Jun 232017
 

I hear tell of bygone days of yore, where a writer could actually make a living and support a family by writing short stories. Apparently short-story markets paid well enough (relative to cost of living) for this to be a viable career up until the 50s or 60s. I was surprised when I first learned this, because it’s never been the case in my life.

No one writes short stories for money. You do it to learn, or to make a name for yourself, or for the love of the form. The pay for short stories is beer money, or maybe fancy new shoes. It’s not “I can pay rent and eat!” money. One must keep a day job.

So many authors, once they get a book deal and start writing professionally, basically stop writing short stories. This is saddening, because I really like short stories by my favorite authors. But I understand the need to pay rent and buy clothes.

There’s been a trend over the last decade of moving to series. More than a trend, really – nowadays every publisher wants to know if your novel could be a series, and a majority of authors (at least in genre) all aim to write a multi-book series from the start. If it’s not the default yet, it will be before the decade’s out. And the reason is the same. Series pay better. Most authors can no longer support a family writing individual novels.

I really hate this trend, because it leads to the Marvelization of everything. The Marvel Universe is one of the most annoying things to have happened to cinema. Within that “universe” of tied-together movies, there are no movies that are worth seeing for their own sake. Every movie has to string the audience along, acting as an advertisement for the next movie in the series. This degrades the quality of the story in the current movie, often by a great amount. Nothing truly interesting can happen, because it would disrupt the universe, and the production schedules of coming movies. Characters can’t grow or change very much, due to the fact that they must be re-used continuously. How many life-changing character-arcs can a human have in one lifetime? Three, maybe four, if they have a very rich life and live for quite a long time? Certainly not 1-2 every year. And yet that’s how often we’ll be seeing them on screen. So most of the time they’ll simply be going through the paces without changing.

Marvel audiences no longer go see a movie because the movie itself tells an interesting story, but rather because they fear falling behind on events, or missing an important development (ha!). They’ve become hostages to the universe, continuing to sacrifice attention and money on the alter of an emotional obligation.

This emotional obligation was probably very useful back when everyone you knew actually existed, and learning about what had happened to them recently was valuable on it’s own, and strengthened your bonds. Emotional obligations to the intellectual property of Disney simply gives them a way to get your money without having to put in the effort of telling a good story. They can reneg on their creative responsibilities and still profit.

When it was movies, I just stopped going to extended-universe-style movies. But the fact that it’s taking over genre writing as well is depressing. Yes, some stories need to be told over multiple books. And the art of “series writing” is an actual thing, which is different from novel writing. But mostly what I see is writers abandoning the art of writing a good, strong novel, in favor of stretching a story out over 3+ books in order to make it a series.

This invariably degrades the quality of the novel. And it wastes the readers time (I’m very jealous of my time nowadays). And it exploits the same emotional obligations of readers, holding them hostage to characters that have stopped developing.

On the other hand, it’s very hard to say to someone “you should write in a way that removes this as a career option for you.” Writing is time consuming, and it’s hard to write while holding a full time job. Writing a series can make the act of writing a viable career for many. If someone is willing to dilute their art in order to be able to do it for a living, I feel like an elitist asshole to speak against that. Who am I to say “You should either be independently wealthy, or condemn your children to living in squalor?”

But dammit, who are they to say “Because this is the work I would rather be doing, I will use psychological tricks to get you to support my career, instead of actually producing an amazing product?” I hate this trend. I want to shake people and say “Stop devaluing your product! You’re just writing soap operas at this point!” :(

Jun 202017
 

I’m somewhat outspoken about preserving a civil society, because I prefer order over chaos. It is important that people not resort to random vigilante justice against targets of opportunity. Determining guilt via the evidence and meting out punishment via an orderly justice system is what separates us from the barbarians. Is what I WOULD say, except for the fact that even barbarians had systems of trials or tribunals to keep personal violence in check.

But for this to work, the system has to actually do the job of punishing the guilty and defending the innocent, at least most of the time. If there is a group that is systematically denied protection by society, there is no reason for them to conform to the restrictions that society requires. A society that denies protection to any group is not a civil society, it is a system of violent subjugation.

We have a huge problem in America. Philando Castile was murdered on camera. Unarmed, seatbelted in his car, his girlfriend and child with him. The prosecution called expert witnesses and other police to testify that a reasonable person should not feel threatened in that situation, and should not resort to deadly force. And yet his murderer walked away without a conviction, because he’s a cop.

How are we supposed to have a civil society if our police are never held liable for murder?? In the past week I’ve reiterated that violence is not an acceptable response to speech. You know what violence IS an acceptable response to? Getting murdered. This is the sort of thing that justifies riots. This is the sort of thing that could justify civil war. Why would anyone respect the law if the law is only used to hurt them, and never to protect them? I do not want to be hurt, I do not want my property or my work place to be burned down. Yet I understand entirely why someone would lash out against a society that is there to subjugate them and protect their killers.

I don’t know how to fix this. If it was just one case I could be convinced this was a single aberration, or I’m not aware of all the facts that came out in the courtroom and maybe the cop really should walk free. But this happens constantly. I hate to say this, but I’m starting to lose faith in the jury system.

Jun 162017
 

I.

