(One of the reasons when I switched over to this site is that I wanted the freedom to write more personal posts to categorize my thoughts. I never felt comfortable doing that on krytyk's site. I'd forgotten to do so last year as too many events were far too personal to really discuss. But more and more items are piling up in my head these days, so this will be the first of my journal post entries.)
Five years ago, I’d probably have passed over this video. Great figures of history were interesting. So were military and political clashes. Economics? meh.
Yesterday, I anxiously watched this video with almost a sense of giddyness. I’ve already seen the topic discussed in books, but not as the central focus, and not in such an easy-to-share format. Goodness, I reflect now, my tastes really have changed.
To think when I first started writing, I mainly consumed anime and light novels. Sure, even back then I preferred my fiction deep and debatable. There’s no replacement for Legend of the Galactic Heroes and its 110 episode debate-by-example on the strengths and weaknesses of a Democracy vs Autocracy. But of course, works like that were rare. The overwhelming majority of fiction featured oversimplified facsimiles of the real world, and the more I learned about our world, the more I found such versions uninteresting. The prevailing trend in Japanese media hasn’t helped, as stories have moved increasing from professional authors to webnovel amateurs with very little scholarly or life experience.
I look at my media consumption these days. Gone are the pure fantasy and comfortable settings. Almost my entire reading catalogue has been replaced by nonfiction. To take a sample of my latest reading list:
- Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham Allison, as the Harvard professor dissects the greatest challenge of our generation: maintaining peace between two nuclear armed superpowers with clashing cultures and moral values (Confucian Collectivism vs Western Individualism), all while technology increasingly thickens the fog-of-war.
- The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John Mearsheimer, the creator of “offensive realism” who coined a term that permanently shifted the way I look at the world: “liberal hedgemony” — the unipolarity of a post-Cold-War world that fed us the illusion that there is only one acceptable political belief.
- War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges, a decades-long war correspondent who describes war by both its addictiveness and its cruelty, how it both unites and divides us beyond all logical comprehension.
- The Forgotten Army: India’s Armed Struggle for Independence, 1942-1945 by Peter Ward Fay. Did Gandhi’s “nonviolent resistance” really work? Perhaps the credit belong to Bose, whom, in defiant defeat, achieved what Gandhi’s Quit India Movement never could: turn the British Indian Army against its colonial masters, thus making it impossible for Britain to hang onto their “crown jewel”.
Every one of these books made me question my existing beliefs and views of the world. Every one of them made me realize that all those ideals and values I’ve been taught are gross oversimplifications of reality, often to the point of being outright propaganda. Of course the ‘liberal elite’ want you to believe that ‘free trade’ is good for everyone (*cough* economic extortionism). Of course Gandhi and Nehru wants everyone to think they drove the British out of India peacefully (while downplaying Bose’s alliance with the Axis, the Red Fort Trials, and the Bombay Mutiny).
Even what fiction I consume has become more grounded in reality. I started watching the Qin Empire series during the winter holidays, based on the famous Chinese novels by Sun Haohui. The current series already run across four reigns and over 100 years, as it builds the story of how the Qin Kingdom — the poorest of the warring kingdoms in ancient China, became so overwhelmingly powerful that it eventually steamrolled the others and unified China into the first Imperial state.
There’s something to be said for Chinese media: it does not hesitate to challenge what others consider to be moral prerogatives by showing examples of how reality complicates the ideal. Nowhere else could I imagine entire episodes devoted to arguments such as Rule by Humanism vs Rule by Law (Legalism is merciless; it does not care if your crime is intentional or by accident, for exceptions become loopholes that undermine the law)… or Traditional War (abiding by ‘rules of engagement’) vs Total War (where civilians are treated as combatants and genocide becomes ‘strategy’)… or how Institutions can bring strength to a state in ways that a strong economy, military, or leadership can never manage.
“(Kingdom of) Wei’s strength lie in their armored troops and their merchantile wealth. Qi’s strength lie in their excellent leadership and righteous rule. Wu’s strength lie in their large territory and abundant populace… However, none of these strengths are lasting. A wise ruler will make these states flourish. A mediocre ruler will make these states wane. A foolish ruler will make these states collapse. Only a state with strong, binding Institutions will endure the test of time.”
– Chancellor Shang Yang, Qin State, Qin Empire I
Is it a surprise that the level of complexity I demand from my own writing also shifted with time?
My fear, however, is that my skills aren’t really up to the task. Complexity is hard. Consistent and arresting complexity, even harder. But the hardest is to not pull too much attention away from the bedrock of writing. As the Great Courses‘ audiobook on writing fiction once reminded me: all stories are driven by character. The only genre difference is… how much?Author's Comment
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