Saturday, December 20, 2008

Can We Move To the Adventure Part?

Recently I've been reading John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor's Claws that Catch, and I've been feeling rather frustrated with it. Already I'm at the hundred-page point and we still haven't gotten into space. To me, it seems like there's way too much "housekeeping" stuff going on and it's getting in the way of moving on to the real story.

I'm also finding that I'm unsettled by one major character's bubbly new wife. Not so much that she's happy to be supporting her husband's career -- there really are some people who are happiest when facilitating someone else's success -- but that it is presented as though it were the only valid model for a married woman. We never see any examples of a dual-career couple or one in which the man supports his wife's career. Thus there seems to be an unspoken message that this is the way women ought to arrange their lives, rather than just what worked for one person.

When I consider some of the other books that John Ringo has written recently, it almost seems as though he thinks that we are soon going to be facing some kind of social upheaval that will lead us to fall back onto the traditional hierarchical family in which the adult male is the most important person and everyone else is expected to defer to him and work to support his success, even to the despite of themselves. To be true, there is a rationale behind this sort of arrangement -- the adult male body generates higher levels of testosterone, which translates into greater upper body strength. And frequently in belt-buckle-to-backbone situations that additional muscular strength can translate into an important survival edge for the entire group, which means that it is important to keep it at its peak.

However, it can be rough on the people inside those bodies, for the simple fact that we are individuals, not widgets stamped out in a factory all alike. As roles become increasingly rigid and prescriptive, people who do not fit neatly into them come under increasing pressure, often disproportionate to the actual need to have everyone fitting tightly into their assigned roles. The role becomes an end unto itself, rather than a means to the end.

In the long run, emergency arrangements have a nasty habit of surviving the emergency. For instance, long after the Great Depression was over, my grandmother continued to carefully save and reuse little squares of aluminum foil. The habit had become ingrained in those tight years, and even after she had adequate money, she continued to do so.

When we go from the scale of individual habits to that of social expectations, things can get even worse. Making a virtue of necessity often ends up with the virtue surviving long after the necessity has gone away. This is especially true if it should become enshrined in tradition and given moral force. For instance, the feudal privileges granted the nobility in Europe made sense in the chaotic century or two immediately after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire made sense, because it freed up their time and energy to protect the people who needed to spend all their time and energy producing the food that would keep everybody alive. But by the time society changed such that those arrangements were no longer necessary, they had become so customary that questioning them was met with intense hostility. To suggest that the nobility should pay taxes upon their wealth was seen as an affront, a diminishment of the dignity of their elevated standing in society. Thus many of these privileges survived well into the modern era, to the point that they were actually a drain upon society instead of helping to support it.

And quite honestly, there is in John Ringo's portrayals of gender relation a certain hint of the nobleman annoyed at those "uppity" commoners questioning traditional feudal privileges and duties.

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