Interesting Times, by Terry Pratchett

Yet another installment in my ongoing complete Discworld re-read project.

Well, I can see what he was aiming for.

The Discworld series began with the adventures of Rincewind the Wizard. This may not have been a good idea. Don’t get me wrong – The Colour of Magic was a good book, better than I had remembered it being and better than many fans of later Discworld give it credit for – in its singular way it was just as impressive as some of the later installments. And the character of Rincewind perfectly suited that book. But it was indeed a very singular book, and it clearly wasn’t immediately apparent to its author how (or perhaps even whether) a series of books could be wrung out of that setting (none of Pratchett’s novels to that point had had a sequel). The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort, Sourcery, and arguably Witches Abroad were all attempts to break away from the initial premise, while retaining some of its spark. You could even argue that the whole arc of Discworld has been a gradual dilution of that original zany, wild, unpredictable and magical world with increasingly large helpings of realism. A big part of that, unfortunately, was ditching the appealing but limited character of Rincewind. After 1988’s entertaining but inessential Sourcery, the character was ditched (apart from 1990’s short illustrated novella, Eric, later retrospectively shoehorned into the sequence) – virtually killed off – and Discworld rose to greater and greater heights in his absence.

Continue reading

Reading List Revamped…

…so I’ve finally gotten around to revamping my old posts on a fan poll I did years back that aimed to produce a recommended reading list for the SF&F genre.

The page is up over here.

Falarandru: Primitive Society

In which I finally get around to posting some notes on the society of the alien species whose biology I briefly described six months ago.

Falarandru in ‘a state of nature’, like many species, are unlike humans in lacking a monolithic social structure: falarandru in a given area will form groupings of two different kinds, neither set of which can be seen as a subordinate to the other.

One type of structure may be called a ‘den’. Dens are small, gynocentric, and remain in a single location so long as this is possible. A den may contain anywhere from a handful to two dozen adult falarandru, typically with slightly more females than males. The females form the core and definition of the den: ideally, there may be two or three young females ready for breeding, two or three slightly older females with young, two or three old, wise females, and perhaps a few more decrepit females. Alongside these females are males, who form three wholly distinct classes: alphas, betas, and gammas. In each den there is one alpha or resident, or sometimes two (brothers or very close friends) – dens with three alphas are exceptional, while those with four are rare, and those with five or more are mythical. Alphas have breeding rights to all the females in the den, and typically are, at least in theory, in control of the whole social grouping, although this is rarely an outright tyranny (males remain alphas until death or retirement, but upsetting all the females in a den is a good way to achieve the former rapidly – it is not the done thing for females to simply murder their alpha, but it is perfectly possible for them to recruit another male to do it for them). Beta males, or peripherals, do not live in the den itself, but nearby, and socialise extensively with den members; they assist with guard duties, food collection and so forth. In exchange for their services for the females and loyalty to the alpha, they are granted occasional breeding rights with the females. Gamma males, or transients, do live in the den, but only briefly, and are usually younger males. They are permitted to reside with in the den for a season or two before being forced out. They are the lowest-ranking members of the den group, but can exercise some breeding rights – these are usually not granted formally (the alpha can attack or eject a gamma found breeding with the alpha’s females), but are generally recognised through non-enforcement (alphas will typically ignore the activities of gammas, provided they are rare enough and secretive enough not to appear a direct challenge). Most breeding events occur between females and gammas, although due to the transience of the gamma position and their greater numbers, an individual male will breed more often as a beta or an alpha than as a gamma – additionally, gammas will be limited to breeding at less favourable times. [Female falarandru are sexually active throughout the year, but only give birth (in nature) in the spring; their bodies can store sperm for over a year to be used when they finally ovulate, but it reduces in volume over time through internal competition, and so it is more favourable to breed with a female when she is about to ovulate]

Most males are not alphas, nor even betas, and only briefly gammas. Most males, however, would like to be alphas. Male life is therefore defined by the desire (not universal, but general) to take over a den. This cannot be done by brute strength alone: males are larger than females, but not so large that they can dominate a den of females with force. Males must seduce a den through a combination of threats and gifts – and both of these require assistance. One male cannot do it all on his own. Unfortunately, falarandru are not naturally obedient, and it is difficult to sustain hierarchies among them: they must be constantly reinforced.

