Review: The Fractal Man

The Fractal Man (written by J.Neil Schulman, soon to be available on Amazon) is a very, very funny book – if you share enough subcultural history with the author to get the in-jokes.

If you don’t – and in particular if you never met Samuel Edward Konkin – the man known as known as “SEKIII” to a generation of libertarians and SF fans before his tragically early death in 2004 – it will still be a whirligig of a cross-timeline edisonade, but some bits might leave you wondering how the author invented such improbabilities. But I knew SEKIII, and if there was ever a man who could make light of having a 50MT nuclear warhead stashed for safekeeping in his apartment, it was him.

David Albaugh is a pretty good violinist, a science-fiction fan, and an anarchist with a bunch of odd and interesting associates. None of this prepares him to receive a matter-of-fact phone call from Simon Albert Konrad III, a close friend who he remembers as having been dead for the previous nine years.

His day only gets weirder from there, as SAKIII and he (stout SF fans that they are) deduce that David has somehow been asported to a timeline not his own. But what became of the “local” Albaugh? Before the two have time to ruminate on that, they are both timeshifted to a history in which human beings (including them) can casually levitate, but there is no music.

Before they can quite recover from that, they’ve been recruited into a war between two cross-time conspiracies during which they meet multiples of their own fractals – alternate versions of themselves, so named because there are hints that the cosmos itself has undergone a kind of shattering that may have been recent in what passes for time (an accident at the Large Hadron Collider might have been involved). One of Albaugh’s fractals is J. Neil Schulman.

It speeds up to a dizzying pace; scenes of war, espionage, time manipulations, and a kiss-me/kill-me romance between Albaugh and an enemy agent (who also happens to be Ayn Rand’s granddaughter), all wired into several just-when-you-thought-it-couldn’t-go-further-over-the-top plot inversions.

I don’t know that the natural audience for this book is large, exactly, but if you’re in it, you will enjoy it a lot. Schulman plays fair; even the weirdest puzzles have explanations and all the balls are kept deftly in the air until the conclusion.

Assuming you know what “space opera” is, this is “timeline opera” done with the exuberance of a Doc Smith novel. Don’t be too surprised if some of it sails over your head; I’m not sure I caught all the references. Lots of stuff blows up satisfactorily – though, not, as it happens, that living-room nuke.

88 thoughts on “Review: The Fractal Man

    • >Merciful $DEITY. The guy gets away with committing that blatant a Mary Sue?!

      Actually, he subverts the Mary Sue effect. At one point Albaugh notes that none of the fractals who call themselves “J. Neil” can play the violin worth a damn. This is actually a plot point.

    • Does “Mary Sue” mean anything more than “This character has an ounce of competence and/or decency and I don’t like them” anymore?

      • >Does “Mary Sue” mean anything more than “This character has an ounce of competence and/or decency and I don’t like them” anymore?

        I think it does. Some characters really do stink of “I’m the author’s wish-fulfillment fantasy,” and it can be very annoying.

        • Is it worth discussing which characters seem too Mary Sue-ish?

          I use a somewhat different definition– a character who gets better treatment and better outcomes in the story than their actual traits deserve. This overlaps author’s wish-fulfillment by quite a bit, but it seems like a more testable description.

          I like Modesty Blaise quite a bit, but I’ll note that one of the later stories included her listing the things she was bad at.

          • What triggers my “Mary Sue” detectors are characters who are better than all the specialists in the story: Stronger than the Strong Guy, smarter than the Smart Guy, a better pilot than the Pilot Guy, etc.

            I have encountered enough over-reactions to Mary Sue characters to have developed a dislike for anti-Mary-Sue characters as well.

              • Yes. It came up in a discussion I once had with some friends. We agreed that Aaron Alliston’s “Doc Sidhe” homage to Doc Savage was a better character because he was not a Marty Stu who was better at everything than everyone else in his group.

                • That helps support my hypothesis that we’re actually using different definitions; in fact, my definition is more like Nancy Lebovitz’s. I don’t think amazing competence, or even amazing competence in multiple fields, is necessarily Mary Sue-ish; sometimes it’s just the premise.

                  Take for example Peter Wimsey. He really is amazingly competent: wealthy, a collector of rare books, an oenophile, a champion cricketer, a natural acrobat, a highly regarded diplomat, and that’s before we even think about his detective career. In fact, Sayers seems deliberately to have made him a wish fulfillment figure. But if there’s a Mary Sue in those novels, the more likely candidate is Harriet Vane, who’s fairly explicitly an author avatar, and whom Lord Peter falls in love with at first sight and treats as a partner in his investigations, even though she’s clearly NOT as competent as he is. We even see Peter’s nephew, a student at Oxford and quite a few years her junior, developing a major crush on her.

                  I tend to think that Mary Sue = becomes the narrative center of gravity, especially if the character’s actual abilities don’t justify the centrality. You can tell this most easily, of course, if there’s a prior narrative to be distorted by the Mary Sue’s presence, which is why the character type is so readily identified in fanfic.

                  • It wasn’t Peter’s nephew Viscount St. George who had the crush on Harriet, it was an entirely different student, whom Peter once referred to as “Mr. Jones of Jesus” [College], nearly provoking a fight.

