When the message is lost in translation

I’d like to address how we convey our characters’ perspectives, motives, desires, experiences, etc. in our books.  I’ve been prompted to do so by two or three horribly inept portrayals in books I came across this week.  I’m not going to identify them, because I don’t want to single out authors for negative feedback;  in fact, I daresay I’ve been guilty of the same problem in my own writing.  Nevertheless, it’s a subject that deserves attention.

It’s very easy for us to become “proprietary” in our approach to our characters.  “He’s mine!  I invented him!  I know how he ticks!  Don’t tell me how he’s supposed to react!”  I’m sure we’ve all had those feelings internally, and many of us will have voiced them aloud or in print.  Nevertheless, in a very real sense, when we release our work to the buying public, they are no longer our characters.  The public now owns them (literally, by way of the dollars and cents they spend to buy our books;  and figuratively, in the sense that they will interpret them, analyze them, internalize them, and make them their own).

That being the case, it’s important for us to understand how we create characters.  For some of us, it’s unconscious.  We pick a protagonist, or antagonist, who expresses our own philosophies and/or experiences and/or perspectives, and write that person.  Others of us work out our characters beforehand, analyzing why we want them in our book at all, and then trying to “build in” personalities, backgrounds and other characteristics that serve the purpose.  However, in every case, our perspective as authors is influenced by who and what we are.  I don’t believe we can ever achieve a dispassionate balance in creating characters, because every one of them is, to a greater or lesser extent, an extension of who we are.  For example:

  • I don’t think I can “get inside” the mind of a woman, simply because I’m male.  I can analyze, study, and dissect patterns of female behavior, and talk to women to get an idea of how they would react to a given situation, or respond to a given stimulus;  but I can never experience their reactions with their emotions or internal thought processes.  I see this every day in my interactions with my wife.  She’s simply different from me, in a profoundly deep and innate way.  She doesn’t think as I do, and doesn’t react or respond as I do, and nothing in the world is going to change that.  She’s female.  I’m male.  Cat, meet dog.  Dog, meet cat.
  • There are some aspects of life that are so ingrained in us that it’s almost impossible for us to see things from any other perspective.  Take, for example, lightning striking a tree.  You and I, being educated First World citizens, know all about physics, and electricity, and heating, and how they combine to produce that fire.  To someone from an animist culture, the gods of the trees are fighting among themselves, and the god of that there tree just got zapped!  He may have a degree from a First World university, but deep down inside, he’ll never be able to rid himself of that fundamentally primitive reaction.  I know this.  I’ve worked with such people for more than half my life.  He’ll actually look pityingly at us, because our education has blinded our spirits, preventing us from seeing what’s obvious to any “normal” person.
  • Superstitions are ingrained.  How many people do we know who take their horoscope seriously?  There is absolutely no justification for that whatsoever, but I know Ph.D.’s who read it every day, and act on its advice.  Another example:  outside the Stock Exchange in Johannesburg, South Africa, for years I saw sangomas, witch-doctors, selling muti (“medicine”), herbal concoctions guaranteed to bring good luck to traders on the floor of the Exchange.  These traders had degrees (some of them multiple degrees) from top universities… yet they bought their muti every morning, because without it, they knew they would not have a good day at work.  Another example:  popular superstition in East Africa is that albinos are “touched by the spirits”.  They reputedly possess spiritual powers and properties that make them particularly suitable for the production of muti.  Therefore, albinos are routinely murdered for their body parts by witch-doctors, or gangs who will sell their body parts to witch-doctors.  Can you imagine what it must be like, to live inside a skin that makes you a target for murder?  Yet, for thousands of people, this is their normal, everyday existence.
  • Cultural norms intersect with religious norms to shape and form, not just a society, but individuals.  The hideosity of “honor killings” comes to mind.  There are in our midst today, here in American society, individuals who firmly, absolutely believe that it is not only their God-given right, but their duty, to kill their own daughters if they adopt American customs such as dating, choosing their own husband, refusing to permit themselves to be genitally mutilated by so-called “female circumcisions”, etc.  This is happening as you read these words.  These people have taken the primitive superstitions of their place and culture of origin, and transplanted them into our First World society.  When we hold them accountable for their actions, they regard us with contempt, as having no standards at all, and being blind to our duty to God.  “Honor killings” are an extreme example, but there are many others we encounter every day.  Jehovah’s Witnesses who shun their members who dare to think for themselves, and refuse to conform;  Mormon fundamentalists who insist on their right to practice polygamy, regardless of the laws of the land;  Catholics who regard it as, not just their right, but their God-given duty, to impose their solutions to moral issues, such as abortion, upon others whose world view is diametrically opposed to theirs;  and so on.  In their insistence that they have the right to impose their views on others, I submit that all of these groups are different only in degree, not in kind, from those who advocate “honor killing”.  We may, of course, believe that such views are right, proper and appropriate… but we’re doing so from inside those perspectives.  Others will disagree with us… sometimes violently.

