Thursday, September 27, 2012

Reflections on tolerance

Yom Kippur is traditionally a time for reflection on one's self. This year I had the opportunity to learn a bit about myself from observing my reactions while painting work was being done in my house at the beginning of this week.

First, these two days made me think about what home means to me. Home is a private and safe space where I can be myself. I spend the vast majority of my life at home (because this is also where I work), and when people visit it is usually on my terms. During these two days we had furniture moved around and there was no privacy. I was reduced to sitting in one corner of the living room while the work went on, and the cats had to hide. It felt intrusive, and even though I knew the work had to be done to improve our standard of living, the process was not enjoyable.

The second thing I started to notice was what I perceived as the inconsiderate behaviour of the workers. Despite being told not to smoke indoors they smoked, at first only on the balcony, and then in other rooms. They also made more mess than was necessary, and their idea of cleaning up afterwards was scraping the most prominent paint marks off the floor, but no more than that. I kept thinking that if I had to work in someone else's house I would be more considerate of their personal space and their priorities. I became aware that this degree of consideration for others, which I consider as one of my most important qualities, must be quite rare. Most people do what they can get away with.

I then started asking myself why I wasn't being more assertive. I could have told them again not to smoke indoors, and perhaps nagged them to be more careful with the paint or to clean up the dust and paint more thoroughly. But I didn't want to create a bad atmosphere, so it appears that my desire for conflict avoidance outweighs my expectation of consideration from others. Even though their behaviour was obviously bothering me, I found that I could tolerate it.

The word "tolerance" comes from a Latin verb, tolero, meaning "to bear, to endure". This definition makes sense to me. A tolerant person can endure something unwelcome or unpleasant rather than reacting against it. Instead of just thinking about my own needs, I was willing to let the workers behave in the way they wanted. In a similar way, I am often willing to stand in the longest queue (line) in the supermarket because I know I am more patient than many others, and so it is easier for me to bear or endure the wait.

Tolerance comes from a place of inner strength. A tolerant person has empathy for others, is aware of the differences between individuals, and is willing to accept a wide range of behaviours and attitudes, even the disagreeable ones. I bore the workers' lack of consideration for my needs because I knew it was temporary, and the alternative, being assertive, would create tension and perhaps lower their motivation to do a good job. I choose to view this as strength rather than weakness on my part. The ability to put my own needs aside and allow others to do something I find bothering is a minor form of self-sacrifice I consider generous or even noble, to some extent.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

John Scalzi - Fuzzy Nation

John Scalzi, Fuzzy Nation, Tor, 2011.

This book is a "reboot" of a classic novel, Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper (1962). With permission, Scalzi took the story and characters from that novel and wrote his own take on those events. When I first heard about this, I read the original novel, and during the reading of Fuzzy Nation I could observe the differences. So this review will have to treat the novel on two levels: first as a work of fiction in its own right, and second as a reworking of an existing story.

This is a first contact story, set in a future where planets are exploited for their natural resources by ruthless corporations. When Jack Holloway, a contractor, discovers a new species and begins to realize they are sentient, this has implications for the planet's future. The story explores the moral and legal implications of this discovery, while focusing on the relationships and power struggles between the humans involved.

Holloway is not really a very sympathetic character. At first, he seems to be motivated by money, hoping to become very rich from his discovery of a valuable resource. We discover that he has a short temper and a history of violence and lying. His past actions led to him being disbarred as a lawyer (a profession not inspiring much identification for most readers, but relevant to the story), and to harming his former girlfriend Isabel's career. Also, the story focuses more on what he does than on what he is thinking, so his motivations only become clear after the events have taken place. This is a useful technique.

Instead of identifying with the main character, the reader's sympathies lie with the new species, as is often the case when the setting is quite black-and-white, with the powers of capitalistic greed ranged against these smaller and seemingly helpless creatures, which resemble cats and are portrayed as "cute". This identification might have been more difficult to achieve with aliens of a less "cuddly" type, which might have made the story more interesting in some ways.

The story contains moments of physical danger, action, pathos, and much courtroom drama. Eventually a satisfying conclusion is reached, and Scalzi spells out explicitly some of the reader's concerns about Jack's character.

The tone is light and humorous, most of the time, with some touching emotional moments. Readers familiar with Scalzi's other novels, or with his blog Whatever, will enjoy his usual style. This would also be a good introduction to Scalzi for new readers.

Finally, compared with the book Little Fuzzy, I found this version gave a less patronizing and human-centric account of the "fuzzys", and seemed more in tune with current social and cultural expectations. The comparison demonstrated to me the extent to which authors' contemporary milieu influences their writing, even when the stories are set in a fictional future society.