Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Shooting the Messenger

I've ruminated in the past on the need to remember that at some point, we're all the guys who have to ask a silly question, if only because questions tend to arise from localized silliness. And I preached toleration in the face of those questions.

There are people, however, who can't even come up with the stupid question on their own, and the question is, should we be so lenient with people who come bearing borrowed idiocy?

You'll always know these clowns, because at some point in the conversation - sometimes, presciently, before they say anything else, other times defensively, when they've already said too much - they will utter the words "Don't shoot the messenger!"

To which I've always said, "Well, why the hell not?" The notion that you shouldn't kill the messenger goes back to the medieval origins of diplomacy, when it dawned on kings and tyrants of one kind and another that if they took to whacking emissaries from distant tyrants, nothing would ever get done. Like most medieval ideas, I think it's a little past its sell by date, and besides, nothing I've ever seen of diplomacy has left me with the notion that it's a vital public service without which the world might end. Thus, my working approach to poor long suffering messengers was to put them out of their misery as briskly as possible. Such messengers were a bug up my ass, a pox on my day, a nuisance and a setback in buzzing, gnat-like, almost-human form. Killing them was fun, and carried a number of collateral benefits. If I killed enough of them, one of two things would happen; either they'd stop coming altogether, freeing me up to deal with something more interesting, or whatever boss-level moron was sending them would be forced to lever himself out of his mud encrusted lair and lurch down to convey his stupidity in person, which would lead either to me schwacking him, to the general benefit of the populace, or teaching him to be less stupid, to the slightly smaller benefit of the populace but presumably the greater benefit of my soul. 

So, with a sense of regret (occasional, it must be admitted) I would bludgeon the benighted and get on with my day. It was unfortunate that undeserving schlubs had to feel my wrath in order to make the world a better place, but you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs (though - it turns out - you can break any number of eggs and still not make an omelette).

Lately, I find myself working with people who have tested that simple sense of justice to its sticking point, and I feel a subtle shift coming on. I have concluded that messengers actually deserve to be schwacked, and that whatever they get, they got coming.

I used to buy into this self-serving schtick that they were just innocent victims, powerless to prevent that old debbil boss from telling them to come and ask me questions for which the only honest answer was measured in foot-pounds of impact energy to the solar plexus. But I'm getting older, and I have realized that this is no more an excuse than any other variation of "I was only following orders." If you know you're being told to do something stupid, you still have choices. You can refuse, you can pitch alternatives, you can tell the idiot that the only way to sell something so monstrously dumb is to use the weight of their authority directly. And yet, the messengers troop down to my lair and beard me just like it wasn't a thing.The problem, I've come to see, is that I'm living in a world where people are more afraid of their bosses than they are of me.

It is plainly time to revisit some of these lenient policies which have led to me being seen as a soft touch. Starting with this lax notion of shooting messengers. I'm thinking skulls on stakes round my doorway.

Micro; Zombie Michael Crichton lurches through Hawaii

A couple of years ago, I slogged quickly through Pirate Latitudes, a book they found in Michael Crichton's desk drawer after he died. It struck me at the time that there was probably a lot of other stuff there, and it would, with any luck, never see the light of day. Luck isn't so kind, and the process of hiring people to flesh out the outlines is now thoroughly under way. They hired in Richard Preston, who's mostly a writer of non-fiction about micro-biology, and got him to finish off the first of them. I'm guessing they led with the best; not an encouraging sign for anything else they've teed up.

Towards the end of his writing career, Crichton seems to have lost whatever spark of novelty he had. He'd never been good at characters or dialogue and he got by from the outset on a fertile imagination and a knack for explaining tricky things. It's only as I read things like Micro that I realize that one of the other early strengths was his preference for talking about skilled professionals tackling something they thought they understood, but which were actually a bit beyond them. Somewhere along the line, he seems to have bought into the Hollywood notion that engaging fiction needs a cast of relatable everymen  who the audience can see as surrogates for themselves, and once he went down that road, the books got a lot worse. 

Crichton's real breakthrough was The Andromeda Strain, which pitted a cast of experts against a space virus. They'd been specifically selected by people who knew they'd be out of their depth, and the planning had included planning for what people might get wrong when they were baffled; part of the fun of the book is how planning wasn't quite enough, but it was still a tribute to the idea that when you want to get a job done, you hire people who know how to do the job. Micro pits a bunch of graduate students against something they don't even understand and are completely unprepared for. It's very Hollywood, and it's not very good.

What's disappointing is that the book is all about something which the early Crichton would have made a much better job of. The McGuffin is technology which can shrink people to a half an inch high, which lets them explore the world of insects and spiders from a novel perspective while exposing them to the hazard of being eaten by what they're studying. Early Crichton would have seen that as more than enough to be getting on with, and would have shown us a whole A team going in prepared to the hilt and having a bad time anyhow. (Congo is a perfect example of how he could have kicked off). Instead, Micro chucks half a dozen ingenues into the wilderness because they're the victims of an evil plot, which means that no-one has a clue what they're doing, and half of the book is about evil plot when it could be about the myriad cooler  and unusual things which it ought to be about. 

I don't know why Crichton drifted into the idea that everything ought to have a villain, though I'm inclined to blame the dumbing down that comes with movies. What struck me this morning was the way that the villain in most of his books was always the same villain, the megalomaniac CEO of the reckless high tech corporation. Was that a reaction to endlessly dealing with the megalomaniac CEOs of media corporations, or was he driven by the current argument that corporations are the great sociopaths of the modern age and that there's ample evidence that the sort of people who wind up running them are troublingly similar to serial killers in real life? I've read his nonfiction essays and they don't shed much light on that question. He was, however, a man with very strong ideas about things that were being perceived wrongly and most of his books were written as a warning about something that was bugging him. So I'm not ruling out a meta-message in his recurring choice of bad guys.

Still, I could wish that instead of giving the outline to Richard Preston, they had somehow found a younger Michael Crichton, one who would have run with the wonder of the central idea and realized that a grown up book about a different world would have enough marvels not to need hokey corporate shenanigans. And I could hope that whoever's sitting on the rest of the stockpile will read this, or just figure that out on his own, and that any more of this stuff does more justice to what Crichton was best at.