Sex. Violence.

by wjw on February 17, 2007

Kelly’s reply to my previous post, in which she mentioned that many (okay, most) of my protagonists are killers, started me thinking about which of them are, and which aren’t, and why.

In fairness to myself, it has to be admitted that many of them aren’t. Drake Maijstral doesn’t want to hurt anybody despite his perilous profession, and in fact runs away from fights; Doran Falkner in Knight Moves is mild-mannered; Ubu and Maria in Angel Station are the victims of violence but don’t initiate any themselves; and Aiah in the Metropolitan sequence is pretty much an exponent of the duck-and-cover philosophy of life.

And then there are characters who do brief turns as action heroes, like Nick in The Rift and Gabriel in Aristoi and Terzian in “The Green Leopard Plague,” who aren’t violent people by nature, but who find themselves in peril and are forced to respond.

We also have Martinez and Severin in the Dread Empire’s Fall books, who are in the military and who do violence— sometimes very serious violence— during the course of a war. But when the war ends, so does the violence. It’s a job, not an avocation.

I do write about people who are genuinely violent. Steward in Voice of the Whirlwind, Black Shadow in the Wild Cards books, and Loren Hawn in Days of Atonement are compulsively violent in one way or another. But I hope the text makes clear that these people are not role models. They’re all deeply fucked up, and the violence is a symptom of their fucked-upness.

And then there’s Caroline Sula.

Who is an interesting case.

She’s not a compulsively violent person in the way that Loren Hawn is. Her violence is sometimes motivated by passion, but there is also a large element of self-interest involved. She kills people who get in her way, when she thinks she can get away with it. She not only has no respect for the lives of others, she doesn’t value her own. (And by the way, I deliberately followed the path of the “heinously violent criminal” as outlined in Richard Rhodes’ Why They Kill, an admirable work of nonfiction.)

Sula is a person who will say, “If you don’t stop behaving this way, I will shoot you in the head.” And then, when he doesn’t stop, she does.

What is also significant is that Sula is a girl. Which was a deliberate choice in my part.

I could have had Martinez and Sula exchange roles. Sula could have been the privileged but excluded aristocrat, and Martinez could have been the killer and the imposter. But if I’d done that, the reader who have viewed the characters very differently.

And the reason for that is this as follows: we live in a sexist society. Men and women are viewed in different ways. (I’m sure this is news to you, right?)

If I’d put a man in Sula’s role as a murderer and an imposter, readers would have said, Oh, he’s a thug and a killer. I hate him, and I’m not going to read about him. We come from a society in which there are a dismaying number of male murderers: we dismiss them very easily.

But a female killer doesn’t trigger that response. Instead of being repulsed, we are intrigued. (And not so long ago, we would have been shocked. Raymond Chandler’s killers are almost always women, because it provided such a shock to his audience.)

Nobody’s surprised by a male killer; but a female killer goes against type. Readers are interested in people who surprise them, and they read on.

I could have tried to do my bit for sexual egalitarianism, I suppose, and made Martinez and Sula androgynous and interchangeable, and insisted that readers view them without the cultural blinders with which we all come equipped. Perhaps I would be a more admirable person if I had. (Though I think I would have been pandering to a certain audience, and going against my own experience of how people actually behave. But that’s an argument for another day.)

In the end, I demonstrated that I’m a better writer than I am an admirable person.

What I decided to do— and this quite deliberately— was to intentionally manipulate the sexist responses of my readers, and create sympathy for my killer by making her a girl.

There. I did it, and I’m glad.

I performed this task perhaps a little better than I intended. I’ve had some readers who have gone quite overboard with admiration for Sula (not that she doesn’t have her admirable qualities). I’ve had readers tell me that if they knew Sula were a real person, they’d ask me for her phone number.

Which, if she were real, I would provide, after having carefully written it on a biohazard sticker.

Kelly February 17, 2007 at 7:06 pm

My honey and I were discussing Sula at breakfast the other day. Her assessment was that though she’s a great character, she didn’t love her.

I disagreed. I love her, even though she’s a fairly joyless person. I’m not overboard with admiration for her (and I certainly don’t want her phone number because I’m pretty sure I’d end up getting shot in the head). But I love her, and this is why:

She is an incredibly active character, smart, capable, and for better or worse she’s always *doing*, making things happen by the force of her will. I detest it when female characters are passive (*cough* Neil Stephenson).

As for her murderousness, it’s completely understandable. Life in the fabs: you’re either a victim or a victimizer. I can’t blame anyone, male or female, for choosing not to be a victim. Through the cultural lens of the fabs, victimizers who choose their victims carefully are stalwart citizens. Sula chooses her victims carefully. If you had made her a man, this would still be the case.

