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The Intuitionist

At some point, I realised I had a similar problem reading these two very different books.

The Intuitionist is very interesting. It's set in something like an alt-history New York. There is a powerful guild of elevator inspectors, who have made building skyscrapers possible at all. (I think that's parallel but different to the real history?)

It has a lot to say about integration, about the protagonist is one of the few female inspectors and the second black inspector. In fact, I'm pretty sure it has a lot *more* to say than I was able to follow at the time.

However, I think the important themes were initially obscured to me because they are presented via a front of a factional schism between two schools of elevator inspectorate, the intuitionists and the empiricists. Intuitionists ride an elevator and intuit the state of any problems. Empiricists use instruments for everything. And I think this is probably a metaphor for something important I don't get yet.

But I'm rather hung up on the fact that I know pretty well which works in the real world. There are failure modes of both too much process and too little process. And times when too much process is a big problem, and guiding intuition is much more valuable. But when it comes to safety inspection, methodical measurement is really good, and intuition is really bad.

So I'm really not sure, but I think "intuitionists" are supposed to be "some progressive, successful but controversial faction" but it took me a while to realise that, because what they SAID rang really false to me.

And that split ALSO has a lot to say about racial equality, and I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be reading that into the book as well. In moderation, empirical tests are good for equality. If you have a test related to actually doing the job, focusing on that, not gut feeling, can be very effective for levelling the playing field. cf. orchestras which do auditions with the performer behind a screen. Higher levels of supposedly objective tests are often an impediment to equality though -- see every employer who doesn't SAY "we want someone from an upper-middle-class caucasian background, preferable straight male", but DOES say "do you have qualification X which is expensive but not really directly helpful". However, "gut feeling" is generally ATROCIOUS here. Occasionally it's really good, when someone actively wants to hire under-appreciated talent. But normally "gut feeling" means "I can give free reign to all my prejudices and deny it if I'm called out".

Fifty Shades of Grey

If you ignore the bondage aspects, Fifty Shades of Grey follows a fairly traditional romance outline. It has some parts that bother me a lot, like "omg stalking and controlling behaviour are so sexy". But those are actually really common in many romance novels. I think those are a bad model for a relationship, and it's bad that stories tend to DEFAULT to having them. But also, it's something lots of people fantasise about, and I think it's important that "fantasising about romance, even if it isn't a healthy model for reality" is accepted as much as many many many other books which contain ok-for-fiction-but-bad-for-reality things eg. crime, death, etc.

I think some bits are clearly intended as fantasy. Most people want to *imagine* being stalked by a millionaire, but want that to actually *happen* only in careful moderation. Although the less familiar you are with that as a common romance fantasy, the more you're like "but that would actually be horrible".

Other bits are intended as mostly realistic. She drinks coffee. If she drank bleach every morning, all the readers would legitimately say "WTF? Why is that in your book??" And "it's fiction, I can do what I want" isn't really a helpful answer.

But the bondage stuff is somewhere between. I think to some people, it's clearly supposed to be fantasy. No-one would EVER do ANYTHING remotely like that in real life, right? So it doesn't matter if it's a random mix of mostly-safe-for-beginner stuff, and physically-safe-but-a-big-red-flag stuff, and really unwise stuff. It's all just "let's pretend". But to many people, they don't want to be tied up ACTUALLY against their will. But they DO like being tied up, and that's something lots of people actually DO. And it's not UNREALISTIC that the only person the protagonist's met who's openly into bondage is a dangerous control freak bully with unhealthy relationship habits and no idea of the difference between safe and dangerous, but it's UNREPRESENTATIVE, and it's irresponsible to say "this is what bondage is", when some people will read that and say, "that's obviously dangerous, lets ban it" and other people will say, "that seems fun, lets try it".

And the author could have gone in either direction. Grey could have kidnapped the protagonist -- then everyone knows that even if it's hot in fantasy, it's not a good model for real life. Or he could have had a passing familiarity with how to ACTUALLY do bdsm, even if he departed from it. That would make a lot of sense for the story, if he was known as a bdsm top who didn't care much about consent. And sure, for many people, that's the ONLY sort of BDSM-er they've met or can imagine. But it's still a problem to say that that's all there is ANYWHERE.

But the book bypasses all that. It's like, "deep dark secret, check", obviously we don't need to care about the legal or physical safety of any of the REAL WORLD PEOPLE that "dark secret" applies to, because it's just their for my titillation, right? :(

Other books

And I think that might stand out in other books. There's things which the author thought they could gloss over, which really stand out to me. And sometimes, once I learn what to ignore, I see the strengths of the rest of the book. And sometimes, they're unavoidably central to *most* people, but the minority who can ignore them really love the rest of the book.

But I suspect the same probably applies to big themes too. That there's books where the big theme is obscured by something that stood out *to me*. Or vice versa. But I'm not sure what examples would be.