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April 25, 2014

TNH on art-and-politics
Posted by Patrick at 07:19 AM * 73 comments

From the comment thread following this post. It seems to me that these remarks deserve to be seen by those Making Light readers who don’t necessarily read 300 or more messages into the comment threads.

My practical experience is that the artist’s work can’t be divided from the artist’s politics. Working relationships are an expression of how one party reads the other’s work. Some writers are never so good as when they’re being critiqued by a particular editor or beta reader or spouse. If you have a mismatch between a copyeditor and an author, that copyeditor will honestly and dutifully perceive a somewhat different set of errors than another copyeditor would. There’ve been comic books whose underlying premises only really worked when the right artist was drawing them.

Have you ever read Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny? They just didn’t mesh. You can hear the gears grinding all the way through that thing, except for the scene with the dog.

Readers will judge the politics. There’s no way to keep that from happening. They may perceive it as (for instance) the difference between a strikingly original, a satisfactory, and a cop-out ending, but they will judge.

I can’t see that as wholly bad. Here’s an example: I hate it when a promising skiffy book ends with that stupid mainstream thing about how there can never be new answers to old problems, so for those trying to transcend the old answer set, it comes down to a choice between madness and death. Bleah! I want the ending where the character invents a completely unanticipated third answer in a cave, from a box of scraps.

I won’t take it well if someone tells me I have to believe a madness-or-death dichotomy ending is just as good as, or superior to, a wildly-different-third-answer ending, because the madness-or-death ending is characteristic of the author’s worldview. I can at most learn to see and understand that that ending grows out of a particular set of beliefs (which it does).

I do this all the time. I think we all do it. In Doyle & Macdonald’s Mageworlds books, spacefaring civilization would grind to a halt if ships that have just made planetfall didn’t stop to fill out a heap of paperwork. Spacefarers in series by other writers get along without the paperwork. Spontaneous peasant uprisings may succeed in many fantasy universes, but not in Westeros or Dragaera, where the authors know rather too much about the history of peasant uprisings. As readers, we pass from one to another, switching logics as we go.

Stretch it too far, though, and we break, snarling in irritation. That’s the basic malfunction in Mary Sue fiction — not the being good at everything, or the color-changing eyes, but having causality liquefy every time Ensign Mary Sue is near. Ayn Rand’s causality is also weird: holding certain principles can strongly affect your competence. And so forth. Enough bad causality makes a dent in my reading pleasure.

The only general solution I know is to become a better reader. The Hugos work in part because their rules accommodate the widest possible range of reading protocols. Changing that is almost certain to be a mess.

The thread is worth reading.

Comments on TNH on art-and-politics:
#1 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 08:16 AM:

Spontaneous peasant uprisings may succeed in many fantasy universes, but not in . . . Dragaera . . .

Or at least, not until the Orca Emperor has overstayed his or her welcome and the cycle changes to Teckla . . .

#2 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 11:17 AM:

That's not spontaneous, that's historical inevitability.

#3 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 11:25 AM:

Peasant uprisings do succeed once in a while. Once in a very, very long while, I have to say.

The related phenomenon of slave revolts, about which I know more, has a total success rate of two out of many thousands throughout recorded history. In Haiti in 1804 and in St Croix in 1848. Plus one near success, Berbice 1763-1764. That's all in six thousand years of recorded history.

#4 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 11:26 AM:

So to a certain extent, politics are part of worldbuilding, yes?

It's often struck me that there's a clear line in SF between authors who believe that sociology is a valid source for informing their worlds and those that don't, just as there is between those who think the impossibility of FTL is important and those that don't. If the asociological authors got their physics that bady wrong, it would be like that explosion in Blakes 7 where the ship in space gives off smoke that rises and debris that falls.

But SF fans have a long tradition of questioning the physics. We test it, and occasionally mock it too. Authors give the bits that don't work in the real world names like "ansible" to highlight that they're concious dodges. But then those ansibles have to work within the rest of the real-world physics, or the reader falls out of the story, and the author hears about it.

You could say that what we're seeing more of these days is readers broadening that questioning, testing culture. And it turns out that some of the sociological and historical "truths" we've been taking for granted are the equivalents of Newtonian physics in this chaos-theory world.

It's what Kameron Hurley gets into with We Have Always Fought; it's what the medievalpoc Tumblr does.

Don't get me wrong; I'm OK with a good, well-chosen sociological ansible as a conscious choice in worldbuilding. But my standards for the sociological aspects of worldbuilding are higher than the unconscious mirroring of a simplistic vision of history and human interaction. Build your society unconsciously, and I may bounce off of your unconscious biases. Do it consciously, and I'll judge its realism.

