I'm not the director. OR AM I? (I'm not.)
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On That GOP Health Care Bill, and Tax Breaks

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First, my initial thoughts, as rendered on Twitter.

Now, let me talk a little bit more about the part where I say “rich people don’t miss their taxes,” since I think there are people who may be reasonably skeptical about this. Warning: I’m going to talk about my money. Then I’m going to talk about other people’s money.

To begin: I pay taxes on a quarterly basis, because I’m self-employed and the IRS, alas not entirely unreasonably, questions whether self-employed people will keep track of their money for a full year in order to pay off one big tax bill. So every quarter, I pay taxes. And in each of those quarterly tax payments, I pay in taxes roughly what I grossed (and definitely more than I netted) in income from the entire four-and-half years of my first job out of college, working for a newspaper. Add up my yearly tax bill, and it’s close to what I grossed my first ten years of being a professional writer — and there was never a time in there I didn’t do okay; it was a solid continuous progression up the middle-class income ladder.

So these days, whenever I see how much I pay in taxes annually, my first thought is always something like HOLY CRAP that’s a lot of money. I could totally use that! As someone who grew up poor and has worked his way steadily up the income ladder, it’s a freakin’ huge amount in terms of the raw dollars.

And then I pay my taxes and I discover that anything I would have used that ridiculous wad of tax money for, I still have enough in my net income for. I literally cannot think of a thing I want — or need — that my post-tax income can’t handle. Because as it happens, even with federal, state and local taxes, my tax burden is reasonable. I don’t pay taxes in 1980, when the highest marginal federal income tax rate was 70%; I pay taxes in 2017, where top federal tax bracket maxes out at just under 40%. With state and local taxes, I have to break a sweat to have a total top marginal tax rate of 50% — and my real world taxes indebtedness doesn’t come anywhere near half my income, because of how marginal tax rates work and because like lots of people in my position I have a very smart accountant who finds me lots of deductions.

So even with literally the full (pre-deduction) tax burden someone in Ohio can pay — we max out all the marginal rates — there is more than enough left over for pretty much anything that we want to do, individually, as a couple or as a family. We save a lot, invest a bunch, and thus take that money out of the short-term income pool we use for bills, household spending and, uh, “consumer activity,” and we’re still just fine, thanks. I suppose it’s possible that we could spend so much of our post-tax income that we’re left with little or nothing and thus would wish we had some of the money that we paid in taxes back into our hands, but speaking from experience, this takes effort, and some willful stupidity about your money. Yes, I’m looking at you, Nick Cage and Johnny Depp. But if you’re not the sort of person who spends $30,000 a month on wine, you’re probably going to be fine.

We do just fine. The other people I know who have similar or better incomes than we have also do just fine. The ones I know with substantially better incomes than we have are also doing just fine. No one at my income level or better actively misses the money they spend on taxes, because they’re still rich after they pay taxes.

Would I like to pay less in taxes? When I look at the raw number of dollars I send to the IRS, sure. When I think about the actual impact on my day-to-day life having that money would make, versus the actual and positive impact on the day-to-day life of millions of other people, when people like me pay our taxes? Nope. I have certain (in more than one sense of that word) opinions about how those taxes I pay in should be used, and whether they are being used effectively, and whether I’m getting value for what I pay, to be sure. Those are different issues, however.

Cratering health care for millions in the United States (and crippling Medicaid in the bargain) in order to give people like me a tax cut means that we are taking something from people who need it, often desperately, to give something to people who don’t need it and may not even notice it in any substantial way. In the House version of this legislation, you have to make more than $200k to get any tax benefit from it; people with incomes between $200k and $500k a year would get a tax break of $510 on average. $510 is not a lot to get in return for asking millions of other Americans to be potentially priced out of health coverage, have lifetime insurance caps reinstituted, be denied for pre-existing conditions, get sicker and die earlier. And the roughly 95% of Americans who don’t make $200,000 a year won’t even get that.

