Monday, August 22, 2011
Reality Skimming continues 4-installment interview with Arinn Dembo on the topic of "Ethics in SF".

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Arinn Dembo

Q: In your novel, you introduce the military protagonist in a scene where he demonstrates compassion toward a disadvantaged child, but still incurs hostility from the pacifists raising the orphan. Later, he addresses military graduates on the need to think like their alien enemies. Can you discuss his ethics with respect to warfare?

Cai Rui is an intelligence officer, rather than a common soldier. As such, his job is to provide the high command with the information they need to avoid war…or, failing that, to win a war as quickly and painlessly as possible. Unlike the pacifists who confront him in the chapel, Cai Rui cannot afford to be a moral absolutist. He sees his species encircled by alien superpowers, any one of which is easily capable of wiping out the Human race. Humanity has presently achieved a chilly détente and signed an Armistice with three other major powers; no one is shooting at anyone right now. Ideally Cai Rui would like to keep it that way, but he doesn’t believe that being unable to defend yourself is the best way to avoid conflict. Instead, he chooses to have faith in the empire, and to throw himself into his work. He tells himself that if he can provide his Director with timely and pertinent information, it could save the lives of millions or billions of sentients.

His message to the graduating recruits who will be entering the intelligence service is a simple one: “know thy enemy”. What he’s trying to tell them is that empathy is a necessary job skill. If these men and women do not learn to understand their galactic neighbors, war is inevitable. The Human race has already stumbled headlong into conflict in the recent past, armed with deadly technology and equally deadly ignorance. Cai Rui believes that humankind needs better information.

Q. Tell us how your anthropology background helps in your creative work. (note: an example would be good).

My fascination with all things human is central to my life as a whole, including my writing. Anthropology is a paradoxical science—it identifies the universal by celebrating millions of unique cases. My immersion in science has made me see that even my very early work was often about culture contact, the primal encounter with the Other. I’m interested in that liminal zone between Us and Them, and what happens there: war, Creolization, colonization, “going native”, you name it. My most popular story is probably “Monsoon”, which is set in India. My first published story, “Sisterhood of the Skin”, posits the first contact between humankind and a bizarre alien species. Obviously I’ve continued to work extensively with aliens in the Sword of the Stars series as well. When I create an alien species for the Sword universe, I sort through my knowledge of anthropology and pick ethnographic and historical models to work from.

My love of archaeology also inspires a lot of my fiction. “ICHTHYS”, which I published a few years back in H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, emerged from my study of the Roman catacombs and the Primitive Church--subjects which have occupied a good many years of thought and research for me. “Imperial Ghosts” is a science fiction story inspired by the Roman art of portrait sculpture, in particular the portraits of the emperor Tiberius. Humans in the Sword universe occasionally speak Latin as well as English and Chinese, and one of the dominant AI characters in the universe is named Cicero.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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I struggle with the ethics of war in my own life. I practice karate, and many of my fellow martial artists embrace the "warrior" mindset. As a borderline pacifist, I have trouble finding a definition of "warrior" that I'm comfortable embracing. Lynda, your character has an admirable take on the subject.
At least in the days when it was two armies one against the other in the battlefield there could be carnage but it was WARRIOR carnage, inflicted upon those who were out in the field fighting the actual battle. "Modern" warfare with its somewhat cavalier attitude to civillians who get in the way ("collateral damage", anyone?) is... something else again. I do not think that I can think of a reason to justify a war in which the primary motivation is to PROTECT the warrior from harm (and screw everyone else, if they were in harm's way that isn't the warrior's problem any more). But as usual there are so many shades of gray here that the black and white of it get subsumed in it all...
@Faith: Which of Lynda's characters were you referring to?

@anghara: Judging by the archaeological evidence I've seen, even very ancient war was always fought by men and women who put themselves between their civilians and harm. When warriors fail, civilians die horribly--and they always have. Every victory on an ancient battlefield was following by the firing of villages, butchery of non-combatants, and taking of slaves. Don't idealize the past too much. It's very easy to find the bones of children who were killed by weapons of stone, bronze and iron, long before the modern age and its modern evils.
@Faith: wondering if you are thinking about Horth in Righteous Anger?

Re: warfare now and then. I used to love the idea of knights. King Arthur's round table and all that. Then I started reading about the knight in history and found he was all too often a king-empowered thug. Which is not to deny that warriors also defended their walls - Hector at Troy. But the orignal nobles ran a protection scheme: serve me and I'll protect you from the even worse SOBs out there. Doesn't stop me from creating a 'kinight' of sorts, in Horth; or aristos I can admire, like the "King Arthur" echo in Ameron. Although Ameron has something of the cagey and sometimes ruthless politician about him, also.
Thanks Faith. I used to be more of a pacifist when I was younger. Life's taught me you have to fight for things sometimes. But like all important questions of ethics, drawing the lines isn't easy. My heroes are also less prone to jumping in at extreme personal risk to help random strangers, as well. But they wouldn't be heroes if they didn't take some risks in a good cause.
Huh, Arinn, have you ever read Orson Scott Card's Ender franchise? Various characters develop the whole issue of empathy as a necessary or even primary skill for optimal waging of war in several of the books (Shadows in Flight, one of the most recent ones, develops a particularly important aspect of the idea, I think), and I think you might find his take on the issue interesting, not to mention that the stories/characters/setting/ issues in that series are, to my mind, interesting and decently done. Unfortunately, the author is a beyond-raving conservative on sexuality and gender roles (and, no that I think about it, that does come out explicitly here and there in his writing and implicitly throughout), so that causes problems. Obviously, one may want to avoid his prose as a matter of taste. Also, unless a library that you can access already obtained the books, the whole issue of "voting with your dollars" is somewhat troubling.
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