...and A

>> Friday, July 18, 2008

I wasn't sure if anyone would ask anything--little did I realize what I was setting myself up for! Alright, let's see what we have so far....

Some posit that within genre fiction fantasy describes change as a result of internal forces, whereas scifi describes change as a result of external forces.

What think you?

That's a new one on me, and I'm not wholly sure I understand the premise. I think the postulate, if I understand it, is that fantasy has a strong tradition of dealing with an internal arc, "the hero's journey," while science fiction has more of a tendency to deal with reactions to technological (or sometimes social) changes, often with simplified characters (e.g. the two-dimensional characters in most Asimov stories are less important to the narrative than the consequences of having mass-produced robot slaves or the mechanical physics of a billiard ball in zero-g).

The knee-jerk reaction I have is to think the postulate is a distinction looking for a difference. That may be because much of the science-fiction I prefer reading tends to be a bit fuzzier on the hard-science side and more concerned with internal journeys--my favorite SF writers include people like Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison, who really couldn't care less why a robot works or how time-travel might operate. But I think my automatic reaction isn't really that interesting.

Here's why: there are two examples that leap to mind as far as challenging the premise that fantasy is about change through internals and science fiction about change through externals.

In the first case, take Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book that, in my opinion, is hands-down the finest fantasy novel published since The Lord Of The Rings. Strange describes a world that is in flux--the 18th century is ending and new worlds are emerging; while Jonathan Strange is essentially the novel's protagonist, much of the book's plot in fact pivots around how the 18th-century traditionalist, Mr. Norrell, deals with a new world defined on the one side by Bonaparte in Europe and the ebb-and-flow of the Faerie kingdoms on the other. You can frame Strange as a "classic" fantasy by focusing on Jonathan Strange, but that's not actually what the novel is about.

In the second case (we'll come back to Strange in a moment), take Frank Herbert's Dune: Dune has its external forces, to be sure, but the central narrative of the novel is Paul Atreides's coming-of-age. In fact, the "sciencey" elements of Dune are almost incidental--there's some PoliSci and psychology and ecology, but Dune isn't a "hard" science fiction novel at all.

Now here's the interesting thing, I think: superficially, it's probably enough to say that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Dune rebut the postulated "internal"/"external" distinction. But is that right? A more interesting question might be whether the books are what we think they are in the first place--that is, is Strange a fantasy novel and is Dune really science fiction?

I think you can say they're not. Bear with me for a moment.

What is Strange about, when you strip away the elves and magic? Two men with access to a powerful, world-changing force at their fingertips try to come to terms with two alien invasions--the war with the French and the incursions of the faerie king of "Lost-Hope." The characters debate over how a technology--"English magic"--should be used, whether it should be used, whether it should be suppressed and controlled by an elite or made available to the wider public. And what is Dune if it's not a classic hero's quest in the epic-fantasy vein? The prince (well, ducal heir) is exiled from his kingdom and must use guile, magic (Bene Gesserit teachings) and an army of wild men to restore himself to the throne. Ultimately, Dune arguably has far more in common with, say, Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer than it does with Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

Framed that way, Strange is science fiction and Dune is fantasy, which seems intuitively wrong when you go back to their trappings--faeries and magic in the former and spaceships and atomic weapons in the latter. All of which may ultimately say more about how contingent labels are than it does about real distinctions between forms of speculative or fantastic fiction.

It's interesting. I hope I gave the question an answer it deserved. Thank you.

What do I do about the fact that the new "manager" who was placed between my boss and and my bosses old boss (who is now a bigger boss) is a complete jackass who is making both our lives completely and totally miserable?

Oh my.

I have two answers, and neither is probably helpful. The first answer is to look for a new job with happier coworkers, and the second is to lash yourself to the wheel and grit your teeth.

I actually have to give this lecture sort of often to kids I represent (not comparing you to a juvenile delinquent, just that it's something I've had to ponder and discuss before): that one of the tough things in life is that you often have to deal with people you don't respect or like, but to get through it you sometimes have to grin and bear it--and fake it. In the kids' cases, it might be a teacher or a caseworker; in adult situations, a boss or a co-worker. In your case, the new manager.

You have my sympathy, in any case. It's a tough situation to deal with.

Eric, why did you want to be an attorney? And why criminal defense?

Originally, I didn't.

The original scenario was that I was in college, majoring in History with a minor in Asian Studies, with a strong interest in diplomacy and foreign relations. And the plan was that when I graduated, I'd take the Foreign Service Exam and try to get a job at the State Department. So I looked at the application for the FSE....

Have you ever looked at the application for the FSE?

At the risk of sounding conceited, I consider myself a reasonably smart guy. And reasonably well-educated even aside from the BA and JD.

But the sample questions on the Foreign Service Exam?


Those are some hard-ass questions.

So, a new plan emerged: go to law school for three years, become smarter (and acquire another piece of paper to wave around), and then take the exam and go work for State. Except, of course, that's not what happened.

What happened was I was lucky enough to get into the one law school I could afford to attend--in fact, my situation was such that I only applied to one school (yes, I know how insane that sounds) because if I had applied to others it wouldn't have mattered if they'd accepted me.

(As it turns out, after you take the LSAT all sorts of semi-accredited and backwater schools will send you desperate pleas for your attendance--so, technically, I probably could have applied to another law school and been accepted; but not to one I would have actually wanted to attend. I mean, it would have sort of defeated my whole purpose if the paper I'd ended up with said, "Sam's College Of Law-Talking Guys, Poughkeepsie.")

