A Nation Once Again

“A Nation once again.”(Thomas Davis)

When you are able to read this, I will be busy taking my interview to become an Australian Citizen. It’s the penultimate step to my standing up in public and saying:

From this time forward, under God,
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey.

It’s not something I take lightly. For a man who makes jokes about everything, I am at the core a very serious fellow. It’s a nation I want to be part of, a nation whose identity is shaped not by your place of birth or your sex, or skin color or religion, but a nation – or a group – whose ideals, principals, values and the things the people have in common as a result, override most of the considerations of mere geography or appearances. Those who don’t find a place to fit in it… don’t want to. They want the people to fit around them, and that never ends well, because it is narrow, and really, people aren’t. We come in all types. Migrant countries are a very broad church, and defines themselves as being broad, with ideas like freedom of association, speech and equality before the law. It’s an antithesis, in fact, of the ‘Nationalism’ of ‘just-like-me tribalism’, which I personally think is about to creep its way over the earth again. It’s a group or Nation with a professed set of ideals that I actually want very badly to be part of, to identify with, to support and be supported by. I spent a lot of my life striving to foster these ideals in the old country. South Africa may get there, one day, but to me it has slipped away into the other kind of nationalism – Where it is a very narrow church, getting narrower and nastier by the day.

Besides, that I was a lot keener on becoming Australian when I discovered they didn’t really greet newcomers by throwing another Chimp on the barbie, but shrimp. (Yes, I am called ‘monkey’ and not without reason.) I’m fond of shrimp. And if there are three things I really love about this nation it’s the concept of ‘a fair go’ (no matter who you are or where you’re from, it’s about merit not kissing up or being the right orientation or skin color), and mate-ship (which seems a natural feature of harsh environments and frontiers, where helping out those who are doing it tough is just part of what you do. Those in big civilized cities seem more prone not help their neighbors, but wait for the government to do it. It’s not how we operate, out here, but I do see it as problem creeping in to crowded places), and the Aussie Battler (It’s a little different to the US, where a ‘winner’ seems to be the top of the social respect pile. A battler might die having lost everything, and might never have come out a winner in multiple attempts. But no matter how often life knocks him down, he gets up and tries again. And no-one gets more social respect. I have no yearning to get literary prizes (yes, I know, they cause active revulsion in the majority of readers, but some people are terribly proud of them), but I think I’d done well in life if someone at my deathbed, having achieved nothing much, someone said ‘he’s a real little Aussie Battler’ to my kids.

I always thought Australia and the other ‘migrant’ countries (which have drawn from many nations –in the old narrow tribal sense of the word) tend to be about ideas and not geography.

And of course ideas are stuff of fiction. Which brings me around to ‘Nations’ and the concept behind them, in fiction. We’ve gone through periods when both types of ‘Nation’ were evoked in fiction. When fiction could be more than a little Jingo-ist. When it was used to narrow the tribe and define its identity, and belittle those who didn’t have the right markers, (language, religion, skin color, etc. etc.) When ‘the Wogs began at Calais’ (spare me the fainting fit. It was a very common expression, at that time.) History and wars – and tough times (coming to a neighborhood near you, soon), tended to bring it out strongly. Of course, depending on your point of view, or what kind of ‘Nation’ you were referring to (a narrow one of shared language, a similar genetic makeup, or a broad one) it was a good or bad thing. Let’s temporarily steer away from that, (as your good may be my bad) and focus on how it affects the numbers of readers (rather than how readers are affected by it).
In some ways it was a nice easy pass. A convenient stereotype to save you having to explain that the American character was a good guy, and the German/Japanese/Ping-pongian was a bad guy (or if you were a German writer why the American/French/English/Ping-pongian were bad guys. Instantly identifiable with as ‘just like me’ and readers do like that. If they can identify with your character, they care, and as a writer the biggest battle is won. It’s a bit more bizarre on the modern US left (where 95% of traditional publishing are) where hating the US (or at least its history and everyone who isn’t just like them) is their ‘national’ tribal marker, but it is for those who think like them, as much of a stereotype.