I have a much more difficult time with Martinez’s murderousness, even viewed through the lens of war. Planets of people, maudit. If he’d been a woman, I’d still be appalled. I adore him, but if I saw him on the street I’d stay far way. I’m superstitious enough to imagine that some gigantic karma bomb must accompany the taking of billions of souls.

Thank you, by the way, for giving Sula Earth. She deserved it.

dubjay February 17, 2007 at 8:25 pm

Can I just say that I love the fact that characters I created were being discussed over the breaskfast table? It makes me feel like Aaron Sorkin or Aaron Spelling or some other person named Aaron.

The thing about action heroes is that you don’t want to be around them, ever. You end up getting caught in the crossfire between the Terminator Model Arnold and the Terminator Model Silver Blob Guy.

I love Sula too, of course. How could I not? But if she were a real person I’d probably avoid her. She’d make me very uneasy.

If a huge blob of bad massacre karma is hanging around anybody, it would be Michi Chen. She’s the one who gave the order. I suppose you can blame Martinez for not refusing to obey the order (and then being summarily shot and replaced by someone who =would= obey the order)— but then if Chen hadn’t given that order, the war would have been lost. The whole mission depended on the credibility of Chen’s threat— “do as I say or I’ll blow up your planet” —and if the threat was shown to be hollow, then the Naxids (whose threat was genuine) would have won.

It’s sort of like being in the position of having someone else shooting nuclear missiles at you, while loudly proclaiming, “I’m going to keep on shooting nuclear missiles at you =right up to the point where you turn me and my entire country into a glass plain=. I dare ya, ya chicken!”

There are no good choices in this situation, but some are less bad than others.

Tarl Neustaedter February 18, 2007 at 11:08 pm

I viewed Gareth and Caroline through the lens of historical Marius and Sulla, for the obvious reason that you wanted us to. They’ve gone off in different directions, and I found myself commenting to friends that I really hoped you wouldn’t follow the historical precedent to the end (both dying miserable deaths during efforts to undo the other’s works).

I found them both admirable in different ways; Gareth is the “good soldier”, who gets things done with a minimum of fuss. I don’t regard his actions against the orbital ring as criminal – it was war, it was given full warning, and it was necessary. Niven’s laws 1 and 1a – don’t throw shit at an armed man, and don’t stand next to someone throwing shit at an armed man. His personal life is such that he doesn’t have any need to stomp on people to make his life tolerable.

Caroline, on the other hand, is the quintessential “self-made” woman (in so many ways…). She’s a dangerous sociopath, but one who has managed to use her talents to overall societal good. She doesn’t appear to want to kill people wantonly, but she wears poison-tipped climbing crampons, and will walk right over you if you happen to be in her way – incidentally killing you.

I really hope your publisher gets you to write more in this universe.

Pat Mathews February 19, 2007 at 2:22 pm

I feel the same way about Sula – that her ability and wilingness to kill is somehow offset by her being female – and took a good lok at it. I think it’s this:

If she had been an aristocrat or had been reared in a class where women participated fully in whatever source their power came from, it wouldn’t be so forgiveable. She’s from the fabs, where the default position for women is apparently as prey and/or property and/or victims. Her brains and ruthlessness and quick use of a knife in the dark allowed her to get out of that trap and play with the big boys.

Likewise, on “Rome”, I’ll cut the likes of Atia and Servilia a little slack in the tactics department because nothing else is open to then. (And don’t you love how Atia has somehow morphed into Fulvia?) What I can’t forgive them is when they act like twits.

Pat Mathews February 19, 2007 at 2:54 pm

BTW – for those commentators criticizing Chen and Martinez for wartime actions – you set up your world so that it’s obvious they are currently in a period of total war. Not just ordinary warfare, but the stuff that makes or breaks civilizations.

How many of your readers have ever lived through or been touched by such a thing? The last time the United States wa in that mode was *65 years ago*. To understand it, you’d need to talk to someone from Rwanda or Darfur, or someone who got out of Cambodia when the getting was good back in the 70s.

Or someone who has read history, as plainly you have.

He Who Walks On All Fours February 23, 2007 at 4:13 am

On Martinez: The fact is, no one is innocent in a war, even the most virtuous soldie fighting the most despicable enemy (neither label being applied here, of course). Take World War II: Does the evil of the Nazis or the Japanese government’s atrocities make the carpet bombing of population centers carried out by the Allies morally correct? In war, the victors say who the criminals were, even when they do so in a relatively just manner (e.g., even though most of the defendants in the Nuremberg Trials were thoroughly despicable human beings, a few of them were on trial for doing the exact same things that the Allies had done–unrestricted submarine warfare, for example. Chester Nimitz certainly wasn’t prosecuted for ordering a total war against the Japanese merchant marine). Martinez is the kind of soldier that polite society pretends it doesn’t want until a real war starts, in which case it turns a blind eye.

