One Sunday evening when I was a kid, when we were visiting my paternal grandparents, it somehow came up that Grandpa Nielsen had misplaced the key to his suitcase lock, and couldn’t remember the three-digit combination that would open the lock without the key. I was maybe nine or ten years old and had gotten a vague notion of how permutations worked, so I thought I’d have a go at the problem. The lock had three little wheels, each with ten positions on it numbered 0-9, so there were a thousand possible permutations. I turned the wheels to 000, the first permutation, and tried the lock. It opened.
I’d stumbled on a behavior Richard Feynman talked about in the Safecracker Meets Safecracker chapter of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: the tendency of people to leave the combination locks in safes and filing cabinets set to the default combination they already had when they were shipped from the factory.
What makes Feynman’s stories about this and other faulty security practices so attention-grabbing was that his career as a safecracker began when he was working as a nuclear physicist at Alamagordo and Oak Ridge during WWII. The safes and filing cabinets he was casually opening for fun were full of massively sensitive material about the atomic bomb project. At one point he discovered that roughly one safe in five at Alamagordo was still set to one of the two standard factory combinations, either 25-0-25 or 50-25-50.
Given how nervous many of us were during the Cold War, it’s just as well that we didn’t know the interesting fact recently reported in The Guardian and Gizmodo: for about twenty years, and in direct contravention of orders from presidents and defense secretaries, the U.S. military had the eight-digit nuclear launch codes for Minuteman missile silos set to 00000000. Apparently they resented the eight-digit “fire only if ordered to do so by the president” security system imposed on them in 1962, as it made firing nuclear missiles slower and more difficult. They responded by permanently assigning the system a single launch code that was the moral equivalent of using “password” or “12345678” or “qwerty” as the overall password for your online account.
But it gets worse:
[I]n case you actually did forget the code, it was handily written down on a checklist handed out to the soldiers. As Dr. Bruce G. Blair, who was once a Minuteman launch officer, stated:Dr. Blair also noted in another article that virtually anyone who asked for permission to tour a launch facility was granted it, with little or no background check.Our launch checklist in fact instructed us, the firing crew, to double-check the locking panel in our underground launch bunker to ensure that no digits other than zero had been inadvertently dialed into the panel.This ensured that there was no need to wait for Presidential confirmation….
You couldn’t put that in a spy novel. Or maybe you could; but it would have to be the central McGuffin, and you’d have to build in a round of thunderstruck reaction shots for every character who heard about it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about internal narratives lately.
They’re a tool that we humans often use make sense of the world. We take individual occurrences from the past and string them together into connected events, then project that line into the future. On a very deep level, narratives are how I know, or think I know, what to expect next. They’re how I end up fearing what I fear.
Milan Kundera extends this point in The Unbeararable Lightness of Being, discussing Anna Karenina:
Early in the novel, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition — the same motif appears at the beginning and the end — may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty.
In other words, there is a tendency not only to perceive one’s life in narrative terms, but to guide it that way too. I know that I’m prone to this to an almost ridiculous degree. And when I get myself into an emotional hole, it’s often useful to ask myself what story I’m telling myself, whether it’s a true story, and if there’s another narrative that I can create from the situation. If I change the plot, can I open up more alternatives?
I’m thinking of the movie Galaxy Quest here, where one character has himself pegged as the disposable extra. Changing the narrative changes the choices he makes.
Guy Fleegman: I’m just a glorified extra, Fred. I’m a dead man anyway. If I’m gonna die, I’d rather go out a hero than a coward.
Fred Kwan: Guy, Guy… maybe you’re the plucky comic relief. You ever think about that?
We’ve talked about Tapes here, which are basically the negative narratives we’ve had imposed on us. We’ve talked about the roles we get cast into (the Difficult Kid, the Good Kid, etc.) and how those create and control expectations. Both of these are examples of narrative control, but there’s a third one that I, at least, wrestle with a lot: story arc.
Am I the tragic character who falls into the same trap over and over again because of her Sophoclean flaw? Am I the princess in the tower waiting to be rescued? Or am I the protagonist who gradually improves her circumstances and rescues herself from peril?
Mind you, I have to choose the new story arc carefully. A narrative of helplessness may paralyze me, but an overly-heroic one leaves me open to sudden collapses of confidence. I need one that works within my own symbolic set, and the things I have done and been before. It has to be tellable in my voice. In other words, I need to stick to my own personal canon. Mary Sue plots don’t work for me.
