religious community. Certainly there were scriveners and choir monks, but the proportion was small; and even they contributed agricultural labour in high seasons. There were chantry priests, who did nothing but sing Mass, all day, every day. Again, they were few. Most priests worked a glebe.

Out of the population of three and a half million or so in England and Wales in 1340 - the high point until the sixteenth century or later - only about a hundred thousand, or less than three per cent, were urban, and more than half of those were Londoners.

The rest lived in villages, mostly, and in medieval villages everyone from five years old upwards worked on the land all or some of the time, including the smith, the priest and the miller. The lord didn't, of course, but that was one family in dozens. The reeve and the steward had management roles, but they were still engaged on working the land.

There are fringe exceptions - fishers and salters, for example - but really, they were still engaged in primary food production, and I'd claim them as part of my nineteen in twenty, although, true, they weren't working the land.

The wool trade was important, in a sense, but again relied on the agricultural efforts of many to allow a few to be traders, merchants, and later (for most exported wool as late as the fourteenth century was exported raw) to be engaged in manufacture. Until late in the period, what commercial woollen cloth production there was, was done on a cottage basis, and only rarely would the workers in it actually have regarded it as their main occupation, let alone their only one.

So I'll modify the statement this far: nineteen out of twenty people in medieval England were engaged in primary production, most of them peasant labourers working to produce food.

This proportion was changing in some other parts of Europe well before 1500 CE. Flanders, for example, where an exceptionally productive agriculture (resulting from the drainage done by generations of peasants) had begun to support a larger urban population even by 1300.

In terms of man-hours, yes, it was less than nineteen out of twenty, because in addition to the few who did no primary production, there was a reasonable proportion who only did some primary production. In fact, probably that was quite a high proportion. Most people followed some sort of craft or occupation apart from agricultural labour. But every thatcher, carter, carpenter, smith, charcoal-burner, farrier, cordwainer, weaver, miller, limner, scrivener or cheesemaker, worked on the land as well, except the few who were able to support themselves in towns on their craft alone.

The nobility, (there were fifty or sixty peers in England and Wales in 1483), the gentry and the merchant class, plus full-time artisans, all together accounted for about ten percent of the population. But I know of no genre or romance novels that treat of the lives of the other ninety percent.

I suppose a social realist novel, treating specifically the lives of medieval peasants, set in the period, but written since, would be possible. Perhaps some have been written. If so, this would be the place to be told of them. Again, I know of none.

#365 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 01:08 AM:

Sorry, error.

"The nobility, (there were fifty or sixty peers in England and Wales in 1483), the gentry and the merchant class, plus full-time artisans, all together accounted for about ten percent of the population." should read five percent.

#366 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 03:06 AM:

Do you have any web sources for that, Dave? I wouldn't mind some further reading, but I haven't had any luck with googling.

#367 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 03:24 AM:

I'm in Tuscon for TusCon. I wish I had brought Stephen Baxter's "Ant Men of Tibet" for that steampunk panel I'll be on this evening.

#368 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 03:27 AM:

I did remember though to bring Verne's "Paris in the 20th Century", a dark vision of 1960.

#369 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 03:29 AM:

Earl Cooley III @ 364... Shadowfax does show some similarities with Mister Ed.

#370 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 06:03 AM:

TexAnne @326, "That's proof that a powerful man had lots of sex (with or without the consent of the women involved, but I think we all know how the world works), not proof that the ius primae noctis existed in law."

I'd say talking about primae noctis or droit du seigneur is basically a shorthand for "there were generally fewer protections against abuse of power in the middle ages".

#371 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 07:14 AM:

Dave Lucket #365 - thats better, (he said, not that I know that much about medieval demographics) I had thought you meant that even burgesses did some work in their gardens growing food, and I know a lot of peasants and artisans did have their own gardens, and yes you need salt to preserve things.

On the topic of bathing, Karen Larsdatters page has a whole lot of illustrations of it, from the 13th or so to the 16th century:
http://www.larsdatter.com/baths.htm

Not that it means it was happening every day, but that it was done.

#372 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 08:08 AM:

#371 ::: Raphael:

I think there would be a special arrogance and cruelty in putting that sort of thing into a law, and if medieval people weren't quite that arrogant, they should get credit for it.

As for bathing, I'd heard about saints who had not bathing as part of their asceticism, and I concluded that it implied that medieval people liked to bathe.

On the other hand, I'm not dead certain of where I got the original premise. It may have been Mark Twain, who I wouldn't consider to be definitive about the Middle Ages.

Were there actually saints who didn't bathe?

#373 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 08:44 AM:

heresiarch @ 367:
This page has some details and numbers for medieval English demographics and class structure, though it doesn't have much in the way of further references.

#374 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 09:06 AM:

Dave Luckett @ 365:
But I know of no genre or romance novels that treat of the lives of the other ninety percent.

I suppose a social realist novel, treating specifically the lives of medieval peasants, set in the period, but written since, would be possible. Perhaps some have been written.

Some historical novels that appear to focus on peasants and peasant life, found after googling for a while (I haven't read any of these):

Simone Zelitch, The Confession of Jack Straw
Anne Baer, Down the Common: A Year in the Life of a Medieval Woman
Valerie Anand, The Proud Villeins and sequels
Jeff Janoda, Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland
Norah Lofts, The Town House
Karen Matiland, The Owl Killers
Adam Thorpe, Hood
Margaret Redfern, Flint

There seem to be quite a few medieval mystery series; some of these might focus more on village life.

