Those of you who have joined us in the last year may not be aware that before the Superversive Literary Movement, there was still Superversiveness. It existed in the form of Mr. Superversive himself, the astute and witty essayist, Tom Simon.
When John and I conceived of the idea of the Superversive Literary Movement, we inquired of Mr. Simon as to whether he would be willing to allow us to use his LiveJournal handle for our new flegling lit movement. Not only did he kindly agree, but he graced this blog with our very first article, back in October of 2014.
Now, a year later, Mr. Simon strikes again with another excellent article.
A collection of Mr. Simons excellent essays on Tolkien and our craft.
Life, Carbon, and the Tao
A year has gone by since the Superversive blog officially kicked off, and during that time, as they say, life has happened. As writers, we always need to go back to that. Part of the deep malaise that afflicts our art form (and many others) is that it is too easy to be influenced. It becomes fatally easy to reuse tropes and characters and ideas from other stories, or other art forms; it takes an effort of will to go back to reality and look at it with fresh eyes. There is, I suspect, no such thing as strict realism in fiction – reality is too complex, too big, too un-story-like – but every story needs to be rooted in reality at some point. Not reality as we would like it to be – that is part of the flight of fancy on which the story takes us – but just as it is.
Today, as I look at reality, I find myself thinking of two questions, which, if answered badly, can lead our field up a blind alley. The first one arose in Golden Age science fiction, and led a lot of writers astray on a technical point. The second one arises in every form of fiction, and leads whole cultures astray. But there is a curious resemblance between them, and the answer to the first question, I find, sheds light on the second.
Mr. Simon also produces high quality fiction.
The first question:
What’s so special about carbon?
There used to be a recurring trope in science fiction about ‘carbon-based life forms’, as distinguished from all the other kinds of life forms based on other elements. Silicon was the most popular, for good and plausible reasons; plausible, but alas, not sufficient.
Life requires complexity. The simplest microbe is a pullulating chemical factory in which thousands of types of complex molecules interact and collaborate to produce the delicate balance of stability and change that we refer to as ‘being alive’. There are good reasons, grounded in information theory, to suppose that life cannot be supported by a system much simpler than that.
There are three ways of joining atoms together, and two of them are not helpful for our purpose. Ionic bonds only form simple molecules. Metallic bonds don’t really form molecules at all, but masses of solid metal, with the same simple pattern repeated over and over. Covalent bonds are where the action is. Some elements don’t form covalent bonds at all, and we can scratch them off our list. Others form anywhere from one to four bonds per atom, and clearly, the more bonds an atom has, the more complex structures it can participate in. We could build molecules as complex as we liked out of atoms with a valency of 3; but the real winners are the carbon group elements, the only ones with a valency of 4. If we form a chain or ring of carbon-group atoms, we have plenty of free bonds left over, on which we can hang any number of other atoms; and this gives us the complexity that we require.
There are six elements in the carbon group: carbon, silicon, germanium, tin, lead, and flerovium. Tin and lead behave as metals, and germanium as a semi-metal: that is, they normally combine by metallic bonds. An atom of lead, tin, or germanium may form covalent bonds with other elements, but not, as a general thing, with other atoms of the same element; so we can cross those three off the list. Flerovium is an artificial element, never found in nature, with a half-life of a few seconds, and only a few dozen atoms of it have ever been observed. Scratch flerovium.
That leaves carbon and silicon; and to SF writers of the Golden Age and thereabouts, silicon looked like a good candidate for the formation of life. It is abundant, it readily forms covalent bonds, it has a valency of 4. In theory, every kind of carbon-based atom has a silicon-based analogue, and we could readily imagine a whole biology built up with silico-proteins and silico-nucleic acids. But in practice, those analogues never form. Silicon bonds with silicon easily enough, but much more readily with either hydrogen or oxygen. In nature, we never see one silicon atom bonded to another. Even the silicone compounds have oxygen atoms alternating with the silicon: Si–O–Si–O, never Si–Si. The Earth’s crust contains an enormous amount of silicon, but all of it is combined with oxygen, usually in the form of silica.