Is this just me? (It might be, in which case, just carry on the existing conversation!) If not, what are your stories and how would you like to change them?
This is part of the sequence of Dysfunctional Families discussions. We have a few special rules, specific to the needs and nature of the conversations we have here.
Previous posts (note that comments are closed on them to keep the conversation in one place):
So I was back in Łódź this week, after more than two years away. Unlike my last visit, this time I didn’t have a chance to go wandering with my camera. By the time I finished work every day, it was already dark. And I wasn’t minded to be abroad in a strange city alone.
Another difference from my last visit is that this time, I came on my own. Without another English speaker along, the bubble of my own culture shrank from a shared conversational space to the surface of my own skin. Although this was useful to the purpose of my visit (about which more never, sorry), it was also tremendously isolating*.
But solitude can be a kind of crucible, you know, and loneliness a sort of still. Thrown onto my own resources, I found myself thinking about my previous reaction to the place. The blog post I wrote then reads like someone searching for gold in sand. I tried to like the city. I talked myself into almost liking it. But really, I didn’t.
What I discovered, coming back, is that Łódź has somehow become dear to me. It’s still a mess, physically†, economically, and socially. And it’s not home, and never will be. But it’s become like a stranger one sees around enough times to take pleasure exchanging nods with, someone one looks forward to seeing without the prospect of ever knowing.
I tried to express some of this to my colleagues, most of whom are from the area. One of them sent me this song by his band. It’s in Polish, about Łódź (the title might be best translated as “A Four-Letter Word”). Both his singing and the accompanying photos are full of the complex yearning of the ambivalent native. I find it compelling.
As a migrant, a seeker of new places, this is the one novelty that I have sacrificed. It’s the one place I’m not likely to ever live: the beloved, impossible homeland.
* I hasten to add that my Polish colleagues were as hospitable as anyone could wish for, from their willingness to speak English whenever I was in earshot to their very kind reactions to my few words of Polish.
† They’re now embarked on their own Big Dig, and things will get worse before they get better. But the new construction includes a lot of planned bike infrastructure, so when things get better, they’ll get better the way I like them.
Richard Cohen, of whom I was happily unaware until today, appears to have made an arse of himself in an opinion piece in the Washington Post. This paragraph has been much-quoted:
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
Today we remember the Great War, 1914-1918. It was an enormous event, and is still barely assimilable. We live in its vast shadow. It’s hard to say what it was about — what the underlying question was. I suspect one possible answer is: In an increasingly mechanized and industrialized world, what is the value of a common man? If we’re still reeling and writhing, perhaps it’s because the answer the war gave back was: To those in power? Very little indeed.
Previous 11/11 posts on Making Light:
Ghosts of the Great War (2002)
Ghosts of the Great War, 2003
Ghosts of the Great War, 2004
Ghosts of the Great War, 2005
Remembering the Great War, 2007
The Great War, ninety years on (2008)
Langemar(c)k from several angles:
The battles fought in and around the Belgian town of Langemark (or Langemarck) were all part of the godawful neverending Ypres/Flanders offensives. The 1914 fight was notable for its high German casualties (±134,315), which were later mythologized, and for being the endpoint of the Race to the Sea. The 1915 fight was notable for being the occasion of the first German gas attacks. The 1917 fight was notable for being just as horrible as the previous ones, except the commanding officers had somewhat clearer notions about why they were doing it.
The reason German losses there were high in the autumn of 1914 was because three out of four German corps were inexperienced reservists or volunteers under the command of inexperienced officers, and because the German Commander-in-Chief, Erich von Falkenhayn, was still laboring under the post-Napoleonic delusion that sufficient enthusiasm can triumph over firing rates on flat, waterlogged ground strung with barbed wire. This proved such a costly error, with some of the highest German casualty rates of the war, that Falkenhayn found it prudent to lie like a rug to the German high command:
Westlich Langemarck brachen junge Regimenter unter dem Gesange ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’ gegen die erste Linie der feindlichen Stellungen vor und nahmen sie. Etwa 2.000 Mann französischer Linieninfanterie wurden gefangengenommen und sechs Maschinengewehre erbeutet.This piece of blatant propaganda took on a life of its own, mutating into the postwar myth of an outburst of patriotic feeling early in the war (nope) among young students turned soldiers (they weren’t especially young) which prompted them to sing “Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles” (if they sang anything it was “Wacht am Rhein,” and they sang it to identify themselves to other German troops and so avoid drawing friendly fire) during a bayonet charge (troops didn’t sing during bayonet charges) that failed to achieve victory because they were “stabbed in the back” by their aristocratic officers (the postwar German conservative right big on the whole “stabbed in the back” thing).
