Friday, June 02, 2006

Mary Sue and Democracy Too

So a few days ago I finished reading the latest of John Ringos Council War series "East of the Sun, West of the Moon".

A lot of people take issues with this series, in that the two main characters, Edmund and Herzer, are major league Mary Sues (its a fanboy term, click the link if you don't know it).

I've also recently read the three books (so far) in Ringos "Paladin of Shadows" series. The main character of these books Mike Harmon, is a COMPLETE Mary Sue, and intentionally so. His entire purpose is to act as a fantasy and wish fulfilment outlet for the author. Ringo didnt even want to PUBLISH these books, he jsut wrote them to get them out of his head, and his publisher asked to read them, thought there would be a market, and pretty much forced Ringo to do it by waving dollars in front of his face.

A very common conceit in fantasy and SF, is the "time traveller gets stuck in the past and builds an ideal society", and it has been through the entire history of the genre going back a few hundred years. In fact I think the very first SF/F book I ever read was "A Connetticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court" by Mark Twain. It's absolutely iconic of this type of SF/F.

Anyway, theres a good reason for the popularity of the type, in that it makes a good story. Theres just remendous potential for exploration, and it engages the authors mind and passions, which although it can degenerate into wankerism, can also produce amazing things.

Even more so, it engages the readers mind (assuming they are an engineer type, social, political, or hard sciences oriented) in similar pursuit. I dont think theres a group of geeks, gun guys, or re-creationist (funny how much overlap there is there) who hasnt had discussions about what they would take back in time with them, or how they would rebuild civilization after the fall or some such thing.

My favorite series in this subgenre is definitely Eric Flints (and others) "Ring of Fire" series; and I would guess that in recent years it has been the best selling of the type. It is also one of the few stories of the type that to a great extent avoids th aforementioned MarySueism.

My SECOND favorite series of the type however, not only doesn't avoid it, it wholeheartedly embraces it.

In fact, reading Kildar, the thrid book in the Paladin series, I am almost certain that Ringo is also a big fan of THIS series, as they were written well before Kildar (the author started the first book almsot 30 years ago, and finally got it published 20 years ago this year), but seemingly whole passages in Kildar were almost directly lifted from them. Not that there was plagarism, but that Ringo so clearly loved the books that we was writing his own version of the same story (only of course with Ringos geekout items in there instead).

The series is collectively called "The Adventures of Conrad Stargard", by Leo Frankowski; and he is still writing them today. The last one was published online only in 2005, after the author moved to Russia with his new wife, and apparently had a contract dispute with Baen. I'm hoping Frankowski has patched his problems with Jim Baen and it gets published in the U.S. They are still publishing his back catalogue - new editions out later this year - so perhaps there is hope (oh and read the guys site, it's interesting stuff).

At any rate, there is no clearer example of an authors engineering (both social and technical) fantasy fulfilment than these books; and the fact that they are written by a former specialty equipment controls engineer (they make the systems which control large complex custom machines, like entire assmebely lines etc...) means that the TECHNICAL detail is great fun (and not really excessive to my mind... but I'm an engineer myself).

Also though, and I think more significantly, the author goes extensively into how technology effects social factors, and vice versa. So along with the technological engineering, he is a social engineer; but at the same time the technology and society of the time are re-engineering the main character.

Well, after reading "Kildar", I was so strongly put in mind of the Stargard series that I decided to re-read it as well; and I've been enjoying it in my down-ish time for the last few days (it's eight relatively thin books long).

While reading, I came across this passage, while Conrad was going over various political systems in his mind:
I believe that democracy is the best possible system for a nation with an educated, concerned, and reasonable population.

It is not that the people are particularly wise. They aren't. And the larger the number of people involved in a decision, the poorer the decision is likely to be. To find the IQ of a group, take the average IQ of the people involved and divide by the number-of people in the group.

Anyone who has ever marched troops can verify that a hundred men have the collective intelligence of a centipede. Worse. A centipede doesn't step on its own feet.

No. Democracy is a good system because it is an extremely stable system.

In many parts of South America and Africa, when an individual becomes truly disgruntled, he gets together with six hundred friends, three hundred rifles, and maybe a hundred bullets and starts a revolution. This practice is socially disruptive and results in lost worktime, destroyed property, and dead bodies.

In America, such an individual does not go off to the hills with a gun. He becomes a political candidate.

Of course, he knows that, to be effective, he must start at the bottom-say, sewer commissioner. So he runs against six other social misfits for that office. If he loses, at least he feels that he has done his best to straighten things out, that if the people don't appreciate him, they don't deserve him. Anyway, an election is so exhausting, physically, financially, and emotionally, that he is likely to be over his initial anger. If he wins, well, he can't really do much harm. There are engineers to make sure that shit flows downhill. And who knows? Maybe he will turn out to be a good sewer commissioner. In any case, society is the winner. Seven potential troublemakers have been defused, only one of them has to be paid, and they just might get some useful work out of that one.
One should note, Frankowski is a bit of a socialist libertarian anarchist mix... Not really an anarcho syndicalist, one might call him a social democrat in the literal sense. Although I'm a bit more idealistic about democracy than that, I can't say as I disagree with it, and I think it is a good point to make about our current situation in the mddle east.

See, there are idealistic reasons to democratize the mid-east, but there are also very practical reasons. Democraces are generally so busy with their own internal politics, that they dont have the time or energy to attack the rest of the world.

Or maybe I'm jsut reading to much into this...