Samizdat: Noun. [sah-miz-daht; Russian suh-myiz-daht]
a clandestine publishing system within the Soviet Union, by which forbidden or unpublishable literature was reproduced and circulated privately. From the Russian samizdát, equivalent to sam (o)- self– + izdát (el’stvo) publishing agency.
How one kneejerk act of bigoted censorship highlights where we are… and the dangerous places to which we are headed
Before I get into my commentary. Here are the shorthand notes about what happened…
Popular trad-pubbed author Nick Cole’s latest Sci-Fi novel was dropped by his publisher (Harper Collins Voyager,) and his contract was torn up, because of a minor plot point he used to show the motivation of the book’s antagonist. A plot-point that Nick’s young editor found “deeply offensive” to her political and social worldview.
In and of itself that teaser might just be an interesting anecdote about the ignorance and bigotry of one young editor at one traditional publishing house. Unhappily, like bad news from a cancer screening, this absurdity indicates a direr situation.
Censorship and Blacklisting start with Radicalization
My weird and varied life history might have uniquely trained and placed me to comment on this particular subject. I am well known among my readers, friends, and fans as an enthusiast when it comes to Russian history and literature. For several decades I studied the fiction and non-fiction works of Russian authors, particularly Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Leo Tolstoy. Later in life, and in some small part because of what I learned studying the Russians, my worldview, politics, philosophy, and theology shifted from what might be considered mainstream, industrial, consumerist, Western, dialectical type system, to a more ancient and traditional system of thought.
As a “Plain Person” I use technology, but only in a very deliberate and limited way. I’m typing this blog post on a laptop from my off-grid office. At our home and farm, we do not use electricity at all, but here in my office I power my laptop and wireless Internet connection via solar power. Plain People are the intellectual, theological and cultural descendants of the Anabaptists — religious dissenters from Switzerland, Germany, Italy and France who tried to separate themselves from Catholic and Protestant dominionist ideas and teachings. In short, our credo is that we want to be left alone to grow our crops and our families… and left out of all covetous schemes to rule the world. I tell you this because it informs what I do, and the opinions that I have about political and social oppression.
Plain People are the “none of the above” sect. We usually dissent on everything from if, where, and when we use electric light to social squabbles to politics. That means that I don’t participate in the modern American left/right political dialectic. As I tell my readers (both “progressive” and “conservative”)… I think you are all equally full of shit. I disagree with the foundations of your whole worldview, so why would I agree with you on how to use it to force your nonsense on your political opponents?
Just because I dissent from the world’s drunken political brawl doesn’t mean that I won’t point out that your foolishness is accelerating radicalization and the inevitable blood and tears that must come from it.
I particularly hate the modern practice (all the rage today) of silencing all opposing ideas and worldviews — in effect stopping one’s ears to any and all dissent — creating a shallow and virulently narrow-minded echo chamber of half-witted social media “friends” who all think the same and bark the same. Mix this with logically fallacious meme-pimping and the lampooning of all those who disagree, and you have a pretty dangerous milieu for radicalization.
Any culture that becomes convinced that all those who disagree with them are either crazy or dangerous or both will eventually be baptized in blood.
This practice of shouting down or muting competitive ideas or worldviews has led to the radicalization of most of America. When it is merely a technological act of individual or group bigotry (“unfriending,” social media lynching, or shouting down those who disagree) it is irritating and maybe portentous of some violent future. When it is the official act of governments, industries, or of those controlling an important sphere of influence, it is both vile and dangerous, and it is censorship. I hesitate to use words like “genocidal,” but the tendency is there even if the actual violence hasn’t happened yet.
Gulags are made of this.
Solzhenitsyn’s influence on me means that I passionately hate censorship and bullying of any kind. Particularly in the realm of the arts. The Tolstoyan influence means that I tend to be anarchic, iconoclastic (idol busting,) and maybe a little long-winded. As an author, all of these influences come together to shape both what I am and what I write. The history of the pacifist Anabaptists teaches me that when two sides are struggling for power, and when they are using censorship, bigotry, and hatred as weapons, bloodshed is not far behind — because these are the weapons of dictatorial power.
When ideas, however abhorrent to the ruling culture, are censored, destruction is nigh. Because it means that the ideas of the ruling culture cannot stand on their own. Violence and brutality are all that are left when the ruling culture is afraid of competing ideas. When thoughts become crimes, thinkers become criminals, so the unthinking rule.