(We made good progress yesterday [November 9] in the Yser section. West of Langemarck young regiments broke forward with the song ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles’ against the front line of enemy positions and took them. Approximately 2,000 men of the French infantry line were captured and six machine guns were captured.)
Hitler enshrined the myth of Langemarck in Mein Kampf, and claimed to have served there. (Unlikely; his regiment was probably at Gheluvedt.) November ninth was made Germany Day in 1923, and Hitler used that date for his putsch in Munich. From 1933 to 1944, 11 November was made Langemark Day as a counter to Armistice Day.
Why all this manufactured veneration? Because after the terrible costs of the war, it was easier for Germans to believe in the tragic, idealistic self-sacrifice of 1914 than in the bitter fact that by 1918, their army didn’t have the will to go on fighting.
Emil Krieger’s group of four Mourning Soldiers (1956) is about presence and remembrance. The human-size figures stand at ground level near the boundary of the cemetery, just under the edge of the shade of some trees, with an open field behind them. They’re extraordinarily responsive to changes in light and atmosphere. Unlike traditional memorials, they register as part of the scene. It’s as though they’re standing there to bear witness.
Some other memorials:
The Germans got wily at Verdun. Their plan was to (1.) pick a spot which the French would be strongly disinclined to give up, and which had good accessible high ground nearby for siting artillery; (2.) attack it, provoking the French into counter-attacks and counter-offensives; (3.) rain down artillery fire on their heads; and (4.) continue doing so until the French ran out of troops and had to surrender. Essentially, they acknowledged that they were fighting a war of attrition, and proposed to reduce it to an abstract exercise.
While the battle didn’t quite work out as planned, Verdun racked up some impressive statistics:
Duration: about 300 days, 21 February - 19 December, 1916.
Size of battlefield: less than 20 sq. kilometers (7.7 square miles).
Estimated artillery shells fired: 32,000,000.
Estimated French troops engaged: 315,000 - 542,000; c. 156,000 killed.
Estimated German troops engaged: 281,000 - 434,000; c. 143,000 killed.
What you have to understand is that artillery shells ran much bigger and heavier than they did in later wars. Successive waves of shelling churned the battlefield mud, burying some dead (and living), exhuming others, and smashing remains into unidentifiable pieces. The Ossuary at Douaumont (i.e., Verdun), which sits in the largest military cemetery in the world, contains the fragmented, mixed-up bones of about 130,000 French and German soldiers.
For the same reason that there’s a huge ossuary at Verdun, memorials to the missing of other battles are a distinctive innovation of the Great War:
The Menin Gate at Midnight, painted by Will Longstaff.
As horrendous battles go, the other standout is the Somme,* which generated over a million casualties on both sides. The British alone lost 20,000 men on the morning of the first day. Commenters have criticized it ever since. However, as Wikipedia notes:
A rival conclusion by Terraine, Sheffield, Duffy, Chickering, Herwig and Philpott among others, is that there was no strategic alternative for the British in 1916 and that an understandable horror at British losses is insular, given the millions of casualties borne by the French and Russian armies since 1914. This school of thought sets the battle in a context of a general Allied offensive in 1916 and notes that German and French writing on the battle puts it in a continental perspective, which is inaccessible to anglophone monoglots because much of the writing has yet to be translated. The Battle of the Somme has been called the beginning of modern all-arms warfare, during which Kitchener’s Army learned to fight the mass-industrial war, which the continental armies had been engaged in for two years.I think Terraine, Sheffield, Duffy, Chickering, Herwig, and Philpott are missing the point.
It’s clear by now that the NSA has been having such an easy time sucking up all of our data as much because our internet providers aggregate it so conveniently as because a compliant power structure authorizes said upsucking. It’s the product of a phenomenon that those of us who work in IT know all too well: the habit of collecting data just in case it’s useful (or saleable, or both) later. Log files. Query patterns. IP addresses. Data, metadata, text, context.