#375 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 09:47 AM:

Nancy, 373: Yes, exactly! "Not prosecuting rapists" isn't the same thing as "legalizing rape." The people of the Middle Ages weren't feminists, but they weren't monsters either. This is not to say that they didn't fall prey to the "she marries her rapist and it's Twu Wuv" trope! OTOH that particular piece of vileness is still hanging around in the 21st century.

Of course, it's been years since I read Kathryn Gravdal's Ravishing Maidens, so I could be entirely wrong. I just checked, and it's on Google Books for those who are interested.

#376 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 11:28 AM:

Peasantry in the Middle Ages, or "...you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you."

#377 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 11:39 AM:

Not that it means it was happening every day, but that it was done.

It wasn't happening every day up into the 1960s, and in some countries which shall remain nameless later than that.

Certainly in England at least there were a load of public baths in towns - 18 in the London suburb of Southwark by some counts - in the high middle ages (the style of bathing brought back from the Mediterranean by the crusaders), and certainly they were associated with sex and frowned on by the church for that reason - the term "stew" for a brothel derives from the idea of a bath house where you lay around "stewing" in hot water.

The bath houses were closed down in the 15th century, and the early modern period was probably less hygienic than earlier centuries, because odd medical theories took hold that getting wet was intrinsically bad for you (except presumably at a spa), an view which was more or less orthodox until the rise of the hydrotherapy movement in the 18th century.

Country people with no access to bath houses washed in ponds and rivers and presumably went without when there was snow on the ground.

#378 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 12:39 PM:

Dave Luckett @ 365:
But I know of no genre or romance novels that treat of the lives of the other ninety percent.

There are quite a few, though none of them treat that level exclusively within their novels. One of the best series is by Ariana Franklin. Her novels show many levels of English 12th C society, their occupations and how they lived, including those who made their food and livings out of the Oxford marshes and rivers. I like them very much because she does depict so much fo this, and her protagonist is not a rich or powerful woman, despite her special skills that have her called in by the powerful when they want her. Nevertheless her assistance does not earn her wealth, and she lives marginally much of the time. That is is new in fiction like this, it seems.

This spectrum of classes is also the case in the Ellis Peters' Cadfael medieval mystery series -- some of the books have been transferred splendidly to BBC / PBS Mystery series as well.

Other novels of possible interest:

Bear, Ann.(1996) Down the Common: A Year in the Life of a Medieval Woman: A Novel. Marian is a carpenter's wife.

Brown, Laurence J. (2002) Housecarl The Norman Conquest from the point of view of a housecarl, Ranulf.

— (2004) Cold Heart, Cruel Hand: A Novel of Hereward the Wake and the Fen Rebellion of 1070-1071. Continues Ranulf's story.

As mentioned, it's hard to write a novel in the period that has only peasants or serfs or other laboring class characters, as fiction isn't history, and has other rules and demands to fulfill in order to produce a text satisfactory to a variety of readers.

Love, c.


#379 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 01:06 PM:

Mileage varies; I find Ariana Franklin's mysteries to be so rife with presentism as to be -- despite my best efforts over several books, because I am nothing if not an optimist -- ultimately unreadable.

#380 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 01:46 PM:

Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth is, to this reader, deeply tedious reading, but he covers stone masons, builders, wool dealers, cloth makers and monasteries, as well as courts (which are fairly poor places as compared to those in later days, such as Renaissance King Henry VIII) and knights. We also travel out of England all the way to al-Andalusian Iberia.

Love, c.

#381 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 02:48 PM:

C. Wingate @ 202 - "The Scouring of the Shire" plays off of "Jerusalem" - So the reason for connecting wizards' staffs and gears is that they really were Satanic mills?

#382 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 02:54 PM:

It was probably 15 years ago that I read it, so my opinion might be different today, but I recall enjoying "Life in a Medieval Village" by Frances and Joseph Gies. Not a novel, but a very readable picture of life in the village of Elton, in the the East Midlands in about 1300.

Peter Erwin @ 374: I enjoyed that link with the high-overview of English history.

#383 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 03:07 PM:

Died at 35 myth - Ecclesiastes talks about our lifetime being "threescore years and ten, or if by reason of strength, fourscore", and while that obviously excludes infant mortality, serious diseases, famines, accidents, and wars, and 2500 years ago Middle Eastern agrarians were in different conditions than Industrial Revolution Londoners or Middle Ages European peasants, but it's still a useful data point.

A couple of my ancestors in the 1600s-1700s lived to be over 100, and many of them into their 80s and 90s. On the other hand, farm production had improved radically since the 1200s, and food production was a mostly reliable process.

On bathing - When my father was growing up on a farm in Colorado in the 30s, they'd only do the work of pumping and boiling enough water for actual bathing on Saturdays in the washtub in the kitchen; otherwise it was cold-water sponge baths. I doubt the average Middle Ages peasant would have bathed more frequently in winter.