Sula just happens to be a very calculating, intelligent sociopath. Just sympathetic enough to make you realize how charming and outwardly normal some of the greatest monsters can be.

Ken February 23, 2007 at 7:29 pm

I don’t think it’s appropriate to refer to Sula as a sociopath. She obviously suffers when she loses a comrade or subordinate, for example. A true sociopath wouldn’t be bothered by that as long as it forwarded her personal agenda. She also feels some level of empathy for innocent bystanders and people who’s socio-economic situation she can relate to.

I feel like it’s more accurate to view her character as being largely a consequence of her intelligence. She’s creative and highly intelligent in a society that doesn’t put a great deal of value on those attributes. That and her background increase her isolation, and it’s a common observation that people who are both isolated and extremely intelligent often develop their own moral compass. That’s not to say they they’re immoral or amoral, simply that their sense of right and wrong is out of synch with the majority of the population.

“The ends justify the means” may be a rich subject for debate in Philosophy 101, but to Sula the truth of it is so obvious it doesn’t warrant discussion or examination.

HaloJonesFan February 26, 2007 at 9:46 pm

It’s kind of surprising to learn that the author who created Sula finds her so despicable. Personally, I thought she was about the most sympathetic character in the book! I suppose that yes, a pacifist viewpoint would find her disgusting; but, as others here have pointed out, it isn’t as though she doesn’t care. She just doesn’t think that she has any other choice but to do what she does.

To paraphrase a quote(*), she’s one of the most dangerous women in the world, but not because she thinks that what she thinks does is right–it’s because she thinks that what she does is fate.

I don’t think that she’d kill me for annoying her; Terza Chen was an exception, not the rule. (and that’s the thing; I found the whole “psychotic hatred for Terza” bit to be extremely not in keeping with the rest of Sula’s character.)

(*) originally heard on “The X-Files”, but I can’t believe that’s where it originated

dubjay February 27, 2007 at 9:57 pm

HaloJones, I don’t despise Sula. I’m just . . . realistic about her. She’s an extremely dangerous person who has had very good training in violence, and whose mores are not those of her culture. One does well to tread lightly around such people.

S.M. Stirling March 1, 2007 at 9:20 pm

I wouldn’t consider Sula to be a _bad_ person. Bad people kill lightly or for fun. She had pretty good reasons for killing all the people she did, and didn’t do it to get her rocks off.

Certainly she’s capable of violence when she considers it necessary; so what? So am I. So are most people, when you come right down to it, and the ones who can’t respond violently when it’s appropriate are nature’s predestined victims and candidates for the Darwin Award.

Killing or other violence in and of itself isn’t really “good” or “bad” exclusive of context(*) –it’s more in the nature of ‘distasteful but necessary every now and then’, like pumping out a septic tank.

A lot of the time, you can hire someone else to do it.

Sometimes you have to pump out the tank yourself.

And when it has to be done, it has to be done. Otherwise you drown in the crap.

Generally speaking I like our society, but one of the unfortunate things about it is that it allows too many people to distance themselves from things and hence become unrealistically squeamish — meat comes in plastic at the store, and so forth, and violence specialists handle the violence.

There’s a season when it’s time to shear the sheep, a season when it’s time to slaughter the pig, and there’s a season when it’s time to hit someone in the head with an ax. Asi es la vida.

(*) some things are just inherently bad — child abuse, for example, or betraying your friends.

Coherent March 1, 2007 at 11:33 pm

I hate to say it, but my reaction to Sula at the end of the books was that she was a thug and a killer, and I certainly didn’t like her, and I wasn’t particularly interested in reading about her any more. The unpleasant thing was that she became that way towards the end of the book, she hadn’t started that way. If she’d hooked up with Martinez, I think they both would have had more fulfilling personal lives. I held it against the books that they didn’t. It was a gone-with-the-wind romance that never was, which made the books seem tremendously pointless at the end. Yay, civilization might be saved or might not or who the hell knows what happened… The romance angle was a fizzle and finally a tragedy when one of the characters became a homicidally self-destructive public figure whose personal life was basically a train wreck. Hmm, sounds a little unfulfilling there, Horatio.

Emotional or personal train wrecks are so common in daily life that I’m not sure they’re a fitting climax for a literary epic. Sordid and just a bit pathetic and so very very everyday.

dubjay March 2, 2007 at 3:07 am

I’m really pleased to have created a character that has produced such an interesting exchange of views.

