Ask Zompist: Faux multiculturalism

Onto the main question then. I was kind of struck by re-reading your The Moon is a Harsh Mistress review and seeing the fake multiculturalism critique in there. See, I’ve been getting back into the groove of wasting my time with writing for fun, and I’ve recently been really wasting said time on a silly story about four psychic barely-teenaged kids saving the world from an evil alien (yes, I’ll cop to the fact that it’s blatantly stolen from EarthBound, if only because that game is brilliant. I’m trying to mitigate the unoriginality by puree’ing in bits of other games/movies/series/etc that I like).

Said kids are kinda Author Avatar-ish in the sense that I just teleported my huge knowledge of pop culture onto two of them, and let one be the Straight Man, so to speak, and be constantly left out of the loop and confused by their quote- and reference-laden dialogue (this is kind of a joke at how I can come across as this when talking to other people). So, I wanted to ask: if I’ve made these kids British (well, okay, two Scots and a Sheffielder) but slapped them with a vast knowledge of pop culture, and a lot of it tends to come from the USA, am I also guilty of faux-multiculturalism? If so, will throwing more lines to reassert their, well, UK’ness, just feel like, er, tokenism without really fixing that problem? And, uh, is it that severe a problem?


Tricky, as Deep Thought said about the problem of life, the universe, and everything.  The writing workshop advice I’ve hated the most is “Write what you know”— because what I know is boring.  I don’t want to write fiction about growing up as a straight white boy in the suburbs of Chicago and I sure as hell don’t want to read any.

So, if you want to write about Brits, go for it.  But do your homework.  Do you know how young Brits talk?  Have you read a few actual books from Brits, young and old?  Can you list some things they’d know or watch or talk about that aren’t also shared by young Americans?  Do you at least have a British friend who’d be willing to tell you if you’re writing bollocks?

Don’t overdo it, especially as you’re an outsider— a little local flavor goes a long way.  The feeling of tokenism comes in when a character feels like nothing but a collection of faux localisms.  The most interesting thing about a character shouldn’t be their nationality.

(There’s a subtler type of tokenism: making an ethnic character so inoffensive and normal that they have no flavor at all.  Valve kind of did this with the black characters in Left 4 Dead: it’s nice that they actually have some black characters, but they seemed to be afraid of making them memorable in any way.)


Updated Verdurian lexicons

For years I’ve had a file with about a thousand words that needed to be created in Verdurian… I finally got through them all, plus another big chunk suggested by Xeroderma Pigmentosum on the ZBB.

Here’s the English-Verdurian dictionary and here’s the Verdurian-English.   The process has created quite a few new words in other languages, and I’ll get to updating the web versions soonish.

There’s about 6500 entries in the Verdurian dictionary, plus over a thousand sub-entries (idioms and sample sentences).

While I’m here, Almeopedia is down.  It’s hosted by Lore, and he’s had some nasty site problems; it looks like files are lost but we don’t know yet how bad the damage is.  Bulletins will be issued as events warrant.

Future jobs

Matt Yglesias had a neat insight which I think I’ll steal for the Incatena: people in the future won’t all have “futuristic jobs”.

But a lot of what’s going to happen is that we’ll just have more employment in already-extant banal fields that’s just aren’t amenable to being done by Chinese people or robots. After all “the future” in this sense is a richer world. Right now, some people work as personal trainers. If people were richer, more people would hire personal trainers, and your personal trainer can’t live in Shenzhen so this is one of “the jobs of the future.”

Of course, if people are richer in general these will be reasonably paid jobs.  It’s not as exotic as spaceship pilot or nanotech engineer, but I think his logic is right.

Offensiveness: a case where Whorf wins

Every electronic forum, I think, will eventually get into a discussion or flamewar about offensiveness.  And often people will start to focus on the difference between giving offense and taking offense.  And someone, probably on the “don’t be such a baby” side, will start claiming that the problem is with the people who choose to take offense.  After all, if no one gets offended, there is no offense, right?

(I’ve seen this several times, but the immediate cause for thought is the controversy summarized and reprised here on Metafilter.)

There’s a certain plausibility to this idea. but I think it’s an artifact of English.  For one thing, the metaphor of giving and taking suggests equivalence; it feels like an exchange where, at the least, both parties are responsible.  But see what happens when you replace the concept of giving offense with that of being hostile.  The exact same behaviors may be referred to, but since there’s no exchange metaphor, it’s much clearer that one may be hostile no matter what behavior or reaction is triggered, or indeed without any specific other party at all.  (The implication of hostility is also– properly, I think– that it’s an attribute of the person speaking or writing, not so much of the words used.  One can’t be accidentally hostile.)

Due to this quirk of English, if you want a civil forum, I think it’s better to say don’t be hostile rather than don’t be offensive.

(There’s much more to say about the dynamics here– for instance, the “don’t be a baby” folks generally turn into big babies themselves once they’re criticized.  But for now I just wanted to focus on the linguistic aspect.)

The Man in the High Castle

If you too have been living in a cave, this is a Philip K. Dick novel about Nazis.  It’s set in the 1960s in an alternate history where the Nazis and Japanese won WWII, and conquered and divided the US.  It seems the separation point that the attempted assassination of FDR in 1933 succeeded in this timeline; as a result the US didn’t recover from the Depression and didn’t enter the war until the Nazis had already won in Europe.

It’s pretty much the prototype of a good alternate history novel: it posits a sufficiently major change, it explores the resulting world, and it doesn’t embarrass the historian. 

The Nazis are, of course, fucking insane.  What’s more surprising is the rather sympathetic treatment of the Japanese, who are depicted as straitlaced and fair rulers, obsessed with status but much more civilized and sophisticated than their American subjects.  It’s good conworlding to not have them be monsters; still, I think this depiction would outrage those who were actually ruled by the Japanese– the Koreans, Chinese, and Taiwanese.

It wouldn’t be Dick if it didn’t have some weirdness (though in general there’s much less strangeness than in his later novels).  One bit is an intense focus on yet another alternate history, written by one of the characters in the story, in which the Allies won, but not quite as they did in our world.

There are also a number of thematic details all connected with fakery and the ambiguity of history; I expect this was intended to deepen the book but I think it does the reverse.  Yes, it’s a fake history, and so what?  Whatever can be said about the unknowability of history, it’d be insane to be uncertain about whether the Allies defeated the Axis or not.

More successful are the ruminations on racism; Dick supposes, correctly I think, that an Axis victory would have been a vindication of the whole 19th century focus on race.  This would have been a much bolder message when the book came out, in 1962.

Rockets and path dependency

Neal Stephenson has a great article at Slate on rockets, which achieves the rather Chestertonian goal of making something familiar look strange and unlikely.  Basically, a series of improbable steps led us to adopt a fantastically expensive and challenging technology, which we’re now locked into for mysterious reasons.

(tl; dr summary: Rockets are so expensive and hard to control that they’re near-useless militarily; but the invention of atomic bombs and the existence of a long-range enemy made us invest a few trillion dollars in them; and that in turn allowed us to build profitable communications satellites— so long as they could be built to be about the size of a bomb.)