Reality and expectations

I’m neck-deep in construction work on our little farm – we had – we thought, an agreement until December on the place we’re renting, so that when we moved the house (structure) — planned for April — onto the property, we’d have time to do the whole making it habitable part. Unfortunately that just got shifted to the end of April. That’s… approaching fast.

Now, we started with a piece of raw bush and some not well fenced paddocks which are more sag (rushes) and bracken than wallaby-and-wombat grazed lawn.  Like the man whose work was to push a wheelbarrow, our job was all in front of us. There was barely a drive-able track to the best place to put a house. Kind of forty acres and a mule, and I’m the mule, although I suspect ‘jackass’ would be closer. They’re also obstinate.

The difference between us and the pioneers of yesteryear are substantial. As they say in the Monty Python skit, we ‘ave it soft. But you tell the young people o’ today that, and they won’t believe yer. I’ve been lucky to have the loan of quite a lot of heavy machinery (the crane in the picture), as well as owning a lot of kit – like angle-grinders and power-saws and cordless drivers and drills, to say nothing of ye horseless carriage.  We also have access to shops and, possibly more important, information.  Oh, and while this is Australia, and we have a reputation of everything trying to kill you, it’s a trifle overstated, especially with modern medicine. The chances of wildlife, outlaws, or some local or transient group of people deciding to kill or rob us of everything we have to keep ourselves alive are very small. My firearms are good and accurate, I don’t have to hoard ammunition. My chainsaw will cut in 10 minutes what a skilled man could in an hour. My water-pump carries a hundred times the water that Barbs and I could haul in buckets.

We have it very, very soft indeed.

It is still very physical, very challenging, both intellectually and psychologically. Property isn’t cheap in Australia, and building – especially hiring tradesmen or labor– is just prohibitively expensive on an author’s income. Yes, I am in upper-earning chunk of writers. That’s not saying much. I earn less than half the minimum wage around here (so I work a lot of hours). But I make up for it by being, actually, fairly skilled at lot of things, and bloody-mindedly determined at the many I have no knowledge of (or at least had no knowledge of when I started.)

But the experience makes me regard that settler who arrived on a bare piece of prairie or forest (and all humans were colonists, somewhere along the way. Otherwise we’d be just another extinct species with a few bones in some cave in Africa.) with an almost awed respect.  It took both courage, incredible levels of work, skill, cooperation (because, if it was just two of you, or even a small group, just surviving the tough parts would have taken that. Every person would have had to work. It wasn’t gender assigned roles as much as the limits on physical capability as often as not. Yes, NOW we can get all woke about it, but, look at primitive societies, vastly isolated from each other, different in many ways and… similar in others, typically in ‘gender roles’.  That is convergent social evolution in action, and it happened not because of ‘the patriarchy’ but because of ‘the survival’. It’s easy to forget that when you’re some generations removed from those hardships.

With that distance, with the lack of comparable experience, particularly with urban populations  to whom the trials and tribulations of surviving and building the comfort and civilization the urbanites now live in is as alien as the social traditions of the Mongols, has come a lack of respect. It goes further, to outright shame and disdain among the modern urban ‘woke’. Why were these vile people so insensitive to the wildlife, the natives (AKA ‘earlier colonists’) and the environment?  Short of having Bambi eat their winter food, the ‘natives’ run off their livestock they needed to survive, and the environment being something they had far too much of, while food, shelter and comforts of even the most rudimentary being very thin on the ground… it’s very hard to explain to people with no referents.

This ‘referents’ issue comes particularly into modern fantasy. The ‘colonial’ type of sf, once a mainstay and very popular, now being virtually dead of PC. Colonists are wicked, see. Like the patriarchy (white and American) wot wickedly taught people to kill, the fact that humans are a colonist species is viewed only through that ‘white American’ lens.)  But in fantasy, a fair amount of the story usually happens in a ‘primitive’ setting. Where people ride through trackless wilderness… where horses are tireless, cover vast distances, and somehow have their tack on and are ready to ride at a moment’s notice. Horses are automobiles in the referent of many urban writers… and readers.

Stew is instantly contrived, animals are shot and eaten.  Food and drink are always to be had. Campfires are cheerfully slept by. Ships race away from the quay in hot pursuit under full sail, instantly. The questing damsel has a charming array of fresh outfits.  Fights with huge warriors are won by feisty female warriors in full armor…

And, fair enough, by the referents that many readers have, these are all fine.

Of course if you actually know anything about any of the above, you’ll toss the book in fire, before remembering you got it from the library.