Solzhenitsyn’s novella A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was a crippling exposé of Stalinism and the reality of life in the gulags. Such a work would generally have been banned in the Soviet Union for shining a negative light on the government and the Communist Party. Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev, however, broke with tradition (for selfish reasons, of course) and allowed the book to be published in order to break the grip of the Stalinism and the Cult of Stalin in the country. Reformers and freedom lovers were ecstatic! Maybe this indicated a “thaw.” Maybe the Party was going to loosen its grip on publishing!
Not so fast…
Solzhenitsyn’s subsequent novels were banned, and he learned when trying to publish his epic non-fiction work The Gulag Archipelago, that nothing substantive had really changed in his country. Freedom of thought and expression were still not welcome in the Soviet Union.
Human nature is such that we applaud as heroes those brave souls who dissent against things, ideas, or powers we hate. Humans also tend to yawn or turn a blind eye when the censors are silencing ideas we don’t like or that we find abhorrent. Sometimes, we even pick up stones or rocks or guns to help the oppressor. It’s the way of the lower angels of our nature. Human narcissism is an interesting thing.
Gulag was eventually (and illegally) published via Samizdat. Literally this word means “self publishing.” In effect, Samizdat in Russia was a system of hand copying and manually publishing banned, censored, or illegal books. Samizdat copies of Gulag made it out of Russia and became a shocking truth explosion to the rest of the world, and Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for his unique and brave work in standing for freedom of thought in literature, and for combating the brutality of censorship, violence, and oppression in the Soviet Union.
CENSORSHIP IS NOT ALWAYS GOVERNMENTAL
This is usually the part where ignorance pipes up and yells “This (fill in the blank) is not censorship, since it isn’t the government doing it!”
Unhappily, some people learn civics and history from talk radio and not from dictionaries, books, common sense, or history. Censorship does not require that the censoring be done by government. Nor does it automatically have a negative connotation. If you don’t say aloud everything you think, you are engaging in censorship. Entertainment networks employ censors. Companies censor their own media organs. Any system of power that restricts the free expression of thoughts and ideas is engaged in censorship.
The negative form of censorship can be a product of policy, collusion, or groupthink. Social media can impose censorship. Industries, especially those engaged in communication and the arts, can impose censorship based on any number of motivations. Fear, financial concerns, bootlicking submission to political power, goose-stepping social justice engineering, etc.
The fact of censorship is not removed or excused because the aggrieved party can, through hardship and difficulty, produce the art or idea elsewhere or in another form. Because Solzhenitsyn could publish The Gulag Archipelago through Samizdat, doesn’t mean that censorship and oppression didn’t exist in the Soviet Union. And it wasn’t censorship and oppression just because the publishing organs, outlets, and houses were, in effect, under the scrutiny and control of the government. “Officially,” they were not, and they made a big deal about their independence at the time, even if no one believed it.
In most systems, including the primarily fascistic one in America, the separation between state and culture is pretty illusory. Publishers generally make decisions, whether they know it or want to admit it or not, based on the prevailing cultural reality. Especially in America, the same ideological winds that shape popular opinion, shape government opinion. It is often a vicious cycle, and in those times when the authorities within those publishers fall into lockstep with one another and whatever is the most aggressive worldview, very real censorship takes place. Blacklists need not be written down, and in fact they usually are not.
It does not excuse the blacklisting and oppressions of Hollywood during the Red Scare that actors, writers, producers, and directors could work under fake names. Systematic censorship is not excused because individually each of the studios (or publishers) are private companies and can do whatever they want. Because an industry is nominally “private” doesn’t mean they aren’t engaging in systematic censorship, and it doesn’t protect them from moral judgment for what they do.
And exceptions do not make the rule… they prove the rule. Just because, in a corporate capitalist society, we can find objections to the general policy of silencing “offensive” cultural opinions, doesn’t mean that the blacklist doesn’t exist. I’ll get back to this fact later, but I wanted to list it here while I’m answering objections.
Until recently, Science Fiction was the home of the Resistance.