#384 ::: individ-ewe-al ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 05:40 PM:

Nothing personal about alex @339, but that's not a fact about genetics, that's a creationist talking point. It's on the same level as when creationists say "evolutionists claim that humans are descended from monkeys, but in that case, how come there are still monkeys around?" Some slightly more sophisticated creationists say "evolutionists claim that humans evolved by natural selection, but in that case, how come anyone ever lives past reproductive age?"

However, it is true that for most of human history, living past 70 was relatively unusual. There are huge, important selection pressures on humans between the end of direct reproductive capacity (fuzzier for men than women, of course), but there is relatively little selection pressure for variations that help people to live to 100 rather than 70.

To give a parallel example: it's possible to make minor genetic and diet tweaks to lab mice, and extend their lifespan by 50 to 100%. (That's equivalent to humans living to 150 plus!) However, naturalists helpfully point out that the major cause of death for wild mice is hypothermia, followed by starvation. So these life-span extending factors are pretty irrelevant out in the real world, where very few mice die of old age anyway.

For humans out in the real world, evolutionary fitness isn't just about how many babies you have. It's about whether those babies get the resources to become successful adults and have babies of their own. And believe me, having grandparents around to provide resources and experience and social status and all kinds of other things is a hugely significant factor.

#385 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 07:06 PM:

individ-ewe-al @ 385:

Your post would normally be an excuse for trundling out my periodic rant on the incoherence of the very concept of "evolutionary fitness", but the last time I tackled that subject I posted the rant on my blog for "Blog for Darwin Day", and I don't think I can better that now. See it here.

#386 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 07:34 PM:

Ellis Peters, of the above-mentioned Brother Cadfael mysteries, wrote a number of historical novels under her real name, Edith Pargeter, that also cover the gamut of medieval society from high to low. Her Heaven Tree trilogy was particularly fine and undeservedly obscure and out of print now. It is really remarkable and worth seeking out. The last few chapters are simply astounding.

#387 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 09:24 PM:

Shall we speak of the horror that is the recent Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe Robin Hood?

Rank stupidities abound. It's hard to pick out the worst. But my own personal favorite are the Medieval Higgins Boats.

Yes, the French invade England in LCVPs. Only they're made of wood, and have apparently been rowed over from France.

Not only do they have oar-powered Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel, they hit the beach in waves.

-------------

That is only one of the stupidities in this intensely stupid movie. It's almost as if they set out to make Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood look like a sober historical documentary by comparison.

#388 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 10:05 PM:

388
I noticed that one in the supermarket this morning - it was right next to the register. I figured it was probably not very good because it was claiming to tell the true story of Robin Hood, as if there was such a thing. (IIRC, the first French invasion after 1066 was after John died. Which is a little late for Robin Hood.)

#389 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2010, 10:08 PM:

To go with the first part of chris y's post #378: http://www.filbrun.com/stories/saturday_bath.htm

#390 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 12:01 AM:

Debra Doyle @380; presentism.

Interesting word.

If book written in the past are guilty of presentism, would today's reader be able to tell?

#391 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 01:45 AM:

Heresiarch: Not online, but try Feudal Society by Marc Bloch.

Texanne: Thanks. I need a non-rhotic spellchecker.

#392 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 02:04 AM:

Allan, 392: Yes, that's an important book, but it was published in 1939! Granted, my studies were literary, and I haven't kept up with the historical side of the field at all, but I'm sure that we've learned things in the meantime.

#393 ::: Antonia T. Tiger ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 03:32 AM:

Jim @ 388

** helpless giggling **

#394 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 03:54 AM:

@385 - OK, I was taking my licks quietly for forgetting about kin-selection, but now you're just being rude. 'Creationist talking-point'!

Meanwhile, @384 - again, the point is not to think about how long any one individual lived, but the extent to which the society was surrounded by early death. Statistically, grandparenthood was not a state even many who reached adulthood would live to enjoy. Most people had at least a 50/50 chance of being widowed while still fertile, and the attrition of childhood is awe-inspiringly terrifying from a post-antiseptic, post-antibiotic worldview. I was researching C18 demographics while my wife was expecting our first child. Sometimes I cried just thinking about it. Then we needed an emergency C-section, which just rammed the point home even more...

#395 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 05:52 AM:

Jim @388:
Yes, I remember thinking how very, very silly those "medieval landing craft" were.


P J Evans @ 389:
Actually, the French successfully invaded England while John was still king, though it was the son of the King of France who was leading the invasion (rather than the King himself, as the movie has it), and it took place in 1216, after the Magna Carta was signed. (It was a coalition of barons dissatisfied with John's refusal to follow the Magna Carta who invited Prince Louis to invade.) There was an uneasy period of several months where some of the English barons still supported John and the rest supported Louis, who was acclaimed King in London, though not formally crowned.

Then John died, and the rebel barons decided that his nine-year-old son (King Henry III) was preferable to Louis. His support melting away, Louis abandoned England in 1217.

(I'll admit to being a bit surprised to discover that the incident in the film where John abandons his wife for a hot young French chick was sort of true -- though in reality Isabella of Angoulême was only twelve at the time of their marriage, a historical detail which the filmmakers unaccountably shrank from portraying...)

#396 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 06:17 AM:

though in reality Isabella of Angoulême was only twelve at the time of their marriage

So she was. Also, I learn from that link, which I hadn't known, that her second son with John was narrowly elected heir to the Holy Roman Empire, but died before the Emperor and was succeeded by some guy from a family called Hapsburg. Now there's a counterfactual to play with - the Empire and its successor states being dominated by Plantagenets until 1918.