                    Viscount St. George was in many ways a twit, but he had better sense than to try to compete with his uncle.

                  • Yes we are using different definitions. But I don’t think amazing competence in multiple fields is necessarily Mary-Sueish either. It’s only characters that are the best at *everything* that puts it over the line for me.

                    I don’t consider either Peter Wimsey or Harriet Vane to be Mary Sues, even if they do have have strong wish-fulfillment aspects. Lord Peter is amazingly competent, but he regularly relies on various experts who are more competent in their own fields than he is. As for Harriet, it seems to me that Sayers was trying to make her be both a “Watson” to Lord Peter *and* an equally competent detective – and that just doesn’t work. But that’s a different problem from (what I see as) “Mary Sue.”

                    • >I don’t consider either Peter Wimsey or Harriet Vane to be Mary Sues, even if they do have have strong wish-fulfillment aspects.

                      Beware of even considering them just wish-fulfillment, let alone Mary Suism. The author might actually be like that, or know someone who is. It happens. Polymathy is a real thing.

                      My sample is admittedly small – and given the population numbers it’s never going to get much larger – but I’ve written on this blog before that I think it starts to kick in around IQ 150. By an STD above that (Lord Peter Wimsey territory), if you don’t show gifted performance in multiple fields it’s because you’re not trying.

                      I’m an A-list software architect, a musician with a freaky ear talent, NYT-bestselling author, an expert martial artist who was at one time thought (probably correctly) to be a mathematical prodigy, and a sometime speaker of three languages besides English. But compared to a few people I’ve known, and more that I’ve read about, all that is pretty small beer, only low-grade polymathy. Lord Peter Wimseys at some echelon above me exist, all right – they’re just rare.

                      A good real-world example would be D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the author of On Growth and Form – biologist, physiologist, classicist, educator, translator/multilinguist, diplomat, visual artist, mathematically talented, and a stellar writer in English. He probably had half a dozen other gifted-to-genius-class talents that never showed behind the visible ones, too. The few real polymaths I’ve observed directly always do; this is one reason I’ve never believed the multi-factor intelligence theories currently in some vogue.

                      (I do remember one psychometrician remarking that he thought he’d found one talent that wasn’t coupled to g. Good generative sense of musical rhythm. He might have been wrong about the no g-coupling, though, because I have that one.)

                      Wimseys and Thompsons will never be common; I just did a back-of-the-envelope estimate based on my favorite IQ rarity chart and there probably are not more than about 500 polymaths in that class alive even in 7.6 billion people. On the other hand, they’re not uniformly distributed in the world’s population, either, and are relatively concentrated in places a science-fiction writer or fan is likely to be. Which is to say among cognitive elites in European or Northeast Asian populations.

                • The Doc Savage books are technically interesting as an example of books written by a good writer with good character quirks and good ideas and nothing else. The Master Pulp Formula in platonic form. Allston was actually telling a normal story, with some real characterizations behind the character quirks.

              • There are reasons not to read Doc as a Mary Sue — Lester Dent was different enough to Doc that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of wish-fulfillment to the Man of Bronze other than Doc’s associates are a group Dent would clearly have enjoyed hanging out with. Dent was a private pilot, ham radio operator and a fair shot, pretty standard basic skills for habitues of the 86th floor, but also quite devoted to Mrs. Dent and happy to return to smalltown Missouri once he’d found his pace as a pulp writer. And Doc is clearly not a happy guy; he’s driven and a bit alienated, hardly Mary Sue material.

            • >What triggers my “Mary Sue” detectors are characters who are better than all the specialists in the story: Stronger than the Strong Guy, smarter than the Smart Guy, a better pilot than the Pilot Guy, etc.

              Albaugh passes that test for non-MartyStuness – he’s not better than the specialists except where he’s one himself. At first sight he might seem to develop an improbable range of abilities during the novel, but as these are all things one might reasonably expect an older man with a genius IQ and a rejuvenated 20-year-old body to get good at it does not quite break plausibility.

              What I mean by that is rather specific. I wouldn’t expect a 20-year-old genius violinist to get good at espionage and running a war – but give him 40 years of age/experience/hardening and it becomes much more believable. I myself would adapt to those challenges much better today than I could have at 20; perspective makes a difference.

              • It’s important to recognize that heroes really aren’t average people. What makes them heroes is that they’re exceptional. So having a protagonist who is a few SDs above the mean in IQ isn’t an automatic MS conviction. Being better at everything than the experts in each thing is.

                • >It’s important to recognize that heroes really aren’t average people.

                  I disagree. Real-life heroes are often “average” people who rise to an exceptional performance under stress of necessity – for a simple physiological example see this story about an adrenalized man lifting a car off a trapped child. Fictional heroes can be like that too.

                  OK, so maybe it’s more fun for readers to identify with someone whose natural abilities are rather heroic, like David Albaugh. But I think the heroism of ordinary people is more dramatically and morally interesting.

                  • I don’t wholly agree with that, because I’ve read and seen stories where people with unusual talents, or even with superhuman powers, have risen to greater heights in times of desperate need. You just need to come up with a challenge that’s overwhelming enough. But certainly ordinary people’s heroism can be every bit as moving and dramatic. One of the things I like about a lot of S.M. Stirling’s fiction (though I often disagree with his political views) is that he’s really good at doing that kind of scene—I’ve admired him for that ever since the passage in Under the Yoke where Marya Sokolowska recalls the martyrdom of her sisters during the Draka conquest of Europe.