As a teenager in the 90s, I spent a lot of time arguing with religious folk. Mainly about atheism and gay rights, as both were very near to my heart. I noticed an astounding trend. Many Christians considered themselves deeply persecuted.

Christians make up a large majority of the population (of the USA). They control every branch of government. At the time there were no openly atheist elected federal officials. To this day all candidates for president still have to swear fealty to some form of christian god. Christians have added “under god” to the loyalty pledge all children are forced to recite in school, and added it to our currency. There are myriad special exceptions written into laws, giving special protection and privileges to christian sensibilities and christian organizations. The claim that they were a persecuted minority was (and is) laughable. The persecuted mindset and psychology that I saw on so many occasions was crazy-making! How is this level of blindness to the real world even possible? They would use “we’re being oppressed” as reasons to defend oppression of other religions!

My own church was one of these. Regularly (on a weekly basis) sermons in church would highlight how oppressed we were. Nazi persecution–from 50 years ago, in a country on the other side of the word–was regularly mentioned. The fact that courts would often force minors to accept life-saving blood transfusions against the wishes of their parents was also frequently brought up. And, of course, there was the constant micro-aggression of being subjected to a state that requested loyalty pledges and military service of a sect that believed both are immoral. If a Jehovah’s Witness missionary was every harmed in a foreign country, every Witness across the world would know about it in a matter of weeks, as further evidence of Satan working against us.

And it turns out, this is a very important part of many Christian sects. The 1st/2nd century christians did endure a fair bit of political persecution (depending on time and area). They developed strong survival memes that directly tied persecution to righteousness. The more persecuted you are, the more it means you are doing good, and God loves you. Satan rules this world, and the more the world is against you, the more Satan must feel threatened by you. Persecution was a direct indicator of moral goodness, and that helped the religion survive under adversity.

Of course that creates a problem when your religion becomes the official religion of the empire and establishes regional hegemony. The Catholics dealt with that pretty handily over time. But the American Protestants rejected all Catholic adaptations and reverted to a mythologized “Original Christianity.” Many of those included persecution myths. So feeling persecuted was very important. If the only way you can tell that you are on the Side of Good is to be persecuted, it becomes very important to see persecution everywhere, and exaggerate it.

(note: I believe that this persecution complex has a number of very important benefits. Primarily – it causes much of American society to strongly identify with and work to defend persecuted and oppressed groups. As far as I know, all non-violent civil rights struggles have taken advantage of this aspect of American culture. Apparently, the most effective thing a social movement can do is hold nonviolent protests that then are violently attacked by their opponents (video). So being persecuted, in addition to being morally satisfying, is also politically useful.)

II.

As we know, Identity Is What It Means To Be Human. So once someone has adopted an identity that includes “Is Persecuted,” it’s important to keep that feeling. In the case of Christians, this can be accomplished by going to church and/or watching Fox News. More marginalized groups have a problem – they have not yet developed a system that assures them they are persecuted. This generally isn’t much of a problem, because there are plenty of places in our society where belonging to one of these marginalized groups still results in negative consequences and hardship.

But the wonderful thing about or society is, we have actually made progress over the last century! All the work and tears of the past decades have not been in vain. :) There are some places in our country where groups that were oppressed, sometimes violently, even fifteen years ago, are now welcoming, safe areas. Places were one would have to intentionally go forth and seek out oppression if one wanted to feel it. This is further exacerbated by how easy it is nowadays to create social bubbles, excluding all the toxic awful people from you life, and surrounding yourself only with those who are supportive and caring. This is, generally, a fantastic thing! We have advanced, and many lives are less miserable because of it. :)

But the need for persecution doesn’t go away. Being Persecuted gives one a direction in life, a goal. It gives one adversity to overcome, and an intense form of bonding with others who are similarly persecuted. It gives you a family, and mortal certitude. Reaching your goal is nice, but it is no replacement for those extremely psychologically-important things. What does one do when one finds oneself without an oppressor, while having a deeply instilled “Is Persecuted” aspect to one’s very identity?

I suppose one could shift one’s goals to now help those in areas that are less advanced. To reach out into the dens of violence and iniquity, and give aid to one’s brothers and sisters still undergoing pain and hatred. But this is hard. I don’t mean that as an insult – the freedom to spend a lot of time and money on going to a foreign place (even if it’s just into the rural areas of one’s own country) is something only a privileged few have. It requires a career that is flexible and doesn’t require you to be on-site 40 hours a week. It requires energy reserves after the daily work of job and children and family commitments is complete. It’s often out of reach for those who aren’t independently wealthy.

(plus it risks being called-out for acting like a “white savior” or “colonizer” or something. Trying to help oppressed people in another culture is explicitly judging that culture as needing improvement in ways you deem important, which is “problematic”)

There is another “solution.” Deliberate assholery.

Text reads: The A in LGBTQA does not stand for allies; and the IA in LGBTQIA does not stand for including allies; not everything gets to be about you, cishet people. 

Instructions from meme poster say: Fun exercise: Be an enormous asshole to every self-proclaimed “ally” you meet to find out who’s actually an ally and who’s just here so you’ll go shopping with them.