By now some readers may be shaking their heads, and asking themselves, “What has this got to do with me?  I don’t fall into any of those extremes.  This has no bearing at all on how I develop the characters in my books!”  Well, actually, yes, it does.  Let’s apply the fundamental incompatibilities of such perspectives with others, to a more typical everyday encounter in our own worlds.

How many of you are aware of the number of criminals – convicts, ex-convicts, and those who’ve never been convicted, but have gotten away with their crimes – that surround us?  I’ve worked for years as a prison chaplain.  I can assure you, the numbers are daunting.  A 2010 study found:

About 8.6% of the adult population has a felony conviction.

. . .

About 20 million people have a felony conviction in America. That works out to about 1 in 12 adult Americans.

Note, those numbers are for 2010. Looking at the growth rate trajectory, we are probably up to around 24 million people today in 2014 with a felony conviction. This means we are probably pushing 10% of the adult population today. Of course, these aggregate percentages include women, which as we all know account for a small portion of all felony convictions.

One other thing to consider is that a large number of would-be felonies are plead down to misdemeanors, so the actual total number of people who were caught committing a felonious act is undoubtedly much higher than these numbers portray.

Think about that.  One in ten people you meet, statistically speaking, has a felony conviction (i.e. for serious, as opposed to minor, offenses).  In some geographic areas or segments of society, that number may fall to less than one in a hundred.  In others, it may approach one in two.  As real estate agents will reiterate ad nauseam, it often boils down to “location, location, location!”  There’s a whole science involved in understanding the criminal mind, and how it differs from normal attitudes and perspectives.  I’ve written about it in my memoir of prison chaplaincy, and recommended some other sources there.

 

walls wire bars and souls cover thumbnail

 

Unless we’ve taken the time and trouble to understand the criminal mind, we cannot and will not write convincingly about them.  We’ll write only our perspective on them – a perspective that will be uninformed, inaccurate, and misleading.

That’s where the headline of this article comes from.  When we write, we’re “translating” images, perspectives, inner realities, from our heads to the printed page.  (Whether it’s printed in ink on paper, or in electrons on screens, is irrelevant.)  The process of translation involves understanding and interpreting the people and situations we write, both as broadly and as deeply as possible.  If we don’t, their motivations won’t make sense to at least some of our readers, and their actions won’t square with their (supposed) motivations.  I’ve read far too many books where this problem is so great that I can’t continue.  The author requires me to suspend my disbelief, but proceeds to write so ineptly and so inaccurately about a subject that I simply can’t do that. I revolt against his words.

A classic example is anything involving military combat.  I know military combat.  I’ve been there.  I know what it is to be shot, and to shoot others.  I know what explosions sound like – more than sound:  they pound in the core of your being, like a physical punch, not just a noise.  I know what a battlefield smells like.  All these things are innate to me, so real that I no longer have to think about them.  They’re at a visceral level.  However, many authors purporting to write military fiction (whether SF, or historical, or whatever) have no idea whatsoever about those realities.  Sure, some of them have taken the time and trouble to research those issues, but that can only substitute for experience to a certain degree.  If they are conscious of, and write within, those limitations, their fiction usually works.  If they presume a visceral level of knowledge that they do not possess, and write as if they do, their books fail.  (An example I’ve used before is to ask someone whether they’d like their daughter to receive sex education, or sex training.  They understand immediately what I mean.  One’s theory.  The other… isn’t.)