                  • I wouldn’t call that guy a hero because that’s something that *most* people would at least try to do it, and the downside risk is minimal.

                    From a speech by RAH:

                    In my home town sixty years ago when I was a child, my mother and father used to take me and my brothers and sisters out to Swope Park on Sunday afternoons. It was a wonderful place for kids, with picnic grounds and lakes and a zoo. But a railroad line cut straight through it.

                    One Sunday afternoon a young married couple were crossing these tracks. She apparently did not watch her step, for she managed to catch her foot in the frog of a switch to a siding and could not pull it free. Her husband stopped to help her.

                    But try as they might they could not get her foot loose. While they were working at it, a tramp showed up, walking the ties. He joined the husband in trying to pull the young woman’s foot loose. No luck —

                    Out of sight around the curve a train whistled. Perhaps there would have been time to run and flag it down, perhaps not. In any case both men went right ahead trying to pull her free. . .and the train hit them.

                    The wife was killed, the husband was mortally injured and did later, the tramp was killed — and testimony showed that neither man made the slightest effort to save himself.

                    The husband’s behavior was heroic. . .but what we expect of a husband toward his wife: his right, and his proud privilege, to die for his woman. But what of this nameless stranger? Up to the very last second he could have jumped clear. He did not. He was still trying to save this woman he had never seen before in his life, right up to the very instant the train killed him. And that’s all we’ll ever know about him.

                    There’s a notion that plays into some military medals that are not “earned” but “awarded”, and that is the notion of going “above and beyond” one’s duty AND at personal risk.

                    I think both of those are necessary components of heroism.

                    Which doesn’t mean you need that for it to be a good story. An Everyman in a tough situation struggling to rise to the occasion is good too.

                    • >There’s a notion that plays into some military medals that are not “earned” but “awarded”, and that is the notion of going “above and beyond” one’s duty AND at personal risk.

                      Yes, and I think this subthread is getting a bit muddled because two or possibly three different metrics of “heroism” are in play. Is a hero someone who (a) simply performs exceptionally, even if his abilities are exceptional to begin with, or (b) someone who performs well above his normal level due? (I take the element of personal risk for granted; car-lifter dude seriously damaged himself, cracking 8 teeth).

      • Personally, I think the definition of a Mary Sue which appears on the TV Tropes website is pretty serviceable; rather than link to that black hole of time waste, I’ve copied (with significant editing, both to remove the over-abundant capitalized Trope Names, as well as reformatting for the context of this discussion) their definition. Blockquote formatting only so I can cleanly add my personal thoughts which aren’t from TVTropes afterwards.

        The name “Mary Sue” comes from the 1974 Star Trek fanfic A Trekkie’s Tale. Originally written as a parody of the standard self-insert of the time (as opposed to any particular traits), the name was quickly adopted by the Star Trek fanfiction community; male characters are sometimes called a “Gary Stu” or “Marty Stu”. The advent of the Internet allowed the term to migrate out of the Star Trek community, pretty much losing all real meaning in the process. There are dozens upon dozens of essays that offer interpretations of what the term means, generally basing it off of some usages of it, but none of them are truly comprehensive or accepted.

        The prototypical Mary Sue is a female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of wish fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also may lack any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws; alternately, her “flaws” obviously exist only to be endearing. She has an unusual and dramatic history. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their bosom companions, even those who are usually antisocial. Often the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them.

        In brief, a “Mary Sue” character is one important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an implausibly over-skilled/-idealized nature.

        The “Mary Sue” character, to me, is one of the last train stops on the Lazy Writing Failways. To me, there are two critical aspects which must be present before I would call a character a Mary Sue: their central role in “solving” the plot, typically to the point where they seem to be the only character with true agency; and an obvious presentation as the “Vitruvian Man” ideal character, whether or not they are supposed to be an author insert. Not every appearance of the author in a work is a Mary Sue, even when they are central to the work. [I doubt many people would argue the cameo appearances of Stan Lee in every Marvel movie count, but what about Dante Alighieri writing himself into The Divine Comedy?] Still, the trope is not well-defined enough that everyone can agree on which characters are or are not Mary Sues; as the TVTropes page notes, there was a loss of consensus when the term migrated out of the Trek fan writing community.

        • In Signor Alighieri’s defense, The Divine Comedy is a travelogue through Hell and Heaven, written before the invention of the novel as we know it today. Inventing a point of view character other than himself would have been to violate the rules as his audience knew them. He isn’t smarter than his guide, Virgil, if I am remembering The Inferno correctly.

          • On the other hand, we have scenes like the one in Limbo, where Dante and Virgil meet the poets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. And we have the following scene:

            > When they together had discoursed somewhat,
            > They turned to me with signs of salutation,
            > And on beholding this, my Master smiled;
            >
            > And more of honour still, much more, they did me,
            > In that they made me one of their own band;
            > So that the sixth was I, ‘mid so much wit.

            In other words. He meets the five greatest poets of the past, and they place him as the sixth member of their group.