And don’t get me wrong. All that pervasive data collection is useful; I was looking up an IM conversation from 2010 the other day, and found it because I remembered that the word “thoroughgoing” appeared in the passage I was searching for. Imagine doing that with paper letters. I’d be indexing till my brains ran out of my ears.
But suddenly, here we are, staring at the downside of that convenience.
While I was reading Russel Shorto’s recent (and very, very good) book on the history of Amsterdam, this snippet of Dutch social history jumped out at me:
In many ways, the Dutch obliged the Germans in their quest to sort out the country’s racial situation. Dutch society had, over the preceding decades, dealt with the increasing complexity of its social makeup by introducing something it called the pillar system. Pillarization was an effort to keep peace by giving different groups their own social space. The main pillars were Catholic, Protestant, socialist, and liberal. Each group had its institutional structures: its own newspapers, radio stations, schools, even banks. The pillar system had the advantage that it subdivided Dutch society into groups. Jews fell under the socialist pillar. Like everyone else, they were also cataloged; their addresses were on file. All of this made the Nazis’ work easier.
Now, pillarization wasn’t a bad thing, either in intent or initial effect. It was a kind of tool for the construction of a better, more just Netherlands. The goal was a society where different communities could function coherently alongside one another, without the ability to dictate to one another across sectarian boundaries. It was rigid, essentialist, and cobbled-together (putting Jews with socialists, for instance), but those are the kinds of weaknesses that societies smooth out over time.
Unfortunately, time ran out. And when it did, the tool the Dutch had used to make their community work better became the weapon that broke it.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that we believed the internet would build a better world for us. It was going to be a tool to boost previously unheard voices, to spread good ideas, to bring light to dark places. There were problems, of course — unclarity about control and ownership, weird wrinkles about privacy and identity, risks of corruption, harrassment, and abuse. But these seemed like the kinds of weaknesses that societies smooth out over time.
Time’s run out again. And I don’t know what to do.
Nota bene, y’all: like Patrick once said, I’m fairly sure this conversation will be much more interesting if no one starts down the “how can you be surprised?” road. I’m not writing this out of either surprise or unsurprise. I’m mostly feeling grief at a the price of our conveniences, fear of the road we’re on, and the same kind of weary helplessness that I get when I contemplate climate change. I wish I knew how to live in a world where these things are realities, because that’s the only one we have.
(The music clip is “For Everclear” by Jerrod Niemann from his site.)
For those who say “Gasoline and alcohol don’t mix,” nonsense! Gasoline and alcohol mix just fine! (Little known trivia fact: If you mix a liter of gasoline with a liter of alcohol the resulting mixture is less than two liters….)
You may not know this about me, but I’m a long-time Philadelphia area fan. I met my wife in Philly, and we went to Philcon together. Philcon is where I first met PNH in person (after he’d already bought my book), and Philcon is where I stayed up ‘til dawn talking in the lobby with TNH the week I got back from Wilderness Rescue School. I was at Millennium Philcon; on panels even. The Philcon Brunch was where I pitched the Crossman series to Claire Eddy.
I’ve been to Philcons even after I moved to the Far Frozen North, ten hours’ drive away.
So, Philcon, what’s up? Have you failed to notice what’s been going on in fandom (and prodom) over the past couple of years? There was the Readercon mess, there was the Wiscon harassment event, and the whole SFWA Bulletin debacle. Anyone would think that concoms would notice that Times Had Changed. For the better, most say. But changed, certainly. This has all been widely discussed.
A week ago, over in Diffractions, I linked to Philcon’s Unclear Policy Page. At a minimum, you’d expect that by now conventions would at least have a clearly-stated harassment policy.
Now, let’s look at Philcon, coming this weekend, in light of gender equality. One small slice of one small aspect of gender equality in our beloved genre. Let’s look at the readings. You know, and I know, and the people over there know, that women are fully as capable of writing SF as males. Yet, here we see the reading slots (all one-hour slots), with fourteen males reading for fourteen hours, and seven women (if you count the six who are sharing the same hour in the Broad Universe slot) reading for a total of three hours (again counting the Broad Universe hour). (Note: One writer is both in Broad Universe and has her own one-hour reading).
Dudes, aren’t there more female writers out there? Aren’t there more female writers attending your convention? Aren’t there more multi-published, well-reviewed, best-selling, award-winning women who might like a chance to present new work? Maybe some fans who’d like to hear it? Did you consider calling me on the phone?