I share this meme in particular, because it was shared by a friend who I otherwise greatly respect. This is literally a troll meme. The instructions give it away. Because, seeing as there’s no official body that decides what the letters “officially” stand for, the part about the letters doesn’t matter all that much. The real point is to spark reactions. When I see a meme instructing people to “be an enormous asshole”, it tells me a lot about the person who made the meme and the state of their peer-group. Far more than any sort of spat over what a letter stands for.

They want to be persecuted. They are not sufficiently persecuted. So they are intentionally alienating those around them in an effort to regain that original sense of persecution.

This, to me, explains a lot of why the far left is eating it’s own. Why college campuses, the most left-leaning, pro-diversity, and safe places in our society, are also the scenes of fringe-left meltdowns that scream about persecution and the intolerance of the faculty. Why white-male and cis-het are now slurs, despite the prevalence of both both within the wider liberal community, and as supporters of the community. Too much acceptance is intolerable. If too many people find us acceptable, by golly, we’ll drive them away.

III.

It’s claimed that someone who is only an ally when people are nice to them was never an ally at all. In a very real sense, this is true. Just yesterday I bemoaned the people who are only for freedom of speech when it’s their own speech, and are happy to censor those they don’t like. They obviously never cared for the principle of free speech.

On the other hand, I think it’s just plain disgusting to deliberately attack and insult people to test their ideological purity. No one has to prove their “geek cred” to self-appointed guardians of geek culture, or their “trans cred” to someone claiming they aren’t trans enough. And often the same people who say “I don’t care about principles, I care about consequences” when it comes to violently suppressing hate speech, are those who say “Allies should support us on principle, regardless of how they’re treated.” I detest people who hide behind principle when it suits them, and abandon it when it doesn’t. I get the feeling I’m not the only one. While I’ll never withdraw support for LGBT+ rights, I think spreading this sort of troll meme is a stupid idea.

There are couples in Texas being denied adoptions right now. There a children being subject to “gay-converston” therapy. – HB 3859 was just signed into law.

“HB 3859, which will allow child welfare organizations — including adoption and foster care agencies — to turn away qualified Texans seeking to care for a child in need, including LGBTQ couples, interfaith couples, single parents, married couples in which one prospective parent has previously been divorced, or other parents to whom the agency has a religious objection.
It also can be used to harm children in care; HB 3859 will forbid the state from canceling a state contract with an agency that subjected children in their care to dangerous practices such as so-called “conversion therapy.””

Gay couples and gay kids in Texas could use aid. They don’t particularly care that some edgelord isn’t feeling persecuted enough.

Jun 152017
 

Hugo AwardOur book club read and discussed all freely available Hugo-nominated Novelettes and Short Stories this week. As always, it was a refreshing change of pace, and I highly recommend it to everyone! Here’s my review, which is a bit different from how I normally do these.

Novelettes:

“The Art of Space Travel”, by Nina Allan
— This is Lit Fic. It is an author examining the human condition via the day-to-day struggles of a normal working-class person. There is no plot, and the entire story consists of the author emoting on the page, showing that emotions are emotional and humans are complicated, and hoping we think this makes the work deep and noteworthy. Look, dammit, writing Lit Fic and shoving it 50 years into the future does not actually make it SF. Bleh.

“The Tomato Thief”, by Ursula Vernon
— The strength of the voice in this piece is amazing. It reach out and grabs you in the very first paragraph. You are living in the world of this crotchety old grandma, and she is obstinate and salty and does not have time for your shit. It’s writing like this that makes you viscerally understand the difference between masters of the craft and people who write on a lark. It is just plain good. The voice is just the start, of course. The setting (American Southwest Desert mythology) is beautiful and richly detailed, the world building is comfortable and builds in well-executed blocks. The plot ramps at a great pace as well. This doesn’t have the deep emotional scars and quakes of last year’s killer “Jackelope Wives” (by Vernon), so I don’t find it to be as impactful. But it is a good tale, and very enjoyable.

“Touring with the Alien”, by Carolyn Ives Gilman
— An interesting concept, but lacking in execution. The piece tries to re-examine the “intellect without consciousness” theme in a light-hearted way, and it just doesn’t work very well. Who is able to look at the death of consciousness and shrug? It’s a horrifying concept, it’s basically the impetus behind our fear of zombies. Every good handling of this that I’ve seen has been dark/horror, culminating with Watts’s masterwork. Maybe there’s a way to do it that isn’t so angst-heavy, but this attempt certainly didn’t pull it off. Also, the protagonists attitude throughout is basically one of “Meh, whatever,” including her decision at the end to allow the human race to be “colonized.” There’s been times in my life when I was OK with wiping out the human race, but never when my attitude was one of general “whatevs” and it just felt off. A decision like that needs some more motivation IMHO.