Rich people don’t need any more tax cuts. They’re doing just fine. They will continue to do just fine. And no, their tax burden isn’t onerous. Trust me, I know. I live that tax burden daily. It doesn’t hurt. What does hurt is knowing that people I know and care for will likely die sooner and sicker than they should just so someone like me gets back a few more dollars they won’t notice. Don’t come at me with “but the rich earned those dollars.” Dude, I earned my dollars, too. I earned them in a country that helped me get where I am in part through taxes. I earned them understanding that getting rich came with an obligation to the society I live in and benefit from, an obligation discharged, in part, by paying a perfectly reasonable amount of taxes.

The motto of the United States is not, in fact, “Fuck you, I got mine.” It was, and should have remained, “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one. We’re all Americans. We all deserve the blessings this country can provide. This one is willing to pay his taxes for the benefit of the many.


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kemayo
55 days ago
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"The motto of the United States is not, in fact, “Fuck you, I got mine.”"
St Louis, MO
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55 days ago
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jeterhere
50 days ago
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Well put, another good American ...
Kennewick, WA
acdha
56 days ago
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Not for the first time, I wonder how much of this goes back to the country being run by a lot of old people who never internalized that the tax situation has changed dramatically since the 1970s, not to mention the costs of things like healthcare, housing, and education.
Washington, DC

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kemayo
195 days ago
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Alternately... I have a kid. But she's fairly self reliant, and can handle herself if I sleep in.
St Louis, MO
popular
195 days ago
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adamcole
195 days ago
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Who wants my fucking kids
Philadelphia, PA, USA
kleer001
196 days ago
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True... But then again this attitude is an evolutionary dead end.
ryanbrazell
196 days ago
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L O L

This was actually my same train of thought this morning, when I slept until 11am.
Richmond, VA

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - The Talk

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Hovertext:
Somewhere in the multiverse, there's a superior universe where all comics are this dorktastic.

New comic!
Today's News:

Drawn with great humility and thanks to one of my favorite people.

 

Also,

Wednesday Book Reviews!

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (McWhorter)

I’m still on this McWhorter kick. This one was good, but not as good as some of the others. It’s about English and its interactions with other languages. The bulk of the book is about the idea that repeated conquests of English speakers resulted in English being particularly simplified in terms of its grammar, especially compared to related languages. There is also a large section on a proposed link between Celtic and English grammar, and even a section positing links between German and Hebrew. The latter idea is based on the work of Theo Vennemann, whose ideas are (as far as I could tell from google and wikipedia) found to be interesting but probably wrong. Because it’s McWhorter, there’s also a long lament about the popular usage of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. You get the feeling that his later book “The Language Hoax” was a great unburdening of linguistic angst.

An Extraordinary Time (Levinson) This is yet another book about the idea that we are in a period of stagnation in terms of economic improvement for the average western person. Although it was enjoyable, as a book it didn’t make a strong argument. Most of the book is (admittedly fascinating) historical tidbits about technological development, mostly in the 20th century leading up to the 1970s. Levinson’s perspective ultimately agrees with that of Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen, at least to the extent that they all blame the nature of post-1970s technology for the failure to improve the average person’s life. And, like, the others, Levinson has hope that a few technologies on deck (e.g. self-driving cars) will reverse that trend.

All the Gallant Men (Stratton, Gire) A great memoir and oral history about a man who was on the USS Arizona when the attack at Pearl Harbor happened. As these things go, it’s not necessarily a standout, but I always appreciate memoirs that give you a real sense of the person. Stratton talks about particular people and how he felt about them, as well as how he felt about certain political and social occurrences that followed the war. For instance, he talks about how he generally doesn’t like these attempts to get American and Japanese WWII vets together to make nice. To him, the memories are too horrific. Given what he saw on that day, and the year it took his to recover, it’s hard to blame him.

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kemayo
244 days ago
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tante
247 days ago
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The Quantum Computing Talk
Oldenburg/Germany
wmorrell
247 days ago
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Pointing at this will be so much easier than trying to point at the Quantum Physics Sequence.
francisga
248 days ago
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I didn't know...
Lafayette, LA, USA
ChrisDL
247 days ago
We didn't listen!