#397 ::: individ-ewe-al ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 06:29 AM:

Alex @395, I apologize for being rude to you. I hoped I'd made it clear that I was being rude to creationists who go around spreading false information and confusing lay people about how evolution actually works, and not in the least intending any insult to you. Obviously I didn't express myself clearly enough for that to come across, and I'm very sorry for that. Your points about demographics and what they imply about typical people's experiences of lifespan are very well taken.

#398 ::: individ-ewe-al ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 06:39 AM:

Bruce @386, that's a beautiful rant and I'm bookmarking it for future reference. Thank you! Even though I was writing a comment full of righteous indignation against creationists, I managed to forget that fitness is a contentious term and wouldn't be read with the same connotations it has in my head.

#399 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 08:30 AM:

'S OK. If I took it to heart I'd have been much ruder back...

#400 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 09:57 AM:

Individ-ewe-al:

I have seen a *lot* of people arguing that evolution is done with you after reproduction. I've not noticed it being a creationist claim. But suppose it is. What is gained by discarding a real question asked honestly, by association with cranks?

Probably everything that contradicts a simple understanding of evolution is sometimes raised as a creationist talking point. And yet, without talking about those contradictions, you won't ever mention arms races or spandrels or kin selection or group selection or frequency dependent selection or the cool applications of game theory to evolution or neutral drift, or a gazillion other things I don't even know about because I'm just an amateur at this stuff.

Asking questions and posing doubts and pointing out contradictions is a lot of how you learn, or at least a lot of how I learn. Turning those things into some kind of political association with the other side (fsvo "the other side") is a good way to suppress any kind of real learning, in favor of memorization of doctrine.


#401 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 10:28 AM:

Isabella may have been twelve when she married John (and a marriage had already been arranged with a French lord), but she was twenty before she had any children I know of. (Her second husband was the son of the lord they had planned to marry her to. IIRC, the English parliament was unhappy because she remarried without letting them know first.)

#402 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 11:11 AM:

Erik Nelson@391: If books written in the past are guilty of presentism, would today's reader be able to tell?

In a lot of cases, yes. I mean, it's pretty clear to even a modestly knowledgeable reader that, say, Sir Walter Scott's Middle Ages have as much to do with the thought and morality of his own era as they do with the more distant past. (On the other hand, Scott was busily inventing the whole idea of historical fiction -- in which the writer at least makes claim to writing the past as it really was, instead of mostly just like now except that different stuff happened -- so one probably shouldn't be too hard on him.)

#403 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 11:34 AM:

#391 Erik Nelson -- If a book written in the past are guilty of presentism, would today's reader be able to tell?

Yes, if you know your social and political history and the literature thereof, you really can. It's just like watching Hollywood historical movies: you know what era the movie was filmed due to the hairstyles, body types and so on.

Much critical theory of many disciplines reflect their 'presentism' as well.

Not too long ago an anthropologist from Queen's faculty in Ireland published a review of The World That Made New Orleans, in which the author is accused by the anthropologist of comitting presentism, when depicting the relationships among whites and people of color as being colored by racism, and that segregation was practiced. Evidently this anthropologist has bought into some mythology that all was harmonious and sweet and light in New Orleans between owners and slaves prior to the Louisiana Purchase. Where that idea comes from, who knows. But all historical primary evidence, including legal documents, prove quite, quite, quite otherwise.

Love, C.

#404 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 11:34 AM:

P J Evans @ 402:

I think she was nineteen rather than twenty when her first child (the future Henry III) was born, but yes.... Also amusing/boggling is the fact that her second husband -- the son, as you mention, of the man she was originally betrothed to, before King John stepped in -- was originally supposed to marry her daughter, but apparently decided Isabella was a better choice... (At that point, Isabella was 32 and her daughter was ten.)

#405 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 12:00 PM:

James mcDonald @ 388... I wish the boats had been the only problems. I never got any sense of what made Robin tick. And, while the other familiar characters were there, they were non-entities who were there because they had to to be there for the story to be about Robin Hood.

For all its own accuracies, I far prefer "Robin and Marian".

#406 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 12:30 PM:

Rikibeth @ 255, Janet Brennan Croft @ 256, Bruce Cohen STM @ 257: Thank you all. I now feel somewhat like the hapless German classical scholar of whom A.E, Houseman said, a propos of some point of textual emendation 'Five minute thought could have convinced him of this. But thought is difficult, and five minutes is a long time.'

#407 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 01:00 PM:

re 386: I think one could make a very strong case that only unfitness can be established for lines which die out. Comparative fitness implies some standard for success beyond simple survival, and if some line survives I think it is questionable whether one can identify what traits led to that survival.

#408 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 02:26 PM:

actually we are all fit in the sense that we are each part of our own generational line that has managed to survive until now.

#409 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 02:58 PM:

And the concept of absolute fitness leads to the problem of genetic load: since we're all highly heterozygotic, if every allele had a "fitness index" we'd quickly discover that none of us approach anything like ideal fitness.

#410 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 06:08 PM:

Erik Nelson @ 409:

Yes; that's why "fitness" is best treated as tautological and ignored when actually examining the history of selection. It's still somewhat useful in genetic programming, but not when trying to model natural evolution.