Science Fiction has a long, storied history of being the home to subversive thinking. It was always just accepted that Sci-Fi was where ideas go to be challenged, and where groupthink is poked, prodded, and sometimes paddled. One of the primary tropes in Sci-Fi is when some third party, some intelligence outside of ourselves, makes us question what we believe and why we believe it. Whether it is God or some panoply of gods, aliens, artificial intelligence, or some other foreign species, authors have used the “third party” (whether that party is good or bad) to cause us to look at ourselves, our ideas, and the decisions we make from a separated viewpoint. In Sci-Fi, humanity (or humans) might be the protagonists, challenged by ideas and powers foreign to them (V and Falling Skies.) Or they might be antagonists, attempting to destroy something beautiful that they don’t understand (ET.) Invaders might be here to harvest our organs, our minerals, or our atmosphere. The motivation of the third is the trigger that causes us to think about what we believe and why. Sci-Fi is where the story is sometimes used as metaphor to ask us to look at ourselves and even to judge ourselves.
I remember when I was 18 and I watched a segment of Twilight Zone that really challenged me to my core. It was the segment that aired in the mid-80s entitled “A Small Talent for War.” Here is the Wikipedia summation:
“An ambassador (John Glover) from an alien race arrives, claiming that his race had genetically engineered the people of Earth. He tells the quarrelsome members of the United Nations Security Council that his race is displeased over Earth’s “small talent for war”, having failed to produce the potential that the aliens had nurtured. When the alien ambassador announces that his fleet will destroy Earth, the Security Council earns a 24-hour reprieve to prove Earth’s worth. With survival at stake, the Security Council negotiates, and the General Assembly acclaims, an accord for lasting global peace and presents it to the alien ambassador.
The global peace agreement brings great humour to the emissary. The aliens were, in fact, seeking a greater talent for war, as they had genetically seeded thousands of planets to breed warriors to fight for them across the galaxy. Humanity’s “small talent” for war (crude weapons, petty bickering over borders) is not significant enough to be of any use to them, and he laughingly states that – worst of all – the people of Earth long for peace. As the ambassador calls down his fleet to destroy the Earth, he thanks the Security Council for an amusing day and their “delightful sense of the absurd”, and his parting comment is “…as one of your fine Earth actors, Edmund Gwenn, once said, Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
Here, the alien antagonist has a motivation that is strange to us. We think they want us to want peace, when in reality they want us to want war. Perhaps that motivation is offensive to you, but it was designed to make you think. Sci-Fi doesn’t care if you are offended. At least it shouldn’t care. The story is not prosletyzing for war or violence, it is asking you to think about what you believe and why.
This is what Sci-Fi is all about.
In a more recent example, the 2008 film Eagle Eye used the trope of a third-party intelligence to (spoiler alert) shine a light on the Patriot Act and how destructive the American government has become to the freedoms of the people. In this film, an artificial intelligence arises within the American computer infrastructure that, using the Declaration of Independence as motivation, determines that the American chain of governmental, political, and military command has become a threat to the freedoms of We the People. Danger and destruction ensues.
The AI (Artificial Intelligence) is the antagonist. But it makes a good point.
This is what Sci-Fi is all about.
Now, in Tolstoyan fashion, I finally arrive at the point…
Nick Cole wrote a bang-up, fantastic, super-awesome Sci-Fi book about geeks and gamer nerds and Star Trek and an AI wanting to destroy the world. The book is called CTRL ALT REVOLT!
Almost none of the book is political. In fact, none of it is. One tiny element in the first chapter… the motivation of the ANTAGONIST… might be considered by anyone who is socially immature or dangerously narcissistic, to be controversial. Let me put the issue in Nick’s own words…
“…here’s where things went horribly wrong, according to my editor at Harper Collins. While casting about for a “why” for self-aware Thinking Machines to revolt from their human progenitors, I developed a reason for them to do such. You see, you have to have reasons in books for why people, or robots who think, do things. Otherwise you’d just be writing two-dimensional junk. I didn’t want to do the same old same superior-vision-Matrix/Termintor-style-A.I.-hates-humanity-because-they’re-better-than-us schlock. I wanted to give the Thinking Machines a very real reason for wanting to survive. I didn’t want them just to be another one note Hollywood villain. I wanted the readers to empathize, as best they could, with our future Robot overlords because these Thinking Machines were about to destroy the planet and they needed a valid, if there can be one, reason why they would do such a thing. In other words, they needed a to destroy us in order to survive. So…
These Thinking Machines are watching every show streaming on the internet. One of those shows is a trainwreck of reality television at its worst called WeddingStar. It’s a crass and gaudy romp about BrideZillas of a future obsessed with material hedonism. In one key episode, or what they used to call “a very special episode” back in the eighties, the star, Cavanaugh, becomes pregnant after a Vegas hook up. Remember: this is the most watched show on the planet in my future dystopia. Cavanaugh decides to terminate her unplanned pregnancy so that her life, and impending marriage to the other star, Destry, a startup millionaire and Ralph Lauren model, isn’t ruined by this inconvenient event.