Shorter me: as the snarky tweet goes, you can either tell me that women aren't soldiers in your world because history, or you can have that dragon.

#5 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 11:27 AM:

My understanding is that peasant uprisings don't work in Dragaera because of the specific circumstances of Dragaera, and that Brust thinks they could work in this world.

#6 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 11:43 AM:

re: "having causality liquefy every time Ensign Mary Sue is near"--

Floating up out of a decades-deep memory sinkhole is Darko Suvin's observation about narratives in which the cosmos is favorably inclined toward a character. Might the Mary Sue be part of that category? (Fanfic [as a coherent subculture] and the Mary Sue are both after my time, so maybe this has already been asked and answered, as they say in TV courtroom dramas.)

Another upfloating thought--or maybe just an oddball association: Renaissance Faires.

#7 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 11:51 AM:

Fragano Ledgister @ 3

Slave revolts: completely OT for literature discussion.

The slave revolt in St Croix in 1848 is an atypical revolt; the revolt sped up the process of emancipation, but slavery was already going to be eliminated (that decree was in 1847). That's a much easier thing to do than to overturn a system that everyone expects to persist.

Haiti in in my thinking unique in that it overthrew what the masters intended as a continuing system.

(My father is Cruzan--I remember reading the story of General Buddhoe in my early teens; he belongs in the pantheon of revolutionaries (Gandhi, Mandela) who wanted peace more than they wanted revenge.)

#8 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 01:18 PM:

"It is said that the people are revolting."
"You said it! They stink on ice!"

King Louis XVI in Mel Brooks's "History of the World: part I"

#9 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 02:19 PM:

Peasant uprising work in Dragaera every time the Cycle comes around to Teckla.

Speaking of the political views of authors, has anyone else noticed that Teckla is immediately preceded in the Cycle by the House of Orca, which controls the finance industry?

#10 ::: Martin Schafer ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 02:37 PM:

The order of the Dragearan cycle is absolutely not random. You would have to ask Steven if that particular point was important but serious thought to the sociological/psychological/historical forces involved in each transition was given back at the beginning.

#11 ::: Kellan Sparver ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 03:44 PM:

abi @4: If the asociological authors got their physics that bady wrong, it would be like that explosion in Blakes 7 where the ship in space gives off smoke that rises and debris that falls.

YES. Yes yes yes. I've been trying to figure out a way to explain this to people -- I've started to say "the physics of these relationships is wrong," which is better than "people don't work that way", even though it doesn't seem necessarily more likely to be received well by them. I don't know how to explain to someone that people don't work the way they seem to think they do. (For spherical people in a vacuum, of course.)

And sociological ansibles aren't even confined to fiction -- we're living through one now, with sharply-falling violence rates. Turns out we really could change people for the better, if we just sharply reduced childhood lead exposure.

#12 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 04:15 PM:

abi @ 4... Speaking of "Blake's 7", i haven't heard any more talk about the remake thta'd have involved Martin Campbell ("Casino Royale" and "The Mask of Zorro"). Bummer.

#13 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 04:18 PM:

Wow, yeah, Deus Irae. I remember that only vaguely at this late date, but I do recall just that sense of styles and attitudes in conflict, a sort of misalignment, things out of true. It's probably somewhere in my library still. Now I want to look it up again.

#14 ::: Lydy Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 05:16 PM:

For my money, I think this comment by Teresa was even more enlightening:

No Man's Land @338: Okay, so that's what Larry Correia thinks.

Trouble is, he's wrong about how literature works, and how writers build meaning into it. The political beliefs he perceives as "messages" wedged willy-nilly into the defenseless story are, as near as I can tell, political beliefs he disagrees with. Political beliefs he finds congenial are perceived as well-integrated elements, organic parts of the stories in which they occur.

He's got the wrong end of the stick. The relationship between an author's assumptions about the universe and the story they tell is not a characteristic that's separable from "quality." It's an expression of how the writer thinks the universe works, and what they expect will happen in it. Call it a sense of causality.

A person's sense of causality is not separable from their political views. Instead, it's worked into the foundations of their experience of literature.

It explains why some fiction which I find rings true as a bell other people find to be clunky message fiction.

#15 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 05:21 PM:

Andrew M @5

I'm sure skzb is entirely capable of expressing his own views on peasant revolts in our world, but I don't think the Cycle is the only thing (or even the main thing) keeping peasant revolts from working in Draegara. I think the main thing is, they're hard.