“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, by Alyssa Wong
— Beautiful prose, and an fantastic world. Again, American Southwest Desert mythology, because trends in SF are a thing. :) I love the world here, the “just beneath the skin of everything” magic, and the idea of the desert itself as a non-physical being – one that can marry a physical human and give birth to a son. The emotion throughout is beautiful, and the twist at the end makes for a good spice. It turns out this is basically a villain origin story, or what the rest of the world would consider a ‘traditional villain’ at any rate. I have a huge love of stories where the protagonist is a “villain”. That being said, the prose sometimes gets in the way of the story, rather than adding to it. The beginning drags on much longer than it has to. And then the end, where you expect to see our protagonist wreak bloody vengeance on his murderers (who are legitimately evil assholes destroying his hometown and way of life), you instead get a dance scene. Literally, a bunch of people dance with their deceased loved ones. I get what she was trying to do, a Dia De Los Muertos thing, but it just did not work with the narrative flow of what Wong had been writing up to that point. It interrupted it so badly that I didn’t remember how this story ended — I had originally read it back in 2016. I had to reread for the bookclub, and realized why this story hadn’t stuck in my mind (all I could remember was “cool world, pretty writing). The ending is dis-congruent enough that it’s hard for the story to cohere and leave a footprint behind in my memory.

[[ The next two aren’t available online, and so weren’t read by the majority of our book club. Here’s my impressions anyway ]]

Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, by Stix Hiscock
— this year’s Rabid Puppy troll nomination. Hilarious in many scenes! :) But not a contender. And not nearly as well written as Chuck Tingle erotica, which is weird. Chuck Tingle manages to capture the “New Relationship Energy” butterflies very well, and writes some hot sex scenes. Alien Stripper had great comedy, but didn’t do either of the things that erotica is supposed to do. IMHO… I’m not a huge erotica reader, maybe there’s sub-genres I’m not familiar with.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde
— Epic Fantasy in short form! The magic system is *amazing*! Semi-sentient gems grant people powers, but also slowly drive them mad through constant whispers into their brain. It’s like wearing The One Ring all the time. The story starts out right at the Disaster scene, and details an fantastic friendship between the princess and her magic-using servant as they try to survive an coup/invasion. The tension ramps constantly, and the stakes keep increasing. Every time a problem is solved, a new one crops up that’s even bigger, and oh god, how will they get out of this? A damn fine story! The voice wasn’t notable, but this one is probably my favorite. It’s one major downside is that it doesn’t really have an ending. It just… stops. It feels like the first few chapters of a great epic fantasy novel, rather than a self-contained story with an arc.

 

Short Stories:

“The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin
— Another contender for the OMG AMAZING VOICE award! From page one you are in the skin of a the protagonist, a street rat in NY swept up in the affairs of inhuman godlike powers. It is gripping and epic, like everything of Jemisin’s I’ve ever read. Another one of those “Wow… this is why they are masters and they get the awards” moments. The story is a bit sparse, and near the end it gets so metaphysical and dreamlike that the story kinda loses the reader a little. A great display of craft, but it left me feeling sorta empty at the end, and I’m not really sure why. I don’t think the protagonist had an emotional/personal shift over the course of the story, leaving it without a solid arc for us to follow. That, unfortunately, means it won’t stay with me very long.

“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, by Alyssa Wong
— I wanted to love this story. Two reasons – first, the twist that finally comes clear in your mind about halfway through is a massive bombshell. It rearranges everything you’d read up to that point. And what had been confusing and incoherent suddenly all snaps into place and makes perfect sense and you get a feeling of “Ooooohhhhh!!! …woah, shit!” That is a superbly executed twist! Second – this story is what Vellum would be, if someone tried to write it as a short story. The same heartbreak, the same refusal to accept the unacceptable, the same desperate cycling of attempts to change the past, over and over across so many different universes. The same impossible frustration of never seeing it come to pass, of the horror-event occuring relentlessly, and the helplessness to do anything about it, ever. I love this thing so much. BUT… it really needs a full-novel-length treatment to do it right. You need all the pages and attempts and struggle of a full novel to bring the emotional devastation to bear. You need the time and word count to really get to know the characters, and fall in love with them, and feel the wrenching agony of the undivertable horror. When done as a book, it’s one of the best things ever written. When done as a short story, it is abrupt and truncated and falls flat. I wanted to love this story for what it could be. But it didn’t have the length to become what it needed to be. It isn’t a story that can be told well in this few words. :(

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, by Brooke Bolander
— I like the experimental structure of this story. I was disappointed by the content. It is a revenge story, except without the revenge. We don’t get emotionally involved in the wrong that was done. And when the revenge comes it is off-screen. How do you tell a revenge story without the wrong OR the revenge? IMHO – you don’t. It basically boils down to braggadocio. “We’re so bad ass. We’re the baddest ass mother fuckers. Don’t fuck with us. We’re rolling around in a bad-ass car, smoking cigarettes, and being bad ass, cuz that’s how bad ass we are.” It would have appealed to me when I was an angry young teenage boy, but that sort of posturing doesn’t really do it for me anymore.
Also – as part of their revenge, the protagonist and her sisters damn someone to unending, unimaginable, eternal suffering. At that point any author completely loses my sympathy. Your protagonist is LITERALLY AS EVIL AS THE CHRISTIAN GOD! Fuck right off, I will never empathize with that sort of monstrosity, no matter how horrendous the victim of the retribution was. Please do better than “literally the most morally depraved actor imaginable” for your protagonist…
That being said, several people in my bookclub loved this story, so tastes differ.