So I went to UNC for law school, a top 25-school where three years of law school cost about as much as one year at Duke, say. And while I was there, I discovered three things:

1) I was pretty bad at the kinds of things that might be useful in the foreign service;

2) I was pretty good at criminal law;

3) Worse yet, I liked criminal law.

Take Contracts, for instance--Contracts and I had an understanding: I didn't like it and it didn't like me. My second semester of Contracts, I got a 1.6 as a final grade, and was informed by someone else that my grade was impossible because under the first-year curve a 1.7 was the lowest grade possible.

I can laugh and point about it because I got a perfect 4.0 in first year Crim Law, and never had anything lower than a 3.-something in any crim-related course for the rest of my career there. I understood the fuzziness, I got my back up over the issues. I don't know why, exactly--it wasn't anything expected. An uncle who went to law school as a midlife career reboot a few years before I went said that the thing about law school was being surprised by the discovery that what you were interested in was never what you thought it would be.

Matter of fact, criminal law was on the list of things I'd never do, along with divorce law (still on the list), and I reassured a lot of people before I went to law school that I wasn't going to be a lawyer, I was just taking some time before the FSE.

Yeah. Funny, that, now that I remember it thirteen years later....

Once I realized, by the end of my 1L year, that Criminal Law was what I was good at and was what I got excited about, there was only one career choice: I still can't imagine the idea of prosecuting anyone, and there's that whole social-worker instinct that often comes with knee-jerk liberalism. I wasn't going to work for a District Attorney's office, I wasn't going into private practice if I could help it. When I got back my bar results, I send letters to every State Public Defender's office in North Carolina.

And there it is.

Right! I think that answers--or attempts to answer--the questions I've received so far. Thanks, everyone, for playing along and humoring me (and giving me something to ramble on about!), and if anyone has any more questions in the next day or so, post 'em in the "Q" thread and I'll edit this post or add an A (pt. 2) post tomorrow! Meanwhile, I hope everyone else is having something like the nice weather we seem to be having today!


Random Michelle K Friday, July 18, 2008 at 11:59:00 PM EDT  


I know that's a possibility. There is an inherent problem, however, in that I have developed a rather unique skill set at this job, and I have not the slightest clue what types or kinds of jobs I should apply for.

I write, teach, and support software, but I don't have a degree beyond my bachelor's, and I don't have a teaching certification. So anything I'd be really good at? I'm not qualified to do.

Eric Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 12:49:00 AM EDT  

You mentioned, in response to Nathan I think, that it was a complicated situation; so, when I ask if it's really that bad, it's not a flippant question, or it's not meant to be. I was in a situation for a number of years where my boss was insufferable and I was actively seeking another job; I ended up staying with it, some unrelated things changed in the environment, and the boss who was insufferable ultimately ended up being one of the cooler people I've ever worked for.

I can't say that will happen in your situation or that it's even possible. But I would submit at least the possibility that if you weather the storm it might get better. That's particularly true when you're talking about a new manager--he may need time to adjust to the position, or to establish himself, or to feel secure with what he's doing, or to get used to the team.

If it ultimately proves impossible, don't sell yourself short or let yourself get too desperate. I know of at least two people right off the top of my head who took midlife course corrections and picked up entirely new skill sets unrelated to what they'd been doing and ended up happy for it. One of them, who I don't mind mentioning because I already happened to in the post, was the uncle who ended up going to law school in the middle of his life and is now happily (so far as I know) pursuing a private practice in a small town.

And that's still an extreme situation: obviously, I don't know you well enough to know everything you can do, Michelle, but your comment mentions skills--writing, teaching and supporting software--that seem like they ought to be transferable to all sorts of companies, entities, careers, etc.

I guess the whole point is not to despair. You're a smart, educated, experienced woman who (hopefully, unless there's something you haven't told us) has time to see if her boss chills or who has the ability to reboot her career if he doesn't.

I hope things get better, and my thoughts are with you.

Random Michelle K Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 1:13:00 AM EDT  

Well, long story short, we had a restructuring, and my group was shifted under another manger who has a horrible reputation.

This is someone who fired an employee for not turning in a request for leave correctly.

I am waiting to see if things calm down. And before I start job hunting I will go to the big boss and tell her what is happening and that I am unhappy enough to leave, and we'll see what she says then.

The problem is that I've never had two jobs in a row that were related in any way shape or form, excluding food service. In college I worked at the forestry department, then I worked in a microbiology lab, and now I do software support--Michael and I are both having a hard time even trying to guess what kind of jobs I would apply for if things get that far.

That doesn't mean I don't have skills--I have lots of skills. It's just that people want specialists not generalists.

My current job is perfect for my skill set, which is what makes things so difficult.

Anyway, I'm all whiny and tired and it's past my bedtime. Best to go now before I wear out my welcome. :)

Eric Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 8:29:00 AM EDT  

I don't think there's any chance of you wearing out your welcome.

Good luck!

Tania Tuesday, July 22, 2008 at 2:21:00 PM EDT  

Finally getting back to you.

Fabulous answer on the SF vs F question. It's one I find intellectually interesting, but not especially useful outside of lit crit discussions.

I think you should have taken the FSE. I passed it, and went to the in person interviews. I was only 21, and boy did it show. The good thing is, you get feedback on how you did. Sometimes, I think about trying out again.

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