It Was I

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It me, your father.
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kemayo
246 days ago
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247 days ago
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greglopp
246 days ago
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Another way to attack the emperor : grammar
Houston, TX
Covarr
250 days ago
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It is I, Captain Vegetable!
Moses Lake, WA
drchuck
250 days ago
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Me John, big tree!
Long Island, NY
wreichard
250 days ago
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Grammar Emperors.
Earth
Cthulhux
250 days ago
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"Never saw Star Trek."
Fledermausland
Lythimus
250 days ago
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Let's hope this grammar nazi dies before he meets Yoda. Have a sh*t fit, he would.
alt_text_bot
250 days ago
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It me, your father.

Shy Person’s Guide to Calling Representatives

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actionfriday:

In the coming weeks and years you will be seeing a lot of requests to call your representatives about issues facing our country. But maybe, like me, you hate calling people SO MUCH. This is a guide for you.

I’m anxious on the phone. My blood pressure rises when I need to call a customer service line, or even just ask the hours at a restaurant. So calling representatives about political issues is one of my least favorite things to do. I posted on Facebook recently about my experience calling my reps and it got a good response. I think there are a lot of us who want to pitch in but hesitate to pick up the phone. With that in mind, here is my shy person’s guide to calling your representative.

BEFORE YOU START:

* Pick an issue. This week I suggest calling to oppose the incoming administration’s cabinet picks:
White nationalist Steve Bannon for chief strategist
Climate change denier Myron Ebell for EPA Administrator
Jeff Sessions, who has a history of racist comments and voting, for Attorney General
Islamophobic Michael Flynn as NSA advisor

* Know that it’s FAST. It takes maybe 2 minutes to call one person, including the time it take to look up their phone number. Think of it like ripping off a bandaid.

* Know that you don’t have to be persuasive. You are really just calling to put yourself on a tally that will be passed along to your representative. You don’t have to convince anyone and no one will try to argue with you. Just say your piece (as awkwardly as you want! they won’t care!) and get off the phone.

* Know that calling is better than emailing. I would much prefer to email, but your message is more likely to get lost in the deluge. When you talk to a staffer you know for sure that your opinion is being recorded.

* Find your reps’ numbers. Go here or here to find out who they are. Call their local lines when possible. Write down the numbers or save them as contacts so you don’t have to look them up every time.

* Take a deep breath.

DURING THE CALL:

* Start with an introduction. I use: Hi my name is _____ and I’m a constituent of Rep./Sen. ____ calling about a concern I have. I see many scripts that omit how to start the call, and it helps me to know for sure how to begin. Be sure to say you are a constituent. They might ask for your zip code, so have that ready.

* Have a script. This is 100% the best way to keep you focused and calm. There are lots of good scripts you can use here or you can write your own. Say what you are comfortable saying. Remember, you are just calling to be counted.

* Expect their response. The thing I see missing from most instructions for calling reps is what to expect in their response. Most of the time they will just tell you they will pass on your concern. Congrats - if they do this then you are done! They might read a prepared statement in response. They might even say that your rep is not going to take action on the issue you brought up. What they WON’T do is argue with you or say, “what a stupid thing to be concerned about.” Don’t let your anxious brain convince you they will do this.

* If necessary, reiterate your request. If they read a statement or say the representative will not take action, don’t get flustered. Just say, Once again, I’m calling on the Rep./Sen. to _____. 

* Thank the staffer and hang up.

AFTER THE CALL:

* Take another deep breath.

* Congratulate yourself.

* Do some self-care. Maybe start here. Or here. Do whatever makes you feel happy and rewarded.

* Know that it gets easier. The more you call, the more you know what to expect. You may even get to know some staffers. You might never like calling but I promise it gets less awful.

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kemayo
263 days ago
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St Louis, MO
samuel
264 days ago
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The Haight in San Francisco
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Fantasy shibboleths

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So last week I vented a little bit about shibboleths common to the written science fiction genre. This week, it's fantasy's turn in the barrel!

Fantasy is a much broader church than SF; if we're drawing Venn diagrams, you can probably characterise it as a really big circle overlapping at one side with the much smaller circle that is SF. (Items which explicitly blend magic with SF tropes occupy the overlap.) And the fantasy circle is pock-marked with smaller domains.