Tom Whitmore @ 410:

If you took the product of the "fitness indices" of all alleles in all organisms all the way back from a current individual to the first multicellular ancestor (I don't want to get into all the differences in the way evolution works between prokaryotes, eukaryotes, and multicellular eukaryotes), I suspect that none of them would have a probability of existence that could be expressed without BigNums, and really large BigNums at that.

#411 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 10:14 PM:

Bruce #411:

"Fitness" is meaningful only within a given environment[1], but the rather limited papers involving evolution that I have read rely pretty heavily on it, and I have a hard time imagining how you'd do without it. For example, if you want to work out how quickly a beneficial mutation can sweep through a population, I think you want to know about its effect on fitness--how many more offspring does this gene give you? (Or you might work backward--how quickly did this gene change over time? That gives you some information on its effect on fitness.)

It seems like it would be useful to be able to say something about some broader notion of fitness in plausible futures. It seems like species that survive a long time must somehow avoid becoming so optimized for their current environment that, say, a small change in the environment will wipe them out. Sooner or later, that change will come, and presumably, the species we see in the world now aren't the ones who were doing great up until that 1 degree climate shift drove them to extinction.

[1] This feels like one of those rules that makes the world make sense outside of classrooms, along the lines of "all distributions are conditional distributions" and "all derivatives are partial derivatives."

#412 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 11:23 PM:

The basic problem, albatross, is that the environment doesn't remain "given", even over a generation. There's enough variation that any attempt to look at some sort of optimized fitness for a group of organisms is doomed to failure (Bruce stated the problem of genetic load I was pointing to very succinctly).

#413 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 11:52 PM:

I'm glad to announce that, thanks to the check my wife received from her publisher, I was able to renew my membership to the Defined Fitness gym.
("Not that kind of fitness, Serge.")
Oh.
Nevermind.

#414 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:10 AM:

Tom Whitmore #413: At the same time, we certainly see certain groups of lifeforms that have been remarkably successful over long, even Very Long, periods of time. And sometimes that involves a "general adaptability". Roaches are the canonical example, but rodents are pretty successful too with their "ur-mammal" strategy. On the sessile side, the grass family and many lichens seem to have just staked out their positions and gone everywhere there were openings. (Notice how most of these -- except the lichens, i think -- have also colonized the powerful meta-niche of parasitizing humanity.)

#415 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:42 AM:

the powerful meta-niche of parasitizing humanity

I'll never look at a muffin the same way again...

#416 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 08:14 AM:

@415: IIRC, lichen can grow on concrete. I'm not sure if that qualifies as "parasitizing humanity", exactly, but it does sometimes give them something tall to stick to that isn't a tree actively trying to overshadow them.

Of course, humans sometimes remove the lichen when they find it, but that's true of the roaches and rodents too, and they manage anyway.

#417 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:17 AM:

Bruce and Tom:

I feel like I'm missing something here. I get that trying to talk about the fitness as some kind of absolute measure of ubermench-ness (or uber-fungus-ness, say) doesn't work, and that fitness exists in an environment[1]. But I don't see how you talk about or model or think about selection (which is a huge and important part of evolution, the part that actually drives designs toward some kind of local optimum instead of simply randomizing them; drift and mutation are random elements) without thinking about fitness. For example, how do you think about bacteria evolving antibiotic resistance without considering fitness? Or about sickle-cell anemia and malaria?

I have a feeling I'm just not understanding what you're getting at.

I mean, if the problem amounts to "all derivatives in the real world are partial derivatives," I get that. I get that the genes that give you fair skin and hair have very different fitness in Norway than in North Africa. But you seem to be saying something more than that....

[1] Though there are clearly genes with huge fitness cost in almost any conceivable environment, for example dominant genes that cause death in childhood.

#418 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:24 AM:

chris:

I'd count that. Living on human civilization is a reasonable strategy for a lot of living things. The common house ant in the US (I think it's originally South American) is certainly doing that.

There's probably a word for this idea, but I don't know it. We have a definition for parasites, which live either in or on our bodies. But just as Dawkins pointed out w.r.t. extended phenotypes[1] (external stuff built ultimately by systems coded in our genes--beehives and beaver dams and birds' nests and peoples' houses), there are parasites that live on those things, not on our bodies. House ants and mice are in some sense parasites, even though they live on our stored or dropped food, rather than on or in our bodies.

[1] It's been about a decade since I read _The Extended Phenotype_, maybe he talked about these and I just didn't retain the idea?

#419 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:29 AM:

chris:

As an aside, there are bacteria that eat oil. I think these evolved in places where there are natural oil seeps. But apparently, their population goes way up in environments where there's a lot of undersea oil drilling. I heard a talk about the Deepwater Horizon spill recently, in which the speaker pointed out that one surprise had been how quickly populations of oil eating bacteria had ramped up--apparently, the Gulf has so much spilled oil that it has a large population of these bacteria available. (I bet they've evolved a strategy for ramping up their numbers really quickly, since oil spills are fairly common events that flood their environment with food--sort of like a lot of the stuff that lives in super-dry deserts, where a single rainfall will cause all kinds of dormant life to blossom *fast* and take advantage of the short span of wet conditions to get through a reproductive cycle or two.)