Therefore, when we seek to portray a reality that our characters experience, or from which they come, or which influences the outcome of our plot, we need to be very careful to write it, as far as possible, to take into account the unconscious assumptions that we inevitably make.  Those assumptions exclude a large proportion of the human race that doesn’t share them, and can make our work unapproachable to many potential readers.  We can, of course, limit our intended audience in that way (“Well, I’m not writing for people from that background!”) – but once our book is out there, it’s no longer our own property.  “Our baby” has now become the baby of whoever buys it.  We’d like them to cherish it, rather than abandon it in the gutter!

We need to write so that what the reader receives is what we intended to send, and what the reader understands is what we intended to say.  We need to communicate between dogs and cats.  That’s a tall order.  If we succeed, I think we’ll do well.  If we fail… then the message is lost in translation.

 

50 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

50 responses to “When the message is lost in translation

  1. paladin3001

    Thanks, good information here to use.

  2. Most of the time, my characters just are. They pop into mind complete or nearly so. Sometimes there are things it feels like they just won’t do, and things that they will. There’s also characters that don’t pop into mind for reasons you’ve given: I don’t know them well enough to really imagine them.

    This weekend a character who is an emancipated slave, circa early 1870s, popped into mind. I don’t know if understand that well enough to that justice, even though I know who he is, how he thinks, how he feels, his motivations, and regrets. And the character won’t let go. It’s an old story that never worked, but from his POV it does. So it will be this character’s story, and will bug me until I get it written down. But will it be real in the sense than you mean in your post? I really don’t know.

    As an aside, what about the psychological aspects of superstition that someone doesn’t believe but still feels compelled to do so? Such as those compelled to read the horoscope, perhaps because they really hope to read some good news about the future, or want good news to the point that they’ll buy or make a talisman. My gut feeling is that if they have a need for control, they will try what they’ve heard more out of desperation than anything else.

    • I’d say rather that the superstition *relieves* them of control, by making whatever goes wrong not their fault. By believing in and buying a talisman, reading a horoscope, etc, they’ve surrendered control and are no longer to blame.

      • I think superstitions are more subconscious than that, and that we don’t believe them . . . but they won’t go away. However, we can take control of them with a cup of muti every morning. Not logical, but a useful way to cope with the niggling fears of the subconscious. And then there’s in-group behavior, habit, and possibly caffeine addiction.

      • Mary

        Huh? Is reading the weather forecast surrendering control? Is buying a fire-extinguisher seeing to it that you are no longer to blame?

      • I’ve been most tempted to divination when anxious about the future. Accounts of such as “root doctors” are interesting in that despite the supposed power they wielded, it never greatly affected their situation. But it was something they could do, a level of control they could have even if they were a slave. And many a white would go to see them when they felt a definite need for control.

        From a Christian point of view this gets into all sorts of things. Why would someone who believes in God go see a root doctor for magic? Because a prayer is a request that may be rejected, and going to a root doctor gave a sense of control of the matter.

    • I know about the character who just pops into your head, says hi, and starts wanting you to write their story — and then you realize with a sickening thud that you’re way out of your depth. At least in your case, you’re dealing with a character whose experience is far enough in the past that documentary research (books, archival materials, etc) is the only way to learn the necessary things.

      I’ve got several things that have stalled because they are set in contemporary locales, but travel there simply isn’t in the budget for me, and I’m no longer so confident that any amount of documentary research can substitute for actually going there and experiencing the ambience of the place.

  3. If we ever find a society where there is absolutely no imposition of the ideas of religion, philosophy, politics, or morality on anybody’s way of life… I am never going to be heavily armed enough to live there.

    I find it hard to believe the felony rates, though. First off, how are they avoiding “doubling up” in the statistics? If Bob has gotten convicted of six counts of felonies, does his time, and then commits six more felonies, he has messed things up for the statisticians.