It’s a sad truth that for a substantial part of the audience out there you have to explain reality, or they won’t believe you, and even then they probably won’t believe something so alien to their own referents, and will regard your book as rubbish.  Of course, to another section of the audience, the practical, the pragmatic, the ones whose life experience isn’t wholly urban American, those who have had time in the military, the rural kids, the ones who have at least tried to their own DIY… if it doesn’t live up to their reality, they’ll also regard your book as rubbish.

I’m not going prescribe which course to follow. Just put it up there as to why both sides often regard books popular with the other side as rubbish.


  1. This ‘referents’ issue comes particularly into modern fantasy.

    I remember reading a review of The Mists of Avalon on GoodReads that complained about how Marion Zimmer Bradley had written her female characters spending so much time doing back-breaking manual labor. Implicit in the reviewer’s world-view was apparently the idea that no good feminist would write women that way, though no alternate theory of how things would have or could have been done at what was the darkest bit of the Dark Ages was offered. (NB: This is long before what is now known was known about MZB.)

    I’m also not sure whether this is a “referents” issue, but I think it is kind of surreal is how often YA books of all stripes have females going toe to toe with males and beating them up. Yes, it can happen, but the physical reality of the world as it objectively exists means it is going to be a very rare thing, indeed. Not an every single time thing, let’s face it. But that’s what I’ve seen, though I’ve certainly not read every work of YA themed science fiction and fantasy produced in the recent past.

    1. (Nods) It can happen, but it needs to start with the girl inflicting some kind of disabling blow on the guy at the start of the fight–or establish a massive training differential. Either will work, but I’m not going to buy 130 pounds and five-foot-two beating 200 pounds and six-foot-three even if it’s two guys without one or t’other.

      1. I kind of enjoyed the scene in True Romance for this… James Gandolfini versus Patricia Arquette. It spends kind of a lot of time not going very well for Patricia Arquette, and you have it kind of stone cold obvious that it would have kept doing the same if a) he hadn’t been blatantly amused by the whole thing and not trying like he ought to have, and b) she weren’t going for every found object she could get her hands on.

        It’s been a while, so I might be missing some details, but it did a pretty good job at indicating that she wouldn’t be breathing if he weren’t being so incredibly sloppy about it.

      2. Yep. The girl needs to look weak, then hit hard, and then if she’s smart, run. Knees are recommended. And let’s face it. She needs a gun. Or a very large sidekick.

      3. I’ve been writing about a female fighter, and if she isn’t mean, viscious, and goes for the kill as fast as possible-she’s dead. Anything less requires you to cheat…badly.

    2. It’s not limited to YA. “Five-foot-two girl beats up the six-foot-three man” is a trope of TV cop shows. And it’s infected some otherwise excellent military sf.

      1. The only way I tend to accept that is if she’s

        1) actively using his momentum and force against him (judo, aikido, and it doesn’t and cannot apply to all circumstances)
        2) is an enhanced being somehow (magic, cyborg, mutant etc)

        Otherwise… firearms please.

        1. With a proper world set up it could be an indication that the female in question might not actually be human. Though it’s a harder set up with a modern reader.

        2. Magic works, too.

          I think it likely that a heroine in a Gamelit story will be told that without magic, she could not fight like a paladin.

          She will answer that if the sky fell, they could all catch larks.

        3. The standard go-to these days seems to be nanites. (No, stupid spell-check, not Canaanites…)

          Of course, if you know basic physics, you realize that the average nanite-enhanced male will still beat the tar out of the average nanite-enhanced female. The mechanics are different.

          On the other hand, I would like to see a story (it may be out there, feel free to drop me a recommendation) about the pioneer guy who picks berries that are an emetic, or makes a salad out of deadly nightshade, when the critters aren’t obliging enough to provide a meal. The average female has far better color, shape, and smell discrimination for things like that. That’s another thing that is probably not amenable to nanites – it’s in the processor, not the sensors.

    3. I’d chalk it up to a combination of lack of knowledge, wishcasting, and laziness.
      Between showing the Strong Female Character’s inner fortitude, and showing her beating someone up, the easy route is clear. And it’s an easy route that publishers actively encourage. (Can you imagine True Grit or The African Queen being published in this day and age? )

      I’ve reclaimed fallow land with hand tools before. I was stupid/ stubborn enough that I didn’t break down and rent the machinery to do efficiently until the second day.