Here in the middle is your classic high fantasy, in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings—probably relying on a faux-mediaeval European setting, although there are variants off to one side or the other that use another cultural backdrop, usually imperial. (I can think off the top of my head of examples that leverage Roman, Classical Greek, Chinese, Japanese, or more unfamiliar settings: Mongol, Aztec, Dynastic Egyptian, and Vietnamese, to name but some.) A common problem with ancient empires is that they were pretty shitty places to live, unless you happened to be part of the happy 1% who were born into the ruling elite with the right configuration of genitals and the good luck to survive the typically horrendous infant mortality. (Let's face it: history is a crapsack world—even the maximally privileged lacked indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and modern conveniences such as not having more than half their children die before their parents. Yes, some people lived long, prosperous, happy lives: they're rare enough that historical biographies get written about them.)

Off to one side we have the burgeoning field inaccurately known as urban fantasy. You might think urban fantasy would mean fantasy set in built-up areas: but instead it's become synonymous with contemporary settings in the more-or-less modern world. (It overlaps at one edge with the sector of paranormal romance: PR is basically UF as an emergent sub-genre within the romance sector, and whether a story is one or the other is mostly a matter of how it's marketed rather than whether or not it has girl cooties; don't underestimate the romance field, it's a huge market that accounts for more than half of total fiction sales, and like any other genre category it contains the full gamut of qualities, from the sappy to the sublime.) We can stereotype UF as being about elves on motorbikes and PR as revolving around a girl with a gun and a tattoo living somewhere in small-town America and trying to deal with a smoking hot werewolf who wants to own her and an ancient and unaccountably stuck-in-the-past vampire love rat ... but that'd be selling it well short of its potential: the variations are enormous, possibly because unlike classical high fantasy settings, the modern world isn't a totally shitty dystopia that deprives everybody but the 1% of all agency so we can have narratives that don't require the protagonist to be a high Lord or Lady, at least at the outset.

Meanwhile, somewhere else on the petri dish we have the rapidly growing citadel of steampunk. Steam is optional and punk is definitely inappropriate, but ever since K. W. Jeter pinned the tail on the donkey in 1987 we've been stuck with the term of art (although the subgenre itself goes back considerably further). After much thought I'm inclined to say that steampunk when viewed as a fantasy sub-genre (as opposed to a fashion and design aesthetic) is a cognate of urban fantasy that is set in the near-historical past—using a setting 100-200 years past, rather than 500-1000 years ago. The key difference here is that it uses an accessible past: after all the last US Civil War pensioner (the young bride of a very old veteran) died in 2008. The Victorian/gaslight era is still remembered at friend-of-a-friend remove, whereas the Wars of the Roses have definitively moved into a purely historical context. (I live in an early Victorian apartment; my grandfather fought in the first world war: he grew up in a Victorian slum. And so on.)

So what are the peculiar shibboleths of these three sub-genres?

Let me start with urban fantasy, because it's closest to the present and hence slightly difficult to get the setting entirely wrong. I generally notice three common cock-ups when reading works of UF. The first can be summed up as "author is lazy, didn't do the research". In the era of StreetView and Google Maps, it's inexcusable to have your protagonist visit Edinburgh and describe the city in terms that position it north of the Firth of Forth, iron the terrain flat (the core is as steep as downtown Seattle), or get the architecture totally wrong. Ditto the basics of history that you can pick up by simply poking around Wikipedia for a few hours. I'll give works written pre-2001 a conditional pass on the research as the tools weren't so readily available, but newer authors have no such excuse unless they're deliberately confabulating.

My second UF shibboleth is historical contingency. There's one British UF series (I shall not name the guilty party) where we have wizards running amok on the streets of London. Indeed, there are whole orders of wizards, including battle mages, some of whom employ mooks with automatic weapons. Seven books into the series I'm pretty sure the author has racked up a death toll that drastically exceeds the British national murder rate—and much of it involves exchanges of gunfire, fireballs, and killer golems on the motorways. Yes, we have a society of wizards trying to keep the public from noticing, but really? It's symptomatic of a common failing whereby the hidden world exists in the shadows and the foregrounded world of the mundane is identical to our own, despite a medium-intensity civil war raging in the corners. Which leads inexorably to my third UF shibboleth, which is really a alternate variant of the second: the portrayal a world where the werewolves and vampires and superheroes are out in the open—but again, this world is culturally, politically, and ephemerally indistinguishable from our own. (Not all UF works fall into these traps, but they're surprisingly common. We have vampires with mind-control powers but politicians (and election count managers) don't take precautions against them. We have werewolves, but cops with guns don't routinely have a reload of silver bullets to hand. (Kudos to Kim Newman for actually taking this problem seriously in "Anno Dracula", and inventing a vampire-infested world that makes sense, for some value of sense. And before anybody in the back row shouts "Laundry Files!" at me, let me just say I've got it covered—but you'll have to wait for books 7 through 9 to see how it unfolds.))