When males leave the den on reaching their juvenile stage, they join a ‘gang’. These gangs, unlike dens, are androcentric, large, and migratory – they occupy a large territory shared with many dens, and often with one or more ‘rival’ gangs, which compete for female attention and for resources, but which will typically ally with one another against any gangs arriving from elsewhere. The territories of rival gangs do not coincide, but rather overlap – the hostile neighbour of one gang will co-habit the first gang’s co-habitors – making large-scale conflicts difficult except in case of migration or resource shortfall. Gangs rarely migrate long distances, but their territories do gradually shift over time.

Gangs are oriented around the need to impress females. This produces hierarchies, with those at the top most attractive to dens, and those below working to increase the attractiveness of their superiors. These hierarchies in turn are established through two mechanisms: dominance and alliance.

Dominance establishes one male as superior to another. It may involve physical combat, although this is typically ritualised; it almost always includes sodomy, with the superior male penetrating the inferior. However, it is misleading to think of an absolute and unidirectional hierarchy of males established through sodomy – the question is not which male is dominant over the other, but where the balance of dominance lies between the two (typically measured by the relative frequency with which each male is the penetrator). Dominance must be continually reinforced to be applicable – as a result, falarandru have relatively fluid social structures – and hence the strength and clarity of any social bond is measured by the frequency of copulation. Consequently, falarandru males tend toward the obsessive in these matters – not only is sex enjoyable, but it is also essential in establishing their place in a social structure, and so sex is their default reaction to any changing situation, where time allows. This applies just as much for males of lower rank: not only have they evolved to find the experience of being penetrated somewhat pleasurable, there are also considerable advantages to acquiring powerful benefactors – it is better to be dominant than subordinate, but it is far better to be subordinate to powerful males than to be socially isolated.

Alongside this – at least theoretically – adversarial system of dominance is an equally important system of alliances. An individual male can establish relatively little by himself, and so the aid of others is essential. Networks of mutual assistance therefore develop, centred on close bonds between allies (often childhood den-mates). It is most often a male’s web of alliances that gives them the power that the dominance hierarchy formally recognises.

This is also part of the reason for the relative autonomy of the dens from the larger gangs. Because female falarandru are not discernable as female until they reach maturity, and spend their long juvenile period indistinguishable from males, females are not isolated from male power structures: they develop the same early bonds of friendship, enter into the same hierarchical structures within the gangs, develop the same benefactors and protégés, and take those connexions into their lives within the den. Once they have become visibly female, they cease to directly participate in gang power structures – for one thing, they lose their penis and hence their ability to partake in status-confrontations – but their existing social relationships do not simply disappear. A falarandru female is therefore not merely the sister or daughter of a male – she is also someone’s comrade, blood-brother or mentor. This makes any violent confrontation between the sexes both emotionally and politically more difficult. This existing political power is then supplemented by the power of sexual access (and indeed all social access – although male falarandru can have perfectly satisfactory sex lives among themselves without ever talking to a female, they nonetheless appear to be instinctually fascinated and a little awe-struck by the female sex, and will view any interaction with females as welcome and enjoyable, even if it does not lead to sexual opportunities).

Contrariwise, the pre-adult occlusion of females no doubt helps to ameliorate competition within the gangs. Although males seek dominant positions within the gangs from which to negotiate their way toward some access to females, they cannot be too ruthless in this competition – any rival deeply offended when both individuals are juveniles may well herself be revealed as female, and liable to spread her poor impression of the over-forceful social climber to her new den-mates.