    4. I blame Buffy for the “little woman beats up the giant man” trope becoming so common.

      Yes, we all know that the fights between Buffy and Spike are choreographed and not based on what the results of an actual fight between Sarah Michelle Geller and James Marsten would look like. Most of us know that, in universe, Buffy’s strength is the result of supernatural intervention and not simply martial arts training and cheerleading practice. But that doesn’t matter to the subconscious. We see this little blonde girl taking on men three times her size, sometimes four or five at a time, and the back brain thinks, “Ah, yes, that’s how it works.” And very few of us (thankfully) have the practical experience that tells us, “No, it’s not.”

      1. ALL movie fights are choreographed — some even credit the choreographer. Realism is not usually one of the goals of the choreographer. My personal favorites were the old, Republic B-pictures and serials. Ballet for the common man.

  2. Women can win fights when they stick a gun in the bad guy’s ear. Otherwise no. That’s the sad truth of the matter. Normal women will always lose to a determined male attacker. The exceptions will be those Olympic-level karateka girls competing in the heavyweight division. Of whom there are a few hundred in the whole frickin country.

    Which is why I’m writing women piloting Heinlein mobile infantry jump armor. My character Alice is the queen of armoured combat because of her ability to internalize the battle space. She -knows- where all the players are and where she needs to be for maximum effect. She’s not winning with her ham-like fists or her super ninja skillz.

    Alice is also very weird, she’s survived attacks by perves and serial killers since she was a kid. She’s got PTSD from being blown up by an IED in Afghanistan, she has flashbacks at times. Nobody goes through all that and comes out okay.

    The rest of them are robots who can bite pieces off the blade of a bulldozer. Their problem is not getting too excited and knocking some guy’s head off by accident.

  3. We forget the enormous difference antibiotics and even basic knowledge of the germ theory have made in life. You can eliminate typhoid fever by filtering water through several inches of sand. Cholera? Fold a piece of cotton cloth (the older the better) in half four times, six is better, and pour your water through it. Boil said water if possible (there’s a dang good reason for tea in the former British Empire) and you are a lot safer. Clean water + antibiotics mean that a cut finger or a bad tooth are not potential death sentences. First and second-world women rarely die of child-bed fever any more because people now wash their hands.

    More women living longer has a huge effect on culture.

    1. The neighbor’s cat bit me the other day (I’d assign 50/50 fault between me and the cat). I went to put some antibiotic stuff on it and found out I didn’t have any. Pouring rubbing alcohol over it seems to have done the trick (if any trick was needed – not _everything_ gets infected). I now have neosporin in my medicine cabinet and bug-out bag.

      1. Yes. Wine and beer were safe to drink. Stephen Ozment recounts a Nuremberg patrician fretting that his three year old son preferred milk to wine. In the father’s defense, this was the first of he and his wife’s eleven children to live past nine months of age.

  4. I’m reading some L’Amour and Ingalls Wilder right now… the break from my existing reference is a huge part of the appeal. So many things that I’d never think to think of, and… how these folks are dealing with it. (Grew up urban/suburban, and am still functioning as a townie even having moved more rural, so… you know, where things come from continues to be all but magical in the best ways.)

    I’ve heard folks complain, particularly about Wilder, about how the explaining everything is really boring, though, so I guess it’s not universal.

    1. Heck, explaining how stuff was done, and making it clear how much work was involved in maintaining any degree of comfortable life was 75% the charm of the Little House books!
      Seriously, the series could have been called “Pioneer Life for Dummies.”

  5. The tricky thing is remembering WHY certain traditions/behaviors/roles became the way they are and allowing the rules to relax when those conditions no longer apply. Most of the damage is caused by keeping rules in place that no longer serve a useful purpose (but did a long, LONG time ago.) E.g. a tribal tradition of women covering their faces when (rare) strangers came to visit. Back then, it reduced the amount of cute-wife-shopping raids. Now that ladies can carry very handy guns and protect themselves, plus higher population of cute and WILLING girls in a non-tribal and open society, not needed at all.

    The other trick is remembering the rules that still serve very important purposes and should NOT be changed. The fundamental reasons for those are often unknown as well.

  6. Have you read Dianna Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland? Her comments on horses are somewhat similar.

  7. There was a TV show that I thought sounded interesting. The scenario was that large numbers of colonists were able to be transported through time back to the Triassic or some such, several million years before the Chicxulub impact, and… and…

    … they refused to shoot dinosaurs.

    The last episode I ever watched, a dinosaur had eaten a settler and they TRANQ’ED it, cut it open and retrieved an ID with a beacon that proved the guy had been eaten, sewed the thing up again and let it go.

