Monday, December 31, 2012

Axe-grinding vs Story-telling

Unless you receive a Federal subsidy large enough to blind you to things like sustainability, liberty, and basic mathematics, you might not like the direction the USA has taken in the last decade or so. Or you might think that the government exists to tax your enemies, subsidize your friends and get large enough to make sure nobody can escape its clutches.

The citizens of a representative democracy are responsible to know what its gubmint is doing and replace corrupt rascals with just statesmen. The only problem is that both parties prefer to put no one but weenies on the ballot.

Let's be clear: I think the Republican Party is every bit as corrupt as the Democrat Party.

This poses a problem for the writer who is also a citizen: what do do about this?
I've seen Sarah Hoyt, Ric Locke, and Larry Correia tackle this problem in turn. If you like guns, you can get an articulate argument for training responsible citizens in gun handling, and defense so that the crazed murderer can be immediately confronted with a violent response. (When seconds count, the police are only minutes away.) And if you hate Communists, Sarah Hoyt can regale you with tales of Portugal under the left. I have no doubt that if Ric Locke or Robert Heinlein were alive to day they'd be doing likewise.

I have friends whose politics are as contradictory to mine as night is to day. And they've poured their politics into their writing making all the villains like me and all the heroes like them. This makes their stories as readable as a Jack Chick tract. Tolerable if you agree, intolerable if you do not. The ratio of axe-grinding to story-telling is over ten to one.

I've also seen slightly more sophisticated tales wherein the labels are scrubbed from the heroes and villains, but they act out allegories of good and evil while sermonizing about the virtues of their position. Atlas Shrugged comes to mind here. It's a little better than a Chick tract, but I still skipped past the 20 page sermons by John Galt, et al. Here the ratio of axe-grinding to story-telling is improved, but still heavy-handed.

I thing Michael McCloskey gets the balance right in "The Trilisk Ruins" (5 stars). The gubmint is the antagonist and it doesn't matter whether the administration is Republican or Democrat. (Both parties signed onto the USA PATRIOT Act after all.) The heroes are "criminals" who aim to misbehave. They spend a fair amount of time when they're in civilization scrubbing logs of incriminating evidence and bribing bureaucrats to overlook minor infractions. And they find the Feds like to infect everyone's computer with dormant spyware.

None of this gets in the way of a ripping good yarn. The hero and her handsome male companions go rocketing off into space in search of treasure with the gubmint a few steps behind trying to stop them and/or steal the treasure for themselves. I figured the axe-grinding to story-telling ratio was fairly light-handed, but I should get a 2nd opinion from a statist.

Many times you'll read an SF story wherein the aliens are just like us, but with some prosthetic makeup on their nose and funky jewelry (Bajoran), or pointy ears and eyebrows (Vulcan), or spots on their skin (Trill). Why, you might ask Gene Roddenberry? Because more elaborate makeup and alien get-ups cost too much, he'd say.

McCloskey has no such constraints. He devises aliens with tri-lobed brains, or 20-lobed brains, and he gives them really alien forms. Like 40 limbs, no sense of smell or hearing, but a sense of mass. And he gives this a plausible explanation without getting bogged down in technobabble. High marks for making his aliens alien.

Often you'll read Science Fiction with artificial intelligences and lots of networked computers and there's a sense that technology is just magic with wires. Not so in "The Trilisk Ruins." Communications protocols, encryption, and other terms of the geek's art are handled intelligently without any hand-wavy bull.

"The Trilisk Ruins" is the first novel in a series. If you buy this and like it, be prepared to buy a few more follow-up novels. I just did.


  1. I would argue that the sense of balance between storytelling and "axe-grinding," a pejorative term to be sure, is entirely a construct of centuries of capital dominance in the publishing industry. As gatekeeper and censor of literature over centuries, from feudal lord to feudal capitalist, the standard of what axe may be ground in fiction and to what extent has been set by publishers and cultivated in top down media with a vested interest in escapist literature which not only does not upset, but actively affirms, the status quo. Any discussion of this standard is lame without recognizing the cultural dominance of the owner-publisher class.

    Now that digital publishing has largely broken the owner-publisher's stranglehold on what may be said,and only the stranglehold of market expectations which they have fostered over centuries remains, it is regressive in the extreme to perpetuate that standard of expectation as if it were some kind of universal principle of literature, instead of a deliberate smothering of dissent in the dominant culture.

    If a writer creates a character who is a thinking person, the writer has an obligation to have that character speak their thinking. If the character is political, that would be political thinking. If the character is an activist with a cause, a/k/a "axe to grind," that character should be developed and allowed to grind their axe to any extent. The point is not to conform to the market expectations of escapist "storytelling," which in fairness could also be called "axe-blunting," "opiate poisoning," and a list of like epithets, but break down those expectations, even if it means those critics and readers utterly conditioned by feudal cultural precepts will reject it as "axe-grinding." As it stands, the only traditionally published axe-grinding is that which supports the status quo, e.g., Rand, whose nefarious influence far and away exceeds that of any writer with an opposing point of view for that reason alone.

    To be a writer in the age of digital independent publishing is to break down all owner-publisher and market gate-keeping and normative expectations.

    1. I wish we could have a long discussion in a pleasant space with refreshments aplenty for I believe we have much to fruitfully discuss. I heartily endorse your thesis that powerful interests have had a heavy hand in what gets published or not.

      One reason why reading the Classics is useful is that the axe-grinding that Pliny did is as dead as the Roman Empire, and it can be ignored, and then you can get on to what he said that is of timeless value then and now.

      Yet, I fear you miss my point (or make a separate point). I was speaking that sometimes a fella just wants to have some fun reading a ripping yarn without a bunch of Baptists preaching hellfire, or Commies preaching economic redistribution, or John Galt preaching objectivism.

      Sometimes you do have to make a point and preach a sermon if only to rally the faithful under a single banner. Nothing wrong with that. In fact if you're an Evangelical Communist, Randian, or Baptist, it's obligatory.


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