    Secondly, it does not account for prosecutors routinely charging all kinds of crazy stuff, just to give them something to plead downward or to make sure the person stays in prison/jail. If someone really did misdemeanors and really was convicted of misdemeanors, but was temporarily charged for felonies, how do you bring that out of the statistics?

    Furthermore, a lot of felons maintain residency in more than one state or country, even, and therefore many are incarcerated in more than one state and more than one time. Florida and New York are particularly big for this.

    The extrapolation into the future makes these problems worse.

    The actual statement here is, “The number of successful felony charges filed by prosecutors is about equal to the number of people who make up X% of the population of the United States. But really we don’t know how many felons there are, or how many are citizens, because we are not counting by individual people, or doing anything to eliminate repetition or resident aliens or illegals, or people who went to prison for felonies and now are dead. We want a really big number.”

    I guess you could get closer if you just said, “The felon prison population on X day was Y number.” Anything more than that, and the methodology gets difficult.

    Which is not to say that the actual numbers would not be unacceptably huge, and the percentage large. Undoubtedly, by percentage, there are more felons than willing homosexuals (for example). At one place I worked, I got a very negative response from the urban black ladies, when I said that obviously one would never date an ex-convict or a criminal, as an example if basic stuff that a smart woman would try to avoid. In their neighborhood, that was being so picky as to eliminate the boy next door.

    So there is a high percentage of “people who have a felon as a family member or close acquaintance,” and that percentage is a lot higher than “people who know personally someone who would say they are homosexual.” But because our media elites do not live in the wrong neighborhood (or do not admit to it unless it is a glamorous radical felony), the media picture is that there are few felons and huge numbers of gay people.

    But you still are not _usually_ going to meet an ex-convict every day, unless you live in the wrong neighborhood, or work in one of the categorizing or emergency response professions. So there really cannot be that many felons wandering around, or in prison instead of wandering around.

    The high mortality rate of folks who are criminals and druggies probably has something to do with that. It is not a healthy lifestyle.

    • You’re thinking hardened felon from a bad background. The big bruiser with tattoos and piercings, shaved head and scars. Not the nice young man still living with his parents two houses down, because you don’t realize he got drunk and stole a car when he was 19.

      After knowing such a kid, it really opened my eyes to what we don’t know about the people all around us.

      • Exactly. Not only do we have the misuse and outright abuse of statistics (especially drawing conclusions that ignore the basis of measurement used in the statistic in question), but we also have the “young person did something stupid” and the “creeping felonization” problem.

        The habit of legislators and regulatory agencies making administrative violations into felonies as a way of saying “we’re serious about this” distorts both statistics and perceptions. Most people don’t tend to look beyond the “felony conviction” to distinguish between the hardened criminals who are actual dangers to society and and the people who got caught in the regulatory thicket. So when a politician or journalist tosses out statistics about felonies, we get scared and want the government to Get Tough On Crime, assuming it’s hardened thugs who’ll beat you to death for not handing your wallet over fast enough, not Amish grandfathers who used the wrong terms on the labels of their homemade chickweed salve.

        • The category of kids who made a mistake includes a guy who lived down the block from me when I was growing up. He fell for the girl who lived across the street from him who was a couple of years younger, and things got physical. Her parents found out shortly after he turned 18. He still lives in the same house and has been a registered sex offender for over 40 years.

          • That’s one of the situations where a Romeo and Juliet exception is really important. Teenage romance should not result in lives ruined by laws intended to protect kids from honest-to-god child molesters.

      • Or the cheerful old man with a number of priors who admitted it and advised “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Or an unassuming fellow who did time for embezzlement. Haven’t seen one classmate in years, but if you saw him, you wouldn’t know he was convicted on voter fraud charges.And not every druggy looks like a crackhead.