My own view is the ‘nations of ideas’ are about to take a hammering as the ‘nations of narrow tribes’ seem to be ascendant across Europe, Asia, and to my distant and not very knowledgeable eye, also rising in the US. I am of course very biased, and believe the ‘Nation of shared Ideas’ will eventually win ascendancy again, BUT here is the thing – as more people can belong to nation of shared ideas (so long as those ideas are ones which are broadly acceptable – say equality before the law) than can to a nation of shared narrow tribal characteristics (because these start to break down fast into smaller and smaller tribes. “You’re Italian/I’m Italian’ soon becomes I’m from the North, you’re from the South, and gradually disintegrate into two neighboring villages hating each other. And oddly they’ll tend to side with distant and utterly different, rather than those who are similar and close. The Khoi-San/Hottentot sided with Boer settlers (that they knew little of and were culturally and linguistically miles from, to beat up their neighboring tribe, whom they were very similar to. History is full of examples, and for another, present one, the NY City latte sipper who thinks Communist China or Muslim Arabs sweeter than the ‘redneck’ who lives in the same country, eats the same food, speaks the same language, wears the same clothes, and, to those Communist Chinese or Muslim Arabs, looks identical.).

As a supporter of a Nation of shared Ideas… I see interesting times for the writer ahead. And I see considerable fragmentation ahead, before a rebuilding. It is, taking the long view, a process that happens again and again. But at least with the shackles breaking on how and where and what we can publish… it’s no longer only one way traffic.

So: where do you see the nation in fiction, particularly sf/fantasy in the next few years?
And wish me luck for the interview. I am sorry I will only be back when many are asleep to answer comments.

Update: It went just fine. (they have a little test – Barbs and I both got 100% :-))

54 thoughts on “A Nation Once Again

    1. No, in all seriousness, I hope we will be honourable members of Australia’s body of citizens, we are honoured to be accepted into it, but it is not an honour for something that belongs to be here. It just is. 🙂 And I feel we belong here.

  1. We who write and read already form a common pool of people. I suspect it’s international, not hindered by national borders or class or religion or sexual orientation. Our shared experience rises above such.
    I have such a pool who follow my books. I lost my youngest son yesterday to a long illness. Writing’s how I’ve coped, and how I’ll continue to cope. So I shared the information about my personal tragedy on my blog.
    Among the replies, I had one from Britain, a couple from Canada, and one from Germany. From people who know me only from my writings, people I only know because they took the time to write to me.
    Good luck with your immigration efforts. I’m part of your pool too, you see. I’ve read your books.

    1. My condolences.

      Among the replies, I had one from Britain, a couple from Canada, and one from Germany. From people who know me only from my writings, people I only know because they took the time to write to me.

      Nations used to be defined mostly on geography because travel and communication were so expensive. I think we’ll still clump into potentially antagonistic groups, but they might not be location-based.

    2. Sorry to hear of your loss, sir. The earth is the richer, and we the poorer, for it.

    3. My deepest sympathy- it always hurts, but I think parents losing a child hurts worse. We expect them to outlive us, to carry hopes and dreams forward.

  2. Congratulations, Dave. I know it’s been a long time coming.

    As for ‘nations’, I think the primary reason they were such a big deal in the past is that travel was a lot more difficult (not to mention expensive) than it is now, and the opportunities to earn a living in a foreign country weren’t as great. Today one can be on the opposite side of the globe in a matter of a day or so, and if one has skills or talents that are needed where you want to be, the odds are pretty good that you’ll be allowed to stay. Effectively, we’re redefining ‘nation’ to ‘the place I want to be’ rather than ‘the place I’m stuck in’.

    Just my $0.02 worth . . .

    1. Very idealistic, but I just don’t see it that way.

      Even in an era of motorized transport, “nations” founded on an idea such as the USSR or Yugoslavia spun apart. Even the EU is showing some strains. Multi-ethnic polities do not tend toward harmony, as like attracts like and peoples want to maintain their cultural identity, which is based more on bloodline or tribe moreso than even religion. Note that people do self-segregate when not prevented from doing so.

      As for nation being “where I want to be,” a “nation” is not just a geographic location, but rather, a people with shared blood ties. Mere relocation does not make someone “part of” a nation.

      1. Rawlenyanzi: On this island my closest 10 friends are 4 Australian born – (1 Aboriginal, the others Anglo/Irish), a Philippines born, 2 Polish, 2 American, 1 Japanese. These are people I would fight to defend. They are mine and I am theirs, fiercely. They are all Australians. Perhaps your experience/country shapes you differently, but I do not have to have blood ties to those who I feel strongly are my people. And from the party they’re planning for my citizenship ceremony, they feel I am one of theirs too.

        1. Great to hear. I’m certainly not calling your experience (or Peter’s) false or fake, just pointing out a general tendency in large populations.

