Cathy McGuire's "Root and Branch" discussion


your story, Root & Branch, is generating a lot of discussion over on JMG's new dreamwidth page. Not sure if you are following it. We were wondering if you meant it as a dystopian, Scarlett Letter type story, or if it was genuinely your idea of utopia? If so, I remember you commenting on here about politics that you generally only discuss with like minds, so I'm wondering if an echo chamber effect might be at work, that you don't realize how dystopian or unworkable some of your ideas seem to those who don't share your outlook? Maybe you could join the discussion over on Dreamwidth to shed light on what you meant? It looks quite possible that JMG will do a counterpoint rejoinder called Twisted Branch.

Thanks for letting me know...

No, it never occurs to me that people might be discussing my stories... so thanks for the heads up. I'll head on over and check it out, and I'll also post here. I don't consider my work dystopian... just a reflection of the low-energy, low-tech living we will eventually encounter. More after I read the comments over there.

So I just got back from the discussion over there... at first I was non-plussed... a lot of the interactions were taken from cohousing and community settings I've been around, plus the already prevalent conflict resolution processes. I found the strong counter-reaction a bit surprising, (and my answer to the comments is below - until JMG clears it, you can have an advanced reading here) and then realized how much freedom is considered essential to this society.

And additional thought: It maybe that Americans can't step outside to see how cultures view indivduality, and I understand that many Americans wouldn't like this set up (and therefore most Americans don't live in cohousing or communes). I actually consider the setting to be a mostly pleasant one, where people have learned how to control their own inner demons [full disclosure - I'd never be able to live in such a town, but I consider that to be about my inner demons], and I wonder if the strong responses have as much to do with the commenters' unfamiliarity with long-term social groups (we Americans deal with strangers for the most part, and our authorities are strangers). In a society where very few are strangers, there is (at least historically) a different kind of interaction, and there are many social controls that we have gotten rid of. But I think such limits would surface again in small towns, and they aren't necessarily bad. Just very, very different.

Anyway, here's what I responded over on JMG's blog:

Hi, all -

I had no idea there was this much controversy over my story! (Actually, it's very cool that people are discussing it, pro or con). I'm finding the comments very interesting and thought-provoking.

Probably the closest perception is gbk below, who points out that there are already many societies using social controls such as I mention. I guess I wasn't judging pro/con whether I'd enjoy being there, but trying to describe a place where social controls were just as important as physical needs like food/housing for the life of the society. Old Japanese societies were similar - because "wildcards" could quickly cause disasters, such actions would be suppressed, and soon (almost)everyone would consider acting out to be very toxic. I believe it's clear that people are free to leave and go to other towns, where things are handled differently. That way, those who prefer harmony of the sort mentioned could self-select. (And don't think there aren't those types - check out some cohousing and communes - they exist even today).

I realize it's far from the free culture we have today, but I wouldn't consider it dystopian (unless I have the definition wrong). It's about the kinds of limits we will/may encounter - and social limits (and the society's ways of handling those)would seem just as limiting to our society as the absence of electricity, plastic, etc. We have an abnormal amount of freedom these days, and I don't think that will last any more than the fossil fuels will.

And I'd love to see stories take on this theme and show how people would handle the social limits that living far in the deindustrial future bring. My thanks to everyone who commented.

David Trammel's picture

I haven't read Cathy's story YET but i will definitely do so ASAP.

Something that I want to remind people, Writers don't always believe the same thing their characters do. Its something I've run across sometimes, a story can begin as an interesting concept and as you write it, the characters will take a life of their own. You finish the story surprised that it took a 180 from your orgininal concept/outline.

You should see some of the (expletive deleted) my characters have come up with.

Yes, it's also true that characters should not be take as the verbatim beliefs of the author (many times we're working to figure out how someone very different from us would react). And it's totally true that characters have wills of their own (I used to think that was an odd POV, but have found it to be true many times). And SF is also about postulating very different setups and POVs than the current world considers normal... it's tricky to describe them without giving a lecture about how they might have evolved, or how they are different.

Maybe we need another word besides "utopian" and "dystopian"... something to mean "these characters are happy, even if we wouldn't be, because they're different from us."... or maybe readers don't care about that, and only about whether they like the place...