For instance, I don't really think Vlad's grandfather is telling him about the Cycle when he upbraids Vlad for getting involved in Teckla. I'm not sure how much he believes in or knows about the Cycle, really. His objections seemed to be on grounds that would be equally valid here or in the land of his birth.

(And regarding the sociological ansible of the Cycle, I think there's another out besides waiting for the downslope of an Orca reign. The Cycle only applies to the Draegaran Empire, right? And the borders of the Empire do change. So a peasant revolt could succeed in removing land from the Empire. You'd have to stop being Teckla first, presumably, and I'm not sure how that works, but it's probably possible.)

#16 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 08:00 PM:

It often strikes me Americans have an over-rosy view of revolution because they think they had one.

But wars of independence are not quite the same thing as a revolution, despite the Revolutionary War name, and revolutions tend to failure, either immediately or in terms of not actually making things any better for anyone except those who became the new elite to replace the old.

#17 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 09:08 PM:

Matthew Brown... I don't know. Successfully telling your King to go bleep himself seems rather revolutionary to this person who chose to become an American.

#18 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 11:41 PM:

The discussion over on the Hugos thread is weirdly reminiscent of some of the discussion in this thread from 2007. Especially the sub-thread starting (more or less) @202, wherein some people are talking about why they find a particular author not worth reading at all on the basis of a limited subset of his writing, and others are busily trying to tell the first people that they are Doin It Rong, and that this particular author has much to offer if you will just approach his writing with an open mind. And all of it without external-to-the-community trolls to muddy the issue.

The question in both places is whether or not a writer's work can be separated from his politics.

#19 ::: soru ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2014, 06:41 AM:

@17: by that standard, the War of the Roses counts as a revolutionary war; you can probably include the War of the Austrian Succession by substituting Queen for King.

'The war that accounts for much of the difference between the USA and Canada' isn't quite as catchy a name though.

#20 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2014, 08:28 AM:

"The War Where The US Stopped Being A Colony And Began Our Own Imperialism" doesn't really scan too well, either.

#21 ::: Ian C. Racey ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2014, 12:09 PM:

The phrase I've heard is that "Americans had a political revolution without also having a social one", in that it didn't (and wasn't intended to) much change power relationships between classes within the thirteen colonies themselves. For me this has been a useful way to highlight how it was different both from national revolutions like the French or Russian, and from later anti-colonial independence movements.

#22 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2014, 04:59 PM:

Kellan Sparver @ 19: the problem I have with "people don't work that way" is that somewhere, somehow, they probably did. IME, the way authors fail on this is trying to separate that working from the structure that made it happen; e.g., I wouldn't believe the conclusion of the 47 Ronin in a setting that smells like Western Europe.

soru @ 19: please elucidate. As a USian I didn't grow up with Roses history and as a tech geek I haven't read as much history as I ought to have, but AFAICT Roses were a struggle for who would have the approaching-absolute power, not telling a particular absolutist off. One could speak to what I've heard called the English Civil War -- but that ended up with the monarchy back in place.

#23 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2014, 05:51 PM:

This comment of mine on the other thread might be better placed here.

tnh @ 345: "Trouble is, he's wrong about how literature works, and how writers build meaning into it. The political beliefs he perceives as "messages" wedged willy-nilly into the defenseless story are, as near as I can tell, political beliefs he disagrees with. Political beliefs he finds congenial are perceived as well-integrated elements, organic parts of the stories in which they occur. He's got the wrong end of the stick. The relationship between an author's assumptions about the universe and the story they tell is not a characteristic that's separable from "quality."

It's an expression of how the writer thinks the universe works, and what they expect will happen in it."

This makes a lot of sense to me. Often the most off-putting message in a story isn't the Message, which the author is inviting us to consider, but rather the bits of the author's worldview that constitute the backdrop of the story. It demands suspension of disbelief without acknowledging it. I'm happy to accept that for the purposes of this story that magic works this way. When it comes to human nature, I've got some thoughts of my own.

It's far more problematic when the suspension requested isn't something internal to the story logic like "sensible and level-headed character A does rash and heated action B" but ties into larger, societal demands for suspension of disbelief like "women aren't as capable as men." These aren't just interesting thought experiments but powerful social narratives with real impacts on the lives of real people. Thus, when hypercapable lady-soldier gets captured yet again, necessitating rescue by the male protagonist, that is at a bare minimum bad writing, just as much as any poor characterization. But it's also part of a larger, damaging narrative about women in the real world. For a reader that thinks women really aren't as capable, however the question of bad writing doesn't even exist.