          • From memory, there’s a bit where Dante stops to listen to a couple of people in Hell insulting each other, and Virgil says, “It’s vulgar to enjoy that sort of thing”.

            Not very Mary Sue-ish.

  1. SEK3 was probably the only Holocaust denier in history who was not motivated by antisemitism but by honest if utterly irrational skepticism. He had simply got it in his head that the evidence for this historical event was unreliable, and he would not be budged; but he was equally skeptical of the almost-as-well-established link between smoking and lung cancer, insisting the evidence for that was unreliable too, so one couldn’t hold it against him. One simply had to deal with him, quirks, malicious streak (his “dead Crane” parties), and all.

    • >SEK3 was probably the only Holocaust denier in history who was not motivated by antisemitism but by honest if utterly irrational skepticism.

      Yeah, I noticed that too. I sometimes wonder if he underweighted the evidence for the Holocaust mainly because doing so was such a reliable way to reduce people to sputtering indignation. SEKIII was…a more dedicated contrarian than I am, and that is going some.

      • My impression is that he was a Holocaust denier because he didn’t want to believe one government was much worse than another.

        More SEK skepticism: he believed people were overweight because they overate because they had micronutrient deficiencies. Therefore, taking supplements would cause weight loss.

        All this is leaving me wondering whether his libertarianism was especially thoughtful.

        • >All this is leaving me wondering whether his libertarianism was especially thoughtful.

          People who I consider to be thoughtful have judged him to be a major theorist of the movement. On the other hand, I found most of what he wrote rather obvious if you started with his premises – unlike, say, David Friedman, who I consider a deeper thinker and has sometimes surprised and educated me.

          I think what was really exemplary about Sam was tied to his cranky contrarianism. He never flinched and never backed down, pursuing his premises relentlessly to their logical ends. I think that killed him early – he had plenty of self-discipline when he chose, he could have quit smoking and done something useful about the morbid obesity if he hadn’t talked himself into a position from which that would have looked like retreat. On the other hand, every radical movement needs men like that to give it a spine, to set an example.

          I wasn’t quite close enough to Sam to feel emotional pain when he died – it wasn’t like losing Terry Pratchett, who I met fewer times but felt much more connected to – but I’m glad I knew him and the world is definitely a poorer place without Sam in it.

          • I do think this is a problem for the Right in general, whether conservative or libertarian. Just because a fascist control freak like Michael Bloomberg wants to ban Big Gulps doesn’t mean that you SHOULD be drinking Big Gulps. I believe that there is a civil war in our very near future, and we have a moral responsibility to be physically fit in order to fight for our freedom.

      • The thing about the Holocaust is that due to signaling spirals its badness has been continuously exaggerated, certainly relative to the other mass killings of the 20th century.

          • Unfortunately, the most famous aspects of it are the ones that make it different from the other three. To the point where it badly effect people’s reasoning about how to prevent future massacres.

        • > signaling spirals its badness has been continuously exaggerated,

          Nonsense and balderdash.

          At present it is almost impossible to exaggerate it’s badness. A country decided to conduct genocide against SEVERAL SETS of people (Jews, Gypsies/Rom, Socialists, Homosexuals), and then TRIED TO DO SO. That’s really about as bad as it gets, at least until the Vogons show up to build the hyperspace express route and just erase the whole planet.

          That there are other ideologies and groups (Communism, Socialism and Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hutu etc.) that don’t get hated on as much, or that some *people* use it as a weapon to attack others does not in any way, shape or form make it less bad.

          It just makes organizations who cover up or otherwise excuse crap like Holodomor, the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields, The Rwandan genocide utter filth who aren’t fit to allow into society.

          • > A country decided to conduct genocide against SEVERAL SETS of people

            You can say that about any massacre and get an arbitrary large number of sets by making the sets arbitrarily small.

            > That there are other ideologies and groups (Communism, Socialism and Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hutu etc.) that don’t get hated on as much

            Well a large part of the reason the Holocaust is so well known and infamous is that those groups helped spread the word about it in order to distract attention from their own atrocities.

          • > At present it is almost impossible to exaggerate it’s badness.

            That sentence is a great example of the kind of signaling spiral I’m talking about. Taken literally its clearly false, it’s possible to exaggerate anything. Of course, you didn’t mean it literally. You meant it as an expression of your disapproval of it. However, you then proceed to use it in an argument as if you meant it literally. And that’s how signalling spirals work.

          • ” A country decided to conduct genocide against SEVERAL SETS of people (Jews, Gypsies/Rom, Socialists, Homosexuals), and then TRIED TO DO SO. That’s really about as bad as it gets”.

            Disagree. The worse genocides are the ones that succeed. Talk to any Powhatans, Hittites, or Scythians recently?

            • Well, yes and no. Whether a people were totally exterminated is one measure. But industrial scale extermination of millions of people in a few years has a special horror; as the Marxists put it, quantity has a quality all its own.

              • >But industrial scale extermination of millions of people in a few years has a special horror; as the Marxists put it, quantity has a quality all its own.

                Minor point: “quantity has a quality all its own” is commonly attributed to Stalin, but seems actually to have been written by a historian about Stalin. It’s one of those cases where the misattribution sticks because it is something Stalin might very well have said; there are similar ideas in Marxist theory.

