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Author Topic: PC032: Senator Bilbo  (Read 18399 times)
Heradel
Bill Peters, EP Assistant
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« on: November 04, 2008, 01:27:58 PM »

PC032: Senator Bilbo

By Andy Duncan.
Read by Frank Key (of Hooting Yard)

Dear Americans,

Happy Election Day. As we all go to the polls and wait with mixed anticipation and anxiety for the poll results, PodCastle is happy to bring you into the electoral politics of another world — Tolkein’s — dealing with a trope all sides of the political spectrum can agree on, corrupt senators.

The rest of the world, I hope you’ll forgive our electoral America-centrism, and I hope you enjoy the story.

The Senator jotted down Appledore’s name without pause. He could get a lot of work done while making speeches – even a filibuster nine hours long (and counting).

“There are forces at work today, my friends, without and within our homeland, that are attempting to destroy all boundaries between our proud, noble race and all the mule-gnawing, cave-squatting, light- shunning, pit-spawned scum of the East.”

The Senator’s voice cracked on “East,” so he turned aside for a quaff from his (purely medicinal) pocket flask. His allies did not miss their cue. “Hear, hear,” they rumbled, thumping the desktops with their calloused heels. “Hear, hear.”

“This latest proposal,” the Senator continued, “this so-called immigration bill – which, as I have said, would force even our innocent daughters to suffer the reeking lusts of all the ditch-bred legions of darkness – why, this baldfooted attempt originated where, my friends?”

“Buckland!” came the dutiful cry.

“Why, with the delegation from Buckland . . . long known to us all as a hotbed of book-mongers, one-Earthers, elvish sympathizers, and other off-brands of the halfling race.”


Rated PG. For bigotry and orcs.
« Last Edit: November 04, 2008, 01:47:52 PM by Heradel » Logged

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Peter Tupper
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« Reply #1 on: November 05, 2008, 04:21:24 AM »

I had the odd experience of listening to this at work (I work evenings currently) while tracking the US election results. Senator Bilbo started to look like John McCain in my mind, a old man clinging to the past while the world changes around him.

This story takes accurate yet cheap shots at Tolkien, or perhaps more accurately his legacy. Yes, Tolkien's worldview is pretty Tory, the struggle to keep things the way they ought to be. Yes, it's easy to read Tolkien's elves, men, halflings, dwarves, orcs, etc, as racial stereotypes. Yes, halflings are very solidly bourgeois.

The thing you have to remember is that Tolkien came by his anti-modernism honestly: in the trenches of World War I. When he looked to the future, he didn't see personal computers and gay marriage and a black president. He saw Auschwitz and Hiroshima, bigger wars with bigger bombs and humanity degraded by industrialization. (You could say the same thing about CS Lewis.) It's no wonder he created a fantastic world that is in the mythic past, and his best known work is about the ending of an era of magic and beauty, threatened by a future of tyranny.

I'm not sure why I feel I should defend Tolkien from legitimate criticism. He was a product of his time and his religion, like the rest of us. But his influence on fantasy is so overwhelming that maybe more political criticism of the fantasy genre is necessary. Are heroic, epic narratives possible in a setting with a democratic government?

I also have to say I loved the gay trolls.
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Hyperion
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« Reply #2 on: November 05, 2008, 06:05:11 AM »

[I wrote this comment on the website a few minutes ago.  I have never written on a message board, but felt strongly enough to paste it here as well.]



I have read every comment on every story presented at PodCastle, and sometimes I cringe at some of the criticism, which appears reflexive, or else looking to take umbrage over imaginary fiefdoms.

Sigh.

I guess I join those ranks, for “Senator Bilbo” really rubbed me the wrong way. It wasn’t Frank Key’s reading, dependably excellent as always, or even the story itself. For what it was, Andy Duncan laid out the tale clearly with descriptive panache, creating memorable characters quickly, and making halfling bureaucracy not seem wonkish . The tale was about as subtle as a third grade play, but I suppose if social commentary is the aim, “let that be your last battlefield.”