I'm not going to spend a huge amount of time on Steampunk. SP is prone to exactly the same failure modes as UF—I think as a fictional form it's actually a subset thereof. A distinctive failure that SP is prone to is a wilful blindness to the constraints pre-20th century western society placed on women or people of color or the disabled. Yes, we have a lot of strong female protagonists of eccentric mien and independent means: yes, some people like that actually existed. But focussing exclusively on them runs the risk of whitewashing (or privilege-washing) a particularly dog-eat-dog nasty period of history (which, after all, is written by the victors) by gilding the hard edge of empire. Note: you don't have to go that way. Let me call out "Vermillion" by Molly Tanzer, and "Karen Memory" by Elizabeth Bear, as recent and excellent examples of SP that use female protagonists from non-privileged backgrounds to good effect.

A lesser problem that keeps cropping up in steampunk is what I call the gearbox-crunch—an attempt to portray a fake veneer of science and engineering to a fantasy setting, done so badly that the cogs jam and are unable to rotate freely. External combustion steam engines are lousy prime movers, energetically inefficient and requiring water as well as fuel: there's a reason we mostly don't use them any more, and it's in part the reason why powered heavier-than-air flight had to wait for the internal combustion engine. Robots powered by clockwork ... nope, don't get me started. It's very hard to frame a steampunk setting as scientifically plausible (as, for example, Stephen Baxter did in "Anti-Ice"), despite which many SP authors make the mistake of trying to do so, and fall flat on their faces. Significantly, the master of the sub-genre, Terry Pratchett (whose later Discworld stories are totally Steampunk) didn't go there. (And neither did Genevieve Cogman, who blogged here this month.)

Which leaves me looking at the shibboleths of high fantasy.

Hands up, everyone reading this who likes HF and who hasn't had some (even minimal or second-hand) exposure to Dungeons and Dragons?

D&D has a lot to answer for.

There was a telling passage near the end of the original AD&D "Dungeon Master's Guide" where Gary Gygax wrote about some of the source materials he and the folks at TSR drew upon when they were developing first-edition white box D&D and the later AD&D game. It ran the gamut from Tolkein through Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, to Michael Moorcock's eternal champion yarns, Jack Vance's Dying Earth books, and a whole slew of other early-to-80s fantasy genre works. But it also introduced a bunch of its own baggage along the way, and much of it has leaked, overflowing like a blocked drain and contaminating the collective subconscious of genre fantasy authors who should bloody well know better.

I keep a bushel of cliches to hand. They act as warning signs that the author of an HF work was not paying enough attention to their world. For example: never trust a world where the currency consists of coins minted in precious metal in denominations divisible by 10 or 100: sooner or later it's going to blow out under the weight of its other internal contradictions. (If you want a magisterial perspective of what money was really like in the Olden Days, you could do worse than plough through the first 800 pages or so of "Quicksilver" by Neal Stephenson, or read up on the history of British currency.)

The currency fail I allude to is actually symptomatic of a deeper problem of perspective: which is that, while adopting a faux-historical setting, the authors haven't really bothered to try and understand history. You can approach the study of history from many different angles. The one that we commonly focus on in fiction is "the man on the white horse"—kings, heroes, queens, oh my. (The people books are written about.) But real historians also study climatology and demographics (the iron hands that dictate crop yields, the price of bread, and revolutions), and economics and high finance. Kudos to Seth Dickinson for his debut novel "The Traitor" (or "The Traitor Baru Cormorant", in the US), a secondary world fantasy which actually takes this stuff deadly seriously. (The eponymous protagonist is a meddling accountant, who starts wars or revolutions with the stroke of a pen by dictating fiscal policy.) It's rare to read a work of HF where the protagonists take money seriously—or worry about seigniorage, debasement, or where the money to pay for the next batallion of mercenaries is coming from when the crops are wilting in the fields. And this paucity of depth nags for my attention, because it can undermine the entire surface-level plot that ostensibly deals with heroes and kings, oh my.