And now I'm thinking about Tooth and Claw.

#24 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2014, 11:07 PM:

One could speak to what I've heard called the English Civil War -- but that ended up with the monarchy back in place.

I was told, when startled by the statue of Cromwell prominent outside the House of Parliament, that the important thing was that a *limited* monarchy was back in place. Like a relatively harmless drug filling a neurotransmitter receptor, maybe.

Considering The relationship between an author's assumptions about the universe and the story they tell is not a characteristic that's separable from "quality." It's an expression of how the writer thinks the universe works, and what they expect will happen in it. :

I am sometimes struck by not believing an authors' view of how people work in some practical or causal sense, and sometimes struck by not agreeing with an authors' sense of right and wrong -- I think I can find examples in all four quadrants of agreeing or disagreeing. (And brilliant writing can suspend my disbelief in either, which is mind-opening or deeply squicky or both.)

#25 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2014, 09:54 AM:

re 19: The thing is that the most important difference between Canada and USA is that neither cotton nor tobacco can be grown in the former.

#27 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2014, 03:14 PM:

I know Connecticut used to be a big tobacco-growing state. Maybe it's still grown there. It's a season-length thing, and cotton has a notoriously long requirement - something like 180 days frost-free, which made it marginal for west Texas (average frost-free period: 187 days).

#28 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2014, 04:07 PM:

So, trying to be fair, I've started to read some Larry Correia. And, I've got about 2 pages into Hard Magic the first book in the same series as the Hugo nominee. And the initial POV character is a farmer in California in the '30s, an immigrant from Portugal. And, everything I've read so far is biogtry--only it's a guy from Portugal being bigoted about Hispanics and Okies, so I guess it doesn't count as racism, technically. It nevertheless was wearisome to the point at which I put the book down. I'll probably pick it back up and give it another try--after all, I'm only 2 pages in--surely it can't all be like this? And maybe this guy in the first scene isn't going to be all that important? But, on the other hand, an opening scene is supposed to catch my attention long enough for the author to feed me some exposition without me noticing too much, and I don't really see how this guy's internal monologue about how Hispanics and Okies are all lazy losers who get what they have coming to them, and their women are all sluts, accomplishes that.

#29 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2014, 08:27 PM:

I must confess to guessing about the tobacco; should have recalled the tobacco barns of Connecticut.

#30 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2014, 09:10 PM:

C. Wingate, #29: You're not the only one. I was confused as hell about the prominence of tobacco in the areas corresponding to the Great Plains and Wisconsin in S.M. Stirling's Changed World books, because I thought it was only grown in areas that his maps have marked as "DEATH ZONE". Apparently the Tobacco Belt is only where it's become feasible to grow it in modern-level commercial quantities.

#31 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2014, 09:33 PM:

C. Wingate, I have wondered if sufficiently high net primary productivity -- enough to make a luxury export market -- counted as a resource curse.

#32 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2014, 10:05 PM:

I can see Wisconsin, maybe, but the Great Plains - not so much: not enough humidity and rainfall. You'd have to irrigate it. Those big soft leaves are really great for transpiration. (This is, incidentally, a problem also for corn and cotton. Corn in particular is a very thirsty crop.)

#33 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2014, 11:55 PM:

Easy test to see if your area can grow tobacco -- see if your garden center sells Nicotianas among their annuals. These are dwarf ornamental varieties of tobacco, and if those survive in your area you can probably grow the commercial variety. However, I cannot promise your results will be as good as Longbottom Leaf.

The above mentioned annuals are grown for color. If you prefer fragrance, try Nicotiana alata. Known as "Jasmine Tobacco," it has long white flowers which exhale their fragrance at night. They are also popular with hummingbirds. This is a plant for the back of your beds, as they grow to be 3-5 feet tall.

#34 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 12:22 AM:

On the other hand: tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca). It's a perennial weed/shrub. Small leaves, yellow tubular flowers, drought-tolerant, invasive. No nicotine, but the alkaloid it does produce is even more toxic.

#35 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 12:57 AM:

Friend of a friend did tobacco farm work in Ontario during the summers as a kid. Her opinions about how nasty the stuff was to work on matched those of a friend from Kentucky (though she smoked it anyway, and he didn't. His grandpa had switched to growing hemp during the war, and would have preferred to keep doing that, but had to switch back to tobacco after it was over.)

#36 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 08:27 AM:

Clew @24: I get twitchy when people talk about the English civil war. It was the British civil wars, plural: two in England, at least one in Scotland (depending how you count them), and an invasion (to say nothing of the Confederate Wars) in Ireland. (And they killed a far higher proportion of the affected population than the US Civil War, although rather less than the Thirty Years War which was raging around roughly the same time.)

