In Search of a Better Way to Write the World
One of my favourite Isaac Asimov stories is lesser known, but amusing to recall whenever I see my genres fall over themselves fretting about “politics in art”. (It’s always been there, and always will be.) In “S As In Zebantinsky” (Ballantine Star Science Fiction, January 1958; later published as “Spell My Name with an S”), Asimov imagines a butterfly effect: a single letter changed in a single name, somehow averting nuclear war.
It’s a cute enough story that I won’t spoil the ending, but here’s a taste of the language, and what it reveals about priorities in the era. See if anything stands out:
The numerologist said, "I build computers. I study probable futures."
"Does that sound worse than numerology to you? Why? Given enough data and a computer capable of sufficient number of operations in unit time, the future is predictable, at least in terms of probabilities. When you compute the motions of a missile in order to aim an anti-missile, isn't it the future you're predicting? The missile and anti-missile would not collide if the future were predicted incorrectly. I do the same thing. Since I work with a greater number of variables, my results are less accurate."
"You mean you'll predict my future?"
"Very approximately. Once I have done that, I will modify the data by changing your name and no other fact about you. I throw that modified datum into the operation-program. Then I try other modified names. I study each modified future and find one that contains a greater degree of recognition for you than the future that now lies ahead of you. Or no, let me put it another way. I will find you a future in which the probability of adequate recognition is higher than the probability of that in your present future."
"Why change my name?"
"That is the only change I ever make, for several reasons. Number one, it is a simple change. After all, if I make a great change or many changes, so many new variables enter that I can no longer interpret the result. My machine is still crude. Number two, it is a reasonable change. I can't change your height, can I, or the color of your eyes, or even your temperament. Number three, it is a significant change. Names mean a lot to people. Finally, number four, it is a common change that is done every day by various people."
We often talk about how much the past gets wrong, but it’s also worth noting—not prophetically, but in a way that deepens our understanding of human nature—how much the past gets right because the future doesn’t change.
In this case, a few givens emerge in this 1958 tale that are just as relevant 65 years on. Machine modelling still has significant limits, offering outputs based on a balance of probabilities than anything else—but we still expect so much from it, and often leap from skepticism to impatience around it: one moment dismissing its capabilities; the next grousing because we want our technology to pull off something grander.
Later in the story, we’re also given a factor that this section alludes to with all its talk of missiles: the fear of nuclear war, and related Cold War tensions between Russia and the US. Asimov’s tale ultimately illustrates not only how fine a line we walk between safety and ruin every day, but also what it’s like to make decisions under that constant threat of peril—which far too many people treat like a game.
I enjoy revisiting history to make sense of the present. There’s always some comfort to be found in stories like “S as in Zebantinsky”/“Spell My Name with an S”, because they not only connect us to prior generations dealing with similar tensions, but also help us to imagine worlds where one person’s choices can make a difference.
Unfortunately, the consistency of certain concerns across eras also raises a difficult possibility: namely, that we might never overcome them—and yet, that it is still important to to take them seriously, one generation at a time.
There’s another facet to stories like this one that often gets overlooked: the context in which it comes to us as part of a “Golden Age” for genre literature. This is a strange, persistent myth, which elevates a niche group of North Americans to fabulous proportions, then uses their success as the benchmark for all writers thereafter.
The world of SFF has changed significantly since that era, and yet it’s also not much changed at all. We have far more powerful machines, and far more people who write within the genre, but those machines have hardly given us much more clarity about our future, let alone security in the present. Literature is still decidedly a niche enterprise, an industry of art, and its regional publishing hubs are never going to suffice to answer the needs of a whole world of writers who all want to be the next Asimov (or Stephen King, or Neil Gaiman, or Brandon Sanderson, or George RR Martin). It’s not even going to allow most to make a comfortable living on their craft.
But that doesn’t stop folks from chasing an unquestioned dream.
In “S As In Zebantinsky”, the protagonist visits a numerologist ostensibly because he feels he’s indulging his wife—but mostly, because he’s sick of being part of a team, and wants more individual power and acclaim as a nuclear physicist. He feels like he missed the generational boat on rising more quickly through the ranks, and that if he’d only been born a little sooner, he’d have been in a top-tier role by now.
Worse, he’s indulged later in this story by people who can rig systems in his favour. A person who admits to hating teamwork is therefore zipped up to a prominent office in an academic setting, where he can be both acclaimed and work with greater autonomy.
Again, sound familiar?
Both facets of the story, along with the protagonist’s dismissive treatment of his wife, are taken for granted: just ways of the world we inhabit.
The far greater challenge for speculative writers (and other such dreamers of better dreams) is to imagine constructs that change those baseline motivations, rather than simply offer new tools with which to indulge them. To create, with our writing, worlds that more readily invite us to rethink our relationships with ourselves and each other.