My problem is twofold:

Mixing politics into any story, especially fantasy, is a tricky proposition. If it’s organic from the material, that’s one thing, but an obvious pastiche can look tacky. In particular, the subject of immigration and racial/national identity is at the very least challenging, and treating it with some Boolean-like “either/or” morality reduces both the story and the struggle.

My bigger issue is with the milieu. Certainly Fantasy is no sacred cow, and is as deserving of parody or satire as any genre. Witness the witty and hilarious “Hallah Iron Thighs” of a few weeks ago. However, in that story, the humor derives mostly from the personal struggles of an aging woman blended into the chain-mail babe setting. Fun is poked, but at the tropes, archetypes and cliches of barbarian tales, not at anything specific.

I think “Senator Bilbo” could have achieved its purpose with a recognizable but generic fantasy setting. There was no need to swipe another’s , and of all people, Mr. Tolkien. Say what you want about him; modern fantasy, including this podcast, would not be here without his imagination and hard work.

Tolkien fans have surely read the theories that LOTR is an allegory for WWII, and industrial gentrification of Tolkien’s homeland. You must also know how abhorrent the author found those ideas, and how adamant he was to the bitter end that Middle Earth was as wholly separate a place as he could make it.

If Tolkien were alive today and read this story, and I think he would be mortified. Now, I believe in artistic freedom, and certainly a cultural icon is fair game, but I just cannot help but wonder why this subject, and why this place. It cheapens the “clever,” and makes me sad to see it.

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Corydon
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« Reply #3 on: November 05, 2008, 08:47:36 AM »

Hahahahahahahahaha!

Theodore Bilbo moved to the Shire: classic!  Just classic.  Even better that the rest of the story held up to the conceit: reimagining the Shire Moot in the mold of the 1930s US Congress was terrific, and the gay trolls were hilarious. 

To the last commenter I'd say, lighten up.  I found this story to be a loving (if irreverent) tribute to Tolkien.  To the extent that there was it was a political engagement with Tolkien, it was an inversion of the themes in the "Scouring of the Shire" episode (change, creeping modernity)- but it wasn't dismissive or disrespectful of the source text.  Still, even if you disagree with that assessment, Tolkien's legacy is assured; a story like this isn't going to damage it.

As to its version of Tolkien- well, my own assessment is that LOTR isn't so much racist as it is deeply classist and culturally conservative.  I absolutely agree with Peter Tupper's assessment of Tolkien as a product of his age, and I can't really blame a bourgeois Englishman of the early 20th century for his classism.  (Moreover, while I'm aware of those attitudes, and don't buy into them, they don't diminish my enjoyment of his books.)  Mind you, I can blame those Tolkien imitators (and worse, Gygax imitators) who buy into those attitudes wholesale- but then, there's enough to criticize in sub-Tolkien fantasy to fill its own thread... or its own forum.

Anyway, this was the third Podcastle episode in a row that just hit it out of the ballpark for me.  Big ups to Rachel and the crew!
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Peter Tupper
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« Reply #4 on: November 05, 2008, 12:31:03 PM »

I think “Senator Bilbo” could have achieved its purpose with a recognizable but generic fantasy setting. There was no need to swipe another’s , and of all people, Mr. Tolkien. Say what you want about him; modern fantasy, including this podcast, would not be here without his imagination and hard work.


That's just the problem. A "recognizable but generic fantasy setting" would be Tolkien's Middle Earth with a few name changes, perhaps with a little Jack Vance and Robert E Howard added for flavor. Tolkien's influence on the genre of fantasy is so huge that nearly everything is either a pastiche or a parody of it, or a rebellion against it.

I view this story as a parody of Tolkien, and if it's parody, it isn't theft. It isn't saying Tolkien or his work is racist, classist or conservative, it's saying, "Let's question something we take for granted in his imitators' works."
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wintermute
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« Reply #5 on: November 05, 2008, 12:51:27 PM »

The one issue I had with this was with the wizards of this so-called "Middle Earth": So far as I could tell, they were mere humans who had learned the arts of magic by long study, rather than the literal gods of Tolkien's works.