Carbon, too, combines more readily with oxygen or hydrogen than it does with carbon, but the difference of bonding energies is much smaller. So a plant, for instance, can invest the energy it receives from the sun to break apart carbon-oxygen bonds in CO2, and get most of that energy back by linking the carbon atoms together to form the backbone of carbohydrates or proteins. It would take much more energy to break up SiO2 and link the silicon atoms together, and even then, the silicon chains would be very unstable, and would go poof in the presence of either oxygen or hydrogen. Since hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, and oxygen is the most common element in rocky bodies like the Earth, it’s safe to say that silicon-based life is a non-starter. One still hears of it occasionally in ‘soft’ science fiction, but it has no place in hard SF, any more than the canals of Mars, the oceans of Venus, or for that matter, H. G. Wells’ gravity-proof mineral, Cavorite.
We speak of organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry, as if it were an equal division; but this is not so. We call a compound organic if it contains carbon, and inorganic if it does not. Even though carbon is only one element out of a hundred-odd, inorganic compounds are vastly outnumbered by organic ones, and all new discoveries in chemistry can only increase the odds still further. If you look at the molecules that are complex enough to serve as the building blocks of life, whether Earth life uses them or not, they all contain carbon – every single one. One day, we may discover a kind of life that does not depend on chemical bonds at all; a life form, perhaps, that relies entirely on the direct interactions of high-energy fields in a plasma medium, to which it would not matter what kind of atoms the plasma itself is made of. We cannot say that such a thing is impossible; but we can say that silicon-based life is impossible. On Earth, or in any kind of planetary or deep-space environment, carbon is where the life is.
Tom’s essays also appear in Sci Phi Journal
(This one with a story by John as well.)
And now, to the second question: What’s so special about the Tao?
Here I am using the term Tao the way C. S. Lewis used it in The Abolition of Man: meaning the basic principles of morality on which all civilized peoples have generally agreed. Here are some of the perennials: Don’t murder your neighbour, don’t steal from your neighbour, don’t mess around with your neighbour’s wife, don’t perjure yourself. Men have differed on the definition of neighbour, and some of the wide variation in human cultures is accounted for by that difference. Some peoples apply the Tao only to members of one’s own tribe, or one’s own nation. Some try to apply it to every human being without exception. And of course there are differences of detail, such as whether a man should marry one wife or four. But every culture that survives is based on the Tao, just as every life form is based on carbon; and the reasons, at bottom, are similar.
What the Tao does is to establish a minimum basis for safe dealings between human beings. If, every time you went into Starbucks, you had to seriously question whether the barrista would sell you a cup of coffee or shoot you on sight, I fancy that Starbucks, as a business, would not have lasted long. Fortunately, both you and the barrista subscribe to the Tao. Even if you don’t understand the reasons for the rules, you obey the rules, at least most of the time, because that is the only way that you can get along and do business together. Even to live together in a community requires the Tao. My neighbours lock their doors when they go out, it is true. But if I did not accept the Tao, locks would do them no good; I would smash the doors with an axe and help myself to their belongings. And if they did not accept the Tao, they would have no grounds to complain. No human being can live as a solo army, at war with the whole world. We are born weak and helpless, and most of us are weak and helpless again before we die; and we all have to sleep in between. The Tao literally keeps us alive when we cannot defend ourselves.
The basis of the Tao, in one word, is reciprocity. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Or if that is too strong for you, take the formula of Confucius: ‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ Over tens of thousands of years, in the laboratory of daily life, in tribes and villages, cities and nations, we have boiled down the art of reciprocity; we have codified the things that none of us (when sane and healthy) wish done to us, and we agree not to do them to others. In almost every culture, this code is reinforced by the prevailing religion; but it is quite possible to accept the Tao without any religion at all. It is the common moral currency of humanity, and with the caveat noted above, it passes everywhere. Societies that reject the Tao do not hang together; and individuals who reject the Tao soon find themselves without any society.
A tale of quests, strange magics, and ancient wars!
When I turn from real life to fiction, I find a curious difference. In the stories of the past – in nearly all fiction before, say, the late nineteenth century, and all popular fiction until a much later date – the Tao is taken for granted; only there is a class of people who do not observe the Tao. These people are called criminals, or outlaws, or villains. In the older kind of fiction, the villain upsets the Tao to take advantage of a weaker party, and the hero restores the Tao by avenging the victim.