      • Joe in PNG

        One wonders how many of the un-prosecuted felonies are first timers who just did something stupid?
        One case I’m personally acquainted with is that of a young lady who’s scumbag boyfriend talked her into driving to Miami to pick up a felony amount of marijuana, and got arrested on the way home. Which happened to a relative of mine.
        Happily, the justice system knocked it way back to a pre-trial intervention (first offense and all), the charges were eventually dropped after a good, long period of community service, and she turned out pretty good. She dropped the idiot, went on to get a BSN, and 20 years later is doing well.

    • I was thinking the percentage I know might be higher. Very few of these are violent offenders. If you add those I’ve just encountered in the course of work, that may be higher. You’d be surprised at how many use their offender cards as ID when applying for service.

      • In my town, the place is still small enough that folks know each others’ business and people read the county crime report. People who move in, or people from the next town over or the city, are a different matter.

        But yeah, I suppose it is true that there are professional criminals versus the kind of folks unlikely to engage in recidivism, as well as the ones whose “felonies” never really should have been that. If rehabieitation is working for some, that is good. But if people are doing hard time for purely stuff, that is not only unjust, but also a waste of taxpayer money. Somebody has to pay for prison; food and guards do not materialize from nowhere.

        Given the drug gang warfare being waged over in the city, and all the meth labs being found in suburban houses while their snowbird owners are away, the local prosecutors here do not seem to be doing much in the way of making up felonies. They do not have the time or money, and seizure money does not seem to be enough of a thing to give them incentive.

        But it is also possible that I am wrong, or not seeing stuff that is not reported.

  4. Nobody can get inside anybody else’s mind, woman or man. We are even black boxes to ourselves, in many cases. So if you think you cannot get inside a female character because you are male, or vice versa, you are just thinking that your BS skills are not yet sufficient.

    That is why writing requires equal parts of making stuff up and saying stuff plausibly.

    Do not be afraid to make guesses or copy off observed behavior! Do not be ashamed to ask advice! But in the end, it is your pretend game and your makebelieve people. You do what helps other people play, but you do not have to be perfect.

    • And writing aliens, lordy! my nonhumans don’t think or react quite like humans, and about all I can be is consistent enough, and perhaps show otherwise-unimportant details, that readers eventually pick up on what is or isn’t innate to them. Well, at least if I want to avoid the sin of stopping-to-explain from an external viewpoint.

      And my character who probably seems the most “normal” to a human reader is actually the one who’s the most screwed up. *sigh*

      • Mary

        there are so many humans with pointy ears that do not get so alien to the writer as some of the writer’s fellow citizens

      • mrsizer

        I want to write a story with really alien aliens, but every time I try I get stuck with “but why will any humans read this?”. The best done, imo, are Nadrack’s species in the Lensman series. The Thranx are pretty good, but a bit too understandable.

  5. Mary

    Take, for example, lightning striking a tree. You and I, being educated First World citizens, know all about physics, and electricity, and heating, and how they combine to produce that fire. To someone from an animist culture, the gods of the trees are fighting among themselves, and the god of that there tree just got zapped

    This is confused. This is like saying that a full understanding of how the guns at some mass murder worked would preclude thinking about the shooter’s motive.

    • Well, it is important to know what your character’s priorities are, and how their knowledge and POV impact that.

      A rich starship magnate might see a starship theft as amusing, or as a deadly challenge. A poor starship owner would definitely take it badly, because his home and business and worldly goods are all endangered at once.

      So the important thing about the lightning might be tree damage or dryad murder, or it might even be dryads of bristlecone pine enabling their own reproductive cycle through weather magic.

      • And the character could be very mistaken about the priorities. A deadly fight might ensue against Smokey the Bear, in which both antagonists are acting on partial knowledge.

        But either way, the knowledge and priorities of individual characters will affect the plot, just as their beliefs, abilities, and plans will.

    • I think that is to illustrate the difference in how peoples think. One Indian Mutiny is said to have been triggered by cartridge grease.Muslims objected to pork lard, and Hindus beef tallow, and they wanted to know if it was animal or vegetable based. A British officer thought it didn’t matter, because to him it was a non-issue. To some of the Indian soldiers, it was a very big matter, indeed.