Other than that, it was pretty good, if a little heavy-handed.
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Hatton
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« Reply #6 on: November 05, 2008, 04:11:28 PM »

Since I'm recovering from the 11/4/08 (putting the date in for historical purposes) election results, this came across to me as a historical element, not a "you need to watch out for this" one.

My biggest complaint of this story came at the end - I felt like it just stopped and didn't go further.

When we look at the concept of cross-breeding, I'm more than a little confused.  As a classic D&D player I know that halflings as "a half-little of everything."  Half-elves are half human and half elf, period.  Halflings don't have a blood line because they don't know where theirs came from!  That makes this story either a classic example of "pot calling the kettle" or maybe it's taking a different approach to the races.

... though come to think of it, the Shire is all of what most halflings think of and most would never think of leaving the borders.
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deflective
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« Reply #7 on: November 05, 2008, 09:25:01 PM »

everything i want to say has already been said and it leaves me with mixed feelings. on one hand it's nice to know that people share your point of view, on the other hand there's these half-formed sentences kicking around in my head. so, recapping some opinions...

i enjoyed the story but it really didn't fit into the middle earth setting. you could predict behaviour by race (broadly, in most cases) in lotr, there were distinct black hats and some distinct white hats and you could tell who was who by looking at them. that was part of the appeal. there was some manufactured dissent between races, corruption was a big theme, but there was a lot of situations where the gods had literally created races in opposition to each other. this was a world of moral absolutes.

rewriting another author's world history (orcs aren't actually twisted elves, wizards are mortals) to suit a story seems somehow disrespectful. if you've got to use retcon then it's not really a tribute anymore.
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Rachel Swirsky
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« Reply #8 on: November 06, 2008, 10:33:22 AM »

So, do those who object to this use of Tolkein, also object to Gregory Maguire's Wicked?
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eytanz
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« Reply #9 on: November 06, 2008, 05:24:19 PM »

So, do those who object to this use of Tolkein, also object to Gregory Maguire's Wicked?

The difference, to me, is that Maguire very clearly gave Wonderful Wizard of Oz a very close reading, and, while he changed a lot in the story, he did so with care, letting the original shape of the story remain, while changing a lot of the details to make the interpretation entirely different.

This story felt like it was written by someone who heard about the Hobbit/LoTR but never actually read the books. It is not a reworking of the Tolkien story, it's writing a story that has nothing to do with Tolkien and using Tolkien names in it.

And note that I write this as someone who actually rather dislikes Lord of the Rings as a book, and who was didn't really enjoy the movies. I don't *like* Tolkien, but I am familiar with his work and I respect it. This story didn't offend me, but it felt as respectful of its source material as most Harry/Ron slash fiction is of its own.

Besides, all of this story's sins against Tolkien pale compared to its cardinal sin against the hearer/listener - it is really boring. The only reason I even listened was because I was mildly curious whether I'll understand what was its point. At the end I realized it's nothing more than a wish-fulfillment story - self-important bigots will not notice social change until it is too late, and then they will get their cumuppance - dressed up in a setting where it doesn't make sense because if it was set in the real world no-one would care. To which I will say two final things:

1 - I've said before (in response to How the world became quiet, actually), I find people portraying my own politics crudely irritating. And this story was degrees of magnitude cruder than How the world became quiet ever was.

2 - This was probably the worst week ever to play this story. Even before it was known that Obama won the US election, the first that he was even in position to win it means that we had moved beyond the need for this kind of cloying wish fulfillment. At least for a while, it's time to enjoy the fact that reality shows that racism can be defeated, not to console ourselves with stories like these.
« Last Edit: November 07, 2008, 06:10:40 AM by eytanz » Logged
birdless
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« Reply #10 on: November 06, 2008, 10:03:50 PM »

So, do those who object to this use of Tolkein, also object to Gregory Maguire's Wicked?