Consider the Odyssey. Odysseus was a sharp operator, maybe, but still a hero; he restored the Tao. Old Polyphemus, the Cyclops, violated the Tao in a pretty straightforward way: he ate his house guests. The Greeks set great store by the laws of xenia, or hospitality; and even we degenerate moderns, when our friends invite us to dinner, do not expect to be the dinner. Later, he restored the Tao in the matter of adultery, dealing with his wife’s suitors in a brusque but exemplary manner. (No, he could not have called the police. Odysseus was the King of Ithaca; he was the police.)
It is only we moderns, for the most part, who try to write fiction without the Tao. This may be partly because of our exceptionally urbanized life. For the first time in history, the majority of human beings now live in cities. It is easier to reject the Tao in a city. In a small village, a psychopath will soon make himself odious to his neighbours. They will drive him out with sticks and stones, or tar and feather him; at the very least, they will not do business with him anymore. In a large city, where everybody does not know everybody else, a psychopath can always look for fresh victims – until he reaches the point of actually being infamous. At that point, his reputation precedes him, and people who have never even met him know that he is not a man to deal with. About that time, or a little after, they generally kick him out of town, or throw him into prison. This means that even a psychopath has to be careful where and how often he breaks the Tao, so that he does not make too many enemies at once.
But there is a kind of fiction in which breaking the Tao is a rule in itself. This was considered brave and bold and groundbreaking among the Decadents a century ago; it was a good way to shock the bourgeoisie and annoy one’s parents. For it is always cheaper to talk trash against the Tao than actually to break it oneself. Most of the people who read this kind of fiction have not got the guts, or perhaps the opportunity, to do any serious lawbreaking themselves. The stories are harmful in a more subtle way. By degrees, they create a habit of thought – a habit of regarding the Tao as optional; and if this habit is fed and encouraged, it becomes a habit of regarding the Tao as a stupid tribal taboo, and those who obey it as superstitious fools. People can really come to believe this, and act accordingly (when not afraid of being caught); it is a sort of psychopathic infection, and the patients degenerate by degrees. The first thrill of being ‘transgressive’ – cheering for the robbers instead of the cops – does not last; the addict returns for stronger and stronger doses. And our own generation has raised a bumper crop of such addicts.
Epic fantasy, a century ago, began with cautionary tales, dealing with the negative parts of the Tao. The grandfathers of the genre were authors like Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, and Robert E. Howard, whose heroes were often ambivalent and never spotless; there are no Sir Galahads in their work. But they were never mistaken about their villains. Conan’s morals were pretty loose, but the wicked kings and sorcerers that he slew generally needed slaying. This has sometimes been called ‘Grey vs. Black’ morality. The feeling – it is no more than that – is that the White Hats, if there are any, are too clean to beat the Black Hats in a straight fight. You need to bring in a specialist, a Conan, or four Lords of Witchland, or Seven Samurai, who are on the ragged edge of the Tao themselves, and have often been in trouble, and are experts at getting out of it. The ‘rules of engagement’ for a Conan are very simple: No holds barred, and Crom favours the strongest.
In the next generation, the Inklings and their immediate heirs raised the moral tone. Tolkien is often criticized for his ‘simplistic’ approach to morality; but it is his critics who are simplistic. Frodo does not destroy the One Ring because his purity gives him the strength of ten. He, in fact, does not destroy it at all, but actually succumbs to its temptation. But because he stays within the Tao, and serves it faithfully as long as his strength and sanity last, the Tao serves him also. He has the help of all peoples of good will, Elves, Men and Dwarves, Wizards and Hobbits: not just the other members of the Company, but Galadriel and Faramir, and the whole armed strength of Rohan and Gondor. Even Gollum helps him, for a while; and in the end it is Gollum who fulfils the Quest. The really simplistic morality belongs to Sauron, who only counts his enemies by spear-points, and takes no notice of the Tao. Sauron would have been genuinely afraid if Conan had come after him with the Ring; he thought Aragorn was going to do exactly that. He simply overlooked the damage that many small hands could do in co-operation, because co-operation was not in his moral vocabulary; and that damage turned out to be fatal.
