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November 30, 2018
The first thing that came to our heads
Posted by Avram Grumer at 01:52 AM * 133 comments

“Monster Mash,” “Crocodile Rock,” and “Jailhouse Rock” are all real songs about other, fictional songs that share the same titles as the real songs. Any other examples? And is there a name for this kind of song?

Actually, “Monster Mash” is technically about a dance, not a song, but still, it relates a story which logically presumes the existence of a fictional piece of music pre-existing the real song, and (the peculiar thing is this my friends) leaves open the possibility that the referenced fictional song might not resemble like the real one.

Oh, hey, “Time Warp” from Rocky Horror is another one.

November 17, 2018
Two, or possibly three, sermons
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:30 AM * 72 comments

I believe it is traditional to apologize when one hasn’t been blogging for a while, and I am indeed sorry. It’s been a tough few years, for Reasons both public and not, nor am I out of it. I can’t commit to writing with any regularity1. But I wanted to muse on something at length rather than in a Twitter thread, so hi.

Last weekend, someone on the line between “person I know of” and “person I know slightly”—Guardian columnist Andrew Brown—tweeted about Le Guin and a psalm.

He sent me the text of the sermon (it’s now available here) and we chatted a little. I didn’t say anything particularly smart, only partly because I was standing on a bitterly cold train platform in Antwerp, thinking, as we all were that weekend, about 1918. But one thing that struck me powerfully is how much, all unrealizing, I had built the foundations for my morality on Le Guin. Although she and I don’t overlap in terms of either religion or faith, being read her work as a child and reading it myself as an teen and adult taught me values that I try to express in my life: the importance of communities of love; how names can both create and destroy us; how dear and deep the silence is that lurks beneath and between all of our words.

And a little something about nationalism, a quote I’ve brought with me through life in three countries:

“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession… Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”
—Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, The Left Hand of Darkness

Boundaries are much in my mind right now, because I live in the Netherlands on the basis of my British passport and, like winter, Brexit is coming. It’s a division born out of Tibe’s thinking, not Estraven’s, out of a definition of us expressed in terms of not-us2. This is related to something that Patrick once quoted Samuel Delany’s thinking on: how definitional arguments, by their nature, invariably wind up quibbling over edge cases at the expense of examining the broad middle.3

Not even remotely coincidentally, my pastor also preached about Armistice Day4. The readings for the day included the widow of Zarephath and the widow’s mite. He pointed out how both passages focus on women giving away their last resources. Giving, in effect, their lives. And November 11 is the feast of Saint Martin of Tours, whose hagiography includes not only having given away half his cloak to a beggar in midwinter, but also forsaking arms in an early version of conscientious objection that nearly cost him his life. (He later became a monk, then a bishop.)

Unlike the widows in those texts, unlike Martin offered to, unlike those poor young men in the trenches and the mud, most of us don’t give our lives in a single act. But you know, we do all give our lives, day by day, in what we do and do not, what we say and don’t say. How we choose to do and say those things. And that leads me back to another quote from The Left Hand of Darkness, something else I learned so early that I don’t recall not knowing it:

In a certain sense the Ekumen is not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be extremely important. Beginnings, and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means.
— Genly Ai

I grew up believing, and still believe, that means shape the ends they lead to. That we cannot get to good ends by bad means. That, as it says in our Commonplaces along the side of the Making Light front page, you cannot pluck safety from the arms of an evil deed. And that’s personal as well as political: I don’t just believe that good government cannot come from unfair elections; I also don’t believe that you can base your own truths on a foundation of lies. In a funny way, this circles right back to Delany…are our lives defined by our edge-case behaviors, or by the broad middle of what we do over time? Unless we have the grace or the folly to commit a single, isolated act of great good or evil, it’s usually the latter.

This goes all the way down to the core of our beings. One of the ends that the means of our lives shape is ourselves. Who we are is not just described by what we do; it’s created and formed by it. I think a lot about Harry Turtledove’s excellent short story Shtetl Days in this context: how practices and habits seep inward and recreate us in their image. That which we do often becomes easier. And the barriers to that which we do seldom (like, sigh, blogging) grow.

Another quote from The Left Hand of Darkness, in the same speech as the one above:

I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political.
— Genly Ai

Ai is talking about his mission to the planet Gethen, but we’re all on our own missions through the world. We are all, as we go through our lives, alone and vulnerable, however much we seek refuge in crowds and organizations, clans and tribes. We wake up inside our own skins and skulls, and we go to sleep there; eventually we die there too. Our relationships are personal, and we create them from who we are, and they in turn create us.

I don’t have a sweeping conclusion to this; I’m not trying to lead anyone to either mysticism or martyrdom (though the seeds of both lie here). I just wanted to say: you matter. What you do matters. What you become matters. Do your best.

And I love you. I’ll be back as and when I can.

  1. The ritual of apology can easily become an impediment to going back to writing, so I’m going to leave it there.
  2. We in the science fiction community are familiar with the places that approach leads. But we’ve made a lot of soup from that bone; I’m cooking something a little different in this post.
  3. I’ve been thinking about this in a completely different context at work, specifically, how people read user interface labels.
  4. Remembrance Day isn’t much of a thing here. But although the Netherlands was neutral in World War I, it was not untouched by it. And he is fond of Flanders.

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