“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar
— An interesting mash-up and retelling of two little-known fairy-tales. The visuals are very cool, and it has a rich fairy-tale flavor. And the friendship forged between the protagonists is done very well. I also read this one in 2016, and it also didn’t really stick with me, because it seemed, for lack of a better word, childish. I could tell there was supposed to be some sort of message the author was conveying, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it’s supposed to be. Centuries-old fairy tales are really sexist? Well, ok. That’s not news, and usually a message is supposed to impel one to reconsider their biases or update their view of others or modify their unexamined behaviors, or something. What is anyone supposed to do with “very old fairytales are sexist”? We already know, and it’s not like we can go back in time and change them…
Readers in my bookclub suggested the message is “Treating women as objects to be pursued/won instead of people is bad. Women are people too.” I think this just doesn’t come across well in the fairy-tale format, because fairy-tales are already so cartoonish by nature. Having a bunch of cartoon men at the base of a hill shaking their cartoon fists at a woman really didn’t convey an emotional truth. Compare to James Tiptree Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See,” which conveys powerfully and in a gut-churning way what it is like to live in a world full of hostile, physically-overpowering creatures who’s primary motivation is sexual exploitation. I’ll never forget that story, it crystallized so many things, and I cannot recommend it enough. “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is mostly a gathering of applause lights for things we already know. Abusive husbands are bad, selling your daughter is bad, and women shouldn’t put up with it. That’s a great theme, but putting it in a fairy-tale just sorta makes it cartoony instead of emotionally relevant. This is the sort of story I’d expect to see as someone is working their way up to writing something significant, but it isn’t there yet.

“That Game We Played During the War”, by Carrie Vaughn
— A great piece about being understood in the midst of isolation. The protagonist is the only non-telepathic person in a country populated by mind-reading telepaths. All her thoughts are on constant display to everyone, but she can’t see anything they are thinking. Interestingly, it never feels overly paranoid, due to the protagonists warm disposition and acceptance of her circumstances. It takes place after a war between their two people, where she was a nurse in a POW camp that held the telepathic soldiers, where she befriended one. The connection they make despite their differences brings warmth to both their lives, and while this is never said in the story, I get the impression that both of them are very isolated in their societies, and discover they can only be truly understood by the enemy. It also touches a little bit into game theory, but not very significantly for those from a rationalist background. Still, it was fun to see! I found this piece touching and comfortable to read. Not intense like I usually like my stories, but pretty good anyway. The ending seems to come too soon, and without enough punch. Overall, I think I liked this one best in this category.

[[ The last story isn’t available online, and so weren’t read by the majority of our book club. Here’s my impressions anyway ]]

An Unimaginable Light, by John C. Wright
— John C. Wright has never been subtle. He’s basically today’s Ayn Rand, with monologueing characters who spell out the superiority of their morality for the benefit of the reader. Of course this is my guilty pleasure, so I generally really enjoy his work. It doesn’t hurt that he is an extremely talented writer. Say what you want about the shlockly substance of his stories, he is a master of wordcraft.
Anyway, he’s decided that all his previous screeds were TOO SUBTLE and went full frontal. The antagonist is a disgusting, ugly, fat man, that spouts non-stop SJW platitudes. Basically the worst possible representation of liberal america as culled from the internet. He is a literal inquisitor in a hellscape future where SJWs have taken over. Our protagonist is a female version of Jesus. Not the offspring of God, but that is the only difference between her and the historic Christ. She espouses Christian ideals, takes on all the sins of her people, forgives her persecutor, and is then chained to a cross-like structure and tortured to death in order to absolve her people of their sins. YES, REALLY. (also, for extra culture war points, the SJW caricature demands she fellate him)
So, yeah, not subtle. But the twist delivered at the end is super effective. I had to go back several pages and reread their final conversation with the new information in mind, and it changed everything. It turned from a putrid anti-SJW screed, to a really beautiful message of redemption that happens to be wrapped up inside a putrid anti-SJW screed tortilla. I can overlook the festering tortilla for the tasty redemption story underneath, because that’s what was instilled into me in childhood, and those roots run deep. I’m embarrased to admit this, but I liked the ending. Like I said, morally self-righteous screeds are my guilty pleasure. I like Ayn Rand’s works too. I just know better than to take her (or Wright) seriously. It is like porn for my moral sense. Fun to diddle to now and then, but not something that should impact real life in anyway.
I hope no one thinks much worse of me due to this admission? Both Rand and Wright as still repugnant as people. They just make art that tickles a thing in me that doesn’t get much tickling IRL.

Overall Impressions of 2017

I found this to be a lackluster year, from my perspective. Some good examples of craft, but almost every story lacked the thematic depth and emotional super-stimulus that I crave in fiction. I know that’s just a taste thing, but most years the Hugos manage to have a couple pieces in every category that really hit “theme” and “emotion-journey” very well. None of the 2017 crop were as compelling or wrenching as the few I found for myself. I hope this will not be a trend.

Jun 142017
 

Here’s the thing about bastards like the Westboro Baptist Church, or Richard Spencer – they LOVE freedom of speech right now. But I’m willing to bet that if they ever came into power (true power – control of govt, much of the populace behind them, etc) they would quickly forget all about their love of free speech and quickly get to the business of silencing their opponents.