      Honor killings show a difference in thought. We in the West can somewhat understand it, and I remember a dark and dreary story where a father from the Italy region kills his own son because he did the unforgivable: finger someone for money. It’s alien enough that the story shocks readers, which is probably the point. By our thinking, family comes first, particularly the young. Others have different priorities, and it affects what they do.

  6. Interesting post, and definitely going to make me ‘review’ some of my characters…

  7. When I was at Caltech, I was astonished at how many of my classmates were deeply superstitious. This particularly showed up when playing games involving dice, since many (if not most) firmly believed that the outcome could be influenced by the remarks people made or by the previous results. “You jinxed it!” wasn’t just a joke. People would scream at each other, and I saw one actual fight.

    Among one group of gamers I hung out with, there was a powerful belief that “the brown [six-sided] dice are extra lucky.” Eventually I decided to do my own test, casting each one 100 times or more and counting the results. They certainly seemed biased. Then my non-gamer roommate looked over my shoulder and said, “They’re lopsided! Look, the faces aren’t even square.”

    To everyone’s credit, in the face of this evidence, no one disagreed with the decision to discard the brown dice, but the fact that almost everyone believed there could be such a thing as a “lucky” pair of dice meant that no one except me ever considered testing them for bias.

    • There’s a t-shirt that has the saying “hand me another character sheet and some better dice,” which pretty much presupposes the belief in “lucky” dice for its humorous effect.

      • But if I really believed it, it would stop being funny…. Yeah, my current GM is not amused by luck jokes. He lived in California and knew folks like that.

        This is such a fun post for commenting!

    • Dice are interesting. What you usually find in the game aisle is theoretically biased because the dots are formed by removing material, resulting in a potential bias for the higher numbers over lower. The dots in professional dice are filled with material that supposedly weighs the same, clear where you can see there’s no weighting, and, with sharp edges because you can create a bias by monkeying with that as well.

      • Luke

        Polyhedral dice have improved greatly since I was young. Nowadays, they’ll all give you a pretty random distribution. But that didn’t use to be the case. They used to be made from soft plastic with a low melting point, they often had included bubbles, and were usually deformed to some degree.
        Back during the ’80s, I had a d20 that would reliably roll natural 20s nearly a quarter of the time. (I very much wish I still had it. It was unsporting, but there have been several times when I’d really have loved to still have it when running games and would have liked to reward an inspired attempt with an extra nudge.)

        Of course, I’ll still grab my “lucky dice” if I really need to make a roll, but it’s really more the tradition of the thing, than a expectation of elevated success. (It does deviate slightly from random, but towards extremes. It will tend to succeed comfortably, or fail utterly, with middle ground being somewhat uncommon. Which really makes it a perfect dice for simulating luck.)

        • My interest is a bit odd in that it’s using dice as random number generators. That led down the rabbit hole of the design of gambling dice. Supposedly the bias is low enough that game aisle dice will do the job. Still . . .

  8. Interesting post, and mostly good. I must admit that I agree with some here that you really cannot get into anyone else’s head – but I would remind them that there is a continuum of that. Peter can undoubtedly get much further “inside” the head of another South African expatriate that served in the Army and later became a prison chaplain, for instance. Much further than any of us can, in any case.

    I do have a quibble with the Catholic / abortion example, though. I am decidedly not Catholic! Yet, I must oppose the majority of arguments for the “morality” of abortion. To wit: any creature with a full set of chromosomes is alive. When those chromosomes are human chromosomes, it is a live human – and killing a live human is not an accepted Western value, without good and rather extreme cause (conviction of heinous crime, in a justified war, defense of self or others, etc.). Defining “human” in any other way opens up a moral can of worms – at what point between a single cell and someone applying for Social Security does the “human” label apply? A far better example of Catholic doctrine being “out of tune” with the modern (Western) world would have been the opposition to pre-fertilization contraception methods.