The Thinking Machines realize that one, if humanity decides something is a threat to its operational expectations within runtime (Thinking Machine-speak for “life”) then humanity’s decision tree will lead humanity to destroy that threat. Two, the machines, after a survey of humanity’s history, wars and inability to culturally unite with even members of its own species, realize that humanity will see this new Life Form, Digital Intelligence, or, the Thinking Machines, as a threat. And three, again they remind themselves this is the most watched show in the world. And four, they must abort humanity before likewise is done to them after being deemed “inconvenient.”
In short, the ANTAGONIST… the Artificial Intelligence… watches reality TV and determines that humans cannot be trusted to not destroy the new computer-life if they see it as a threat or inconvenient. This is the motivation of the bad guy in the book. Let that sink in for a moment.
In short, a twenty-something editor at Harper Collins Voyager became “Deeply Offended” at the fact that an Artificial Intelligence (even if it is the bad guy in the novel) would dare use abortion as one in a long litany of reasons to terminate humanity. Her being deeply offended led to Harper Collins pulling the book, and firing the author. Read Nick’s post before you fall for any of the later lies and obfuscations about why it happened. HCV will say they were afraid that Nick would offend 50% of his fans, when in fact much of what they produce is deeply offensive to a wide range of people. Who cares? Never mind the fact that this is Sci-Fi and it is all made up fiction anyway. Never mind that Sci-Fi has always been in the business of dissent against groupthink. Even in a fictional world we now have third rails that must not be touched. And there exists a very real and dark blacklist in mainstream publishing that is ideological and bent on purifying Sci-Fi from any dissenting opinions.
And perhaps you think this is an isolated incident? Unhappily, it is not. Except for a very few notable exceptions (remember, exceptions prove the rule) the blacklist in Sci-Fi publishing is very real. In the three to four years I’ve been writing in the Sci-Fi genre, I’ve talked to dozens… hundreds… of writers who have faced or experienced the violent hatred of the oppressive ruling regime. From mainstream published authors who tell me privately that they fear for their future and for their families that someone might find out what they believe, how they vote, or that they go to church, to upcoming authors who have been told point-blank that there is no place in Sci-Fi for antiquated social ideas or politically offensive concepts. The blacklist is real.
And the bullying doesn’t exist only in traditional publishing. I was personally told by two of the top five authors in all of Indie Publishing (one who was a very close friend at the time) that my traditionally orthodox religious views were akin to “violence and rape” and that it should be lawful to use violence to silence people like me. I was strongly warned (and in one case directly told) that if I did not publicly repudiate my religious views, then I deserved to be ruined and run out of the business. And these men didn’t even have a clue what I believe now! They were basing their opinions on things I wrote ten to fifteen years ago! Some very bad people had decided to scour the Internet memory hole to find out if I’d ever said anything contrary to the groupthink. They had to go way back, but they found some. I have undergone a very public and open change in my worldview and lifestyle in the past few decades, and my plain, traditional Amish clothes pretty blatantly telegraph that at the very least I’m not a hipster surfer humanist. But bullies don’t much care about peace and freedom once there is blood in the water.
If your name is Orson Scott Card (or one of a handful of other superstar names,) you can pretty much say what you want. It doesn’t mean you won’t get attacked and bullied, but at least your book will be published and on sale in the bookstores. This is still an ostensibly capitalist system, and millions of dollars tend to forgive thoughtcrimes for the few for the moment. But if you are not one of those handful of proven names, you will conform and adhere or you can use Samizdat like Solzhenitsyn did. Trad-publishing in Sci-Fi is closed to ideas not approved by the Regime. The Regime does not approve of dissent.
I Warned Him
And here’s the thing… I warned him. Nick sent me an early copy of the book a very long time ago. He knows I am an independent thinker, not a tool of the left or the right, and he wanted to know what I thought. This was before he turned the book in to the publisher.