I used to think that’s what made my side different. When we came into the majority, we would continue to uphold and protect the principles of civility that we were so enraptured with when we were the oppressed. More and more, it seems that this isn’t the case.

There’s probably people that really do believe in certain principles. Principles like freedom of speech, and that violence should not be used as a tool. They will continue to extend freedom of speech and protection from violence to their opponents, even when they come into power and no longer have to. Even opponents they really hate, even when it would be easy not to. As far as I can tell those people are in the minority. It’s easy to say your are pro-free-speech when free speech shields you. It is hard to be for it when you are in power, and you must expend effort and lose allies (and friends!) in an effort to shield people who are disgusting. All because of something as stupid as a principle.

But the weak! The weak will always hide under those principles, because they don’t have much strength of their own. The allies they can recruit from the Establishment, who believe in the principles, will lend them a fair bit of strength. The strong, on the other hand, don’t need the principles. They are already in control of the establishment. And so the principles are always the refuge of the weak.

Look to who is invoking principles, such as freedom of speech, to defend themselves. These are usually the weaker in a conflict.

I am tired to sheltering reprehensible people. I almost wish for a time when my beliefs were the oppressed minority, because then the people I agree with – the GOOD people – would be the ones I’m supporting when I stand for freedom of expression. I have a number of people who I can’t call friends anymore, because they see me giving aid and shelter to reprehensible people.

But dammit, I’d rather have people who believe in principles as allies than those who simply agree with me on things like who’s the “better” person. Principles are impartial and firm. They protect everyone equally. People can turn on you in an instant if you don’t sufficiently agree with their current political crusade.

II.

Y’all can stop reading now unless you want personal info, this is the diary part of the blog post.

Early today Republican House Whip Steve Scalise was among five people shot at a congressional baseball game, where a bunch of Republican law makers were playing. He was shot by someone described as a passionate Progressive. I was surprised not to see anything about it in my Facebook feed, as generally its full of politics, and even moreso when a shooting is involved. The only thing I saw all day was one person posting that violence is never acceptable without referencing exactly what happened.

Several months ago, when Richard Spencer was assaulted in the street, I got into a bit of a dust-up with a few friends as to what the problem with this was. With the silence in the wake of this shooting, I asked “Can any of my friends who posted approval for violence when it’s punching people explain why they are against violence when it’s shooting people in the hip? I was told more than once that the purpose of political violence was to make reprehensible people scared to say reprehensible things in public. Since hip-shots are probably more effective at that, is violence only acceptable as a tactic when it’s not very effective?”

All the answers I got essentially boiled down to “Its OK to silence people with the threat of a small amount of violence. It’s not OK to silence them with the threat of a large amount of violence.” Someone drew the comparison between a mugging and a serial killer, saying they weren’t remotely on the same scale.

I found this incredibly depressing. No, they’re not on the same scale. The serial killing is far worse. But I’m still of the opinion that mugging is ALSO bad. How is this an argument for the people who are for small-amounts-of-violence? Comparing your position to that of a mugger doesn’t seem like it should be a winning move.

Another person claimed that frightening people into not doing bad stuff is one of the most beloved, rousing forms of extralegal law. Again, I was dejected to discover that there are people on the “good” side – liberal, progressive, pro-equality, etc – who are in favor of and speak highly about “extralegal law”! What in god’s name is my side coming to?

I was told (again) that violence against Nazis doesn’t count as bad, because Nazis are people who’s sole motivation and explicit purpose is violence. I responded that the same was said of Communists once, and this was used to destroy the lives of many people who weren’t actually Communists because their opponents found it useful to label them as such. I was told that this was a false equivalency because Not All Communists are violent, and Yes All Nazis are. I declined to say Not All Nazis, because I know a stupid rhetorical trap when I see one (though why it doesn’t count when someone says Not All Communists I don’t know) and merely pointed out that this didn’t address my concern about creating a sub-human category of person that it’s OK to subject to violence, which I believe is wrong on principle, and the fact that some people will be labeled as that category by their enemies simply as a convenient tool. The conversation ended abruptly. (Tho to be fair, the person I was speaking to said I was misrepresenting their opinion, and didn’t believe it was worth taking the time/effort to correct me)

So yeah. I feel like I was very naive in thinking that certain useful principles matter for most people past the point where they are useful to them. This is distressing to me. :(

Jun 082017
 

A couple years back, when I still identified fairly strongly with feminism, I said “If feminism is losing people like Scott Alexander, we really need to take a look at ourselves and reevaluate what we’re doing wrong.” It was a tragedy to lose him, because he is an ideal feminist (IMHO). This was before I realized that “The Left” I had grown up with had been taken over by a lunatic fringe and was in the process of eating its own.

It’s happened again. Laci Green, for those unfamiliar, is a fantastic YouTuber, who mainly talks sex and sexuality.  I loved her Sex+ show and watched it regularly. She is (was?) strongly liberal, and a feminist… kinda notorious for it, actually. Which, you know, all the hearts from me. :) Eventually I drifted away, when I faded away from YouTube entirely. Now I see she’s back! And in as fantastic form as ever! But the surprise announcement that she’s willing to talk to people with differing opinions has opened floodgates of hate from the lunatic fringe.