                Major point: genocide seems to have been pretty rare before the 20th century. The normal population-replacement pattern in human history before that is basically men get killed, women become slaves or concubines; this leaves a combination of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial haplotypes in the descendant population that is unmistakable.

                The major exception to this rule was the 13th-century expansion of the Mongol empire. While individual war-leaders might have preferred rape and enslavement, the Empire used the explicit threat of genocide as a means of inducing capitulation and carried through on it with hideous frequency. Some historians estimate that fully 5% of the entire human population of Earth in that century died in this manner.

                • It’s pretty impressive if the Mongols were able to accomplish that without industrial technology. Do you have a specific source to point to? It can be a book; I have a university library a short walk away.

                  I trust you’re familiar with the genetic evidence on how widely dispersed the genes of Genghis Khan and his heirs have become?

                  • >It’s pretty impressive if the Mongols were able to accomplish that without industrial technology. Do you have a specific source to point to? It can be a book; I have a university library a short walk away.

                    I don’t have my original sources handy. The Wikipedia article on Destruction under the Mongol Empire is pretty good about Mongol grand strategy, but does not cite specific instances such as the population massacres at Urgench and Merv during the conquest of the Khwarezmid empire.

                    >I trust you’re familiar with the genetic evidence on how widely dispersed the genes of Genghis Khan and his heirs have become?

                    Yes.

            • >The worse genocides are the ones that succeed. Talk to any Powhatans, Hittites, or Scythians recently?

              Er, wait. I’m pretty sure none of those qualify as genocides.

              Most of the Powhatan deaths were accidental due to imported diseases. It’s true the tribe lost badly in a war with the British, but only was there no plan to wipe them out but enough intermarriage that a lot of 19th-century landed gentry in Virginia were of mixed ancestry and knew it.

              Nobody ordered the death of the Hittites, either; the neo-Hittite cities were absorbed by the neo-Assyrian Empire. Yes, the Hittite language vanished, but this was probably due to normal language death after conquest rather than population replacement (somewhat as Spanish displaced Amerind languages in South America). Same deal with Scythians; they seem to have merged into proto-Slav and Turkic populations. There’s neither historical record nor archeological evidence that they were deliberately wiped out by anybody, and considering their geographic range that would have been very difficult to arrange without trace.

              I think we need to be careful what we call genocide. The deliberate, ordered extinction of a people is a different matter from decimation in ordinary warfare or plague.

        • There are several significant ways in which the Holocaust is unique, and much “worse” (if such a thing is possible) than those other cases.

          1. The industrial scale on which it was carried out. The government adopted a policy of wiping certain people out, and it was implemented with all the detachment and efficiency that would be used for a policy of eliminating some noxious weed, or of painting all government offices green.

          2. The fact that there was no reason for the Germans to want the Jews dead. The Jews were not their enemies. On the contrary, the experience of World War I left Jews with good feelings about the Germans, and had the Germans not decided to persecute them many of them would have gladly helped the Germans in WW2. At least one relative of mine stayed in Riga and turned down the opportunity to flee into the USSR, because he couldn’t believe the friendly Germans of WW1 could have turned so evil in such a short time.

          In every other case of “genocide” the killers had good reason to fear and/or hate their victims, or they wanted something their enemies had.

          Many such cases occurred in the context of a war. The Tutsi kept the Hutu numbers down for fear of being massacred themselves if they didn’t; the Hutu in turn killed the Tutsi to prevent such culling.
          The Khmer Rouge killed in order to bring about the true communist paradise. Again they had a reason.

          The Turks were at war with Christendom and feared an Armenian revolt that would join the enemy and bring them down. Stalin and Mao feared insurrection, so they put down potential rebels. Ditto the Japanese; their atrocities were committed for the purpose of keeping power and discouraging rebellion.

          In other cases people were killed for religion. Christians massacred Jews, Moslems massacred Hindus, because they believed the wrong things, and such beliefs had to be extirpated from the earth. But the Germans had no particular objection to Jewish beliefs, and didn’t distinguish between religious Jews, secular Jews, Christian Jews, or even National Socialist Jews if there were any. They killed them not for what they believed but for who they were.

          And it’s this senselessness that I think makes the Holocaust truly unique. The Germans invented a mythology about how the Jews were their enemies, out of whole cloth. They convinced themselves that they were ridding the world of vampires, but it wasn’t true. The Jews had nothing the Germans wanted, and wanted nothing the Germans had. So they were killed for no reason at all, even a twisted reason.

          • > In every other case of “genocide” the killers had good reason to fear and/or hate their victims, or they wanted something their enemies had.

            And the Germans wanted the Jews’ money.

            > The Khmer Rouge killed in order to bring about the true communist paradise.

            I don’t see how this is different from:

            > The Germans invented a mythology about how the Jews were their enemies, out of whole cloth.

            This seems like the same thing the communists did.

            I could just as easily say “The Nazis killed in order to bring about the true Aryan paradise” and “The communists invented a mythology about how the kulaks were their enemies, out of whole cloth.”

            > Stalin and Mao feared insurrection, so they put down potential rebels.

            And the Nazi feared the Jews would sabotage their war effort. This fear was about as well grounded in reality as Stalin’s and Mao’s fears of insurrection by the members of their own cult of personality.