It’s also worth making clear that the gang is not itself a monolithic hierarchical structure. Young members enter into a broad range of relationships with each other and with older members; but over time, different young gang members will gravitate into more closed sub-networks within the broader social structure. These sub-networks, or ‘factions’, typically develop a single leader-figure – gangs as a whole typically do not. Gangs are thus governed by consensus between internal factions, and if they have a notional leader this is likely to be a figurehead, or at most ‘bureaucratic’, position, subordinate to the individual faction-leaders. Nonetheless, the ‘faction’ is not always a conceptually pure division – the tendency for older and more senior gang-members to primarily socialise within their own faction is only a tendency, and almost all will have relationships across the gang as a whole, while factions may themselves have sub-factions, either as semi-permanent power structures or as transient vehicles for specific powerful individuals. The faction, likewise, is part personal power structure and part institution – they do not usually simply disappear when the faction-leader dies or leaves, but their exact character and extent and influence are to a degree shaped by the senior members. Factions can thus often be more temporary than gangs, and liable to dissolve if the next generation of leaders is uninspiring. On the other hand, factions can outlive gangs: if a faction is not contented with its place in a gang, it can simply leave en masse, either to found a new gang or to join a rival one. It is not unknown in some cases for a gang to entirely fragment into its constituent factions.

The dominant figures in a gang are therefore the faction leaders and their immediate subordinates, and some more consensual figures associated with co-ordination between factions. None of these males, however, are likely to become resident alphas. Maintaining dominance over an entire gang is simply too much effort, and these individuals must devote themselves to the gang – both egoistically to maintain their own power and altruistically for the good of their gang. Falarandru are almost always aware of their own power position and conscious of threats and opportunities, but they are not notably egoist – most will put the good of the community (in the abstract) and in particular of their friends and dependants (in specific) ahead of their own good, if ever a clear conflict between the two were to arise. Indeed, these two virtues – patriotism to the collective and paternalism toward client-inferiors – are among the most important assets for a falarandru seeking power and prestige. No male can achieve great power without self-centred ambition (which is indeed considered a desirable trait in moderation) – but nor will they be permitted to achieve it if that ambition does not appear balanced by virtue.

On the Genealogy of Morals, 11

Part of my ongoing commentary on On the Genealogy of Morals.

The First Essay is rather scattergun in its approach – one reason why my comments have been so long, since N. produces a constant stream of interesting remarks, often tangential to his purpose.

It’s fatuous to try to boil all of that down to a precis, and such a summary would necessary leave out (/leaves out) a lot and simplifying the rest. In essence, however, it is probably fair to perceive six main thrusts of what he is saying here:

  • it is wrong to look at accounts of mankind that see man as passive before impersonal forces – rather, history should be explained through active decisions and desires
  • in point of fact, originally, the rulers created language to impose their will and reflect their attitudes
  • the rulers were overthrown and their language distorted, creating new values
  • the values of the masters are founded on self-love; the values of the slaves are founded on other-hatred
  • specifically, the masters were dangerous and violent men, and the slaves are meek and praise passivity
  • the lack of danger in mankind breeds contempt for mankind and a turning against life
  • the ‘positive’ values of Christianity, democracy, liberalism, pacifism and so on are expressions of hatred

What can we make of these? Obviously, any answer would be (/is) presumptuous. But for what it’s worth, I think:

  • the idea of seeing man as commanding rather than commanded is wishful thinking on Nietzsche’s part, with no real reasons given to support it
  • Nietzsche’s attempts at history and etymology are flawed to the point of being ludicrous and thus it is not really viable to accept his account of history as in any way accurate in a literal sense
  • Nietzsche’s observation that values can be founded on perception of the self or on perception of the other is a very interesting one, but needs more exploration, particular in separating out this locus-of-value from the polarity of value issue (hate vs love)
  • Nietzsche is surely onto something when praising dangerous men – it’s the soul of every Western, for instane, most war films, plenty of crime and detection films, action films, and so on. There is no doubt something admirable about dangerous men. But is that admirable thing really enough to outweigh all that is repellent about them? There is something lost in the loss of glory and danger, but is what is lost greater than what has been gained? And Nietzsche is surely correct in saying that the passivisation of mankind has bred a sort of self-contempt, a tendency to regard people as interchangeable mechanisms… but surely there was also contempt among the Vikings and the Goths and the Romans, albeit of a different sort?
  • Nietzsche is accurate and clever in pointing out how ‘good’ people can sometimes have very ugly motivations for being ‘good’. But he is much less compelling in the suggestion that this is true of all ‘goodness’.

