Time May Change Me, But I Can’t Trace Time
By Charles E. Gannon, Ph.D., and David Carrico
(with props/apologies to David Bowie for the title)
(This is the first of several possible articles that will grow out of a series of discussions among the members of the Grantville Gazette extended editorial board.)
One of the interesting things about playing in Eric Flint’s 1632/Ring of Fire sandbox lies in thinking through all of the changes that can happen and will happen in the New Time Line (NTL) post-Ring of Fire (ROF) and how they will occur both earlier and differently than in the Original Time Line (OTL). Writers get rather excited about those kinds of story possibilities. There’s just one little hitch: most of the various 1632 writers are Americans, and we have a tendency to think that the changes are going to happen both more quickly and more easily than they probably will.
Unfortunately, they probably won’t. There are several reasons for this, the thorniest of which is cultural inertia (for lack of a more precise term).
Any of you who have overseas diplomatic experience, overseas military experience, or overseas NGO experience outside of Europe can testify to the incredible (to the American mind) tendency of other cultures to resist anything that is a “core” change. This is a fact of life in most cultures, and it’s one that will be in place in the NTL. Eric Flint and the Grantville Gazette editors are aware of this, and as a consequence rather firmly resist a lot of story ideas that are presented that ignore it.
In the OTL, the U.S. and its four primary Anglic allies (the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—sometimes referred to as the Five Eyes) are very deltaphilic: they tend to embrace change. (Interestingly and revealingly, the old world primogenitorial source, the UK, is often the one most likely to drag its heels.) The West, in general, has that tendency, but we would say that the US view is Futurist, while the continent is Modernist.
But in 1630, that Modernist trend was essentially a very narrow edge of very radical change that would not only widen in the decades to follow, but would ultimately transform European culture.
And yet . . . if that powerful anchor/inertia against change wasn’t still present, you wouldn’t have the basis of almost all the major nineteenth-century English novels (Oliver Twist, Far from the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, etc.—as well as pretty much all of Blake’s and Wordsworth’s poetry). The drama and tension in each was a cultural push-me/pull-you: the impulse toward change was the source of the society’s energy vs. traditions as the source of its definition. Lots of humans got ground up in the process, and the way forward was never smooth, easy, or straight. These played out over decades in an already more-industrialized England that had been one of the major cultural imbibers of the various transformative concepts of the Age of Reason.
Now, jump to the continent, 1630 NTL. None of the cultural elasticity of Dickens’ and Blake’s England (as limited as it was) is present in any widespread or deeply-rooted sense. People are changing because they must, but culture doesn’t follow along.
To illustrate with an OTL example, one word:
In the mid-twentieth century, disease is fought, infant mortality plummets, lives are saved, happiness ensues—until culture-driven disaster strikes. Despite everything the sub-Saharan populations were told, were taught, were exhorted, they maintained the same birth rates and valued family size just as they have for centuries. And it really hasn’t budged much since.
It didn’t matter that 10-20% heard, learned, and believed that smaller family sizes made more sense now and would allow more emphasis on infrastructure, better education, etc., etc. They kept the same farming techniques, the same birth rate, the same cultural template—and their swift population increase overtaxed the land, led to widespread erosion, water shortage, and desertification.
We use that example because almost everyone is familiar with it to some degree. It’s still going on across the world, where what futurists call “culturally selective adoption” of technologies or methodologies continues to confuse and confound our planners. (You see this in the Secretary of Defense’s blue-sky direct report group, the Office of Net Assessment, all the time.) We Americans are profoundly driven by utility; receptivity to change is one of our legacy (albeit by no means ubiquitous) social values. We just have a higher proportion of it, and in our nation, forces of change tend to be strong enough to drag along those parts of the nation that are not so enamored of it.
But in Malaysia, India, Angola, Chile, etc.? No, not so much (understatement fully intended). Adoption of advanced techniques is a matter of cherry-picking, and the connection between those adoptions and a concomitant adjustment to culture is slim to non-existent. Which is why so many Western (and particularly U.S.) foreign aid projects and assistance programs generate skewed, sometimes disastrous results that utterly bewilder our ‘experts.’ The same ‘experts’ who rarely appreciate that the problem is not in what we deliver, but the cultural filters through which it will be received. We constantly apply projective models of how aid will improve another culture: models that are, in sad fact, based on what we see in the mirror, not the other nation. We rarely appreciate just how ingrained culture is, or how, in the face of obvious proofs, people will still press on with traditions that will kill more of their kids and will kill themselves earlier, all the while living lives of privation and uncertainty—because they will choose the certainty of the definition they feel in their old culture over the possibility of betterment that might reside in new change.
The British cultural scholar/analyst Raymond Williams retooled Antonio Gramsci’s cultural hegemony theories to represent this dynamic this way:
Culture is always a dynamic synthesis of three impulses:
- the emergent (change)
- the dominant (contemporary cultural formations)
- the residual (traditional components which hang on even if they are somewhat outdated or anachronistic in relation to the dominant)
The power of the residual in the countries we’ve been mentioning is, to our minds, a very close cousin to the forces that made the adoption of new ideas and technologies so gradual in the 1630s OTL. Many, many things are possible in the post-Ring of Fire 1630’s NTL—but many may be left lying fallow along the cultural roadside, just as they were in the OTL.