            • And the Germans wanted the Jews’ money.

              The vast majority of the Jews they killed had no money to speak of. The cost of killing them was more than what little could be rifled from their corpses. And if all they wanted of the rich Jews was their money they could have just taken it.

              The Khmer Rouge killed in order to bring about the true communist paradise.

              I don’t see how this is different from:

              The Germans invented a mythology about how the Jews were their enemies, out of whole cloth.

              This seems like the same thing the communists did.

              It’s very different. The Khmer Rouge didn’t invent a mythology about how educated city dwellers would oppose and work against the creation of a communist paradise; it was true. So they decided to turn them into the kind of people who would fit into such a world, and shoot those who showed they couldn’t be transformed.

              I could just as easily say “The Nazis killed in order to bring about the true Aryan paradise” and “The communists invented a mythology about how the kulaks were their enemies, out of whole cloth.”

              No, you couldn’t. The Germans had no reason to want a Jew-free empire, and certainly not to fear that “the Jews would sabotage their war effort”. They could very easily have been friendly or even neutral about Jews, like Mussolini, and many/most Jews would have supported them, or at least not opposed them. They had a store of goodwill built up among Jews. The kulaks, OTOH, were always going to oppose the communists, because the very nature of the communist experiment required stealing everything the kulaks had. So they had to do something about that.

              • > The vast majority of the Jews they killed had no money to speak of. The cost of killing them was more than what little could be rifled from their corpses. And if all they wanted of the rich Jews was their money they could have just taken it.

                This is as, arguably more, true for the victims of Stalin or the Khmer Rouge. The majority of Stalin’s victims were communist party members and poor peasants who objected to the government taking away (socializing) their land. Whereas most Jews were middle class.

                > The Germans had no reason to want a Jew-free empire,

                They had as much reason as the communist had for wanting to create a completely equal distribution of property.

                > and certainly not to fear that “the Jews would sabotage their war effort”.

                Well, they believed that the Jews had done just that in WWI.

                Basically you seem to be arguing from a double standard: “what the Communists did was reasonable given their premises” and “what the Nazis did was unreasonable because their premises were wrong”.

                • Most Jews killed in the Holocaust were not middle class. They had nothing worth taking. And even the ones who did have money were not killed in order to take it; on the contrary the object was to kill them, and whatever money could be taken from them in the process was lagniappe.

                  The Germans had literally no reason to worry about the Jews opposing their war efforts. The claim that they had done so in WW1 was false. That make their objective of killing them irrational.

                  Whereas the people the communists killed were mostly not loyal communists; they really did have property to steal, or dissenting views that threatened the communists’ hold on power. So yes, there was a reason to kill them.

                  Look, raping attractive women, mugging little old ladies, and knocking over banks and liquor stores is rational. As Willie Sutton probably didn’t say, that’s where the money is. The mafia and the drug gangs commit their crimes for a reason. Even with the ones who kill in order to sow terror of them, so the survivors will be cowed and give them no resistance, that’s a reason. The Holocaust had no reason. That’s what makes it so much more shocking than all the other atrocities.

                  • > Most Jews killed in the Holocaust were not middle class. They had nothing worth taking.

                    Not really. One the the Nazi grievances against Jews was that they were disproportionately represented among the rich. Which was obviously the result of their sinister conspiracies.

                    > And even the ones who did have money were not killed in order to take it; on the contrary the object was to kill them, and whatever money could be taken from them in the process was lagniappe.

                    And the primary reason for killing the kulaks wasn’t their money, but that they were “class enemies”. Any property taken was quickly squandered through mismanagement.

                    > Whereas the people the communists killed were mostly not loyal communists; they really did have property to steal, or dissenting views that threatened the communists’ hold on power.

                    Only in the sense that they didn’t want to get killed or have their property taken. By that metric there was also a good reason to kill Jews.

                    • Eugene, it just isn’t true that most Jews they killed had money worth taking. The majority were poor. Their perception of Jews as rich derived from their delusion of Jews as vampires who needed staking, not the other way around.

                      Whereas the kulaks were “class enemies” only because they would naturally not want to give up their property. Which was perfectly true.

                      The kulaks were natural enemies of any communist regime. The Jews were not natural enemies of the nazis. As Hayek pointed out, all the socialist refugees from Germany were Jews, because the gentile socialists stayed and became nazis, and the Jewish ones would have done so too if only the nazis would have them.

                      They had no reason to hate Jews, and they’d have been a lot better off — probably would have won the war — had they not. For one thing they’d have kept the physicists they drove into exile, who ended up working on the Manhattan Project. Most of them would not have objected to working for a non-antisemitic National Socialist party.

          • “1. The industrial scale on which it was carried out…”

            And the industrial processes that were used to carry it out. _That_ is unique. Mass killings have nearly always been a societal descent into animalistic brutality. For instance, during the Great Purge, NKVD men dubbed their mass shooting actions “weddings” because the killers all got roaring drunk first.

            The Holocaust was carried out by cold sober men who applied the highest human functions to the task: designing processes for killing, with mathematics and technical expertise.

            Of course that was only half the story: much of the Holocaust and related crimes was perpetrated as a mass indulgence in sadism – which was all the more horrifying because the people who did it had been regarded as among the most advanced in the world.