It sounds like she was subjected to a lash from the lunatic-fringe left, and is standing up for her principles. I am sad for her that she had to go through that, it’s rough as hell. But it’s fucking awesome that she’s not collapsing under the assault. I wish I could offer support in some way other than the occasional supportive comment and posting on my blog.

In her next video, when she said “I will always be a feminist” I wanted to cheer and cry at the same time. I do not identify as feminist in public anymore. It’s become too toxic and extreme. But I hate that the extremist took our word, and our movement. I, too, will always be one in my heart.

I consider it a duty of people to help police their own groups. I DO get pissed at the Catholics who don’t make a stink about their child-molesting priests. I despise the Republicans who will close ranks and cover their own, no matter what they did. Because no group EVER takes criticism from an outside group. They can only take it from other insiders. I would expect an atheist congregation to kick out an abusive community leader, because there ain’t nobody outside the community who will! A community must be able to criticize itself to some extent or it becomes rancid. I eventually opt-ed out of feminism because nowadays anything less than total devotion makes you the enemy, and that environment is deeply toxic. I know quite a few people who’ve lost many friends and huge chunks of their support network, finding themselves suddenly attacked by people they had counted as allies, for minor infractions. The far left’s auto-cannibalism is getting nuts.

II.

I guess I still haven’t given up entirely, though. Some of my friends are still of the opinion that Twitter and YouTube should ban people who promote what they call “hate speech.”

No. Here is why.

I prefer not to ask corporation to act as our guardians of public morality. In my experience, they ALWAYS default to where the money is. Profit is their lifeblood. Perhaps right now it is most profitable to only censor those that a loud enough faction can successfully label “white supremacist” or “nazi” in the court of public opinion. But that’s a notoriously fickle court, AND it’s possible that some day it’ll be more profitable to only censor those that can be successfully labeled “feminist” or “homosexual”. Trump’s election scared us all because it showed us that’s not as distant as we used to think.

I would rather that companies not get involved in judgements of morality. Mega-phone companies sell mega-phones to anyone who wants them, they don’t vet to make sure they’ll never be used at anti-cop rallies. Concert halls rent out to whoever will pay for them, not just people who sing the “correct” kinds of songs. Printers will print any book a client will pay for, not just ones that aren’t “obscene.” Or that’s the way it should be, anyway.

We are very much pro-Net Neutrality for everything else. ISPs shouldn’t be allowed to decide what websites’ data they’ll allow to get to your computer, or slow down some of it. Right? Communication providers like Twitter and YouTube should be held to the same standard. I don’t want them to be anyone’s morality police, for either side. They’re held to the same law as everyone else – speech that is threatening or an incitement to violence is illegal, and would cover the worst of the terrorist stuff. The exchange of ideas remains protected.

III.

I take it as a good sign that our society seems to be able to pull back from that cliff and return to sanity rather than plunging into violence. It’s wonderful that people like Laci Green, famous for being leftist, is willing to stand up despite losing her support base and many friends, and say “This is going too far.” This is the strength we need to survive, and it looks like our society has it. :)

I am a fan of civilization. I love Laci Green for what she’s doing. Censorship is the purview of villains, and we are no villains! If we’re confident that our views are the better ones, the best thing to do is to promote the free exchange of ideas so that everyone can see this. We don’t NEED to resort to censorship, because we’re right.

Jun 062017
 

I knew I was going to see Wonder Woman as soon as I saw the first stills. Say what you want about DC’s current grimdark aesthetic, it does have one major thing going for it — the dark, muted colors makes Wonder Woman’s costume look like the Xena costume. I was drawn by the visual aesthetic, and was kinda hoping for a reprise of my Xena upbringing.

That was a silly thing to expect. Xena is world-weary and tormented. Wonder Woman is optimistic and almost childishly naive in the beginning, having been sheltered by her mother all her life. However I had a great time anyway and I’m very glad I went.

The movie is very clunky in the first part on the island (~12 min). There were a bunch of problems with it, and I was particularly annoyed that apparently someone high up thinks American audiences cannot comprehend a pantheon theistic structure, and so they presented Greek mythology as the standard Jesus v Satan story with the names changed (yes, really). But once we get off the island the movie is alternately Hilarious and Epic As Fuck. Everything a superhero movie should be. :)

Jun 022017
 

I recently found a new insight into SJW worldview that has caused me to radically update a few of my beliefs. This may take a wee bit of set-up, the impatient can probably skip to Part III.

I.

The Austin Alamo Drafthouse is holding an all-women showing of Wonder Woman on Tuesday (5 days after the movie is released). I love this idea! In large part because I grew up in the Xena fandom, which was dominated by women, and I know how important that sort of thing can be. Also, because Wonder Woman has long been a feminist icon. This is a genius idea on aesthetic, thematic, and cultural reasons. And finally, because I’m a strong support of freedom of association. If people want to have all-christian showings of Passion Of The Christ, or all-black showings of Get Out, or anything like that, they should be free to do so. Mad props all around.

Surprising no one who’s been on the internet for more than a week, sexist trolls made disparaging comments on the Alamo’s facebook page. Everyone shrugs and moves on, in the alternate universe were people are sane. In this universe, various Media Dragons turn it into a major event and tell the left how much we should hate these people. A bit of an overreaction, but whatever.