          I myself have no difficulty getting along with those of other nationalities, so I definitely know what feeling you speak of, and I also know that you can still connect deeply to someone even if they’re not related to you.

    2. Peter, it stuck me a while back that countries – rather than nations – should be entering a bidding war (in terms of what they offer if not money) for the best, let alone allowed to stay. It hasn’t got there yet, but I think it will. I also suspect eventually a value system on what makes a good citizen will evolve. It’s not the same as the all people are equal idea sometimes floated, and will ask some of the hard questions – like can you fit in? and what is your work ethic like?

  3. First, Mazal Tov to both you and Australia. And please convey to South Africa my sincere condolences.

    Second, I like the way Chesterton explained idea nations vs. tribe nations: http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features/gk_america_nov04.asp He wrote about the US, but I think it can apply to other nations that are good at assimilating foreigners. Arguably, it might have even applied to the Roman Republic.

    Third, I think the progressives form another nation of ideas. It doesn’t matter what your skin color or sexual orientation is (the weirder the better, it seems), as long as you subscribe to the the-west-is-uniquely-evil creed.

    1. Ori, it wasn’t so much that I left South Africa, as it left me. Australia is a lot closer to what I hoped South Africa could become.

      Following GK Chesterton’s model the wise state would only admit people who admitted to polygamy and anarchy: at least they have demonstrated that they truthful and honest.

      I detest the term ‘Progressive’ as much as I do ‘Liberal’ as both imply things that the evidence shows they are not. They means as much as ‘People’s’ or ‘Democratic’ in political nomenculture (which, if they occur in the name of a country or party, give very long odds to it being neither). They’re stolen terms, appropriated for the ‘good’ implications they carried, and have as a result poisoned much that is progressive (progress is a good idea, so long as it is actually progress. Much of their ‘progress’ has been dead ends down false leads – rather like ‘eggs are bad for you’ or ‘margarine is much better for your health than butter’. Is ‘Progress’ re-introducing apartheid at sf cons? It is painted as such. A group that put all humans as equal before the law and with future opportunity would have a very broad entry, and my support. The group you label ‘progressive’ are not that group. The West-is-uniquely-evil creed is a narrow group, and in my opinion getting narrower by the hour, let alone day. Yes, it does matter what color your skin is – white is only cancelled in the badness index by another narrow filter – say female or gay, or professing the superiority of either of those. As for sexual orientation, I am all for I don’t care what you do so long as you don’t frighten the horses. But do not expect representation or clout beyond your demographic proportion: Which de facto makes the strange ones rather irrelevant, which does not seem to appeal.

      1. You’re right, I forgot that “progress” usually implies change for the better, even though sometimes it is a progressive disease. Still, this is how they call themselves and it is one of the common terms in the US.

        Yes, it does matter what color your skin is – white is only cancelled in the badness index by another narrow filter – say female or gay, or professing the superiority of either of those.

        Yet they read and religiously follow the writings of dead white males like Marx and Alinsky. Their own leadership includes John Kerry and Bill Ayers. I think that as long as you profess the superiority of women and homosexuals you’re fine. And if you are heretic, not even before a female Latina (Sarah Hoyt) would save you.

  4. I’m sure you won’t need it, but good luck on the interview, Dave! I wish the U.S. had gotten you.

    Science fiction seems to like one-world governments. I remember reading Stranger in a Strange Land at 13 and not being clear on why Jubal Harshaw was grousing against, IIRC, the UN. As an adult, I certainly understand that, and would like to see the United States last as a separate polity. I felt quite wicked in my own first novel when I left the United States intact and had it, and not some amalgam of international partners, send out an interstellar ship. I have every intention of keeping distinct nation states in my own fiction, but I write from a ground-based perspective.

    Logistically, it’s easier, perhaps, to keep nation states on Earth. The reader is familiar with all of the big ones and the bulk of the smaller ones. On another planet or in a fantasy world each country must have its own imagined society and culture and history, which must be conveyed to the reader without overload or confusion. Done well, it’s awesome, but it looks like a lot of work. I like reading it, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me. At least, not yet.

    1. Laura M – one day it’ll be a bidding war for migrants 😉 (only half said in jest).

      There are two conflicting forces at work in SF – one is the need to keep it simple – so as not to make the story as confusing as the real world. And the second is to make it as realistic as the real world (and somehow not confuse the reader). Small wonder so many of us opt for the former.

