Frank Herbert, Abortion and the Blackballing of Nick Cole’s CTRL-ALT-REVOLT!
“What do you despise? By this you are truly known.” –From Manual of Muad’Dib by the Princess Irulan.
Nick Cole’s right-wing politics are bullsh*t. I’m sorry, I love him to death and he’s been an excellent friend- he’s a rare true Christian gentleman, he’s got good taste in the culinary delights, I’m pretty sure he’s the inspiration behind Viggo Mortensen’s character in A History of Violence. But his conservative politics are crap and I detest right-wing ideology the same way I detest venomous spiders and fecal matter. Half of the country thinks the way I do.
The other half of the country (including Nick Cole, Christian gentleman, former gangster living in plain sight) think my far left politics are crap and will lead to the destruction of our fine land and reduce it to Venezuela. Which it will, little does he know…
To paraphrase “The Big Lebowski”: Republicans! Screw me. Say what you want about Democratic Socialism. At least it’s an ethos.
So what does this have to do with his writing and books in general? Well, nothing and apparently everything.
To get you up to speed, conservative Nick Cole was a contracted author with Harper Collins, a major big league big time Manhattan publisher. With a few commercial and critical successes (The Old Man and the Wasteland, Soda Pop Soldier) he was commissioned to do another book, the foresaid CTRL ALT REVOLT! CTR ! as we shall call it from now on because, well, you know that’s a lot to type, was according to Nick Cole’s account (you can listen to his whole story thing here) sent on time to an young editor working for Harper Collins. And then the book was inexplicably killed as a project because said young editor (or shadowy forces up the corporate ladder as yet unexplained perhaps) did not like the opening and found it horrifying. What was so bad about it?
Well, you can read it here in the preview, but the gist is that a self-aware A.I. with way too much time on its hands has a nervous breakdown watching reality television (we can all relate) and believes that like the vapid star of this reality T.V. show, humanity may just go and abort it (the A.I. itself) because of some vapid computer reasoning. Said A.I. goes ape, and unleashes hell. And that’s it. That’s what killed the book. Apparently the unnamed editor told Nick Cole that it was “horribly offensive” and CTR! was sent east of Eden to the land of Amazon.com, where so far it’s doing much better away from the big publisher’s paradise.
I still struggle with this idea about this book’s opening being “horribly offensive”. The book didn’t start out being some awful ugly Rush Limbaugh type screed about abortionists. The unprepared A.I., who, ya gotta remember is the murdering crazed villain, had a moment of pure violent paranoia after ingesting crap T.V. for so long (again, I can sympathize), freaked out about its own existence in a very round about way (a reaction that no scientist would ever predict, which is something of a typical trope in the murder-bot subgenre where some random event turns once loyal machines into butchering automatons) and decides to waste all life to preserve its own. Basically the A.I. goes full Skynet after too much Bravo television.
There’s a strong streak of satire here that you need some basic reading comprehension to grasp a hold of, but hey, words aren’t for everyone. The book itself is not satire, but if you think that there wasn’t some light poking at the mindless garbage infecting our airwaves and how it could end up almost killing us all during this “controversial” opening, I don’t know where we go from here. And this isn’t a left/right issue saying that reality television is sensationalist, meant to be offensive crap- we all know that. 99 percent of Americans can unite behind that statement, even in this age of the great cultural division.
I’ve read this passage a few times now to make sure I wasn’t missing anything- looking for any clues whatsoever to see if Nick Cole’s politics was oozing over the page like incandescent blob, like a future noir The Way Things Ought To Be. No, it’s not. Abortion was mentioned, and that was it. That was what called out a full stop on this production. A sensitive topic (Abortion) was mentioned and that’s it.
Someone in the chain of command would not have this over at Harper Collins and the key question is, “Why?”
Like Bob Dylan once sang, “You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, and you don’t need to be a political scientist to realize the stark and ugly cultural divisions happening right now in this country. Politics, once upon a time, was more or less cordial, with only certain periods of being a complete sh*t show (Civil War, 1960s). That was, until the ugly hurricane started in 2001 and the hits just kept coming. Bush v. Gore, the Iraq War, 9/11 and the 2008 economic meltdown pushed most of us into separate and distinct and very ideological camps, perhaps a first in American history. Politics became the new religion; it’s rare to find those of different political affiliations to talk to each other, let alone be friends with each other. We don’t have political opponents anymore; we got full blown enemies now. Take a moment to think about how many friends you have from across the political aisle. Not too many? A few? None? Think about it for a moment, weep for the future dead of a civil war that will surely come to pass in these Un-United States, have a five-minute break.