As for the monarchy ... if Cromwell hadn't been a reformer of sorts, and his son Richard too weak to buck the trend, there'd have been no Commonwealth and no Restoration: just a new royal dynasty.

And then there was 1688 and the Glorious Revolutin, when Parliament decided the King was unreliable (read: too Catholic) and sent off for a more acceptable replacement ...

TL:DR; British politics in the 17th century laid the kindling for the bonfire of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. Yet most people remain largely ignorant of its significance.

#37 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 08:44 AM:

Growing tobacco: It was a big crop in the Lancaster, PA area when I was a kid. Don't know how much it's grown now. Ornamental varieties did great in my garden in Portland, Oregon, which is not humid at all, and has cool evenings in the summer. I grew nicotiana sylvestris. It gets about 6 feet tall—definitely one for the back of the flower bed! It smells heavenly at night. It's a messy plant. The flowers and leaves are slightly sticky. As the small flowers fade and fall off, they stick on the leaves and you need to pick them off it keep it looking nice. My favorite is nicotiana langsdorffii. It's a much more manageable size. It has small, yellow-green flowers that sparkle against blue or purple.

#38 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 08:48 AM:

It's always seemed weird to me (for values of 'always' meaning "since I found out about it") that the war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud doesn't make the list of English* civil wars. It wasn't a brief squabble over succession; it lasted years, and divided the nation. It wasn't inconsequential; it put Henry II on the throne, and his sons and wife were, you know, kind of significant.

Yet somehow it doesn't make the list. What am I missing?

*Or British, but I think this one was pretty English.

#39 ::: Bruce ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 08:59 AM:

Ian @21- 'Americans had a political revolution without also having a social one'

I'd say we had a social revolution stretched out across eighty years- 1750s to 1830s. Somewhere between Washington triggering the French and Indian War in the 1750s and Jackson ordering the Trail of Tears. The end of slavery in the North was a big deal. 1830s New York was Merchants versus Workies- big change from Tories versus Whigs. Jackson would not have been elected or appointed to much in the 1750s. Big Cotton sure changed the South.

Remember the Vandals vandalizing the Roman Empire? No? Before my time too. But if I won a slave revolt, I'd pay historians to say I was never a revolting slave.

#40 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 09:40 AM:

Here is a picture from the 1930s of workers on a tobacco farm in County Waterford, Ireland.

#41 ::: Tatterbots ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 10:58 AM:

rea @ 28, I read a bit further than you did. I was hoping the Portuguese farmer's bigotry was evidence that he's a bad guy, but apparently not. By the end of the scene he's spotted that the Okies' teenage daughter has the same rare magical gift as him, and agreed to buy her from her family for $10. Which ... seems to be for altruistic reasons? In their next scene, three years later, she's calling him Grandpa and seems quite happy with the situation. I gather she's one of the series protagonists.

The other obviously protagonisty character I've met is a tough ex-convict called something like Jake Bullet, who, while inside, kept himself to himself except when provoked by more troublesome inmates, whom he apparently killed. I guess they had it coming, or something. For this cleanup service, and for being really good at breaking rocks, he was rewarded with access to the prison library. Now released, he's helping the authorities bring in other magically gifted criminals.

I kind of want to keep reading, to see if these things make more sense when I know the context better. Then again, I have so much else to read.

#42 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 12:32 PM:

Others have mentioned Canada's tobacco fields - tobacco is an interesting story here, given that we have sin taxes and special customs exceptions - maybe it's for the country, and maybe it's for Imperial Tobacco and Macdonald Tobacco.

But it's still as crappy a crop to pick when they have to pay people to do it, at least according to Stompin' Tom. All I can remember of Tillsonburg was the UAW Hall where the bridge tournament was held; specifically the A/C unit that would spark. About - and this is a real about - every 30 seconds. If it were regular, it would be fine; as it was, by round 6, you were jumping every time it hit slightly before or after when you expected it.

#43 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 01:55 PM:

Xopher @ 38: I'm English and interested in history, but that question's never occurred to me, and I don't really know the answer. My schoolday histories kind of glossed it over as something like, "Eh, old Stephen Half-a-King: more weak than wicked, eyes bigger than his belly; other side no better or worse, nothing to see here but Suffering and Squalor; let's all move quickly along to something tidier and more interesting!"

If I had to take a wild guess as to the reasons, it might involve successive generations of the British Establishment considering what useful or self-appealing narratives they might draw from the epoch, and abandoning the consideration rather quickly.