In science fiction and fantasy right now, for instance, we have a complicated power dynamic that leads to some fairly impoverished conversations about how to improve the industry that hosts our craft—and with it, the whole creative world.
North American lit is regional lit.
Or better said, it is a whole body of regional literatures.
People fortunate to grow up in or move to certain literary hubs might have found it much easier to participate in the workshops, writing groups, and industry events that would see them connect with agents and publishers faster. And they would also naturally have shared more literary priorities, implicit notions of industry etiquette, trending approaches to writing, and surrounding cultural concerns.
And if that had been the end of it, in an even global playing field where similar was happening everywhere else, among other regional literatures? Fine.
But North American lit (along with British lit) also has a massive, disproportionate impact on the global literary scene. And this is due to many factors outside the control of individual authors: regional hopefuls with regional career concerns, often striving between grinding day jobs and dangled promises of higher education to sell a story and meet an agent and woo a press and become a bestseller and change their lives.
One of the biggest factors that lies well outside individual control is the fact that our global financial system is deeply reliant on Western power brokerage. International Monetary Fund and World Bank offices sit kitty-corner to one another in Washington, DC, deciding the fate of whole other countries’ domestic policies and hopes for investment and crisis mediation. A sneaky edit made in the Bretton-Woods conference of 1944 made the US Dollar the world’s preferred currency for industries key to economic growth. And when it comes to fast money for new ventures, so much still comes from the hype games played out of US investment banking circles (for better and for worse, as we recently saw with the Silicon Valley Bank collapse).
Meanwhile, many countries around the world, many regions of creative people around the world, are still coping with the generational costs of exploitation by other nations. Proxy wars played out (and are still playing out) on their terrain. Local resources were mined and harvested (and are still mined and harvested) to the ruin of local infrastructure, livelihood, and lives. Local governments were relentlessly destabilized (and are still relentlessly destabilized) to create leaderships more amenable to other countries’ deals. And climate change crises caused by the oiliest of butterfly effects, a.k.a. the profit-driven choices of corporate monopolies in more affluent parts of the world, continue to leave whole populations at an annually escalating risk of disease, famine, war, and other such evacuation pressures.
In only a few decades of new-tech fetishization, the digital economy provided us not with a more even playing field, so much as the ability for more people to see how uneven the playing field always was, and is. And yes, that widening body of witnesses to injustice includes vulnerable groups within Western spheres, too: people from marginalized geopolitical zones within the US, Canada, and the UK, who can also now see how much they’ve always been at a remove from “real” participatory power.
In other parts of the world, though, this denial of access is even more profound. Many key Western websites are blocked outright. Payment systems for many creative product platforms require that one have access to a Western bank, and often that one prove they’re still residing in the West. And why, in this great new “global” free market of ours? Ostensibly, out of vague claims about the importance of tax borders, “state security”, and protection against money laundering schemes.
But mostly because there’s just no incentive for companies to dream differently.
No good reason for most of the tech firms that have emerged out of North American regions to cater to or otherwise try to level the playing field financially. Why would they, when economic value is a game of relative worth? How does it benefit most Western power brokers to reduce the exclusivity of a given product or service, when that exclusivity more than suffices to bring a windfall to their shareholders?
This creates a complicated system of social pressures.
Because Western books and related creative products are the most widely disseminated in many regions, folks from quite a range of other countries frame their understanding of “the writing life” (and related creative industries) around Western metrics. They then strive not so much to create local literary economies, or to lean equally on local literary traditions—because very often both are not feasible, due to the abject state of local infrastructure—but to enter into Western publishing. Western publishing, after all, is where “the money” is. That’s where the “real” chance at fame and fortune lives. And so begins the public, online critique of Western publishing as “gatekeeping”, because it’s only publishing (more or less) its own regional works.
On the Western side, many writers then get defensive because, again, they’re just regional writers—we are all just regional writers—and they had to work hard to make it in their regions, didn’t they? Put in their time with local groups? Try to make connections at local events? Stay apprised of local goings-on in their little slice of the literary world? And so, if this is their region, why shouldn’t regional presses be celebrating their work above all else? Why do Western presses need to make space for other regions’ fictions instead?
You can hear this sort of defensive thinking in Asimov’s story, too, when the protagonist laments that if he’d just been born a few decades earlier, he’d have been working at a time when it would have been so easy to take the dominant role to which he felt he was singularly entitled.
Oh, pity the poor Western writer who was born “too late”! And who now has to suffer a publishing industry grappling with how to incorporate more of the world into its regional offerings!
But I’m also being a bit simplistic here, because we can’t forget that the industry itself isn’t shifting to include more international “flavour” out of altruism—any more than it’s ever embracing different demographics within its original regional milieu out of the same. Western publishing isn’t suddenly having a change of heart because it realizes that it needs to do its part to help the world reckon with wounds caused by past colonial and ongoing hegemonic injustice.