  2. Just to be sure I’ve looked the right guy up on Amazon – this is the fella that wrote “Alongside Night”….yes?

    Thanks for the tip off…I’ll be keen to kindle this one :)

    • >Just to be sure I’ve looked the right guy up on Amazon – this is the fella that wrote “Alongside Night”….yes?

      It is, yes.

  3. It sounds like this book would be a profitable read for someone who enjoyed the Illuminatus Trilogy or the SubGenius Mythos.

    • >It sounds like this book would be a profitable read for someone who enjoyed the Illuminatus Trilogy or the SubGenius Mythos.

      That it would be.

  4. On another subject, our family has been forced into a move, and we have two cats who will (unfortunately) require rehoming. If you’re in So Cal and wouldn’t mind an extra cat, we have two very nice kitties who need new places to live. One is a younger male who has been neutered, possibly most handsome cat I’ve ever seen, and the other is an older black female who has been spayed. You can write me at tungtung (at) pacbell.net if you’ve got any interest.

  5. *But I knew SEKIII, and if there was ever a man who could make light of having a 50KT nuclear warhead stashed for safekeeping in his apartment, it was him.*

    Robert Heinlein, in PODKAYNE OF MARS, perhaps? Okay, it wasn’t 50KT, but Clark Fries did get a bribe to carry an atomic bomb onto a spacecraft (to blow it up; the conspirators mistakenly thought he was a stupid kid), and then disabled it but kept it around, just in case he might need it.

  6. Wow. I’m blown away by this discussion, and I’d never even heard of “Mary Sue” or “Marty Stu.”

    I’m pretty sure that David Albaugh isn’t one, though, as throughout the narrative he keeps coming back to his mathematical incompetence.

    As for my real-life friend Sam Konkin being a holocaust denier, no. He wasn’t. He was a supporter of revisionist history, and that has to include the Encyclopedia Britannica article (I own the 1968 edition) that refers to the gassing of Jews at Dachau (so does Heinlein in Have Space Suit Will Travel) which later orthodox Jewish historians now agree never happened.

    Sam got lied about a lot. That he was anti-Semitic or pro-Nazis are among those lies — usually from crats looking for any excuse to attack one of the most brilliant anarchist theoreticians ever.

    By the way, the nuke in “Cult of the Individual” in Chapter 33 is fifty megaton, not kiloton.

    • >By the way, the nuke in “Cult of the Individual” in Chapter 33 is fifty megaton, not kiloton.

      Thanks, correction made.

      >Sam got lied about a lot.

      Oh hell yeah. I disagreed with him on a number of issues, but the crazed wrath of his enemies was often the best argument for backing him up. Rather like unto the Donald that way…

    • >He was a supporter of revisionist history, and that has to include the Encyclopedia Britannica article (I own the 1968 edition) that refers to the gassing of Jews at Dachau (so does Heinlein in Have Space Suit Will Travel) which later orthodox Jewish historians now agree never happened.

      I have to take issue with this. The claim “Jews were gassed at Dachau” cannot properly classed as “revisionist history”. First, because (yes, I dug into this – the affadavit of Dr. Franciszek Blaha in volume 5 of the Nuremberg proceedings is pretty convincing) on the evidence it’s almost certainly true – but the real issue here is metalevel and applies even if it’s false.

      An error of historical fact is not the same thing as revisionism. Revisionism attempts to overturn not merely facts but historiography and interpretation; “Jews were gassed at Dachau” reinforced mainstream historiography of the Holocaust between 1958 and 1968, therefore it cannot be classed as revisionism.

      (My conclusion after some research is that to high confidence Jews were indeed gassed at Dachau, but it also looks likely that the number of deaths was later greatly inflated. Whether this was an honest error or some propaganda maneuver is unclear – I’d have to dig deeper to form any judgment about that.)

      • One argument about gas chambers that I heard:

        Isn’t it a remarkable coincidence that all the Nazi gas chambers were in areas “liberated” the the Soviets and thus could not be independently inspected by people who didn’t have an incentive to exaggerate Nazi crimes to divert attention from their own crimes.

        • >Isn’t it a remarkable coincidence that all the Nazi gas chambers were in areas “liberated” the the Soviets and thus could not be independently inspected by people who didn’t have an incentive to exaggerate Nazi crimes to divert attention from their own crimes.

          This would be consistent with exaggeration of crimes that were already hideous. I don’t think survivor testimony can or should be discounted here.

      • To a high confidence current mainstream historians now agree that the gas chambers at Dachau were never used on humans.

        Also see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_revisionism for a general understanding of what it is that Konkin supported: the provable based on documents, forensics, and the eyewitnessed over the political propaganda of professional liars.

        Konkin was also at war with censorship, trying, fining, and punishing writers and other historians who disagreed with official history.

        • >To a high confidence current mainstream historians now agree that the gas chambers at Dachau were never used on humans.

          Under that theory, why the fake showerheads? Is it contended that the affadavit of Dr. Franciszek Blaha was false? If it is, on what grounds do we have to consider any witness reliable in any direction?