#44 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 03:36 PM:

Gray 43: Thanks, that's interesting. I only found out about it because the Cadfael mysteries are set against that background. Apparently they get most of the events right, though the central characters of the books are 20th Century people set into the 12th Century.

I asked my friend JY about it. JY knows all about European, especially British, royalty (he's the only American I know who can recite all the English Monarchs in order).

As for lessons to extract: how about "make sure it's absolutely clear what the succession is after you"? To their credit the British appear to have taken that lesson to heart. Maud teaches a lesson about not being arrogant and high-handed with people whose support you need, a lesson learned the hard way over and over all over the world.

#45 ::: SKapusniak ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 06:55 PM:

Xopher @32, Gary @43

Over in the in forums for the grand strategy game Crusader Kings II, I remember someone once making a post in response to complaints that it was unrealistic that -- in the game from the 1066 start -- England usually ended up in a pretty much constant state of civil war all the way up to the game's end date of about 1453. The post listed all the actual revolts, rebellions, succession wars, and such that actually took place in England during that period.

Summary: Pretty much any period the Norman or English nobility weren't attacking their foreign neighbours, they were busy with some sort of internal civil war, usurption, revolt, factional strife, or succession crisis.

'The Anarchy' (Stephen vs Matilda/Maud) just sits there as the biggest, nastiest, most treacherous blot in the middle, in an era bookended by the Norman Conquest, and the Wars of the Roses.

And then the Tudors and Stuarts come along and somehow put an (unstable, wobbly, iron-fisted and brutal) lid on things for 150 years, until Charles I, oblivious to how precarious the whole setup is, cocks it up completely.

Maybe that's why 'The Civil War' gets top billing as the The Civil War. The historians have a run of years to get out of the habit of assuming civil strife is the natural state of the English.

#46 ::: older ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 07:21 PM:

It was at one time my impression (based on barely remembered childhood instruction) that tobacco was grown in the South because that was where the big plantations, powered by slave labor, were located. For some reason (not explained or not remembered) you couldn't pay people to do it, so it had to be done by people you didn't have to pay.

There used to be a fellow in my area (western Oregon) who was known for growing his own tobacco and making his own cigars, so I know it can be grown around here. But I haven't heard of anyone doing it recently.

#47 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 07:42 PM:

And perhaps the fact that the wars between Stephen and Maud have another name ("The Anarchy") also played a role.

#48 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 08:39 PM:

Tobacco is an important cash crop for the mid-Atlantic Amish and Mennonites.

#49 ::: UrsulaV ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2014, 10:42 PM:

My stepfather once grew his own tobacco in Oregon, fairly far up in the Cascades, actually. It was dreadfully harsh (he said) and thus not a terribly successful experiment, but it grew to harvest size.

Meanwhile, here in a substantially warmer zone, I can't get some of my blasted peppers to set fruit if I don't start them absurdly early indoors...

#50 ::: Kellan Sparver ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2014, 03:52 AM:

CHip @22: the problem I have with "people don't work that way" is that somewhere, somehow, they probably did. IME, the way authors fail on this is trying to separate that working from the structure that made it happen; e.g., I wouldn't believe the conclusion of the 47 Ronin in a setting that smells like Western Europe.

Yeah, what I sometimes mean here is that the author hasn't done demonstrated anything about the structure of the world which explains why the characters are behaving as they're behaving, or if he did, I didn't buy it. Nor does the characters' behavior illuminate anything about the structure of the world. Worst is when I can't even flagrantly make up enough details to tell myself a satisfying story about the structure that must exist to support that behavior, because the characters' actions on the page are just completely incoherent.

There is as well stuff "everybody knows" about how people acted as part of various structures that just ain't so. Various bits of the Middle Ages that give lie to at-times-commonly-held beliefs about Extruded Fantasy Product ("women could never be rulers!"), and similar reality-is-unrealistic bits of that nature. Some of it is facile and some of it insidious.

#51 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2014, 12:12 PM:

My favorite description of the scorched earth era in England during the Stephen and Maud conflict:

"When Christ and his saints slept"

#52 ::: dotless ı ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2014, 02:54 PM:

In college I had to write an essay on the topic "What went wrong in the reign of King Stephen?" I briefly considered answering with "What went right?"

#53 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2014, 03:08 PM:

If Stephen hadn't been a hotheaded dope, he might have won comprehensively. If his wife (who, like the Empress, was named Matilda, which I suspect is why the latter is more often called Maud) hadn't been a pretty cunning strategist in her own right, Stephen might have lost comprehensively.

