Border Anxiety and the Computer Age

It’s no surprise that border anxiety, a focus on attempts to affirm borders and create “impermeable” borders, has been on the rise since the so-called Computer Age began.

We live in an era in which the fiction of borders, imaginary lines on a map that continually shift while giving the facade of permanence, is being challenged. We live in an era when the interconnectedness of the world and its inhabitants has never been clearer. Today, a drought in central China affects stock prices in London within hours. The decisions of a CFO in New York lead to 500 Australians losing their jobs within a day. The choices of a South African plant manager affect fishermen in Alaska. Students in Maine can video chat with students in Peru at will. A person in Italy can video chat with family in Japan in real time at virtually no cost.

These challenges to the fiction of borders are profoundly disturbing and scary to some (particularly conservative) elements of society. Those who have bought into the fiction of borders. Those who define themselves as “not the Other”. Those who have bought into the fiction that imaginary lines on a map define people. Those who accept, unquestioningly, the fiction that division is more important than unity & connection. Those who are privileged enough to be lucky in where they were born, such that they buy into the fiction that the random chance of where someone happens to be born should define their entire life arc.

It seems to me that the connectivity of the Computer Age, the Digital Age, the Information Age, whatever you wish to call it, has resulted in such (ill conceived and impossible) backlash as Brexit, China’s internet censorship, or Trump’s (increasingly fictitious) border wall. The connectivity, the access to information, the ability to see global unity via a device that fits in a pocket, I think, brings out an anxiety in people who define themselves by division. It shows those very divisions to be permeable, false, and imaginary. What they thought was solid bedrock is increasingly shown to be a veneer, a false front, smoke and mirrors. And when the foundational bedrock of a person’s identity are removed, they tend to react without thought, with violence, and to excess.

New Blog

I’m thinking about setting up a new blog dedicated to my fiction stuff.  Basically, the idea would be to post the various short stories, novellas, and such that I’ve written over the years.  My one concern is length.  The pieces I have in the archives range from 7 pages (roughly 1750 words) to 20 pages (roughly 5000 words), which seem a bit long for single posts.

Anyone done this before (or follow any one who does) and have any recommendations?

(A second reason is to get my act together on revising older stuff and writing new stuff, which I haven’t done beyond worldbuilding in years.)

Confessions of an English PhD

I hold a B.A. in English, an M.A. in English Language and Literature, and a PhD in English Language and Literature. My specialties are officially medieval, early modern (Renaissance), and speculative fiction literature. My confession: I think most “great literature” is awful.

Chaucer, I like. But, I prefer Marie de France, Chretien de Troyes, the Gawain-poet, and several anonymous writers. Beowulf, I enjoy.

I read Shakespeare and think he’s important to look at for his influence. However, I don’t particularly care for him. There are others from the era that I like better.

I don’t see why Hardy, Dumas, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and scores of other canonical “great” writers are considered so great. I don’t think it’s because I’m not smart or knowledgable enough, after all I read Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon.

That said, there are classics I enjoy: Poe, Dickens, Wright, Bierce. But, they are pretty few and far between after the 16th century.

I’m much happier reading, researching, writing about current genre greats, or those I consider to be great or even good. Quite frankly, I’ll take Pratchett, Rowling, Heinlein, Gaiman, or Brust over Dumas any day and I’m not ashamed to say it.

Why Fiction?

So, why fiction? Why read it, why look at it, why anything? My apologies if I’ve covered this before. If I have, consider this an evolution of the idea or a reiteration of things I think are important.

In thinking about the question this week, I’ve identified four key reasons that I think fiction — both reading it, writing it, and studying it — is important.

First, fiction provides us with a safe place to conduct thought experiments. We can safely play with different sorts of societies, governments, economic theories, and such in the confines of a book or story. One of the best examples of this use is the late Robert A. Heinlein. People have called him, often simultaneously, a communist, a militarist, a libertarian, a libertine, a misogynist, a racist, and a whole host of other things. The one common thread: what readers call Heinlein depends largely on which of his books they’ve read. Looking at his whole corpus, Heinlein was very likely none of these things. But he did like to play with different socio-political and economic theories in his books just to see what made them tick. And that’s one thing I love about fiction, whether the experiment is with different possible magic systems or different social systems, it’s possible to play around and explore.

On a related point, fiction allows us to discuss various issues, often ones that are difficult to frame or cause knee jerk reactions instead of serious thought when presented other ways. Cases in point: Harper Lee and Lois Lowry. The former presents one of the best discussions of institutionalized racism in modern literature (To Kill a Mockingbird). It is straightforward, engaging, and easy to follow. Yet, it is not simplistic or caricatured. Likewise, Lowry discusses serious issues like euthanasia and eugenics in a young adult novel. And she does so beautifully. The story is engaging to the point that it is easy to forget the subtexts.

Perhaps the earliest use of fiction is, I think, also one of the most interesting. It has been used for millennia to relate history. Evolving from fireside folklore and legends, some of today’s greats, in my opinion, are Toni Morrison and Harry Turtledove. Morrison uses a lot of her fiction to try to relate (and relate to) some of the darker points of American history, specifically those tied to slavery and the immediate post-slavery generations. Turtledove mixes his history and thought experiments, but the latter are firmly grounded in his grasp of the former, whether in his Videssos books or his American Civil War alternate histories.

Finally, one of my favorite ways to look at fiction is as a socio-psychological release valve. I discuss this tangentially in my werewolf book (see link at the top of the page). To summarize, fiction lets us vicariously live out things that are socially, personally, or otherwise objectionable. There are things that many or most of us find distasteful in reality that we don’t mind in fiction. For myself, violence is a good one. Personally, I see violence in reality as a no-win situation. Even the “winner” ultimately loses. However, I have absolutely no problem with most forms of violence in fiction, whether of the Bond-Bourne sort of spy-shooter, the Hulk Smash sort, or the flying fists and swords type.

Ultimately, I think we do ourselves and our society a disservice when fiction is denigrated, demeaned, or otherwise cast as “something for kids” or somehow “not serious”.