Nietzsche’s strength is certainly in challenging perceived certainties. He is much weaker in presenting a compelling vision of his own. And much of how we assess Nietzsche’s work may come down to what we think he was doing. What is a genealogy? As a history, it is frankly a failure. As an attempt to ‘subjugate the past’, it is little better – it is not robust enough to subjugate anything. Its greatest value, I think, is subversive: by showing how certain ideas could arise, how certain attitudes can sometimes be linked to certain other things, it encourages us to question our own preconceptions. Even if we exonerate ourselves on Nietzsche’s charges, the fact we have been led to put ourselves in the dock in the first place can be a powerful first step in its own right.

Unfortunately, though later ‘genealogists’ may perhaps have been content with metaphorical and hypothetical histories, Nietzsche really does seem to be trying to offer a genuine historical analysis. This analysis must be – and was – judged a failure by the standards and knowledge of his time, and a disaster by the standards of what we now know about history.



EDIT: incidentally, is this the first appearance of the idea of Self and Other in this sense (the sense of self requiring the creation of an Other than is then looked down upon)? I know that a lot of the Continentals who popularised the terms in the following century were Nietzsche fans. I’m also aware that he of course wasn’t the first to discuss the general ideas of self and other, which of course are hard to avoid in philosophy – in particular, I’m thinking of the Fichtean ego positing the other as what limits its own action, and of course there are elements in the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave. But I suspect Nietzsche may have been first or near-first when it comes specifically to the mutually-constructing-through-negation “Self” and “Other”?

On the Genealogy of Morals (10)

Tenth part of my on-going commentary on On the Genealogy of Morals.


Joy of joys: a dialogue. And we can all guess how this is going to go:

“…There’s no doubt about it—things are just as you said they were.”

Yes, it’s one of those hard-hitting dialogues. Anyway, the more important bit there is where the interlocutor says that ‘weakness is being falsified into something of merit’. It’s tempting to protest that Nietzsche has no grounds for saying that weakness is without merit, without presenting some clear grounds for his own value system. But that might be a little too hasty. If we accept that there are goods, and that things that help us obtain what is good have merit, then perhaps we can say that ‘weakness’, which prevents us from obtaining anything, is inherently without merit… without us having to make any definite claims about what things really are good. We don’t even need to believe in an objective good, or in an absolute good – even if ‘good’ is just a figment of our imagination, we can all agree, if we use the word ‘good’ appropriately, that it’s not good to be unable to obtain the good. And ‘weakness’ could indeed prevent us from (reliably) obtaining any good. Indeed, Nietzsche’s attempt to portray weakness as a form of violence undermines even the attempt to give weakness an inherent value of its own – its value would undermine itself (assuming we are debating against someone who is praising weakness for traditional ‘moral’, ‘Christian’ reasons).

No, the real problem here is that Nietzsche doesn’t adequately show that his notion of ‘weakness’ is really weak; without that, the attempt at an ad hominem attack on weakness fails entirely. Similarly, he is unconvincing in showing that it is violent or ugly.

“They are miserable—there’s no doubt about that—all these rumour-mongers and counterfeiters in the corners, although crouched down beside each other in the warmth—but they are telling me that their misery is God’s choice, His sign. One beats the dog one loves the most. Perhaps this misery may be a preparation, a test, an education, perhaps it is even more—something that will one day be rewarded and paid out with huge interest in gold, no, in happiness. They call that ‘blessedness’.”

Continue reading