It isn’t enough to avoid impropriety. You have to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The 21st century is here. Deal with it.
Just FYI, the North American hardcover and ebook editions of my and David Hartwell’s massive anthology Twenty-First Century Science Fiction went on sale yesterday. (The UK edition, from Constable & Robinson, will be published on November 21.) To quote the starred Kirkus review: “Grab this book. Whether newcomer or old hand, the reader will not be disappointed.”
Also available as of yesterday: Some of the Best from Tor.com, 2013 edition, Tor.com’s third annual free-as-in-free-beer e-book presenting a selection of the stories published on our site during the previous year.
One thing’s certain about having a surname that’s easy to misspell and easy to misparse: It does push you in the direction of humility, by constantly reminding you that you’re not actually particularly well-known or that big a deal. In small ways, like the fact that I’m alphabetized under H in the list of program participants at the World Fantasy Con I’m currently attending in Brighton, England. And in moments of greater exposure and personal glory as well. For instance, this is what appeared on the big-screen monitors in the hall, and on the live UStream internet feed, while I was accepting the Hugo Award in the long-form editor category at this year’s Worldcon in San Antonio:
Here’s another example. A couple of days ago, Publishers Weekly announced its 2013 “Best Books” list, and I was delighted to discover that my and David Hartwell’s anthology Twenty-First Century Science Fiction was one of the six SF&F titles so honored. This delight was almost entirely unaffected by clicking through to the spot on PW’s site announcing this fact:
As I wailed to a friendly contact at PW—someone not at all responsible for this—“Would PW refer to ‘Gordon V. Gelder’? I think not.” So, okay, it’s being fixed. As Jim Macdonald would say, nobody died, nobody even lost a limb. And yet.
Here’s the best, and it’s been going on for weeks. Twenty-First Century Science Fiction was licensed for British publication by the excellent Constable & Robinson. Their edition will release on November 21, so it’s been available for pre-order on Amazon UK for a while. Here are the two different ways Amazon UK has been giving my name:
Needless to say, while I have some older anthologies for sale on Amazon UK, you’ll never be able to find them by clicking on Patrick Nielsen Hayward or his distant cousin Patrick Nielsen Hartwell. (And the less said about David G. Hayden, the better.) From what I gather, trying to figure out what’s causing this has given our Robinson editor—a lovely man with the fabulous name of Duncan Proudfoot, who I met just today here at World Fantasy Con—several new grey hairs over the last few weeks. And I sympathize. The rickety systems by which modern publishers propagate data to the big retailers are a source of endless problems, and it can be amazingly difficult to diagnose and correct even the simplest errors. Similar stuff has happened to my Tor projects on occasion. So no great blame to the folks at C&R, or at Amazon UK for that matter.
But it does sting one’s vanity a little. When I got the news about our book being selected as one of Publishers Weekly’s best books of 2013, I wanted to post a link to that page. But I didn’t, because on some level I think I didn’t want to broadcast the message that the trade journal of my industry obviously doesn’t have any idea who I am or what my name is. It’s kind of…lowering, an old word that I think could be usefully revived.
To circle back to the top of this post, this is why I’m such a prod about the way we conduct our ceremonies in the SF and fantasy field. Slides and programs should be proofread by multiple sets of eyes and the spellings of names confirmed against authoritative sources whenever possible. And, critically, the award presenters should be required to make sure in advance that they know how to pronounce the names of all the finalists and winners.
I’m actually not nobody—I have some standing in this field, I’ve been around some decades and done some stuff, so really, I can view stuff like the mangled chyron at this year’s Hugo ceremony with only slightly exasperated equanimity. (Besides, my name’s spelled right on the actual Hugo.) But I imagine a new writer, someone with a hard-to-spell or hard-to-pronounce name. To her astonishment, one of her stories is a finalist for (let’s say) the Hugo Award for Best Novelette. The award is being presented by J. Arthur Famouspro. She’s in the audience with (let’s say) three of her closest friends and her father. Famouspro reads off the other nominees fluidly, but then stumbles on her name, taking three tries to get it all out. In that moment the message of the event changes from “Our daughter/friend is doing so well, one of her stories was a finalist for a major award!” to “Our daughter/friend is such small fry that J. Arthur Famouspro obviously never heard of her until this moment and couldn’t be bothered to learn in advance how to say her name.” And that’s not how to honor people. Really it’s not.