One of the reasons the Ring of Fire is such an exciting series for us to write in is the powerful tension and drama created by introducing ideas and technology from the late twentieth century into this environment, with several thousand persons present to not only export them, but to “live by example.” This is a tremendously powerful narrative and dramatic device. This process is also tremendously destabilizing to a culture. And widespread adoption will be slow and uneven—particularly if/where the leaders of these highly authoritarian conservative monarchies and guild structures see a threat to the status quo in these changes. And they’d be idiots not to. As Eric said early on, part of this story (and Mike Stearns’ objectives) is to do away with the tyranny of aristocracy, of some people feeling they are inherently better simply because of their lineage.
A world capable of rapid change, rapid adoption—even when driven by express, desperate need to embrace it—would be a world that no longer needed Mike Stearns’ crusade, the one that Rubens tellingly and shrewdly depicted in his painting of Mike, not as a peace-bringer, but a darker figure. (See 1634: The Baltic War, Chapter 10.) Because Rubens, with an artist’s oblique and instinctive perceptivity, partially sees and partially feels the storm of change following behind the man and what he represents. When the storm has passed, will it be a better world? In almost every objective measure, yes—but there will be losers along the way, and many innocent bodies from both sides whose blood is part of the palette from which Rubens worked his imagery unto the canvas.
This is not a particularly cogent bullet-point discussion, but that is, in part, a consequence of the topic: culture. And that’s where the series really does—and ultimately must—focus. The resistance to changes and innovations proposed by (understandably enthusiastic) newer authors is not a matter of engineering. (Although frankly, we don’t think you can quickly train the labor pool of the 1630s to the tasks being proposed—and shift so many out of food production into that industrial role—to be able to create the factories and mines and transshipment matrix that would be required to work so many changes in a single generation. The diversion of labor from agriculture in a low-tech culture needs its own discussion.) But to return: even if you could find enough workers, even if they were willing to leave the land that their families have worked upon for many, maybe dozens, of generations, even if you could push aside the guilds who see their end writ large in the onrushing leviathan of industrialization, there is this: most people won’t feel comfortable with it. It’s like a cuisine that might be far more healthful for them, might ensure stronger children and longer life, and yet—it just plain tastes funny. It’s not what they’re used to.
It’s not as wacky an analogy as it sounds. As this is being written, Charles is 56 and David is 65. Charles remembers when sushi arrived in this country (late 70s/early 80s in a few cities). In the mid-80s, when he was working TV in NYC, it was very chic and daring to eat sushi. (We kid you not.) Today, kids think nothing of it—and even if they don’t like it personally, they mostly don’t think their peers weird or questionable or alien for liking it. (Although you can still find plenty of pockets in the US where those reactions are alive and well—David has friends who still refer to it as ‘bait.’) The point is: you couldn’t find sushi as an option outside of a few cities until the early 90s. It expanded dramatically in that decade. And by 2000 it started showing up as a “take out” item in a few of the more daring supermarkets. Now, it’s a routine part of our foodscape. But that’s the progression of forty years—a full generation to simply implement a minor dietary change in one country.
Granted, there is so much more at stake with industrialization. But there was a lot at stake in Sub-Saharan Africa, too—and still, change lagged, and the Sahel spread south to create a persistent belt of misery. The odd, maddening, thing about culture is that while it is the solidity that anchors us in place, there is a flip side to that coin: it is also the weight that holds us back—and in both cases, that is an impulse that is strangely, even uniquely, resistant to appeals based on reason.
This is something that American writers—and readers, for that matter—have trouble getting their own heads around. (Arguably, that is yet another case of “cultural habit” seeming so inevitable that, to those in it, it feels like a law of physics, not a socially-ingrained habit of thought/perception.) We have a particularly hard time when it comes to tempering the expectations that arise from possibilities of engineering with an acceptance of the innate resistance of culture . . .and that may largely be because our own culture has embraced change like no other in recorded history.
The difficulty, of course, is that engineering responds wonderfully to quantification. Cultural assessment and analysis—eh, not so much. These are shades of grey. And ‘experts’ usually go wrong when they try to create explanations via tortuous theories of cause and effect—which usually don’t hold up. But if you put causality (and its natural affinity with quantification) aside for a moment, and just look at correlation, you’ll find that the examples we’ve used here are the tip of an iceberg. And just because we can’t resolve it to hard numbers doesn’t mean that, like the “weak” force of gravity, it shouldn’t still be one of, if not the defining force in the Ring of Fire universe/scenario.
Indeed, it not only gives the series its unique appeal and dramatic tension, but conforms to a realism that transcends mere numbers and metrics: it not only tracks with precedent, but acknowledges the diverse impacts of culture as a genuine and very powerful force.
From our perspective, that is the “other half” of the impediment to speedier change: there is techne, and then there is temperament. And you can change the former a whole lot faster than the latter—simply because temperament is where the will to change is vested.