#420 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:11 PM:

Jim Mcdonald @388:

I think I bitched about the film when I saw it this summer. My willing suspension of disbelief bounced when Marian (chatelaine of Locksley) failed to bathe Robin.

Now I know that we're dealing with a myth/legend so I'm willing to cut the film-makers some slack. (I managed to enjoy the Costner version, mostly due to Alan Rickman).

By the time the film reached the invasion, I was having a hard time stifling giggles. They'd have done better to invoke William the Bastard than a Normandy invasion in reverse.

(I keep wondering where they filmed...)

#421 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:22 PM:

James D. Macdonald: Shall we speak of the horror that is the recent Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe Robin Hood?

When the film came out I passed the above link to a friend who is a film reviewer. My friend was astonished: he'd seen the film some time after reading the original script and could not tell it was based on the same script.

#422 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 06:48 PM:

albatross:

Let's start with the question of how you would measure fitness1. One problem with measurement is this: are you considering the fitness of a single individual organism, or a geographically contiguous population, or an entire species? Also, you use the term environment in a way that sounds like you mean "the world in which the organism is embedded". But for purposes of measuring differential survival the environment of any given individual organism includes all other organisms that interact with it, directly or indirectly; if just one of those organisms changes the way it behaves, then the "environment" has changed, though it might be that only that particular individual's environment is different. So "fitness" needs to be measured for each individual with respect to all other organisms it interacts with (see, it's already looking like an intractable problem just to measure fitness, let alone compare the fitness of all the members of a population).

You mentioned bacteria, and you may remember that I tried to exclude bacteria from the discussion. There's a good reason for that: bacteria don't evolve in the same way that eukaryotic organisms do. Bacteria, even bacteria of different species, can exchange segments of their DNA, which kind of makes a hash of the notion of fitness because fitness then needs to take into account the inheritable traits that a bacterium might obtain from some other bacterium2.

The fact is that evolutionary processes are much more complex than the usual cartoon explanation can show. In addition to that, evolution itself has evolved over time, from the time of the self-organizing complex chemical reactions that evolved into the most primitive living things through prokaryotic bacteria that merged into eukaryotic micro-organisms, and on to multicellular colonies and then organisms with fixed body plans, nervous systems, endocrine systems, immune systems, and cultural transmission. In each one of those steps the way evolution worked on the subsequent descendants was different from the way it had worked before, and so we have to modify the terms we use to talk about it3.

The real problem with "fitness" is that the concept misleads us into thinking that there is some algorithm or analytic function that will allow us to predict how competition between different organisms will turn out. Not only is there no such thing, it's pretty certain that the progress of evolution is so chaotic4 that if we could rerun the course of evolution from some particular point it would turn out very differently every time, often with no easy way to tell what caused the differences.

1. What use is the term if it doesn't refer to something quantifiable?

2. That's how antibiotic resistance spreads from strains which have been treated with a given antibiotic to ones which haven't.

3. See "The Major Transitions in Evolution" by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, Oxford University Press 1998.

4. In the sense of chaotic dynamics.

#423 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 06:53 PM:

Lori Coulson @ 421:

I managed to enjoy the Costner version, mostly due to Alan Rickman).

Actually it was Rickman that finally made me turn off the DVD player on that movie. He was acting in a totally different movie from everyone else. I think I would have enjoyed the movie if the rest of the actors had been in Rickman's movie; though it would have been a lot more like "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" or the classic skit that Howie Morris did on TV many years ago.

#424 ::: Mike McHugh ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:19 PM:

Bruce @422: on the evolution of movie scripts - the first version of the King Arthur script I managed to read was a pretty subtle (yet still Hollywoodised) story of one man trying to straddle two worlds, and balance obligations to his mentors in Rome with those owed to his country of birth.

The last version I read was a rainbow collage that took subtlety out the back and stomped it into the ground with hobnailed boots: it turned into the One Man Forced Into A Suicide Mission Finds True Love And Forgives The Barbarians film we all know and, well, watched once. The advantage of seeing the rainbow colours, though, is you could trace the way it had changed.

#425 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:02 PM:

chris #417: Yep, that counts. As albatross points out, I'm stretching the definition of "parasitism" -- a better way to say it would be that they're exploiting the environments we create for our own purposes. But notice that all the cases I brought up were very general -- not individual species but whole families -- that incidentally represent whole categories of "lifestyle", because their basic types turned out to be flexible and adaptable.

#426 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 10:24 AM:

Bruce Cohen and Tom Whitmore:

I think albatross has a point, in that practicing biologists do seem to use the term "fitness" quite often. Here, for example, is a review article discussing some basic concepts (and simple mathematical definitions) of fitness in evolutionary genetics. From that and other sources, I gather that "fitness" is most often (or easily) applied to individual gene variants (alleles), but can also, with some imprecision, be applied to genomes and individual organisms. It is also usually applied on generational timescales -- that is, one speaks of fitness in terms of one or a few generations.

One possible definition seems to be: fitness is the propensity (or probability) for a given allele (or genome) to survive and successfully reproduce. This can be either a direct experimental measurement -- e.g., how much different alleles actually increase or decrease in frequency from one generation to the next -- or a prediction; such predictions can then be tested by measuring actual survival and reproduction rates. Note that we don't necessarily need a highly precise absolute value for fitness; the review article I linked to says that relative fitness is used more often. Even if all one can predict is something like "fitness(A) > fitness(B)", this is still a scientifically useful (and testable) concept.

