I am sure many of you know the story of the young officer who, facing his first terrifying need to lead his men under fire out of the trenches, scared and near panic, turned to the diary of his heroic and much decorated father who had done the same thing, a man whose courage was legendary, a man whose reputation the young soldier had grown up in the shadow of… and discovering that his father… had been truly courageous. That he too had been utterly terrified… known the probable fate that awaited him, and yet found the courage to lead and to inspire. The young officer went forth to do the same.
That is courage, and it takes a brave soul to do it.
To be ignorant of the dangers and blunder in is not courageous either. If it were I’d be a hero many time over. It’s just stupid, but occasionally unavoidable.
To be fearless is not to be courageous. The story of gung-ho-the-fearless bashing up yet another vast number of foes may appeal to immature children, who have never really had to face their fears and deal with them. The strongest and most courageous thing any human can do is to face their fears and the consequences, knowingly. To know the price is too high, and to still dare because you must… that is a hero. And most of the rest of us know, heart of hearts, what real heroism means by now. What real courage requires of a man. It’s not always easy like either. It’s a word that cheapened by use for things which may be good, but are not brave, not courageous, whose costs are irrelevant and rewards ample.
Unless there is fore-known substantial real risk and potential danger and cost and hurt… it may be many other things, (good, needed, terrible, whatever) but it’s not courage. To use this word for that, is an erosion of the sacrifice of real courage. If, as a society, we want people to make those sacrifices (and we do. We need them, we should look up to them) we need to see the value of those words retained.
Recently the woman complaining of sexual harassment and setting out her how to, on the basis of her experience in a very supportive, protective environment, where the accused has no direct power over her, where she is well-connected, and the grandees of the field have rallied around and provided a critics-will-be-silenced shield, has been called brave and courageous. The outgoing president of SFWA is talking about new sexual harassment enforcement for cons. Very brave we are told. Authors –the darlings of the field– come out with the full support of their editors and a sycophantic industry press with ‘Brave new (and entirely PC) visions of the future.’ And are hailed for their courage.
Now you may like these books, support the enforcement, and admire the woman who took the steps against the accused, and support all of it all the way… but I have yet to see quite what vast adverse consequences they knew of to make it ‘courageous’. Support it, like it, call it good, if you feel that way about it. But let’s not call things brave or courageous, unless there is some enormous consequence possible which the person knowingly risks because they believe it is the right or needed thing to do.
Running with the mob, is not courageous. Standing against it – when you stand alone, have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, is. It takes balls the size watermelons. Even when you only have a little to lose. It’s also bloody hard to live with – both as the person, and those around them. It’s as often as not being Cassandra (For example as a minor case – I belong to a list of sf/fantasy writers – some good people, some of the standard crop. If I was good at running with the herd and patting egos, a good place to make contacts and elevate oneself. By having the integrity to say, politely, on several occasions, that I think the herd is running towards the cliff edge… I’ve lost that. I don’t think a soul listened, and I knew the consequences, but I still think it’s a cliff. Shrug. It’s not the first time in my life, nor the last. It annoys me about myself, but it is me.)
It is that courage, and what having to live with it that I want to write about today.
I have been struggling through the current book, CHANGELING’S ISLAND for six months – yes- there have been a few interruptions, but it is still a very long time for a guy who usually manages 2K a day as a minimum. Books such as RATS, BATS & VATS which in a substantial part was about my experience of the army as a conscript (as well being a second-class citizen, and what it means to be human and… a lot of other things, and bad puns) poured out of me like a flood (basically 20 days -as fast as I could write. This is not typical, but how fast it can be.).
I have in some ways been battling (besides the usual reasons of real life, and writer-exhaustion, and edits) partly because I am being a coward, engaging in displacement activity, and partly because it is just damned hard to do well, and it needs, nay, deserves to be done well. The story grubs into an area of myself I am not proud of, and don’t really want to go back to, but I think worth writing about. It goes back to when I was young and insecure about myself… and lived in a house of lions. As a kid… you want to fit in with other kids. Maybe you dream of leading the pack one day, but first off, you just want not to be the outsider. Not the one kid not chosen in the teams till last. Not the one kid sitting on his own in the playground (and that’s if the others aren’t tormenting you.). Not the kid who wore the wrong shoes. Not the kid whose parents did the weird and were, frankly, as out of place in the adult norm as possible. I was that kid, and of course, so were millions of others at different schools and different places. But, by Heaven, you do feel alone then.