  5. In SF/F I would not be surprised to see them migrating a bit toward each other. For the hard SF, Mil SF and so forth, they’ll realize they can do these outre concepts and still have a rouseing great story. The Leftist message fiction pele may decide that downer endings and white males are always bad are last years fads, and they can get their message out better with an increase in subtlty and letting the victorious lefty heroit survive to enjoy its victory.

    But then, I’m an optomist.

    In real life it’ll be a messier process, I’m just hoping for depression rather than collapse.

    1. In truth while some downer books will attain immortality (or at least be remembered for few generations. Inflation is everywhere, even in immortality), many more upper books will enjoy considerable success and sell more copies – if not forever, well, who cares.

  6. Congratulations!

    As for what’s the point of nations–well, here’s a brutal comment from a Korean soap opera I’ve been watching: the heroine has just been captured by slavers–she says they have no right to sell her, she’s committed no crime, and the slaver points out that she committed the crime of coming from a weak country …

    But Australia is the nation of Tobruk and El Alamein 🙂

    1. I have great faith in the toughness of my outback bretheren. Do not forget Gallipoli. It’s not always about winning, but also making the enemy happier to fight almost anyone else.

  7. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with nations and tribes. “We’re all family” grown large. But the problem is that, practically speaking, you can’t marry or raise people in fast enough to cover all the people you need, and there are no fights like family fights, and….

    Nations of ideas are a good plan if the ideas are benevolent. (Obviously don’t get stuck in a Communist nation of ideas. Or an Islamist one.)

    Anyway, if you’re not going to become an American, I can’t think of anywhere finer than Australia to join up with! Good luck!

    1. Paradoxically, a blood nation is more conducive to liberal democracy than one “founded on an idea.” In a blood nation, one can play somewhat fast and loose with forms of government and allow the people a broad scope of personal liberty because you know you are all Germans/Icelanders/Japanese/Koreans etc. in the end, no matter the exact form of society. Your nationhood comes from blood ties, not ideology.

      However, in a nation “founded on an idea,” the existence of the nation is contingent upon the existence of the idea. Even if that idea is one of liberty (as in the US and Australia), it can be corrupted into something far more rigid (as in the US and Australia), and it must be enforced rigorously or you have no nation. Thus, it must be less free.

      Remember that the US, for a long time, was a blood nation, despite the presence of immigrants; note that the immigrants tried to blend into the “blood,” for the most part.

  8. As JLKN put it, sci-fi/fantasy writers and readers are already at least two “nations” that form intermittent alliances with related or stranger “nations” (indie SFF with romance writers vs. publishers-who-issue-stinky-contracts, for example). With the help of the internet we’ve started forming another nation of ideas, like the US and Australia but with citizens scattered around the globe. I suspect, like 19th and 20th century Europe, we’ll see more splits and strange alliances before we start re-lumping ourselves. Some lines will harden, others will blur.

  9. David Freer– I have to admit. When I was first reading you, back before I knew your friends, I thought you WERE an Aussie writer. So to find that you are immigrating is a good-weird sort of feeling.

    I admit that I’m sad you aren’t coming to the USA. But I’m not sure we are ready for you. Well, not as a people. While I disagree with some Aussie policies (particularly in the area of firearms) one can’t argue we are doing any better or even at par. Except exclusively in the realm of firearms. Sigh.

    Welcome home!

    1. “Welcome home!” – is rather how it feels. 🙂
      The guns issue is why it makes sense not to react too fast, because it has been a baby-with-the-bathwater scene, IMO. Still, I have my my rifles and shotgun.

      1. If you are acquiring any property soon, they will come in handy, or So I’ve Heard.

        You won’t be short places to go rock climbing, either. 🙂

  10. Much luck in the interview (though by the time you read this, you might already have had it).

    Science fiction and fantasy in the next few years? Ahh, now that’s an interesting question.

    New authors are coming out of the woodwork- at least, new to me. Six years ago, I’d never heard of Monster Hunter International, or Brad Torgersen, or Sarah Hoyt, or pretty much anyone else who interests me today. A certain simian fellow I’d just discovered was rather difficult to find, save for the internet.

    There was also this thing called urban fantasy that had been around for a bit, but seemed like it was just getting its legs going. The Safehold series had just got its second book. I was still reading the Lost Fleet series, about halfway through, as I recall. A bunch of books I never read made a bunch of “best of” lists. Still haven’t looked at them, to tell the truth.