So I understand from what I've heard and read.

#54 ::: praisegod barebones has left a bracket wandering in the wild ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2014, 04:59 PM:

Xopher @ 38

There's this.

#55 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2014, 03:26 AM:

Charlie @36 "TL:DR; British politics in the 17th century laid the kindling for the bonfire of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. Yet most people remain largely ignorant of its significance."

Don't know whether you have read it, but that is a big part of the thesis of Kevin Phillips' The Cousins' Wars. He argues there's a continuum between the Civil War that you mention, the American Revolution and the American Civil War -- that they are internal conflicts in a way that, say, Franco-German wars over a similar period are not. It's an interesting thought.

#56 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2014, 10:07 PM:

Lee @ 30 et al: AFAICT the "Tobacco Belt" is where \mass/ tobacco is grown. IIRC, Connecticut River valley tobacco was commercial when I was a student in Easthampton MA >40 years ago; however it was a specialty/quality product used for cigar wrappers, rather than being run through a chopper and formed into cigarettes (e.g., like the difference between really good cheese and Kraft American). I haven't looked for it recently, but Wikipedia says this agriculture has almost disappeared because the land is too valuable; not surprising if true, because the area is much more interesting to live in than it was when I was there.

#57 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2014, 11:20 PM:

There are still active tobacco farms in Connecticut. It's "shade tobacco", and there are contraptions with canvas on frames to provide the shade. You can see them on the drive to Bradley Airport.

#58 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2014, 07:30 AM:

Xopher Halftongue @ #44:

The thing I find striking about that list is how quickly the Princes and Dukes are joined by names bearing no greater distinction than "Mr".

#59 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2014, 10:19 AM:

Paul A @58: That's because the Princess Royal married a commoner; those Phillips Mr-and-Misses are her kids.

#60 ::: Joel Derfner ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2014, 11:55 AM:

I'll quote Flannery O'Connor: "In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it. I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery."

And, for the heck of it, D.H. Lawrence: "The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral. The essential function of art is moral. But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, not the mind. The mind follows after, in the wake."

I try to make everything I write consistent with these two ideas (this one idea).

#61 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2014, 02:55 PM:

Re: 58 Not just that the Princess Royal married a commoner, but that she declined royal status for her offspring. I think that they were also removed from the line of succession but I'm not certain.

#62 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2014, 03:08 PM:

Lori 61: Well, not according to that page, which is the Royal Succession.

#63 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2014, 04:20 PM:

The rules of Royal Succession for the UK are fairly simple:

All legitimate descendants of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, excepting those who (a) are Roman Catholic, converted to Roman Catholicism, or married a Roman Catholic, (b) is Edward VIII, or (c) is descended from anyone excepted by (a) or (b). The order of priority is male-priority primogenitor, except for descendants of William and Catherine, in which case the order of priority is simple primogenitor.

Sophia was the closest Protestant relative with a claim on the throne when Parliament felt the need to come up with the rules (in 1701), and even then they had to skip over a bunch of Catholics with better claims. England was really fed up with Catholic kings by that time. She herself died in 1714 without becoming Queen Sophia, but her eldest son, George, became George I of Great Britain.

Since the rules of succession are effectively shared by 14 different independent countries, changing them is now not a simple matter and typically requires years of diplomatic efforts to get everyone on board. Not that it happens often. The most recent change was eliminating male-priority primogenitor for W&K's descendants. Before that was, I believe, the change eliminating Edward VIII and his (non-existent) descendants from the Royal succession. The Queen cannot directly change the line of succession, it's set by laws written by Parliament.

The titles of Prince and Princess are given out by the Queen at her discretion, and are typically reserved for her children, grand children, etc. There are also a few hereditary noble titles (Dukes, Counts, etc) that are held by some of those in the line of succession (or issued by the Queen, at her discretion), but those are limited.

So if you are a protestant descended from Sophia (with no RC ancestors in that line), but aren't close enough to the Queen to get a Prince/ss title, and don't have a noble title in your own right, you are simply Mr, Mrs, or Miss whatever.

#64 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2014, 05:42 PM:

Lori @61 I don't think that's actually the case. Firstly, as noted, the Princess Royal and her children (and grand-children) are still in the line of succession. Secondly the current rules for who gets to be called Prince (or Princess) say it doesn't pass on to your children when you're a female*. The current rules are thanks to George V, probably. As Buddha Buck @63 says all this is at the Queen's discretion, although 1. She hasn't changed it and 2. The House of Hanover have kept using their British princely titles even though they aren't supposed to. Once upon a time this would have been one those dynastic wars discussed above; nowadays it's a kind of peculiar family argument.