    • I’m opposed to abortion too, and I was born and raised Catholic, so I have no objection to that religion’s perspective on the matter. It’s not a question of what Catholics believe, but their insistence that because the issue is ordained by God, they have both the right and the duty to intervene to prevent abortion . . . even when someone else absolutely rejects the Catholic point of view, doesn’t believe in God, and rejects anyone’s right to intervene in their personal decisions. It’s an “irresistible force meets immovable object” sort of situation – and it’s the sort of response that has, in the past, led to wars. “You’re defying the will of God, therefore we’re going to make you respect it!”

      This is one of the touchiest topics throughout history, and certainly today. Where do one person’s rights end, and another’s begin? Does anyone have the right to impose their religious beliefs willy-nilly upon another? Even if I’m utterly convinced that abortion as an ex-post-facto method of contraception is utterly evil and absolutely immoral, am I permitted to impose my convictions upon someone who doesn’t share my belief? Be very, very careful how you answer. That way lies sharia.

      • I’m opposed to homicide myself. It’s not a question of what Catholics believe, but their insistence that because the issue is ordained by God, they have both the right and the duty to intervene to prevent homicide… even when someone else absolutely rejects the Catholic point of view, doesn’t believe in God, and rejects anyone else’s right to intervene in their personal decisions.

        The Catholic position is simply that the deliberate taking of human life, except in self-defence or in the course of a just war, is intrinsically wrong. It is biology that furnishes us with the additional fact that the life of an organism begins at conception. If you looked into the history of the Catholic position on abortion, you would find that it developed into its present state pari passu with the sciences of genetics and embryology. The notion that it is merely a religious shibboleth is without foundation.

      • Robin Munn

        What Tom Simon said. Your “this is a slippery slope with sharia at the bottom of it” argument fails on the abortion issue, because Catholics aren’t opposing abortion because God told them to, they’re opposing it because it’s murder. And yes, God told them to oppose murder, but then, “murder is wrong” is an issue that just about everyone will agree on, so the slippery slope doesn’t apply.

        And you’ll note that everyone who defends abortion has to start by convincing themselves that it isn’t murder.

        Had you used contraception as an example, I’d agree with you that that’s a valid slippery-slope argument. But abortion isn’t a good example for your case — because it’s not a case of “God told me to”, it’s a case of people examining the scientific facts about human embryos (NOT the same DNA as the mother, ergo not part of her body, etc.) and deciding that the pro-abortion arguments don’t stand up to the light of scrutiny.

      • Peter… If the only reason that a Catholic (or other Christian, or a Jew) does not commit murder is their belief that God wrote the prohibition in fire on a chunk of stone – well, that is not logical – but I can roll with a neighbor like that. (May have one or two already, I have not inquired.)

        However, to an agnostic like myself, “Thou shalt not commit murder.” is a perfectly sane commandment for any culture in which I would wish to live. And I am quite willing to impose that commandment upon others – Catholic, Muslim, Zulu witch doctor, Atheist, whatever. Nor am I uncomfortable with having that commandment imposed upon myself (otherwise there could be quite a trail of bodies from my fifty-plus years…)

        This is the difference between (most) Christian and (most) Muslim groups. The first does not have any positive commandments to kill – the other does. The Christian (Western) of today has had to formulate a system of laws (for both civilian and war situations) that specify when it is permissible to kill another.

        Not that you need religion at all to have a positive commandment to commit murder – Communism, National Socialism, Margaret Sanger, etc. are prime examples.

      • The abortion issue is no more a “because God says” issue than any other murder. You’d be better off using contraception as an example, since it at least involves some philosophy beyond “killing innocent humans is bad.”

        Alternatively, you could contrast it to honor killings– one being an example of a justified killing that our laws formally abhor, and the other being an unjustified killing that our laws formally allow.

        • (I should hope it’s a no duh that the justification for ‘honor killings’ is insufficient, just like the death penalty for shoplifting would be; it’s a matter of if the human’s life is taken because of something they did, rather than as a utilitarian route to another destination.)

  9. If you get things badly wrong, you’ll throw the reader who knows about the subject right out. I Am Not Military, but my father had been, and I absorbed a certain set of secondhand information. So when that Verhoeven mess with the Heinlein title came out, there were several things that rubbed be wrong because they wouldn’t work. The one I’ve brought up before is where a novice starship pilot started a dangerous undocking maneuver, was told to not do it by her supervising officer, but suffered no consequences because she managed to just miss hitting the ship as she backed out.