    As I’ve discovered indie, ebooks, and all sorts of wonderful things since, I can’t help but hope for more wonderful things in the future. Against that, I can expect the slow fall of tradpub to continue- no lights on the deep show there, as yet. Baen continues to publish things I like, and will.

    Given the state of the world, I’d hesitate to say what tales we’ll tell. In the ’30s, we got the Hobbit, Of Mice and Men, The Big Sleep , and the Maltese Falcon. In high school English class, we read Nausea, Their Eyes were Watching God, and The Grapes of Wrath. On the balance, I’d rather have read the former three.

    That brings up another thought. Where will reading be, in the soon-to-be?

    We’ve said before, it’s competing with everything from cell phone games to beer for our free time and money. Audiobooks are becoming every more popular. I just heard the term, “dead tree books,” oh, about ten years or so ago. Will print recede, become an affectation of the rich, a necessity of the very poor, a mark of old tech and obsolescence? Not soon, I hope.

    There’s some lead time involved, but the stories we tell are in some part shaped by the world we live in. Concepts like manifest destiny and global imperialism (or colonialism) aren’t discussed like they were years ago. Now, nationalism is a dirty word in certain snooty-nosed circles. Race and class are once again punted about. These things tend to leak into the stories we tell, often because we’re completely unaware of how they affect us- just as citizens of the past were completely unaware of things that may seem obvious to us from the perspective of the future.

    I wonder how ebooks will look on those googly glasses I’ve been hearing so much about. Ebooks on such things? I’d do it. Of course, there’s privacy concerns and security issues and all sorts of rambunctious potentialities bound up in them- I just want to know if I can get my story fix on the dang things. I’m a bit of a rustic that way. Speaking of backward folks…

    Should the siffwaah people Balkanize into squabbling factions, I doubt much of the readership will notice. More likely, they will band together in their shared outrage and hate of tomorrow’s painted devil. Or man of straw. Stories of monsters will continue to sell- zombies has been the latest craze, I’d find it highly amusing if werewolves came next… and the larger audience discovered Larry Correia’s Earl Harbinger. Apocalypse stories sell better in a recession, as the world economy worsens predict these to sell better.

    Similarly, horror will probably swing back up a bit. Can’t put my finger on why, just seems like we are headed in that direction again, style-wise. I could well be wrong there. I’m hoping for more blue sky sci-fi, human wave stories, and general good-kicks-evil-butt tales, but that may just be me. *grin*

    Crap. Had another thought in my head, but it went to sleep. And so should I. Fair winds, clear skies, sir. Hope all is well with you and yours.

    1. “Concepts like manifest destiny and global imperialism (or colonialism) aren’t discussed like they were years ago.”

      I like to say “space settlement.” It goes nicely with “human wave.” In so many ways.

      1. Gal after me own heart, lass. I’d still like the kinks to be worked out on good magnetic sheilding for spacecraft, because cosmic radiation = bad, though.

        I’d still go, even without. Because space. And awesome. *grin*

        1. Maybe the lava rills will be useful for shielding on the Moon.

          Bigelow Aerospace claims that its inflatable habitats are better against radiation because they don’t produce the scatter effect of aluminum. I don’t know if that constitutes positive safety or not, but it’s a step in the right direction.

      2. Trouble is, the extremist environmentalists are always against space travel. Not only is the process excessively messy, but we don’t want to spread the “earth trash’ that is humanity too far, and mess up the ecologies of other planets.

          1. That wouldn’t stop them. Any environment we would find would be “natural” and whatever we did to it to make it habitable would be unnatural. They hate humanity and believe we are a plague upon the cosmos. There is no pleasing those who will take nothing less than unattainable perfection. That’s what makes it so ‘progressive’, you never run out of excuses to stomp your foot.

    2. Thanks Dan. In a brief, I think nationalism will see a resurgeance, and would not be that surprise to see old chestnuts like manifold destiny appear under new names… the more we change the more we remain the same and it is a pendulum (whether the siffwaah ‘progressives’ ever realize this is another matter – but the harder they shove the harder the backswing IMO)

    1. I said I didn’t know it was still a requirement, but I was sure I could manage one of the transportable offenses… like stealing a potato for your starving family…

  11. Congratulations, Dave and Barbara, welcome to the asylum. May you continue to enjoy many more wonderful years here.

    You had me confused with the oath for a minute there as the last ceremony I attended didn’t have the ‘under god’ bit in it. On googling, I find that bit is optional – which makes perfect sense for the largely secular nation we’re in.

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