      1. I think the problem is even more basic than that.

        Suppose you had a hundred thousand people and even several population centers… I don’t think that people (or the writers anyway, the “concept” folks, or the environmentalists) have any notion of scale or how much of the entire world *remains* after the colonists have run all the large predators away from their settlements.

        I don’t think there is a conceptual space available for humans to be SMALL.

        1. That’s what bothers me about planetary invasions – assuming you want a habitable planet when you’re done. Can you imagine trying to invade Earth? Destroying the civilization is easy. Rendering the entire planet uninhabitable not much more difficult. Conquering it? Hah.

          BTW: WordPress no longer remembers me and most (but not all) comments are not appearing; presumably going into moderation. I guess I’ll bite the bullet and setup a WordPress account.

    1. The colonists are -good- people, and good people don’t shoot the poor helpless animals. Even after a friend of yours gets eaten.

      But it’s totally cool to shoot hunters. Uh huh, fer shur.

      1. Oh dear. Is that why my books don’t sell? I shoot dinosaurs. And my characters then eat them. Sometimes with a cooking contest. 😀

        1. Well, I don’t know. But I don’t think that the stupid TV show even made it through one season.

        2. I haven’t shot a dinosaur yet, but the girls did shoot a whole bunch of demons and a couple of aliens.

          And one of them nuked the giant flying squid I stole from H.P. Lovecraft. Ten milliseconds worth of two megatons per second output. After Alice shot him through the head and carved her initials in his hide with a plasma gun.

          Theft is the sincerest form of flattery. ~:D

  8. One of the 1632 books had a description of an army on the move. It was surprisingly glacial. On reflection it made sense. Most people were walking. The roads weren’t what we consider roads. Camp had to be made and torn down each day. Meals had to be cooked. Latrines had to be dug. Firewood had to be gathered.

    Speaking of walking, new phrase for me “cursorial hunters”. Better yet, Mr. Burkhead kindly supplied a definition after using it. Kaleka’s after-action description was brilliant.

    1. This was something I enjoyed being addressed in The Belgariad – the other kings getting upset at the king (of the setting’s breadbasket farmland kingdom) who was in charge of supply, setting up forts and such, for moving so slowly. His response was pretty much ‘if the wagons break down, we’ll be waiting even longer.’

      1. If I remember aright there was something about “You’ll be eating your boots.” as well

    2. 1632 except as Americans intervened, marching in time let alone in step did not exist. It had not yet been renivented. Fortunately roads were very wide, as carts tried to avoid potholes, so a French Army unit marched in a 12 man wide column, 4′ or so between men and 6′ between ranks. Every night the soldiers had to put up their wooden huts to sleep in. Every four days you had to stop so the bakers could build their stone ovens — the stones were hauled along – to bake bread for the next three days, this being how long you could go before the bread rotted. Read Nosworthy if you do not believe me

      1. Yep – I am reading a series of ACW memoirs – many of them to do with Mary Bickerdyke – who was basically the nursing service for the Union Army in the west. One of her innovations was hauling along bricks to make bread ovens, and the equipment to set up hospital laundries along the way … along with having the personnel to work those enterprises. (Mostly escaped slaves.)

      2. I believe you and shall endeavor to find Nosworthy to read anyway. I’ve got a setting or three to build. (Some of them are closer to ‘modern’ due to very prevalent magic, but some of them not so much and so require an understanding of what the prevalent but not always powerful magic would affect.)

        1. With magic it helps to know what the magic has to accomplish to get the job done. Waving a wand and saying “Make it so!” is boring.

            1. This is a thing I love about certain books. When the author solves a problem I didn’t know about, and it is so OBVIOUS that it needed solving that I slap my forehead, that’s the best thing ever.

              Larry Niven, in When the Magic Goes Away: “A knife always works.”

          1. And, there’s always the question of ‘when it really is magic smoke what happens when it gets out?’ (in one world of mine big booms when magic goes bad)

    3. The front end of the army started marching early, like barely dawn. The tail arrived in the new camp almost in the dark. Marlborough did this, making about 12 miles a day. The Romans also made 12 miles a day, but they fortified every evening, and tore down the fort in the morning. 12 miles a day, not more than six days in a row, is also what an ox can do.

      1. Nosworthy has iirc 3 books, one on the 17th century, one on the ACW, and one iirc on Fredrican/Napoleonic. The 17th century one is perhaps the most useful, because the actual march etc plans were very strange ot modern eyes.

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