The difference, to me, is that Maguire very clearly gave Wonderful Wizard of Oz a very close reading, and, while he changed a lot in the story, he did so with care, letting the original shape of the story remain, while changing a lot of the details to make the interpretation entirely different.

This story felt like it was written by someone who heard about the Hobbit/LoTR but never actually read the books. It is not a reworking of the Tolkien story, it's writing a story that has nothing to do with Tolkien and using Tolkien names in it.

And note that I write this as someone who actually rather dislikes Lord of the Rings as a book, and who was didn't really enjoy the movies. I don't *like* Tolkien, but I am familiar with his work and I respect it. This story didn't offend me, but it felt as respectful of its source material as most Harry/Ron slash fiction is of its own.

Besides, all of this story's sins against Tolkien pall compared to its cardinal sin against the hearer/listener - it is really boring. The only reason I even listened was because I was mildly curious whether I'll understand what was its point. At the end I realized it's nothing more than a wish-fulfillment story - self-important bigots will not notice social change until it is too late, and then they will get their cumuppance - dressed up in a setting where it doesn't make sense because if it was set in the real world no-one would care. To which I will say two final things:

1 - I've said before (in response to How the world became quiet, actually), I find people portraying my own politics crudely irritating. And this story was degrees of magnitude cruder than How the world became quiet ever was.

2 - This was probably the worst week ever to play this story. Even before it was known that Obama won the US election, the first that he was even in position to win it means that we had moved beyond the need for this kind of cloying wish fulfillment. At least for a while, it's time to enjoy the fact that reality shows that racism can be defeated, not to console ourselves with stories like these.

Except for the fact that I love Tolkien, I agree with pretty much eytan said... especially the part about this story being boring. And at the risk of sounding either naive or arrogant, I really feel like all of us here have safely moved beyond the point of this story having any sort of impact.
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Heradel
Bill Peters, EP Assistant
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« Reply #11 on: November 06, 2008, 10:52:48 PM »

To be fair, I chat with Rachel every now and then about upcoming stories, and this one was bought well before it was clear that Obama was going to be anything but a gifted orator and thinker who made a respectable run at the presidency.
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eytanz
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« Reply #12 on: November 07, 2008, 03:56:12 AM »

To be fair, I chat with Rachel every now and then about upcoming stories, and this one was bought well before it was clear that Obama was going to be anything but a gifted orator and thinker who made a respectable run at the presidency.


To which I have two responses:

1 - One of the risks of buying stories that deal with current affairs, either directly or indirectly, is that events may move in unexpected directions. Certainly, while I stand by everything I said above, an occasional poor choice now and then does not mean that I have any less respect for Rachel's editing or purchasing decisions.

2 - That said, while the purchase of the story may have happened a long time ago, I'm pretty sure that it's scheduling was decided more recently. So, "bad timing" is still a valid criticism, I think.
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Rain
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« Reply #13 on: November 07, 2008, 10:24:54 AM »

Fun story, was better than i expected, heck even Frank Key wasnt as terrible as normal
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stePH
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Cool story, bro!


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« Reply #14 on: November 07, 2008, 10:41:46 AM »

When we look at the concept of cross-breeding, I'm more than a little confused.  As a classic D&D player I know that halflings as "a half-little of everything."  Half-elves are half human and half elf, period.  Halflings don't have a blood line because they don't know where theirs came from!  That makes this story either a classic example of "pot calling the kettle" or maybe it's taking a different approach to the races.

Tolkien's people called themselves "Hobbits" and I understood them to be a "pure" race (not interbred with any othrs). "Halfling" is what the D&D rules called Hobbits.
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wintermute
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« Reply #15 on: November 07, 2008, 01:04:21 PM »

When we look at the concept of cross-breeding, I'm more than a little confused.  As a classic D&D player I know that halflings as "a half-little of everything."  Half-elves are half human and half elf, period.  Halflings don't have a blood line because they don't know where theirs came from!  That makes this story either a classic example of "pot calling the kettle" or maybe it's taking a different approach to the races.

