The Critics’ Corner
Bewildering Stories discusses
Misunderstandings in The Dohani War
with Gary Inbinder and Don Webb
The Dohani War, chapter 11 appears in this issue.
[Gary Inbinder] “I slept with Jane in my arms. It was all completely innocent.” Could this be an example of unreliable narrative? ;-)
[Don Webb] Heh... I think we can take Dexter at his word. He has always been a consummate gentleman. And although he admits he’s attracted to Jane, he has always been rather strait-laced, even a little prudish. Remember the shower scene in chapter 3? Not to mention the bathing-suit comedy at the swimming pool, in chapter 9.
[Gary I.] In this episode of The Dohani War, communication is complicated by Jane’s flawed logic: All humans are bad. She may have arrived at this generalization by induction (pirates) and prejudice (Dohani indoctrination). But humans are obviously not “all” bad, since she’s granted exceptions to her rule. She’s even gone so far as to grade them on a scale.
Regardless, in war we presume all the enemy are bad because war requires that we kill them indiscriminately before they do the same to us; for example, civilian collateral damage.
Moreover, there can be strong arguments for a Carthaginian peace with an implacable enemy, as in Cato the Elder’s Delenda est Carthago. Some of the humans and Dohani in the present story would be stuck with the same false premise regarding each other. Perhaps both sides plan the total annihilation of the foe with the preservation of a couple of examples of the “good” among the enemy camp.
This installment gets very technical in its examination of language, analytical philosophy, logic, and epistemology. Wheeew! A writer walks a narrow path when he waxes philosophical, since there’s a danger he’ll wander into the weeds and become lost in a swamp of intellectual confusion.
There are many examples of great literature in which dramatic conflict ensues from the characters’ misunderstandings of each other, while avoiding the pitfalls of getting too technical in the exposition.
Appearances are deceiving, yet we’re left to make judgments based on what seems, rather than what is. Consider any number of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet for example. Or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or Henry James’ Daisy Miller.
In that regard, I believe James went about as far as an author can go in explaining the epistemological and syllogistic underpinnings by which one character “categorizes” and judges another.
[Don W.] Agreed, an audience of university undergraduates might learn a lot from identifying the philosophical problems implied in chapter 11. “Marezydoats in Outer Space” provides an example in terms of pedagogy.
Mercifully, readers of high-school age don’t have to wrestle with ten-dollar words; they see the philosophy and pedagogy in action. And they may have fun trying to answer the Challenge question: “How might Dexter better explain — using only the vocabulary available to him and Jane — who the pirates were?”
The language problem is huge, of course. First, Dexter has to apply information theory by teaching Jane the word and concept of “message.” Dexter says, "It was difficult,” and that’s saying a lot. Then he has to apply set theory to explain that pirates are human but not all humans are pirates.
Jane does grasp the concepts in practice, but she does not have enough proficiency in human language to explain what she means by “bad.” She says, “Human bad,” but she also says that Dexter and Jane are good and that even Charts can be good half the time.
Jane needs the words for “enemy” and “friend.” And the Dohani need to learn how truly alien humans are. Otherwise, Cato’s “Carthaginian peace” is a very likely outcome of the Dohani War.
The Discussion continues in issue 518.