* Unless you're the Sovereign in which case all bets are off

#65 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2014, 10:00 AM:

There is an odd resonance between this discussion of royal lineages and the discussion on Marginal Revolution that points out that if you're worried about hereditary inequalities of wealth, getting the rich to have lots of descendants dilutes those inequalities very quickly. (You leave a huge fortune to your three kids, which gets split among your nine grandkids and 27 great-grandkids, and so on, until it disperses and your great-great grandkids are middle-class professionals with a little extra money in their retirement accounts.)

#66 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2014, 10:42 AM:

albatross #65:

If I am remembering correctly, the basic idea was noticed by de Tocqueville in his study of the nascent US in the early 1800's.

He noted a major difference in inheritance patterns between Europe and the US, in that in Europe it was standard for the eldest to inherent everything, leaving later children destitute or dependent. It was traditional for 3rd sons to go into the church or military, since they were neither the heir nor the spare, and as such would have no means of support. This served to keep wealth concentrated in the heads of the aristocratic lines. In modern terms, Prince George will inherit all the wealth of his grandmother Elizabeth the Queen, while his uncle, great aunts, great uncles, and cousins will get relatively little of that wealth.

In contrast, in the US the standard inheritance pattern was that all the children are heirs. So, as you mentioned, the wealth gets split between the children, and thus gets spread out, not accumulated. He felt this was a great equalizer and a strength of the US system.

#67 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2014, 11:59 AM:

albatross and Buddha Buck: the flip side of that inheritance pattern is that that's how land gets away from poor families and ends up concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. The continual dividing up of land into smaller and smaller parcels makes communities like Hog Hammock, on Sapelo Island, Georgia, easy prey for commercial developers. Especially in combination with a system that taxes land based on its potential commercial value (e.g., you could build a condo or an office tower there) rather than its current use (two-bedroom house with a big vegetable garden, whose elderly owners have been there for fifty years). Getting "taxed off your land" is very much a thing in the South, especially for people of color, who historically did not have access to many of the financial resources white people did (USDA loans, for example).

#68 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2014, 12:24 PM:

Being taxed off your land is still very much a thing in Chicago, Lila. That's what happened to the neighborhood I grew up in.

#69 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2014, 12:32 PM:


Yeah, that's nasty. I don't think there's any way to do property taxes that doesn't have some kind of bad results, though. If you *don't* let property taxes go up as assessed value of the property goes up, then you get very wealthy people who don't pay much taxes on their houses, which were relatively cheap back when they bought them. ISTR reading that this is a problem in California thanks to a ballot initiative years ago to keep people from being driven from their homes by property tax hikes based on skyrocketing assessed value.

#70 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2014, 02:18 PM:

#63 ::: Buddha Buck

Fairly simple compared to what?

#69 ::: albatross

Some sort of progressive land tax? It will probably have some other ill effect, but it might be graded in some way so as not to force people without much income off their land.

#71 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2014, 02:19 PM:

albatross #69:

Ideally, property tax assessments should affect taxes by making them proportional to the *relative* differences in property valuation. If a city needs $100M in tax revenue to run its services, and has $10B in total assessed property, then the property tax rate should be $10/$1000 of assessed value. A home-owner with a $100K house should be asked to pay $1K in property taxes.

If everyone's assessment jumped 50%, so the total assessed value is now $15B, then the tax rate should now be $6.66/$1000, and the same home-owner (whose house is now assessed $150K) should be asked to pay the same $1K in property taxes.

Of course, if you only reassess black neighborhoods, only they will see the 50% increase in assessed value, and their property taxes will go up while the white neighborhoods go down. So it's possible to game the system in a discriminatory manner, but generally rising property values should not cause property taxes to rise alone.

#72 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2014, 02:30 PM:

It's a little more complicated than that - that proposition (which I voted against) exempted business property from that kind of reassessment. Which means that businesses are paying less in property taxes than they should, and they also can get around it by playing games with shell corporations.

#73 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2014, 05:17 PM:

Lila, #67: The only thing keeping that from happening to us right now is that the deed covenant for our HOA forbids the building of multi-family structures. A developer could easily fit 6 townhouses on our lot, 3 on each side with a common driveway in between. Sooner or later somebody will get an offer they can't afford to refuse and get the covenant broken, and then it'll be dominos all up and down the street. OTOH, that's also our last-ditch chance at any kind of retirement income, so...

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