Tolkien's people called themselves "Hobbits" and I understood them to be a "pure" race (not interbred with any othrs). "Halfling" is what the D&D rules called Hobbits.
The earliest rules referred to them as "Hobbits". Then Tolkien's estate threatened to sue TSR for ripping him off so blatantly, and they settled on "halfling", which was also drawn from LotR.
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stePH
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Cool story, bro!


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« Reply #16 on: November 07, 2008, 01:52:29 PM »

Tolkien's people called themselves "Hobbits" and I understood them to be a "pure" race (not interbred with any othrs). "Halfling" is what the D&D rules called Hobbits.
The earliest rules referred to them as "Hobbits". Then Tolkien's estate threatened to sue TSR for ripping him off so blatantly, and they settled on "halfling", which was also drawn from LotR.

Nobody raised an eyebrow over "orcs" then?  I thought they were as much Tolkien's creation as Hobbits.
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wintermute
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« Reply #17 on: November 07, 2008, 02:03:56 PM »

Tolkien's people called themselves "Hobbits" and I understood them to be a "pure" race (not interbred with any othrs). "Halfling" is what the D&D rules called Hobbits.
The earliest rules referred to them as "Hobbits". Then Tolkien's estate threatened to sue TSR for ripping him off so blatantly, and they settled on "halfling", which was also drawn from LotR.

Nobody raised an eyebrow over "orcs" then?  I thought they were as much Tolkien's creation as Hobbits.
I really couldn't say.
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Rachel Swirsky
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« Reply #18 on: November 07, 2008, 06:22:23 PM »

"2 - That said, while the purchase of the story may have happened a long time ago, I'm pretty sure that it's scheduling was decided more recently. So, "bad timing" is still a valid criticism, I think."

Nope. Bought and scheduled for election day back when I was supporting Edwards. I scheduled it for election day because it was about the political process. Seemed intuitive to me.

I don't mean to discourage you from thinking the timing is bad, just mentioning that you're imputing motives to it that weren't there. Additionally, I don't necessarily read the story (personally) as persuasive, so much as a fantasy equivalent of Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" (http://www.geocities.com/cyber_explorer99/oconnorconverge.html).
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eytanz
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« Reply #19 on: November 07, 2008, 07:44:15 PM »

"2 - That said, while the purchase of the story may have happened a long time ago, I'm pretty sure that it's scheduling was decided more recently. So, "bad timing" is still a valid criticism, I think."

Nope. Bought and scheduled for election day back when I was supporting Edwards. I scheduled it for election day because it was about the political process. Seemed intuitive to me.

I don't mean to discourage you from thinking the timing is bad, just mentioning that you're imputing motives to it that weren't there.

I didn't say anything about motives - and, actually, I pretty much guessed the motives correctly, though I didn't comment about that. I did not mean to imply that you were in any way trying to comment on the Obama campaign. Rather, I was trying to say that, in the context of current events, the story seemed even weaker than it was.

And while I did not know that you scheduled this story quite a while ago, I assume that you have the ability to reschedule stories, and my problem with it being superceded by events held as far back as early October. So, unless I'm wrong about you having some leeway, it still seems to me that the unfortunate timing could have been avoided.

Quote
I actually t Additionally, I don't necessarily read the story (personally) as persuasive, so much as a fantasy equivalent of Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" (http://www.geocities.com/cyber_explorer99/oconnorconverge.html).

Is this a response to me as well? Because I never said that I thought the story was meant to be persuasive. Indeed, I called it "wish fulfillment", and wish fulfillment stories don't try to persuade anyone, they try to cheer those already persuaded.

But mostly, I want to hear more about the comparison to O'Connor, which I haven't thought about. Could you please explain what you mean by "a fantasy equivalent"? Equivalent in what sense?
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