It’s an industry.
And that’s the deeper, misguided assumption we’ve all been making, when trying to figure out how to arrive at a more truly international literary discourse.
We keep expecting an industry to change the world.
(The liberal progressives among us, at least—who are also hoping that this global transformation will still allow us, as individuals, to be centrally rich and famous in whatever system emerges next, please and thank you!)
But what if we took a deeper lesson from the highly regional literature of, say, one Isaac Asimov, who just happened to become famous because he was creating in the right place and time to be part of a niche group with disproportionate access to the tools of mass publishing, at a time when few other such niches could do the same?
What if we imagined that the real “butterfly effect” to reduce global injustice isn’t going to be predicated on securing individual success or failure in any given industry—but on transforming our idea of success entirely?
Why are people struggling so much to get published, either within various regional lit communities in North America, or from other countries with little hope of robust literary economies of their own?
Is it not because there’s an aspirational quality to creative process that’s been cultivated by Western industry: the idea that if you’re “good enough”, you’ll be able to make a living by the fruit of your creativity alone, and people will love you for it?
What if we broke that aspiration down, and made different facets of the global problem less reliant on one another?
What if we advocated for a world where, first and foremost, no one needed to fear losing the essentials of life—food, shelter, community, healthcare, security, opportunities to learn, grow, and rest—if they didn’t “make it” in a given industry?
What would that look like? A post-scarcity world for creative practice?
We get whiffs of it in sci-fi today. Becky Chambers’ Monk & Robot series imagines a post-scarcity economy, and the ongoing existential problems that might await us as individuals there. But as much as I admired the writing in A Psalm for the Wild-Built, I was left cold on the series because I could still see the regionalism in it: so many ideas about the form of utopic communal life that felt uncannily like what already exists for many comfortable people in California today.
As I wrote at the time, that kind of exercise in utopia felt dangerous to me, because it could easily invite readers from similarly comfortable contexts to conflate their own, everyday “utopia” with the one in the text—and in so doing, to overlook one glaring difference between Chambers’ world and our own: the fact that the Californian life of relative ease (for some) is transpiring in a world of abject suffering for so many others.
In the real world, then, any bubbles of utopia, any pockets of affluence and greater means that we might have at our disposal—yes, even if we still have regional problems! even if things still aren’t “perfect” for us or in our spheres!—raise a very different set of existential questions, which fall under the general umbrella of:
How now shall I extend the table of plenty, to bring in more of the world?
The answer isn’t simple—because, again, we are all just individuals with regional experiences and regional concerns. We are not individually at fault for all the deep, generational and systemic problems that have made certain tools and lifestyles more accessible to us than to others.
Nevertheless, some of us have bigger megaphones than others.
How will we do our part to ensure that others, too, can be helped and heard?
And what are we willing to give up, in the way of baseline assumptions about success, self, and society, to make that better future even just a little more probable?
Be well, be kind, and seek justice where you can.
P.S. Apologies. I was a bit delayed this week with the newsletter, because I wanted to have my ARCs up for Children of Doro before I sent out this issue. An Advanced Reading Copy might not be the final version, but it’s pretty close. I can’t receive proofs of my paperback in Colombia, but I have a reliable contact in Canada who’s going to help me review the “look” of that version once it’s been received today or tomorrow. However, eBook ARCs are now available at BookSirens, in epub, PDF, and MOBI!
Please remember, though, that ARCs are not the same as “giving away the book for free”. The idea is that a person will read an ARC and provide an honest review (in this case, either on Amazon or on Goodreads… or both!). An honest review is important, too, because these reviews aren’t for me. They’re for other readers, to let them know if the story might be right for them. So don’t worry about hurting my feelings! But do consider leaving a review if you take an ARC of Children of Doro.
ALSO: I know folks get frustrated about buying from Amazon. For good reason! We live under crushing monopolies, and indie publishing from a non-Western country creates significant limits to my distribution pathways. My book is locked in for 90 days with the Kindle Select program to optimize sales therein. If you take an ARC in lieu of a sale, because you don’t want to support Amazon… well, you know where my tip jar is… but more importantly, if you like the work in ARC form, please recommend it through its sale site so that I can continue to have a healthy working relationship with one of the only venues that will allow me to distribute my work widely.
Oh, and do check out my latest BookTube, in which I talk about how, exactly, Children of Doro draws from The Brothers Karamazov. In other episodes forthcoming over the next two weeks, you’ll find me discussing worldbuilding through The Sunmaster’s Journey, a text I created as the foundation of my book’s culture, along with histories of speculative fiction in connection with political philosophy, and… Star Trek influences, of course (speaking of complicated utopias, right?)!
Lots of good stuff coming down the pipe, so please subscribe if interested—and thank you for reading the work at all, if you do.