Another warning sign: race politics as a shorthand for personality. Elves or Dwarves or Hobbits out of Tolkien hark hack to the prevailing world-view of the professor's own childhood, growing up in the hub of a world-empire prior to the first world war. He implicitly absorbed the values of imperial rule, under which nations were divided and consigned to privilege or servitude on the basis of a spurious perception of racial merit (or rather, utility to the imperial masters). Here in the real world, human beings are graded on a curve. Moreover, human beings breed back towards the average. (Einstein's offspring were not notably world-changing genii.) The pernicious myth of race is exactly that: and the race-essentialism of Tolkeinian high fantasy leads down some very unsavoury alleys. It gets even worse when we consider the pernicious implications of the D&D alignment system—the half-baked dualism of good versus evil, crossed with an orthogonal dimension of law versus chaos, to which entire races are consigned. Religious eschatology, principally Christian, creeps in via this schema because the doctrine of original sin is pretty much baked into this—and contrary to what many Brits and Americans might believe, this isn't actually a univeral belief framework shared among all faiths: it seems to have crept into early Christianity via syncretistic assimilation of chunks of Zoroastrianism (along with other items that went into the melting pot: the Cult of Mithras, the Cult of Isis, early millenarian Jewish mysticism, and a whole bunch of Roman-era pantheons who were repurposed as hierarchies of saints). It's a framework that implicitly condones genocide and atrocity, because it inherently denies the possibility of individual reform. It's occasionally deconstructed to brilliant effect, as in Mary Gentle's "Grunts", but for the most part it's reprehensible: the sort of genre trope one might have expected of the pulp literature that flourished under the aegis of a victorious Third Reich.

A final hideous shibboleth of high fantasy is the folks-were-stupid-in-the-olden-days trope. We frequently see peasants portrayed as thick-witted or slow, societies as static, merchants as not having the wits to bargain their way out of a paper bag, and everyone except the hero-protagonist as lacking in innovative drive. But this just ain't true. Leaving aside the issue of the disease and parasite burden under which the people of much HF worlds labored (hey, anyone else watched "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" lately? Or "Jabberwocky"?), historical societies weren't static. They existed under equilibrium constraints imposed by their local climate, the Malthusian carrying capacity of the land, available crops and parasites, and with random noise and fuzz imposed from the top down by whoever was trying to make themselves King or big themselves up that month. Most mediaeval noble families didn't last more than a handful of generations, any more than modern millionaire dynasties last forever; peasants weren't stupid so much as they were cautious, for a rash experiment in agricultural innovation could doom your family or village to slow starvation over the next year. And the lack of decent energy sources and high purity materials (not to mention the propagation of erroneous beliefs in natural philosophy) manacled a ball and chain around any would-be reformer's ankle before they crossed the starting line. Oh, and while I remember? Horses are not magical hay-burning all-terrain motorbikes, m'kay?

(Actually, there are so many goddamn shibboleths capering and hooting and generally making whoopee throughout the high fantasy field that Diana Wynne Jones wrote a book about them—The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land. It's sort of like TVTropes for high fantasy: if you enjoy reading the stuff or playing AD&D you should probably avoid it, but if you want to write HF you need to memorize it.)

Anyway, enough of my pet fantasy peeves. You'll note I completely ignored a whole bunch of fantasy subgenres (from secondary world fantasy through the gothic novel of the uncanny). What gets you worked up when you read fantasy?

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kemayo
604 days ago
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St Louis, MO
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acdha
603 days ago
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Glad to see economic realism high on the list - one of the things which made me lose interest in A Song of Ice & Fire was the attempted faux-realism coupled with an unexplained level of construction, urban population, armies in the field, etc. for the available food supply without trying the easy “but magic” card or otherwise having an “I know, just wait” wink.
Washington, DC
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