Nowadays, in epic fantasy above all, but to a lesser extent in the other imaginative genres, we are faced with a full-throated reaction against the Tao. Even Conan is too moral for the modern epic writer. The new standard, if we may call it that, is exemplified by A Game of Thrones. There are still good characters and evil ones, and to that extent the Tao is recognized; but the evil ones always win. The quickest way to get yourself killed, if you are a nobleman in Westeros, is to do a good turn for somebody else. In George R. R. Martin’s invented world, the Tao really is a tribal superstition, and those who follow it are chumps – and then they are dead. The mortal sin of the Starks is to be too good for the world they are living in, and they pay for it in blood.
Now, Martin is careful, when speaking of this matter outside of his fiction, to point at all the historical examples of evil rulers, and claim that he is only portraying the world as it is. But he is not; he is portraying a ‘Crapsack World’ in which all the evils are pooled together, without any of the good that enabled them to survive in reality.
One model for Westeros is England during the Wars of the Roses; but those wars, it happens, were exceptionally bloodless even by the standards of mediaeval Europe. There were no more than about twenty battles all told, spread over a period of about thirty years. Even in those battles, casualties were light, seldom more than ten percent of the relatively small forces engaged. And the contending armies took considerable care not to kill civilians, destroy crops, or sack towns, because those things were precisely what they were fighting to control. Moreover, both the Lancastrians and the Yorkists were devout Catholics. True, they each believed that their respective contender for the throne had a divine mandate to rule; but they also believed that a king could forfeit that mandate by evil-doing, and in fact, each side believed that the other side’s contender had done just that. Richard III lost the battle of Bosworth Field because many of his own supporters believed he had lost the right to rule, and deserted to Henry Tudor.
Again, Martin can point to the web of intrigues and assassinations in Renaissance Italy. The Lannisters bear strong points of resemblance to the Borgias. But the Borgias were a disease, a passing phenomenon. They had no genuine power base of their own; they were a Spanish family that became powerful in Italian politics when one of them manoeuvred his way into the Papacy. Control of the Church gave him almost unlimited funds with which to buy temporal power over the Italian cities, and he tried to set up his illegitimate son as ruler of the whole country. But the Borgia power was parasitic; it had no roots in the country; it depended on foreign money, and when the Pope died, the family’s power faded away in just a few years. We are supposed to believe that the Lannisters have been a power for generations, when they routinely exercise that power in ways that would destroy its very basis in a short time.
In fact, no ruler can stay in power for long without substantially accepting the Tao. Consider the ‘Red Wedding’. One noble family proposes an alliance by marriage with another: well and good. But the bride’s family, which proposed the alliance, massacres the groom and his whole family at the wedding itself. This is not a violation of Christian morals only, but of the core of the Tao as recognized by all civilizations. The pagan Greeks would have been outraged by the violation of xenia. The pagan Romans would have been outraged by the abuse of amicitia, and would never have married into that family again. A Confucian would decry the breach of familial impiety, and say that the offenders had lost the Mandate of Heaven. It is not just that the act would have been swiftly and thoroughly punished. It could never have been organized on such a scale in any society where the Tao was taken seriously. The troops who carried out the butchery would have refused to obey their orders; or else (being outside the Tao themselves) they would have turned their swords against their own masters, and massacred both sides for their own profit.
In fact, we do see factions and cabals that wield power in something like the way that Martin describes. We see it in organized crime; but as Ben Kingsley said to Robert Redford in Sneakers, ‘Don’t kid yourself. It’s not that organized.’ In Martin’s view, those who follow the Tao are sheep, those who don’t are wolves; and the wolves, always and everywhere, prey upon the sheep. The evil preferentially destroy the good, and evil always wins. But this is not what we observe in life. Organized crime employs hit men, but nearly always to kill other criminals. Crime families and syndicates go to war against one another; they cannot go to war against society, just as a parasite cannot afford to kill its host. And society, being under the Tao, has resources that the criminals cannot draw upon. For there are not only sheep and wolves; there are also sheepdogs. The wolves may try to corrupt the sheepdogs, and sometimes they succeed. But they have neither the numbers nor the unity to attack them directly.