Coherent, I should point out that CONVENTIONS OF WAR was never intended as the end of Sula’s story, or Martinez’s either. If it turns out that way, it’s the publisher’s fault, not mine.

Also, her personal life may be viewed as a train wreck, but it’s hardly ordinary.

So here’s a question. Sula’s career, such as it was, came about when she killed her best friend in order to take her money and position. Have subsequent events justified that?

Scott March 5, 2007 at 8:52 pm

Justified? I don’t know. That’s a very subjective question. Sure, she was one of the people responsible for beating the Naxids, which wouldn’t have happened the way it did if her life hadn’t taken the path it had, but at the end of the day, she’s most assuredly still a fraud. That she knows it and that it weighs on her is a good thing.

I, for one, hope we get to read more about Martinez and Sula. I tore through the books in days, something I don’t normally do.

Goldenstar March 6, 2007 at 1:15 am

Kelly wrote, “I have a much more difficult time with Martinez’s murderousness, even viewed through the lens of war. Planets of people, maudit. If he’d been a woman, I’d still be appalled. I adore him, but if I saw him on the street I’d stay far way. I’m superstitious enough to imagine that some gigantic karma bomb must accompany the taking of billions of souls.”

I disagree. Martinez ISN’T a murderer, and doesn’t want to be one. Bai-Do was his murder, his one and only, and it tore him up inside. He could barely go through with it and had nightmares about it for a pretty long stretch of time afterwards. Every other time he killed, it was a “kill or be killed” situation. I will admit that at times he seemed to enjoy the battles, but to me that seemed as though he were enjoying the challenge to his skills, not the destruction of thousands of lives. Yes Martinez is self-centered, and egotistical, yes he cares for himself before pretty much anyone else. But he isn’t a murderer and there’s no reason to fear him; he kills if the situation requires it. And he IS capable of caring for others, as shown by his infatuation with Sula and his growing affection for Terza, not to mention the fact that he keeps in touch with all of his former subordinates.

John April 5, 2007 at 7:40 pm

There Once was a Boy who grew up knowing the only way he could survive was by doing what he had to do to make it through the day. He had a brother who wasn’t up to the rigors of their world and he ended up killing him, which allowed him to take his place as the leader of his family.

From his position in his family he came to Unite his Native people. He then led his people in the conquest of the known world.

The “Histories” say he was a child of Fate. Fate had dictated his choices, choices dictated by his need to survive and keep his “loved” ones safe. As his circle of loved ones grew so did the demands of Fate to keep them so.

Where the 4 winds blew the horse hairs on his totem he went. All in the hands of Fate.

Judged a great leader, a saint, a sinner, a despot, a monster, evil personified. Such is the Fate of great Men and Women who seize the moment in times of great strife and change.

Is Temujin’s story any different from any of the other great Rulers of history? The world Caroline Sula was born into is gone, the good and the bad.

Fate has given her an opportunity to reshape her universe.

There are tons of stories in SciFi and Fantasy of how Empires fall and how hero’s try to keep their societies together, stories of Utopians putting the pieces back together after all is lost, but there are few on how Empires were built in the first place.

People shy away from the details of how their Great Societies and Civilizations were born. They tell each other high minded myths of why things had to be done.

Caroline Sula represents an opportunity to explore how and why an Empress who only wanted to build a safe life for herself came to be. David was not an innocent, but he did what he had to, to survive and became King. If Saul Slew a thousand, David Slew ten thousand. Who was beloved of God or Fate? Who is still remembered with Love and devotion?

If people must be ruled they want to be ruled by a Goddess. If she is fairly distributed in her Ruthlessness the people will love her more.

dubjay April 6, 2007 at 11:04 pm

John, you’re pretty damn smart.

John April 12, 2007 at 11:54 pm

Sorry if I was ranting. Hopefully I wasn’t raving.

The things are in the details and details are pretty darn obvious if you’re really looking.

Detail 1: Earth, there by the Sol System was the second inhabited system taken by the Praxis.

Detail 2: Earth, there by the Sol System has had practical cheap interplanetary transportation for over 1000 years. With it’s own space elevator, orbital construction and shipping would be cheap and easy.

Detail 3: Earth, there by the Sol System has had over 1000 years of uninterrupted population growth. No wars or famines.

Detail 4: Sol System has 2 other rocky planets that are suitable for terra-forming. A huge asteroid belt. 2 Jovian giants with plentiful moons, 2 smaller Gas planets with multiple moons and an Ort cloud packed with planetoids.

A space faring civilization with a 1000 years of peace to expand and exploit it’s native solar system. All in the hands of Caroline Sula. She didn’t have to ask Pharaoh to set her people free, but she surely can lead them out of the dessert.


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