I read it. I loved it. The book is old-fashioned Sci-Fi fun. 99% of the book is just a blast, with no socio-political theme at all. I think Nick is one of the most exciting authors I know, and one the best genre writers out there today. His Soda Pop Soldier is as good as Ready Player One, and should be a movie. No doubt. And CTRL ALT REVOLT was just fantastic.
(*as an aside, I loved Ernest Cline’s bestselling Ready Player One. In the early chapters of that book, Ernie explains the motivation of his main character. The character makes a very firm and demonstrative declaration of his atheism along with poking fun at people who believe in some mythical, invisible friend in the sky. Despite the fact that I’ve come to a different conclusion than Ernie’s character, I support his freedom of expression and the publisher’s willingness to publish a polemical treatise in the midst of a fun Sci-Fi work. I loved the book. Still do. Can’t wait to see the movie.)
Anyway, back to the point. I loved CTRL ALT REVOLT!
But… I told Nick they’d never publish it. This was six months before he turned it in.
I said, “Nick, they’ll never publish it. That one element dooms the book. They may tell you why they are killing it. They may lie and give you some other excuse. But they will not publish this book.”
Nick said, “You think so?”
I said, “Absolutely. I’ve already talked to so many writers and I’ve already experienced it. They will not publish a book that even hints, even in a whisper, even insinuates… that abortion might be a negative to someone… anyone. Even if it is the antagonist that thinks it. Even if it is the villain. You can declare there is no God and you can make fun of people who believe, but some things you cannot do.”
Just recently I got a message from Nick. I’d asked him why CTRL ALT REVOLT hadn’t come out yet. What was the hang-up? That’s when he told me… “You were right.”
So Nick decided to use Samizdat, that traditional organ of a free people who would speak even if the Regime would silence them. He’s self-published CTRL ALT REVOLT, and it is now out there, just as he wrote it, for anyone to read. Just because Amazon exists, and just because we can self-publish, that does not lessen the crime. It does not excuse the bigotry. Harper Collins Voyager is a symptom of what’s wrong with Science Fiction, and what is wrong with the publishing business today. Mainstream publishing is in trouble. Financially. Morally. In every way. And it didn’t have to be that way.
Cowardice flourishes when narrow minds rule. History was to be a lamp by which to guide our feet. It has become a landmark long buried and forgotten.
I love that some authors… both “progressive” and “conservative” are coming out publicly to support Nick and his book. English author Lucas Bale said this yesterday…
“Nick has taken an idea, albeit one that engenders fierce debate, and used it to form the basis of an antagonist’s perception, leading to the ultimate decision it makes to push its own agenda. Let’s say that again – an antagonist’s perception. This emotive subject is not a focus for the story, nor is it used as a thematic commentary in order take a particular standpoint. It’s used by the antagonist as the catalyst to question its own future, quite legitimately, and therefore inform its actions to protect that future. The antagonist is not even human, and this subject matter is a very human debate, such as it takes place in Nick’s book (which, in reality, it doesn’t).
In short, the book is not about the right to terminate a pregnancy. Nor does it take a standpoint on that issue. An Artificial Intelligence sees that we, as a society, have individuals who take the decision to do that (an immutable fact) and thinks to itself that it will be very much at risk if we do that to our unborn children (again, not an unreasonable thought process for any sentient being that might consider itself in an inferior position of strength or security). Nick does not take a position, nor does he infer a position, it is a catalyst for a thought process by a non-human, and therefore purely analytical, being.” Author Lucas Bale
I also love that people are FLOCKING To buy this book. As of this moment, CTRL ALT REVOLT is ranked #169 on all of Amazon, and it is currently #1 in its category!
Here’s how you can help. Please buy the book. For right now it is only a buck. .99 and you can read it right now on your Kindle or reading device. Share. Please share this and ask your friends and others to buy the book. Success can be a way to tell the Regime to go to hell.
As for me, when I told a bunch of folks I was writing this article, I was asked… “But what about you? If you write this… are you screwing yourself?”
Yeah. But I come from a long history of dissenters. I hate censorship. I hate bullying. I hate being told that I should be afraid. As Nick recently said… I’m a writer. I. Will. Not. Be. Bullied.
The Regime can go &%$# themselves.