In effect, the ruling classes of Westeros, and many others like them in recent fantasy, are crime syndicates in a world without law. But it is the law that makes the crime possible. The vast majority of the people need the Tao to do business with one another, and to make the whole society function. Part of that function is enforcing the Tao through laws, and resolving disputes between people when reciprocity breaks down. This is not a function that we ever see the epic gangsters performing. They are too busy planning murders and rebellions. Real criminal gangs are only able to function because someone else does the hard work of holding society together. They never exist as a ruling class; and when they do temporarily become rulers, as with the Barbary pirates of the eighteenth century, or the Somali warlords of our own time, the society breaks down, the people perish, and the profits of crime disappear. Without the Tao, there is no trust between people; without trust, nobody can work and create wealth; and without wealth, there is nobody for the criminals to rob.
Why, then, does this kind of fiction remain popular? I believe it is significant that A Game of Thrones was adapted for television by HBO – that is, by the same network that brought the world a series called Cathouse. It is the pornography of violence and illegality, combined with some relatively mild pornography of the plain old sexual kind; and it caters to a thoroughly jaded and desensitized audience. At bottom, it is a kind of adolescent power-fantasy: the fantasy of the teenaged Viking, turned loose on a metropolis full of easy loot and nubile women, from which all the forces of law have magically disappeared. We see a pretty straightforward version in the Sin City comics. Of course this can only ever be a fantasy, because the forces of law never do disappear. The alternative to policemen and prisons is not anarchy, but vigilante justice, which is a good deal more dangerous to the would-be Viking.
But there are no vigilantes in the fantasy; the adolescent fancy can glut itself on imaginary killing and looting and rape. It can do so all the more readily when it has no experience of these things in real life: the smells, the blood, the screams, the cries for vengeance – the victims who fight back. Even a sheep has teeth and hooves; even a wolf has a breakable skull. At bottom, this is a fantasy for people who have never lived; whose lives have been so soft that mere hardness, in any form, has the appeal of the exotic. To borrow George Orwell’s phrase, it is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.
Snarky essays on the art of writing fantasy
So what can we, as writers, do about all this? The best we can do, I believe, is to quietly teach the Tao in our stories; to show the complexity of human life, as an organic chemist shows the complexity of biological life. But people want stories about violence and criminality? Very well; let us tell them. But let us tell the whole story, with the post-mortems and the blood feuds and the vengeance. And let us contrast it with some instances of actual heroism. Critics and publishers, no doubt, will sneer at our ‘bourgeois morality’, and call us ‘simplistic’; for they – it is an occupational hazard – are the most jaded audience of all. No matter; now we can pass them by. We can go over their heads and deliver our stories directly to our readers; and that may be the decisive weapon in this fight.
There does, I believe, come a revulsion; a point where people are no longer content to be fifteen-year-old rebels even in their fantasies, but want more sustaining food for their imaginations. Let us be there to give it to them. We can produce better effects – better conflicts – with chiaroscuro, with darkness and light, than the nihilists can ever produce by layering darkness upon darkness.
Beyond that, it is a question of access; and that is largely a matter of publicity. If a work of superversive fiction were as well known to the public as A Game of Thrones, it would sell as well or better. We have seen it before: it happened with The Lord of the Rings; it happened with Harry Potter. We have not got the media machinery, or the advertising budgets, to crown a Martin; we cannot conquer Sauron with the Ring. But we have that element that Sauron never took into account; we can co-operate. We can speak up for each other. Those of us who are worst at promoting our own work, it often turns out, are the best at promoting the work of others, because our own egos are not involved. When a man praises his own work, we say, ‘Of course he would do that,’ and ignore nine-tenths of what he says. It is when he praises other people that we take notice.
This, too, is part of the Tao; and it will serve us well, if we consent to serve it. The co-operation of many small hands, or as people say nowadays, crowdsourcing, can move mountains that the old mass media had to let strictly alone. I believe that millions of readers, movie-goers, and TV-watchers are athirst for heroes as well as villains, but at present they are only hearing about the villains, because the big media are braying about villains in unison. Let us raise a chorus of small voices. In the end, I believe we shall drown the villains out. It’s time to speak up for the Tao. For, like carbon, that is where the life is.
Thank you, Tom. That was brilliant!
For more of Mr. Simon’s work, you can read his works, which are showcased between the two posts, or visit his blog.