          • For some reason I can’t fathom Google is top loading IHR writers instead of mainstream, Israeli, and other Jewish writers who years ago abandoned claims that the gas chambers as Dachau were used for extermination.
            I’m not going to debate this until I can re-find my original sources — unless I’ve shifted timelines, myself

            • >I’m not going to debate this until I can re-find my original sources — unless I’ve shifted timelines, myself

              Fair enough.

              On the object level, I don’t have any skin in the question of whether the Dachau gas chamber ever killed Jews; comparatively speaking that amounts to a cupful of blood in an ocean of well-established horrors. On the metalevel, though, your assertion about mainstream belief left me feeling like *I* had undergone a timeline shift. Those fake showerheads bother me.

              You haven’t been a regular here, so a related thing you don’t know that might be of interest to you is that thinking seriously about the Holocaust is what turned me from minarchist to anarchist.

          • The fake showerheads only show what their intentions were when they built the place. They don’t indicate anything about what they actually ended up doing. It’s perfectly possible that for some reason they just never got around to using the chamber for its intended purpose.

            This exchange reminds me of the common myth that they made soap out of Jews. The fact is they didn’t. But it’s not that they weren’t capable of it. In fact they did think of it, and conducted a feasibility experiment, which concluded that it wasn’t practical. So the fact that they didn’t do it doesn’t say anything good about them.

  7. Getting back to the review, I have added a line or two at various places in the novel to make intent clearer, and I added a new section to Chapter 26 about the “Superman/Spider-Man” crossover movie.

    This discussion also moved me to add this line to Chapter 34:

    “Don’t you dare call me Mary Sue, either.”

    • >“Don’t you dare call me Mary Sue, either.”

      Hm…that’s a first. I don’t recall one of my reviews altering the text of a novel before. Insert Schrodinger-effect joke here.

      Thank you for participating in the discussion.

      • Thanks, indeed!

        And, well, the Internet has changed may things before; the relationship between author and reviewer – and the work and the review – is merely one of a myriad.

  8. I’ve been trying to remember what SEK3 said to me about the Holocaust, and I think it was that the numbers killed were much lower than generally believed and it was an accident. I believe he mentioned typhus.

    Anyone have something more exact about his beliefs?

    • Nancy, Sam had an abundance of Jewish friends, so much so that when after-meetings of the NYU Science Fiction Society met at a glatt kosher deli because several of the members were Orthodox Jewish, it was me — the secular Jew — who called for a less pricey venue.

      Sam never expressed any hostility for the State of Israel greater than his distaste for all other States.

      As for the Holocaust, Sam was far more concerned that no viewpoint be suppressed than he was concerned with any ultimate outcome of facts.

      I spent a lot of time around Sam and he was more interested in other questions of revisionist history — the U.S. Civil War, World War I, and World War II in general — than he was about the specifics of Hitler’s murder plan. If Sam had any natural tendency it was to increase the body counts of Stalin, Mao, and the Allies (particularly with the bombing of Dresden) than to minimize Hitler’s crimes.

    • The Wikipedia article on him, at the moment I looked, ends with the statement: “Konkin personally rejected Holocaust denial, but defended the IHR because he believed its freedom of speech was being suppressed.”

      (IHR being the folks who try to make the academic case for Holocaust denial.)

      • Well, that wasn’t the impression I got from personal conversations with him, but my recollections would be a primary source, which is not welcome on Wikipedia.

        One of the flaws of Wikipedia is that people can write the most stupid nonsense, so long as they can find a book published by a publishing house that says so, and you can’t delete it on the basis that it’s just not true. In one instance I got the original source quoted by the cited book to edit the article and delete the quote, on the grounds that he never told the author that, and he got reverted and told that his own recollection was not a reliable source but the published book claiming him as a source was.

    • Nancy, I don’t remember Sam’s exact words to me but they were something similar to what you report. I got pretty upset about it at first, and wasn’t in any mood to debate him on it, but one of his friends later put it into the perspective of his other crazy skepticisms and I understood where he was coming from.

      Neil, nobody is accusing him of antisemitism. As I wrote when I introduced the subject, I think he’s probably the only Holocaust denier in history who was not motivated by antisemitism but by a genuine — if irrational — skepticism. He did indeed seem to be as pro-Israel as any anarchist could be; this makes sense, since its opponents all seek to replace it not with an anarchy but with a much worse state.

  9. I have to say, that phrase ‘timeline opera’ really catches my fancy. Makes me think of certain works by Keith Laumer. (And to a much lesser extent, Poul Anderson.)

    And that’s a good thing. I think I’d like to check this out.

  10. > Beware of even considering them just wish-fulfillment, let alone Mary Suism. The author might actually be like that, or know someone who is. It happens. Polymathy is a real thing.

    The chief wish-fulfillment aspects I see in Peter Wimsey is that he’s rich, high-status, and indulges in Nice Things. I vaguely remember reading that Dorothy Sayers had him indulge in Nice Things as a way to vicariously do so herself, when she was poor and unable to otherwise do so.

    Peter Wimsey’s polymathy is only a minor or even tangential part of the wish-fulfillment aspects of his character. In any case, mere wish-fulfillment doesn’t bother me, even in fairly large doses.

    And I agree with “It happens. Polymathy is a real thing.” So I don’t find it implausible or troubling when it happens in fiction.

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