As for the role of environment, and its variability -- obviously the environment is everything that a particular gene or genome, as expressed in the phenotype, effectively interacts with, and any prediction or measurement of fitness is fitness in a particular environment. But this does not mean that predicting fitness is somehow a priori impossible, as you seem to imply; nor does it mean that fitness in one particular environment is always irrelevant to fitness in other environments. Aerobic organisms require efficient delivery of oxygen to their cells. So it's sensible to argue that a variant allele of a gene coding for hemoglobin[1] which makes hemoglobin less able to bind oxygen will have a lower fitness in a wide range of plausible, real-world environments.

If you want to argue that it's difficult or impossible to make sweeping statements about "universal" fitness over geological timescales and arbitrary environments -- that it doesn't make much sense to say "cockroaches are more fit than human beings, full stop" -- then I don't think there's a problem. But saying that "fitness" in general is either wholely tautological (an occasional creationist talking point) or completely intractable and impossible to estimate or use -- well, that doesn't seem to be borne out by what actual evolutionary biologists say and do.

[1] There are actually several genes that combine to form hemoglobin.

#427 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 11:17 AM:

Bruce Cohen @ 424... About actors who are in a movie that's different from the rest of the cast's... This reminds me of Quo Vadis. Everybody is acting either noble or villainous. Except. In one corner, Leo Genn plays everything with a bit of a smile. And, in another corner, Peter Ustinov is merrily chewing on the scenery. Of course, they're the ones I liked best.

#429 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 06:44 AM:

428: IIRC, Slim Pickens, playing Major "King" Kong in Dr Strangelove, was definitely in a different film from everyone else - he thought he was in a serious film about nuclear bomber crews. He wasn't given the entire script, only his own scenes, and no one told him it was a comedy until afterwards.

#430 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 08:04 AM:

ajay @ 430... Really? Still, Pickens came across as his usual self, especially the part he exits the scene ith a bang.

#431 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 08:11 AM:

Ajay #430 - sounds good to me, I didn't quite get what was so funny about Dr Strangelove anyway, and the contrast between the calm collected stuff on the bomber with the madness back at base and in the bunker helped point up the insanity of nuclear war. Well, it did to me anyway.

#432 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:18 AM:

and the contrast between the calm collected stuff on the bomber with the madness back at base and in the bunker helped point up the insanity of nuclear war.

Yes, that was the point. But it was also funny, if you accept the category of black humour.

#433 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:20 AM:

431: apparently, yes. Difficult to believe, but that was actually Slim playing it straight. Also Pickens-related; the guy who sang the theme song to Blazing Saddles didn't know it was a comedy (according to the DVD commentary).

I didn't quite get what was so funny about Dr Strangelove anyway

Two words. "Hello Dmitri."

#434 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:41 AM:

When I was living in the Bay Area, the Evil Empire still existed, and I'd tell my wife that one of the many nice things about the Bay Area was that, if nuclear war broke out, we'd see a flash then it'd be curtains for us. She failed to find that reassuring, for some reason.

#435 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 10:31 AM:

one of the many nice things about the Bay Area was that, if nuclear war broke out, we'd see a flash then it'd be curtains for us

For if the bomb that drops on you
Gets your friends and neighbours too
There'll be nobody left behind to grieve!

#436 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:11 AM:

Allegedly, Phil Rizzuto wasn't aware of the rest of the content of "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" when he recorded his spoken part for it, either. I'm not sure how much I believe that, but it makes a very good story.

#437 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 02:14 PM:

Peter Erwin @427: some alleles have greater relative fitness in combination with specific alleles of other genes, yet they're either on different chromosomes or far enough apart on the same chromosome that they might as well be on different chromosomes. So a measurement of fitness for a single allele is highly problematic (the multiple genes required for producing hemoglobin is a good example of this, if you think about it). We can certainly say that certain organismal phenotypes are highly robust -- hell, we can say the the gene for cytochrome-C is incredibly robust! -- but robustness is not the same as fitness. They're similar ideas, but not identical. And I think the loose, common use of the word "fitness", rather than the technical one, confuses people a lot (which would also happen with the word "robustness", I'm afraid).

Part of what's going on here is a real confusion between technical terms and their analogues. Because there are such a large number of genes that interact to create an organism or a population, the behavior becomes (as Bruce points out) chaotic: there are parts of the system where an infinitesmal (and possibly even theoretically unmeasurable) change in the initial starting conditions results in a widely different ending point. Most science requires making ceteris paribus ("all other things being equal") an assumption; in complex biological systems, it's demonstrable that "all other things are almost never equal". Yeah, there are some good rules of thumb that come out of trying. But they're no better as rules of thumb than "In America, people shit in bathrooms." And nobody tries to claim that's scientifically valid, though it's got better predictive qualities than a lot of what passes as a scientific law these days.

#438 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 06:10 PM:

Tom Whitmore @ 438:

Peter Erwin @427: some alleles have greater relative fitness in combination with specific alleles of other genes, yet they're either on different chromosomes or far enough apart on the same chromosome that they might as well be on different chromosomes. So a measurement of fitness for a single allele is highly problematic (the multiple genes required for producing hemoglobin is a good example of this, if you think about it).