My parents did that terrible thing to me, especially my Dad. He spoke his mind, honestly, did what he thought was right, which meant he never ran with a pack in his life… As far as society in general was concerned he was a royal PITA, and they punished him for it (later I found there were places he was much loved, but it wasn’t among his neighbors in suburbia. In the harbor, a different matter). As a kid… I loved him. Idolized his knowledge of the sea, bush, African languages… and wished, desperately, that he could be like everyone else’s dad. Do a normal office job, and play golf instead of fishing, keeping bees, and shooting (fishing was not cool back then and there. Especially not when you did as a second job on a ratty line-fish boat.) Of course, by the time I grew up, and gained some perspective, my attitude changed. Then I was enormously proud of him. I understood what a price he’d paid for being what he was, and my mum too. (mum was part of the De la Rey family – look up Generaal Koos De la Rey if you want context, and Dad’s grandfather was a British Army Surgeon-General in that war.). As someone who grew up and thought in Sotho, but yet had the English gentry background, he was poised between two worlds that generally didn’t meet, and understood both. And his understanding made him neither popular with those who supported apartheid and those who opposed it. He took his positions honestly, spoke up for people no-one (including him) liked, and, I think, mostly proved right, but like Cassandra, it certainly made him enemies and stood in his way. He knew that. It took courage, and of course bloody minded pig-headedness.
I guess I have tried to copy that courage, with indifferent success. It’s meant that I open my mouth to change feet a lot. I do the pig-headed bit well though… and thus it is with the current book. It’s a brave book, which may find no market (which is just stupid, no? Write something else. You have books which are sold, waiting.) The lead character is a kid who just desperately wants to be like all the other kids, especially the cool ones. Only he’s small, not wealthy, and not much at ball-sports, or anything physical (simply because he hasn’t found his métier, really. And because physical exercise isn’t much of a part of urban life.) To make matters worse, weird things happen around him, and it’s always his fault… In his attempt to be cool, and show off, he’s ended up brushing the law, and gets sent away from home, transported… in the modern sense, to live with a grandmother on a poor rural farm. Grandmother is by way of being a woman who made her choices. She turned her back on her people and their world, and was thus rejected by them, and yet was not accepted by her husband’s people. He was killed, and she was effectively left in a wall of her own pride to get on with it. She believes what she believes, says so, and stands her ground.
It’s not a comfortable place to stand, but he’s stuck there, standing in it with her, desperate to get out. The boy finds his métier (he’s born to fish and hunt, basically. Very un-PC now, but that is what he does well, it’s in his blood, and he takes easily to it), but he’s still seeking that acceptance, still… wanting to fit in to a modern urban boy’s life. It’s a mold he was never designed for but he’s spent his whole life among people who assume that is the only and right way to be. His place is the back-of-beyond, on the land, but he’s still striving to get to the city to be the cool kid there. Of course, being a fantasy/sf writer, I’ve mixed legend, myth and magic into it, as well as the price the using of it takes. Still, at the end it becomes a book about courage. About realizing the value of honor. About moving from being a child where you want to run with the crowd – something a lot of people never seem to grow out of, to being a man, taking the decision to break the law again. This time not gain acceptance or to show off, but because he believes it must be done. He’s been running from trouble wanting to be thought well of. Now, he’s doing what he knows may lose him what shelter he has established (where he actually found, against all his preconceptions, he is happy and belongs), because he believes it’s the right and needed thing to do, and that he’s the only one who can do it in time.
It’s been difficult to write, partly because I don’t want to talk about, but to show these things, and still to make the book accessible, easy to read, not preachy. And partly because in writing I’ve come to understand myself and my father more. He used to drive me nuts. It’s scary to find myself becoming more like him.
I just hope someone wants to read the book, but that is a risk I take. It’s a risk, may cost me money, but I have some faithful readers who will give it a try, even if no one in trad publishing wants to touch it. But the new author who invests time, money and effort in a book, has done the homework and knows the risks… they’re rather brave.