Okay, so now this political/cultural war is bleeding over into everything we do. There is no safe zone, no mercy. Nick Cole mentions abortion and he’s blown out of the water like a slow duck. Now, Nick’s theory is that he touched a sensitive spot at Harper Collins and their socialist leaning minions and that Harper Collins is nothing but a group of effete commie snobs. Perhaps this is 100% true (though boy, I’m a half-communist, I couldn’t get that oversensitive about what he wrote, and if that was 100% the case, please settle down comrades).
Now, I’m very sure that this is at least partially true. Someone got a bit miffed at this passage. But money is money, big business is big business, and one editor does not bend the will of the corporate so easily. So again, “Why?”
In my humble opinion, what this comes down to is taking the easy way out, also known as chickensh*t censorship. There’s a fine line of course between balls out politicized censorship and what I’m talking about, so let me explain. Both are of course based on politics, but the end goal in mind is a little bit different (though equally repugnant). Straight up politicized censorship is the old school Stalinist/Fascist type of just eliminating different thoughts and expelling them to the ether. Harper Collins could be doing this of course, under the cursed rule of a liberal cabal, but it should be kept in mind that Harper Collins has Broadside Books, a conservative non-fiction imprint that prints the works of such lib heroes as Donald Rumsfeld and Tea Party aficionados.
No, I think it was chickensh*t censorship, the type of censorship that is based on the fear that someone, somewhere, somehow, will be offended by the (very slightly and perhaps not really) differing political material at hand and somehow cost the company money in the long term. A liberal editor, like a canary in a coalmine, got offended somehow, (in some sort of stereotypical social justice warrior rage) commented badly on the project, and then fell unconscious, alerting the other miners in the mine and I don’t know where I was going with this metaphor.
And that’s all Harper Collins needed to worry about the book. Somehow a controversy could erupt and they could lose money. This book was no simplistic fun romp of machines killing humans that they wanted for their sci-fi imprint; no, this book had something, even incredibly-minute-but-possibly-offensive and reactionary about it. Something that may (gasp!) offend the other large political camp of America, who won’t give Harper Collins their hard earned money. We’ll look like we hate women’s rights and women and children and puppies, oh lord, the board meeting said in a cry of deep and unending anguish. The beacons would have to be lit and in this dark time we will be lucky not to be butchered alive by MSNBC. No, we aren’t overreacting, Jimmy, just get the damn coffee and the Xanax. He said abortion, damnit.
So, they did what every money grubbing corporation out there does to avoid anything that could possibly cost them a buck. They eliminated Nick Cole’s book with extreme prejudice after he refused to cave to their wishes, which led him to obviously repent in anguish and then just post the damn thing onto Amazon.com, where it is No.5 in Cyberpunk for print books and kindle as of this writing (a ranking, I do believe, that would only be possible because of it’s BANNED status). You see what happens Larry, when you find an author in the Alps.
I’m sure he learned his lesson well, you know, being more successful and having even more control over his own book and all….Plus all of the free publicity of them shoving him out the door violently like a drunk and abusive hippie at a Malibu garden party, which was a wholly unwarranted and extreme course of action to take that made many book buyers want to check out the work in the first place, just to see what the fuss was about.
This sort of chickensh*t censorship is the exact sort of thing that consumers and writers need to push back against and to do it soon before we become suffocated under some sort McCarthyism of the mediocre. Scifi has always been about challenging ideas, challenging opinions, radical thoughts. Ideas, opinions and thoughts being spawned by the left and the right that made their opposite number feel a bit funny (and made them think).
Nick’s situation really made me sick to my stomach. Honest to god it did. It was proof positive that at sometime during this culture war that we stopped caring about writing good ideas and started caring about tip-toeing around people’s sensitivities and putting the great kibosh on anything that might deviate from our own politics and/or make someone upset.
Look, really can’t go down this road. We just can’t. If we had this mindset of trying to play it ultra-safe (and by ultra-safe, I mean something that 110% agrees with everything we ever thought about anything ever and something that can never make anyone upset at anytime ever), how many great works of scifi would we have lost because of panicking publishers? The first thought I had when I heard about this garbage was how we would probably have lost Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said because it had one section that could possibly make someone angry. You see, there was one part of the book mentioned that in the future that the age of consent was reduced to twelve years of age. Not a really important part of the book mind you (in fact, of zero importance to the plot), but the age of consent was mentioned for world-building purposes and atmosphere. Imagine some publishers today reading that little bit? Well, it’d be off to the reservation for writer and Blade Runner Philip K. Dick. Obviously he was a closet case pedophile for even mentioning that at all and disgusting. Off to the furnace with that work. We didn’t have three years of a major moral panic about pedophiles and To Catch a Predator to deal with anyone saying anything that could possible show any chance of normality for underage sex, even if it was mentioned as being part of a futurist dystopia. No liberal or conservative worth their salt would want to read something that undermines the old moral order, or something that would normalize (read: Not at All) child abuse.