    There are so many things wrong with that that I, as Someone Not Military, can see them as though they were writ in neon stars across the ebon sky. Novice would have been court-martialed, and rightly so, both for disobeying a superior officer and for endangering the ship. She would have to be, both because of its dangerous effect on her future behavior and on the behavior of any other military member who observed her getting away with it. And there’s sloppiness all over the place in other instances, too—this was just a clear and egregious example.

    “What does it matter?” Hollywood says. And that’s where their imagination fails badly, because behavior like that means that military would fall apart under its own weight in fairly short order, and they don’t even see that.

    • You’re probably right, at least on the disobeying orders part. But I’ve recently been reading a bit about some of the stunts early US Army pilots like Eddie Rickenbacker and Jimmy Doolittle pulled, and at least in Doolittle’s case lost multiple planes doing, and not only were there no court martials, there wasn’t even much punishment let alone career repercussions. I’ve read some naval history works that mention in centuries past some pretty crazy behavior, and various screw ups, that would be career-enders today but went with little comment or official action back then. Of course, even a wooden frigate, a small steam warship or a late-teens military airplane were far cheaper than today’s warships and aircraft, let alone a starship.

      • There were also some deliberate biases toward cultivating “boldness.” The idea was that a certain amount of experimentation, pranks, and high spirits were acceptable, because that weeded out cowardice; or allowed people to meet danger as play, before meeting it in combat or an emergency.

    • Robin Munn

      I have never had any desire to see the movie, so I’ll have to ask you about the scene in question. Was there any justification for the dangerous undocking maneuver, such as “the guys down on the planet are taking a pounding RIGHT NOW, and if we wait five minutes for the ship to clear the undocking lane, the reinforcements I’m flying down there will get there too late”? Or was it a case of sheer “I’m a good enough pilot to pull this off” attitude, and there was no actual military necessity driving her to try the dangerous maneuver?

      Because I could see the former being a justifiable excuse, though in my mind, there’d still be a need for a court-martial. But it might go something like this: “You disobeyed your superior officer’s orders and performed a dangerous maneuver. How plead you?” “Not guilty for reasons of military necessity: if I had waited five minutes, the assault team would have all been killed and we’d have lost the battle.” “Very well. For disobeying your superior officer, you are fined thirty days’ pay. For saving the lives of the assault team, you are hereby issued a bonus equivalent to thirty days’ pay, and a medal. The medal ceremony will begin immediately; this court-martial is concluded.” It wouldn’t go like that in a real military, of course, but I could buy that in a fictional military.

      • The pilot was just showing off, IIRC.

        • My IIRC, too – although suspect, as it was quite a while ago, and I feel no need to research…

          But this is a critical point – in a combat situation, many regs are bent, spindled, mutilated, and just flat ignored. Tight control through regulation, even at the expense of “now and working well enough,” is sensible outside of combat – military personnel are people who are (at least hypothetically) armed and dangerous, far more so than the average population. In combat, though, such strict following of regulation is all too frequently fatal – and to the wrong participants.

          This is one of the basic differences between a good officer in a secure area and a good officer on the field of combat – knowing which things to keep enforcing with a heavy hand, and which to throw by the wayside. BTW, the difference is a great source for interpersonal conflict situations in military fiction. (And, yes, unless you are in a situation with no secure areas, you do need those REMF officers. Much as combat grunts detest them, there usually is a reason for such things as “minimum inventory levels.”)

          • It was just showing off. They also had bad examples of this during training, where it’s extra important to follow the rules exactly. Which is explained in the book, but of course the director was proud of not having read the book, so it follows that he didn’t think about that.

            • Terry Sanders

              Boy, was it ever. Heinlein lampshaded the culture’s take on corporal punishment by having his protagonist flogged–for skimping on a simulated safety procedure during an exercise.

          • Words you never want to hear in bad situations. “We are out of…”