Mmmm... I fail to see how the particular placement of an allele on a chromosome bears on its fitness. The issue is whether a difference in the allele itself (or in a genome) has a measurable effect on the organism's survival and reproduction, regardless of where an allele happens to be.


Because there are such a large number of genes that interact to create an organism or a population, the behavior becomes (as Bruce points out) chaotic: there are parts of the system where an infinitesmal (and possibly even theoretically unmeasurable) change in the initial starting conditions results in a widely different ending point.

The general behavior of interacting genetic systems is rather obviously not chaotic in any general sense, else organisms as we know them -- not to mention Darwinian evolution itself -- wouldn't exist.

I worry that you (and perhaps Bruce as well) are falling victim to the "complex = chaotic" fallacy. Complex systems can be chaotic, but they don't have to be, and many complex systems are not.

Moreover, "chaotic" in the sense of "chaotic dynamics" does not mean "completely unpredictable". Nominally chaotic systems can often have large domains of regularity, and chaotic evolution can be confined to small subsets of phase space, so that the overall pattern is still (on large scales) regular. A trivial example: the fluctuation of air temperature on timescales of hours is highly regular (cold at night, hot during the day); the fluctuation of average (or peak or minimum) temperatures on timescales of days-to-weeks is chaotic (due to the chaotic nature of weather); the fluctuation of the same on timescales of months is once again rather regular (the seasons).

#439 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 07:01 PM:

Peter Irwin @439: The question of whether genes are on the same chromosome relates to how likely they are to associate. The distance between the genes on the chromosome also affects this: genes that are close together tend to travel together, where genes that are farther apart separate by chromosomal crossover. So, if alleles of two separate genes work well (or badly) together, whether they remain associated can be related to whether they're on the same chromosome, or close to each other.

Yes, chaotic does not mean "completely unpredictable" -- I brought that up in my 438. Some biological conditions are quite stable ( I quite clearly said that in the discussion on robustness). We haven't even talked about situations where the history results in different effects from starting conditions that are precisely identical at time t=0 (some biological reactions are not functions, but relations, with more than one possible outcome from a given input). That adds a whole other layer to "not predictable" that I think we really don't want to get into.

#440 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:46 PM:

Peter Erwin @ 439:

I brought up chaos in the context of entire histories of populations, not in speaking of individuals or of the fitness of individual genes; of course you're correct that chaotic systems are often quite predictable over relatively short periods of time1.

Chaos in fact is often the mechanism by which complex systems are made to generate emergent properties (thus making them in some senses "simpler"). That happens because the basins of attraction of the chaotic system form the coarse-graining of the emergence; each basin forms a macro-state that may contain many micro-states. Another way to look at it is that the phase space at the micro-level might have a very large number of dimensions, but the phase space of the coarse-grained regions is of much lower dimensionality; the chaos in effect projects the micro-states onto the lower dimensional space.

I don't want to belabor this whole discussion too much; what I've been trying to say is that I think fitness is too loose a concept to be quantitatively useful, and I'm not sure that it has much descriptive power qualitatively.

1. Some recent work on the dynamics of the solar system for instance shows that the positions of the planets are reasonably predictable over tens or even hundreds of millions of years, but not necessarily beyond that.

#441 ::: Nightsky ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 03:50 PM:

Chiming in late to say--while it's true that most steam art is of the watch-parts-as-decoration-only variety, there ARE people doing actual handmade watches and suchlike, like this Etsy shop.

#442 ::: Bob Rossney ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 01:13 PM:

Coming into this conversation very late, I'd just like to point those wondering about tobacco farming in the Shire to Guy Davenport's essay "Hobbitry", in The Geography of the Imagination. Davenport was in the possibly-unique position of having both studied under Tolkien and grown up in rural Kentucky; in any event, he did something that no other writer discussing Tolkien seems to have done, which is to go to the parts of North Carolina that Tolkien visited as a philologist and talk to the people that Tolkien talked to. In this part of North Carolina, the phone book is full of Tooks and Pippins and Brandybucks, and they grow tobacco, and they talk like Sam Gamgee - or, rather, Sam Gamgee talks like them.

The Geography of the Imagination is one of my favorite books ever. It's worth tracking down just for "Hobbitry," but the essay on "Ozymandias" is pretty mind-blowing, the title essay's just astounding, and the one on Ezra Pound makes me wish for some alternative-universe YouTube on which we could find video of Davenport arguing with Tom Disch.

#443 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 02:43 PM:

Bob Rossney @443, I haven't seen that book but its facts seem to be a bit off. See http://old.nationalreview.com/flashback/flashback200510030823.asp for something a bit closer to the truth. Tolkien never visited North America, but he did have a classmate from Kentucky, and that's the person from whom Davenport got his information. (Would that he had visited, but like hobbits, he was never entirely happy too far from his home soil. I think Vienna was the furthest abroad he ever got, and that's including WWI.) Alas, my Scull and Hammond is on campus and I'm not, or I could look up further details.

#444 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 12:22 PM:

Serge @435: She failed to find that reassuring, for some reason.

Oh, I totally get you. For my money, the only thing more nightmarish than the Apocolypse would be surviving the Apocolypse.

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