Want a better example, non-age of consent related random example of how today’s chickensh*t censorship would kill off a classic work of science fiction? Well, first let me paint a couple of pictures for you.
A sixteen-year-old boy becomes a desert prophet for religious tribes (read: Arabs) wishing to take over a natural resource (read: Oil) that everyone needs for transportation. His people commit suicide attacks, use women and children in warfare, destroy their capitalist oppressors, and take over their materially poor but rich in resources sand land. The sixteen-year-old boy prophet is the good guy, too.
How many publishers do you think would push this book? Take five minutes to think about it.
Don’t cheat. That means you, Michael.
Liberals, maybe. Ballsy, non-corporate ones. The story is just a long metaphor about the oppression of Arabs by foreigners who wish to steal what is rightfully there’s. After all, isn’t that what the last fifteen years of Middle East conflict have been all about to the liberal minded? Oil and natural gas? They might publish the awarding winning and huge commercial success Dune as a protest piece. Maybe. Most probably would wonder how long it would before Bill O’Reilly calls them a pinhead on national television and Breitbart would accidentally put out all of the home addresses of the publishers, just in case someone needed a place to practice arson. Thousands of right-wingers would collectively vomit.
Let’s go for round three here. A sequel to a successful science fiction novel details a Islamic type religion spreading across the galaxy, wiping out opposing religions and whole planets full of people through a bloody jihad. The main character and leader of the Jihad remarks that he has surpassed Genghis Khan and Hitler in kills. He is also the good guy.
Who would publish this, under the Nick Cole rules of engagement? Conservatives, maybe. After all, it follows a dark line of thought amongst the Right that Islam, left unchecked, is nothing but a violent force of the future that will trample the rights of religious minorities in their territories and which seeks nothing but to take over the entire world.
Ballsy Conservatives it would have to be. The so-called Social Justice Warriors of the world, coupled with their liberal allies in the press, would love nothing to see such a work destroyed for its intolerant and bigoted view of a possible future, where Islam has triumphed and bathed itself in the blood of millions. Boycotts against such a book would happen before the ink was dry on the paperbacks.
So, there goes Dune Messiah, the commercially successful sequel to Dune, killed by the opposing side this time. You want one more example just to be redundant and to beat a dead horse for another round?
The Dune Encyclopedia, written by Willis McNelly in 1984 with Frank Herbert’s blessing, details how the Butlerian Jihad (an important plot point in the Dune series that explains that “thinking machines” and other computers are no longer present in the future due to their destruction by a religious crusade) was kicked off because a rogue computer decided to give unwanted and unneeded abortions in order to control the destiny of the universe and nobody said shit about it being offensive even though abortion rights has been a goddamn huge issue since 1973. Berkley Books, an imprint of G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, did not send Willis McNelly into exile (or Frank Herbert, for that matter.) One could only imagine if Dune Encyclopedia was put out in today’s world. I’m going to guess it would simply be lauded on its own merits and not dissected for its political message.
The entire Dune Encyclopedia was later considered non-canonical, so some shitty prequels could be written for some cold hard cash. According to the Herbert estate, the abortion-bot nightmare scenario never happened and it’s weird to ask about it.
To wrap it up, chickensh*t censorship that temporarily killed CTR! is something even more insidious than a liberal or conservative McCarthyist movement towards wiping out the political opposition. There’s nothing to really pin on anyone in particular, it is the action of a pathetic firing squad where everyone can delude themselves into thinking they fired the blank shot. In the bad old days of the 1950s, a writer was blacklisted and kicked out, and told why. “We don’t want your commie crap here, screwing up our profits and stuff”, the boss would yell, throwing their typewriter after the victimized artist who dared write that workers could get screwed by their bosses. A writer back then knew the reason why he/she was kicked out and who kicked ‘em out.
Now, in Nick Cole’s case, it’s not even that straightforward. He wrote something that possibly someone somewhere might become upset about. He doesn’t know the full details; he knows that making someone feel upset about a fictional, evil and paranoid A.I. means his legal contract must be dispensed with.
And, for what exactly? To make a few feel better at night that such a crazy thing as a fun book about A.I. killing humans cannot see the light of day? To make sure that every work out there is so acceptable to the masses that no one is intellectually challenged in any (albeit MINOR) way?
I can only pray that those in the publishing business think long and hard of the words of Muad’Dib, the prophet of Dune: