Sep 182019
 

Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Synopsis: The last remnants of humanity flee from a destroyed earth to colonize a previously-terraformed planet. Unfortunately the human AI set to guide and protect the sapient spider species living there ain’t having none of it.

Book Review: This is a Big Idea book. It has a sweeping scope, and lots to say about the human condition. The desperation of the refugee humans, as their colony ship degrades over the centuries and things get worse and worse, is palpable. The value-drift of both the humans and the AI is fascinating to watch. Their culture mutates, their personal drives become maladaptive, and behind this all is the beating drum of survival counting down to extinction.

And that’s just for the human half of the story! The chapters alternate between the plight of humanity, and the ascension of the intelligent spiders on the terraformed world. With a social system based on half their species being born expendable, and vastly different morphology to a human, their cultural evolution is mesmerizing to watch. The fact that their religion is actually real, with a literal god orbiting their planet and guiding them, brings an interesting twist to events. Their shortish lifespans mean we go through quite a few generations of them in the novel, but Tchaikovsky uses a neat SF trick to give the reader continuity with the characters.

This was a pleasure to read. It reminds one of the sci-fi of old in that it explores grand ideas over an epic setting, while still being full of tension and conflict so it remains exciting. With the major difference that it was written just a few years ago, so it has modern sensibilities and feels comfortable to read now. Like, you won’t run into any cringy sexism or racism, and it incorporates the story-telling advances writers have made over the decades. Not to worry though, it doesn’t have any wokeness in it, it’s just… good.

There are a few short-comings, IMHO. The first is a common among epic-scope novels – characters aren’t fleshed out as much as they are in character-driven novels. They’re still pretty good, but the focus is more on the events than on character growth or getting deep into the protagonist’s psyche.

The second is that the ending feels too pat. It almost feels Deus Ex Machina-ish, in its sudden turn-around via a non-signaled power. I was left with a feeling of loss of agency among several of their characters, are their problems were solved for them rather than via conflict/resolution.

And my final gripe is that the prose isn’t nearly poetic enough for my taste. I like Grand, Big-Idea books to have florid, lyrical prose, that reaches in and grabs me by my artistic balls. Things like Palmer or Duncan or Valente write. I want the words to sing for me. However that’s a matter of personal style, and it’s hard to hold that against a book.

On the whole, these complaints are overshadowed by the fantastic exploration of humanity, and the creativity of the story. One can tell just by reading this novel that it took serious work. Recommended.

Book Club Review: A darn good book for a book club. It’s long, but we had a great turn out anyway. With as much as the book has to say about humanity, our flaws, and the things that make us great, there was something for everyone to comment on or bring to the discussion. I don’t think it makes its statements with as much force or eloquence of some other works, but it makes many of them, and it never does so poorly. Y’all won’t be wanting for discussion topics. Recommended!

Sep 062019
 

World of Warcraft Classic came out a week and a half ago, and man am I loving the hell out of it.

It occurs to me that much of what makes WoW Classic “fun” is not something that is generally associated with the fun of video games. Most of the game play is fairly repetitive — basically minor variations on a few tasks that are fairly simple to execute. One then proceeds from place to place, continually doing these basic tasks over and over with minor variations. This seems very similar to what one did in the ancestral environment to remain alive on a day-to-day level. Wander about to gather wood. Fetch water. Forage for edible plants for hours upon hours.

The key to these tasks is that one doesn’t do them alone. In WoW, as in the ancestral environment, one should always do this with a group of known people. During this time you bullshit. Tell jokes, talk about your day, learn stuff about each other. Gossip. Whatevs. That’s the primary immediate enjoyment I get from WoW as well. I’m in Discord 95%+ of the time, and I spend a lot of time typing in guild-chat or party-chat.

WoW Classic enforces this sort of thing in three ways. First by forcing/encouraging players to group constantly. Much of the game is impossible (or very difficult) if you aren’t working together with other people. This is one of the large ways it differs from the current iteration of Retail World of Warcraft. In Retail, anyone can do basically anything solo, aside from a few arenas set aside for group-sports-only. In Warcraft, this is very hard, and intentionally so. Grouping is a matter of game-survival. In addition, much of the game rewards you for grouping with others even when you don’t need to. Many quests are “kill X monster” types. Five people working close by but separately to kill 5 monsters each would have to kill 25 total, but five people in a group need only kill 5 monsters total as each kill counts for everyone’s quest individually. These two aspects result in a lot of grouping all the time.

Secondly, WoW Classic has a fair bit of sporadic “forced idleness.” There is a lot of “go from point A to point B” quests where all you’re doing is holding down the walk key (or engaging the auto-run). Some times these walks can go on for quite a while. Other times you’re literally waiting for a boat to show up. Or for monsters to respawn when an area has been hunted to barrenness. Or to regenerate health and mana by “eating” after several monster fights in succession. Or or or. What’s a person to do, while doing nothing? You chat with people. It’s a great way to pass a 10-40 second delay in the middle of a task.

Thirdly, the fact that combat isn’t too taxing facilitates chat as well. Many monsters have only a basic attack. Some with have one simple mechanic that’s not hard to deal with. If you type fast, you can even chat in quick snippets in the middle of many combats. If you’re in a Discord voice channel, you don’t have to stop doing anything, just keep killing away while you chat.

Retail WoW has stripped out all these things. In the interest of ever more streamlined gameplay, there are almost no pauses or delays in gaming. You don’t need any help for most content. And fights are superficially “complex” in that you need to be pushing a variety of buttons in reaction to things happening on the screen that gets in the way of chatting.

This sorta thing doesn’t really sound that fun in the abstract. Games are supposed to be very involving, right? It’s weird that it’s fun, but then, it’s not that weird after all. Foraging with your homies was what humanity had to do for many thousands of years to survive. It makes sense that we evolved to enjoy doing it.

Aug 272019
 

Lock-In, by John Scalzi

Synopsis: A near-future police procedural, with the SF twist that about 10% of the population have full-body paralysis and so interact with the world via robot bodies, or surrogate humans, that they operate remotely via neural interface.

Book Review: John Scalzi is a top-rate writer. His characters feel real, his action is immediate, his prose is tight. He keeps your interest and delivers good product. And if you’ve ever met him in person, or follow his blog, you are aware that he is whip smart. I’d easily put him in the top decile of any room he enters, short of maybe an actual convention of geniuses. Which is why it’s disappointing when he doesn’t use his abilities to full effect to craft art, and instead produces successful commercial product.

The thing about Lock-In is that, despite being well-written, it leaves you empty. There’s some interesting events that happen to interesting people, but there is no character growth, no thematic arc, no emotional exploration, no deeply personal substance to the tale. Everyone at the end of the story is pretty much the same as they started.

The police procedural analogy fits on multiple levels, because I don’t think one can really call this story a novel. In substance, this book is a pilot episode of a TV series, except in written form. We’re introduced to characters and a thing happens to them to move us through the 1 hour time block, but there isn’t a story arc here. The arc will be revealed over the course of the season. Which is fine for an episode TV series, and which I’m sure some readers will love seeing translated into a book-series form. Personally, I’ve never been really thrilled with book series in the first place, I prefer stand-alone novels. Taking it even further, to the point that there isn’t even a satisfying story arc in one book and truly making them “episodes” like a TV show, is just too much for me. I’m sure others will love this sort of thing, but for me – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: One nice thing about books made for commercial success – they go very fast. It’s easy to read, the pages fly by, and there aren’t too many pages to begin with. The ease of the read made for a huge turn-out, probably a record for us! And there were a fair few things to talk about, Scalzi has created an interesting universe and real characters. It was even better if you got the audio book version, as that came with a bonus novella at the end which was basically all World War Z style world-building. It was by far my favorite part of the book, after I finished that I was all “Wow, I would *love* to read a novel set in this world!”

I kinda get the feeling that his codas and novellas are where Scalzi stretches his artistic muscles and really lets loose with his talent. The part of Red Shirts that I fell so hard in love with was the codas as well. So yeah, this made for a decent meeting. On a week that your group needs a break from heavy stuff, I think this is a pretty solid decompression choice. Given that caveat, Recommended.

Aug 192019
 

As promised, here is why I think they/them pronouns are more harmful than useful.

Up through the 2000s, we were making good progress on diversifying the sexes. Gender was coming to be understood as more of a spectrum. There were many ways to be a man. You could be a drag queen or a bro. You could be a stay-at-home-dad or a metrosexual. Being gay or straight didn’t even matter anymore. Sure, there was still some toxic masculinity enforced in various hellholes, and lots more internalized toxic masculinity everyone was trying to get over. But it was accepted that there was no one script for “manliness” anymore.

Women, of course, have always had multiple options, and as men’s options expanded, women’s kept pace. Dozens of TV shows and movie roles explored the myriad ways one could be a woman, and there were role-models galore.

And somehow our progressive movement managed to take this spectrum and cut it down to just three options. Just last week I saw a friend bemoaning “a binary culture which only allows masculine males and feminine females.” The new dogma is that there exists only this binary, that we’ve only ever had this binary, and that if you don’t think of yourself as a He-Man Woman Hater or a Barbie Doll Girly Girl you are non-binary and should adopt a neuter-sex position.

This is stupid. It erases all the people who’ve come before who pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be male and what it meant to be female. The people who made it OK to be a guy and cry without crippling shame. The people who made it OK to be a woman and like casual sex, or heavy metal music.

It also tells everyone who doesn’t identify as neuter-sex that they must adopt the traditional ultra-masculine or ultra-feminine roles or they aren’t really part of that gender. This is almost exactly the same message that the assholes had been preaching before. This is a regression. When someone says “I’m not the kind of person who enjoys slamming back beers and hitting on random chicks all night” and someone else tells them “There’s a word for that! It means you’re non-binary!” I die a little inside. I guess that, since I was born with a penis and I don’t ask people to deny that fact with awkward pronoun-usage, I’m just like all those chads. That’s great.

Obviously there’s no reason our language needs to have gendered pronouns. But inventing a neuter-sex and trying to shoehorn people who aren’t inter-sex into it is the opposite of a good way to reform the system. That’s adding complications rather than removing them. Since so few people are inter-sex, this neuter-gender can only be filled by creating a false gender-binary and offering the only alternative. This is not so different from creating a false “original sin” and then offering the only absolution. And since the invented neuter-sex doesn’t carve reality at the joints, its use can only be enforced with shame and social ostracism… which will make these reforms deeply unpopular even among the sympathetic.

If one wants to make our language gender-neutral, one would be advised to stop using gendered language themselves, rather than trying to create a neuter-sex and require others to contort their thought-processes around it. At least as a first step.

Aug 132019
 

In reply to those who were confused as to why I have a strong aversion to they/them pronouns – there are two answers. The primary driving reason is the emotional one, so I’ll cover that first.

1. I don’t particularly care about anyone’s gender (unless they’re a romantic or sexual partner, in which case it’s relevant). I don’t know how many genders there are, but it’s at least three, and I’ve seen claims that they number into the dozens. I don’t have the time or interest to learn everyone’s gender. When I use he/him/she/her pronouns, I use them in their gender-neutral forms. My use of pronouns is simply a reflection of the perceived sexual characteristics of the person I’m referring to. NOT their gender.

I don’t think I’m weird in this. This is the societal default. It’s why tomboys retain the she/her pronouns, and fa’afafine retain the he/him pronouns.

Yes, it is dumb that our language has different pronouns for apparently-male-sex people and apparently-female-sex people. It’s dumb that our brains have different specialized slots for apparently-male-sex people and apparently-female-sex people too, but there it is. When I was young and my brain was being molded, the language parts of my brain were hooked up to the sex-recognition parts of my brain via methods that have been refined through cultural evolution to hook those two parts together very strongly. And it took.

When one insists others use pronouns that contradict with the one’s sexual presentation, I am required to overrule my own lying eyes and instead use arbitrary terms picked by that person. It feels like I am being told there are five lights every single time. Last time it was my church and parents who were telling me there were five lights. Now it’s my friends. :( I am being forced to lie every time I speak of them, and I despise it.

This is bad enough on it’s own! But in addition…

2. Misgendering suffers from Lie Inflation. Many trans people suffer from dysphoria, and successfully transitioning is an intensely laborious task that takes years of effort, and usually major biological intervention. And since perceived sex is socially mitigated, how people are treated can make a big difference to perception for those who are on the borders of passing. So intentional misgendering can be really harmful. “Misgendering” someone used to be the term for a malicious attempt to drag people backwards in their transition.

Of course, if you know your friend is trying to get better at something, the polite thing to do is to act like they’re already good at it. This is why writers can never trust feedback from friends and family. It is polite and affirming to use the pronouns that go with the sex someone is hoping to be seen as. So naturally the term “misgendering” has in time been inflated to include people who are unwilling to deny that a dude with a beard has apparently-male sexual characteristics. As a result, if I don’t constantly monitor myself I am in the same moral ballpark as the fundamentalist who is maliciously tearing apart the years of work of trans people.

And yes, my friends are kind and supportive, and they “forgive” me when I slip up, because they know this is a hard thing that takes a lot of effort. No one is about to disown me (I think), they just keep dropping polite reminders. But inside I am seething, because I don’t need forgiveness for accidentally blurting out that There Are Four Lights. I’m jealous of the people in my social group who haven’t yet been told that Person X is a Them now, because no one judges them poorly for using the obvious pronouns. I sure as hell won’t ever tell them, because I don’t want to the the jerk who has permanently imposed that cost on them. Honestly, if I would be better off not knowing someone’s mystery gender, I wish they simply wouldn’t tell me their gender.

3. This is where I came to see the parallels with my earlier life. I grew up with abusive relationships. As is typical, I recreated my past, so I was in several abusive relationships as an adult as well. A constant in nearly all abusive relationships (and certainly every one I’ve been in) is that the abused party is constantly monitoring their behavior and speech around the abuser so as not to set them off. The common phrase is “walking on eggshells.” Mistakes are rarely punished, of course, but that randomness makes things worse, because you can never be sure you’re safe.

The constant monitoring of my speech to not ever slip into using words that match the perceived sex in this one particular case invokes that exact same feeling. Never has anyone exploded on me for failing to use the neuter pronouns, but of course that just means it’ll be even worse once it does happen, according to my brain. Perhaps I could use this as evidence to slowly move away from this fear, if it wasn’t for the fact that some of the neuter-gender people I personally know have publicly announced “If you can’t respect me enough to use the right pronouns, I don’t want you in my life.”

This wraps up the emotional reasons for hating they/them. The lesser reason is a practical one – there currently is no neuter-sex, and trying to create one in this manner does social harm that isn’t worth the cost. But that’ll be a post for later in the week.

Aug 072019
 

I find myself distressed by the casual fading of my They friends.

I know a number of people who have jumped on the They train. I don’t care what anyone calls themselves, so at first I was all “OK, whatever, you do you.” But not long after that, several of these friends have made it clear they find anyone who doesn’t adopt their new pronouns to be moral degenerates.

I will not do that. I noped out of that game when I abandoned fundamentalist Christianity in my teen years, and I’m not about to bend over for the latest dominance move just because now it’s people on my side asserting moral superiority. But I also like my friends, and seek their acceptance and approval. Until I can figure out what to do about this, I’ve instead stopped using pronouns to refer to them at all.

In their presence, this is super easy. Generally you address people you’re with directly, with things like “Hey, what did you think about that latest episode?” and pronouns never come into it.

But when a friend isn’t present, I refer to them only by their name now. Or simply drop the pronoun from the sentence altogether in a sort of abbreviated slang. Both of these things are very inconvenient. They require constant self-censorship and interrupt the through process, which is a major cost in itself. Perhaps even worse, they remind me every time I want to mention this friend that they’ve joined with the moralizing puritans and are now part of a group that wishes me harm, which hurts.

So I’ve found myself simply not talking about these friends at all. Their existence fades out of my casual conversation altogether. I didn’t notice it at first, and I’m writing this blog post now because I realized just this week that this was happening.

I find that really depressing. It’s counter to one of the things I really like about friendships. :/

Aug 012019
 

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Synopsis: A meteor impact destroys most the east coast of the US in 1952, but no one notices because the real threat is global warming. Except no one notices that either, because the real threat is sexism and racism.

Book Review: The first section of Calculating Stars is fantastic. The meteor strike itself and the immediate aftermath isn’t just visceral and exciting… it’s a Matian-esque uber-science tour-de-force! The genius protag and her husband, in remote mountains at the time of the strike, are able to quickly deduce from physical clues what has happened. Based on knowledge of wave propagation through different substances they calculate roughly how large an impact it must have been, and how far away it was, and therefore how many minutes they have to flee before the blastwave hits them. It’s an absolute blast to see protagonists using science effectively to solve high-stakes problems under time pressure. Of course, surviving the initial blast is just the start. :)

Then the novel skips ahead X months, and all that stops. From this point on, it becomes a social justice drama. The first thing that suffers for this is the realism of the setting. Destroying the industrial and commercial base of the United States would have devastating consequences, a massive recession would be just the beginning. But Kowal clearly wanted to write a story set in our 1950s era, and so we get the cultural and societal reality of OUR 1950s, not a post-devastation one. I realize this is important for a story that wants to be about the racism and sexism of the 50s, but maybe don’t start by blasting away the eastern seaboard soon after WWII then?

There’s also very little actual feeling of racism or sexism in the novel. Like, some people are jerks to our female protag, and we hear about people of color being excluded from high-status jobs, but it’s rarely upsetting. To contrast, I was unable to watch past the first episode of Mad Men. The casual misogyny, the abject dismissal of anything a woman could possibly think, was so effective and enraging that I could not go back to the show. I felt my blood pressure spiking and my guts sickening and even one more episode of that was more than I could stomach. I could name dozens of similar works that enrage me by showing people mistreated, and fill me with righteous zeal to see justice served. Stars doesn’t do that.

Even as a climate-change warning it is ineffective. Bacigalupi writes good climate-change fiction. You want to make people feel, show them the people who are getting hurt. Maybe give us a scene from the PoV of the black families that are being passed over and ignored so white people can be evacuated. The closest we get is a mention of a food riot where no one even gets so much as a bad cut.

Everything that happens after that first time-skip is bloodless and boring. The protagonist is a well-off white woman married to a high-ranking government official. Her problems aren’t really problems. Her gaffes may offend her friends of color. Her interactions with stuffy old men are sometimes unpleasant. None of this matters much. What are the stakes? If she fails, what bad things happen as a result? She feels embarrassed and goes back to her comfortable life? Oh noes. It doesn’t matter though, because she never fails or even meets much opposition. Everything just kinda works out fine.

I think Kowal realized things were too easy and there wasn’t any conflict, so she gives her protag crippling stage fright. But, first, that’s not a very interesting problem. And second, it doesn’t actually change anything. There’s a few paragraphs describing nausea and sweats, and then the protag pulls over her presentation perfectly with great social grace and no one even notices.

Even the sex scenes are dull and awkward. I never thought a sex scene could be boring, but here we are.

Anyway, there’s a bunch of fretting about sexism and racism, some nausea and stage fright, and then things work out ok. This process then repeats itself three or four times, and then the book stops. There was no theme, no character development, no real challenge or stakes. It’s basically just a slice-of-life story of a super-woke white couple in the 50s.

As a novel, The Calculating Stars is a failure.

However I come not to bury The Calculating Stars, but to praise it.

For I have read this sort of work before, and I recognize that anyone who reads this like a novel is reading it wrong. This is not a novel. This is a web-serial. I’ve read a few of these before, and I know people who LOVE them. I know someone who said they don’t really get into a story until it reaches a million words. They basically want to be with a character as they go through their life. Calculating Stars is almost a coffeeshop AU in structure, although without all the relationships. Kowal has basically taken the web serial style of story and is trying to see if it can be monetized by releasing it as books rather than posted weekly online. If it works it’ll be really profitable, and it’s cool that it’s being tried.

I’m not really interested in reading this myself. I like the novel structure, it’s why I read novels, so I was disappointed that I got a woke 50s web serial instead. If you’re into that, you’ll like this. But if you’re like me, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Whether this works for your book club depends on how sensitive your group is to culture war stuff. We had some discomfort talking about this book, because everyone had lingering guilt that they were being sexist or racist for finding this to be weak sauce. We did get to talking about how it could have been done better, and how we shouldn’t judge people for liking things we don’t like, and so forth. And it’s not like anyone really disliked the book. It was just kinda there. Honestly it’s possible this could spark some interesting conversation… but I wouldn’t really count on it, because it’s just not very forceful in anything it says. Maybe that’s a good thing, it kept us all pretty sedate and polite. But you’re probably better off discussing something with more oomph. Mildly Not Recommended.

Jul 252019
 

Hugo AwardI hate to say this, because I fear I’m going to isolate people I like. But we have to have a talk about the Hugos.

 

I. Trail of Lightning should never have been a finalist.

It’s not just that it’s a basic wire-rack monster hunter pulp-fiction novel. In my personal opinion, yes, that should be enough to disqualify any work. The Hugo is one of the premier awards in SF fiction. It should go to novels that are innovative, pushing the genre forward. Or that have something important to say about being human, or something urgent to say about the state of the world. It needs to have a higher purpose than just basic entertainment. Trail of Lightning is exactly the sort of pulp adventure that my father mocked me for reading when I was younger, because he didn’t know authors like Heinlein and Le Guin and Jemisin existed. The Hugo awards exist exactly for the purpose of highlighting works that mean more than just a thrilling read.

BUT I know not everyone shares that view. Some people do think that awards should go to things that are just very good at being very entertaining. (I contend those books already get the award of “Best Seller” status, but hey, I guess that’s not enough?). I know this in part because every year something is in the finalist list that makes me roll my eyes and feel like an elitist jerk for a few days.

Unfortunately, even if one contends that pulp adventure is worthy of at least being considered for an award, Trail of Lightning is not a great specimen of that species.

 

II. This is not Roanhorse’s fault, or issue!

I would first like to stress that I am not saying that Rebecca Roanhorse is a bad writer. We know from last year’s short story “Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience(TM)” that she can write extremely well, and that she can tackle some very heavy social issues with incredible aplomb. That story was flat-out amazing, and deserved every award and bit of praise it got.

A digression – Simply looking at the timeline of when Authentic Indian Experience was published vs when Trail of Lightning was published, and knowing that the publishing industry never gets a book out the door in under six months (which is already breakneck speed), it is extremely probable that Trail of Lightning was written much earlier in Roanhorse’s career. I suspect as Authentic was gaining buzz, Trail’s publisher approached Roanhorse to ask if she had anything already written that she’d never sold, and she dusted off Trail. I could be wrong, but that seems more charitable than assuming it was a rush job.

The point is, Trail of Lightning is an example of an “early novel.” Many authors are lucky enough to have these – novels that helped them hone their skills, while providing a small paycheck and the validation/encouragement of getting into print, before the authors are very good. Some authors never get these early novels, and a few I’ve talked to say “I’m so grateful in retrospect… they weren’t good novels, and I’m so happy that only my best stuff is out there representing me.” But for every one of those, I’m willing to bet there’s twenty authors who got discouraged and gave up before getting to the X-th novel that was actually Very Good to the point that publishers couldn’t ignore it.

Again, this is NOT a bad thing. To take one example of a man who is rightly called a genius by all readers of genre, and is a British National Treasure – Terry Pratchett. His later writing is absolutely legendary, and you can’t read it and not be completely blow away. But his first several novels? They just aren’t that good. Even the best writers of a generation started out with wobbly fare.

There are authors currently writing in the monster hunter genre that have been at it for many years, with a dozen or more titles under their belts. While I don’t think the works are award-worthy (see above), they are, at least, among the best examples of the species. After so many repetitions of the formula, it’d be hard for those authors NOT to have improved. Some of these authors even openly state that their earlier books aren’t the best, and direct new readers to start a bit later in the series. It’s hard to compare their later works with Trail of Lightning and not see the difference.

 

III. This is not the publisher’s fault either

Trail of Lightning’s publisher, Saga Press, was doing exactly what a publisher should. They saw a rising talent, knew people would want to read more of her work, and snapped up anything they could get their hands on. They then published it in an effort to turn a profit. This is good for the fans, and good for the author. Bravo for Saga, I hope it works out!

 

IV. The Hugo Voters are to blame

Both the author and the publisher are simply doing the best they can in their careers/situations. It’s not their job to be the gatekeepers of quality, their job is simply to keep getting better and making the written works available (respectively). It is literally the job of the nominating Hugo readers, the gatekeepers of the Hugo award, to filter the best that our community has to offer. And yet a large number of these people came together and collectively nominated a less-than-stellar “early novel” of the mindless-pulp variety for one of the most prestigious awards the SF community can give out. How did this happen? Either a lot of people nominated Trail of Lightning without reading it, based on the strength of Authentic Indian Experience… or they did read it, and nominated it anyway.

The really dumb part is that Trail of Lightning isn’t even a social-issue book. It’s a straight-up plain monster hunter novel. The only way one could draw it into the culture-war narrative is by focussing on the author and looking back at her other works and noticing that last year’s Authentic Indian Experience was explicitly about cultural issues. “These two works are by the same author” is not enough to make a pulp novel have a social theme or message.

 

V. This hurts minorities

Look, the really despicable thing about the Puppies movement of a few years ago is that they decided to vandalize the Hugos because they said that authors were getting awards NOT because the works were of high-quality, but because they were minorities and were getting “affirmative action-ed” in. Jemisin specifically called this out in her world-rocking acceptance speech when she said her detractors claim “that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s “identity politics”.” Her speech still gives me shivers, but one of the things that gave it such joyous strength is that it was so blatantly obvious that she had written one of the best things to have been published in years. She deserved every single ounce of praise that comes with that trophy, because she produced a work that shines with the light of the sun, and puts the claims of the Puppies to hideous shame. There is no need for affirmative action, you assholes, the work speaks for itself, just read it and see!

Nominating a work that is clearly not worthy of this honor doesn’t help anything. Instead it diminishes the achievements of authors like Jemisin or Chiang, because it throws previous nominations into some doubt. Most people don’t know of the excitement of a breakout work of genius like Authentic Indian Experience, and how that exuberance will lead people to snap-vote for the next thing an author puts out without even reading it. They won’t ever get to hear about that, they’ll just see a book that clearly shouldn’t be a nominee, yet is, and will draw their own conclusions… and given the current culture wars, not all those conclusions will be good. And those conclusions will tarnish other winners, those whose only failing was being non-white in the crap-ass world we have right now.

 

VI. The irony is not lost on the historically-aware

Perhaps the most ironic thing about all this is that this is exactly the sort of novel the Puppies wanted to see in the Hugos. Pulp adventure novels about tough-ass monster hunters. Books whose commercial concerns outweigh artistic ones. Someone I spoke with also claims that their baseless idiotic vandalism created a backlash that has put cultural concerns before quality concerns in the Hugos — in effect bringing the Puppies’ distorted claims closer to reality. I’m not so sure, I think it’s much more due to the rise of Trump than anything the Puppies did. Regardless, they probably got a chuckle or two out of it. >.<

 

VII. Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

Look, what’s done is done. But going forward, more focus on content and less on works viewed primarily (whether rightly or not) as anti-“the other tribe” would be good. Keep the Hugos out of the culture wars, please.

Jul 192019
 

Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Synopsis: A monster-hunter hunts down some monsters while grappling with PTSD and trying to get over an ex, which causes her to miss that true love is right under her nose.

Book Review: This is a basic Urban Fantasy paranormal romance book. If you’re into that sort of thing, it could make for some decent trashy beach reading.

I am not into that sort of thing. I like my characters to not act like complete idiots for plot convenience. If the super-attractive magical boy’s eyes glow silver and suddenly people who were very hostile to him start doing whatever he asks, consider that he has persuasion magic. All of us realized it immediately, why is the protag an idiot?

I like my characters to have a reason for doing something, besides “the literal trickster god of this world wants us to do this thing but won’t tell us why.” That’s usually a reason to NOT do a thing.

I prefer to have the plot revealed to me through actions taken in the story, rather than by having the villain reveal it in a “Before I kill you, Mr Bond” monologue completely out of the blue just before his inevitable defeat. (And what an anti-climactic defeat it was!)

This book is the epitome of pulp fiction. It’s a bunch of tropes and events strung together in a story-like manner that can keep one pleasantly distracted with monster-punching if one just wants to turn one’s brain off for a few hours. There are a million books like it, usually found on spinning wire-racks in gas stations and truck stops.

I don’t hate this book, per se. I’ve been known to enjoy some trashy pulp myself, and I would never say people shouldn’t do things that bring them pleasure. But there’s a time and a place for this sort of thing. That time and place is NOT on the Hugo Finalists list. ಠ_ಠ

I have more to say about that topic, but that’s a post about the Hugos rather than book-review stuff, so that’ll be a post for another day. Perhaps after the weekend.

Not recommended.

Book Club Review: Book Club opinion was universal – this is pulp. Most of our readers were able to enjoy it as pulp. Every now and then everyone likes to just let go. So there was plenty of time taken to gripe about the classic stupidities of the genre, which was mostly done in a humorous manner, and some admiration of a few of the fun points. It was pointed out that this is one of the few times (for one reader, the first time he could recall) that a kick-ass woman was written realistically as a real female hard-bitten ass-kicker (rather than the stereotypical “strong female hero” that’s never very believable), and I’ll give it that. Everyone also agreed that this is a book they’ve already started forgetting, and they’ll likely never think of it again. Those who have opinions about the Hugos were also dismayed that this was nominated, and those who don’t were surprised that it was.

There’s nothing special here, so unless your book club also follows the Hugos and wants to have a discussion about that specifically – Not Recommended.

Jul 152019
 

Calamity Jane

I’m using “gender” in the now-accepted usage meaning “societal roles,” as distinct from biological sex. I see almost everyone on both sides acting as if traditional American society has only two genders, and I don’t think this is right. It’s at least half-wrong, anyway. Because since its inception, American society has always had a third gender option for women, and I think this is true for all anglophone cultures for several centuries now. I speak, of course, of the tomboy.

Tomboys are not expected to behave like feminine girls at all. They play with boys toys, they wear boy clothes, the talk with boys vocabulary, and their primary peer group is male children. They sometimes have a hard time gaining acceptance with the local boys, depending on the region, but often find a way to gain acceptance and are included in boys games and rough housing. Other girls find tomboys odd and off-putting and don’t socialize much with them.

Upon reaching puberty many tomboys are reluctantly forced into feminine peer groups, but even so, many stay distinctly separate in demeanor and activity choices throughout life. They repair cars and don’t take shit, etc. You know the stereotype, if you live in an anglophone country you’ve met one.

I don’t think people realize this is a third gender, because this social role has been around for far longer than the idea that “gender” means “social role” has been around. Most people still equate gender with sex, and tomboys are overwhelmingly female. But its pretty easy to identify the female-bodied people who are feminine-gendered and those who are tomboys within just a few minutes of conversation. Sometimes it doesn’t even take that, many are apparent from dress, attitude, and stance. Perhaps I’m overestimating how easy it is, I may have unconsciously developed the skill since I’m personally attracted far more to tomboys than any other gender. But I’d wager most Americans can discern between the two very quickly, as we run into so many of both types.

I believe that the presence of the tomboy gender is why clothes that were traditionally only worn by men (most famously trousers, but pretty much every man-gendered clothing) are acceptable clothing for women. The prevalence of tomboys moved male-clothing into ok-for-both-sexes territory, and the feminine-gendered benefited by this. There is no equivalent socially-accepted alternate gender for males, so the same thing never happened to women-gendered clothing, and thus it still looks “funny” for a man to wear a dress.

There are interesting parallels between tomboys and the Samoan fa’afafine. First, both genders are basically restricted to a single sex. Secondly, both are named for the sex that its members feel comfortable with, in contrast to their own sex. Ie:  fa’afafine comes from fa’a–, meaning “in the manner of”, and the word fafine, meaning “woman”. Tomboy comes from the English name “Tom,” which around the 16th century was such a common boy’s name that it came to be interchange for the word “boy.” “Tomcat” means “male cat” for example. So tomboy emphasizes just how boyish the girl is, so much so that the gender-name means boy twice. And finally, both genders are given the pronouns of their sex. So fa’afafine use the male pronouns (English equivalent of he/him) and tomboys use the female pronouns (she/her). (Note that I DO NOT have much knowledge of the Samoan culture or the fa’afafine gender, so these could be entirely surface-level similarities without much substance)

Much like the metaphorical fish that doesn’t notice the water it’s swimming in, Anglophone societies simply didn’t notice that there is a third gender within them. By the time the term “gender” began to mean what it does now, the two female genders had already been around for centuries, and no one really bothered to think of them as separate genders. They were both just “ways to be a girl.” But it very much seems to me that we have been, in fact, living with three genders all this time.

Or am I missing something? This is somewhat tentative, and I’m curious as to what others think about this.