Aaaaaaand then a friend posts one of the particularly awful articles, that highlights a number of these comments and then attributes them to an entire class of human – in this case “men online.” Through a series of unfortunate events, I get sucked in.

II.

Articles that take instances of shitty individuals being shitty, spotlight them, and then spin the headline and article to strongly insinuate that everyone who shares a hated characteristic with the perpetrators are vile. This is a large driver of racism, religion-ism, sexism, hell… most group-prejudices. I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with an article like this one, that singles out “Sexist Trolls” in the headline. At least then it’s putting the blame directly on a group that is defined by their ACTIONS – making sexist, trolling comments. Those sorts of people really are awful. It’s like an article that speaks of “Murders” or “Arsonists” – those groups are identified by what they did. An article that identifies a group by a characteristics that has nothing to do with the action and is present in a large group who are mostly innocent, such as skin color or gender, is an evil article that promotes group-hatred.

Objections mostly took the characteristic of “The articles are only showing actual bad things that were done. Everything within them is accurate. These statements were made, and they were made by men. What is the problem?”

One can always find people who did bad things and share a characteristic, then publish a list of them, and imply that everyone with that characteristic is as bad as they are. That’s literally what all these prejudices – racism, sexism, religion-ism, sexual-orientation-ism – have in common. “Gay Men Are Pedophiles” “Blacks are Criminals” “Muslims Are Terrorists.” And with a large sample size and careful picking, it’s easy to do. Google found me this article that looks to be a direct parody of those “Men Are Going Crazy Over Wonder Woman” articles – Alamo Drafthouse is Doing a Women Only Screening of Wonder Woman and Chicks Are Very Mad – that does the same thing only for women. With nearly 2000 comments (last I checked) it’s easy to find 10 that make a group look bad. I bet one could, with a little extra work, easily write “Alamo Drafthosue is Doing a Woman Only Screening, and Muslims Are Very Mad” with the exact same wording as those other articles, but selecting only comments by Muslim commenters.

In fact, this is exactly what Donald Trump is doing to spur hatred of immigrants. He has ordered the weekly publication of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. Everything in these reports is accurate. It is a list of real crimes, that were actually committed by illegal immigrants. Wherein is the problem?

The problem is the implication that the crimes were committed BECAUSE of the characteristic that is being highlighted. And thus outside parties can draw the inference that anyone who shares that characteristic is also likely to commit those crimes. It’s the difference between “Arsonist burns down church” and “Jew burns down church.”

III.

This did not sit easy with a number of people, several of whom are friends. I wanted to find out why.

In my mind, a principle is valid or it isn’t. Either the principle “A group X should not be tarred by the actions of individuals that share (non-causative) characteristic Y with that group” either is valid for all values of X and all values of Y. There is no special exception “unless that group is Jews” or “unless that characteristic is having a tattoo.” So when I gave the previous example and I was told I can never make that comparison, doing so was wrong, and I should apologize, I was confused. Why is it wrong in the case of Immigrants/Criminals, but not Men/Sexists-Commenters?

Hoping to start with common ground I asked – “Why is prejudice wrong?”

I expected an answer based on the injustice of judging a person due to outward characteristics or group membership, rather than due to their individual actions and the content of their character. Instead I was told:

“Because in many cases it hurts people by denying them the privileges experienced by others.”

IV.

This was an authoritative answer, based on years of schooling while securing a masters in Sociology.

Unpacking this in my mind took a long time.

First – everyone has some privilege. Undeniable. And between any two given individuals, it’s overwhelmingly likely that their levels of privileges across all domains aren’t identical. Given that, it’s plausible that we could label one person as more privileged than another.

Second – certain characteristics bring more privilege with them on an aggregate level. White people suffer less discrimination than black people, on the whole. The rich have an easier life than the poor, on the whole. Men have various advantages in many fields over women, on the whole. This is, again, undeniable.

But these privileges aren’t really “granted” or “denied” on a personal level. They are societal-scale issues. Attacking individual sexists on the internet is not going to change anything. It can’t. Perhaps you can change the actions of the men targeted, or onlookers who see the attack, but the vast edifice of privilege is unmoved.

So, Lesson One – my first mistake was thinking that sexism was something that an individual does. If that’s the case, it makes sense to separate those who show sexist behavior from those who do not. But sexism is a thing that a society does. In which case there’s no point in focusing on individual behavior, or differentiating between guilty individuals and innocent individuals.  It was never about individual action or how those actions hurt other people.

Also, Lesson Two – this is why it is important that entire groups are attacked. Privileges are assigned based on group membership. To make the world more just and less oppressive requires the remove or lessening of that group’s privilege. Therefore the actual intent of these attacks is exactly what my principles scream against – tarring a whole group. Even if that means highlighting the despicable actions of a few people and drawing attention to their membership in the target group.

Third – let’s focus on the “denying them the privileges” part. How is it that someone is denied privileges? It’s certainly not due to any individual’s actions, because it’s not about the individual. I cannot deny anyone a privilege. No single person can, privilege is inherent in society. That’s what it means to be a privilege! So someone isn’t “denied the privilege” of being male by anything a male does, they are denied it simply by being non-male. Therefore the more-privileged group deserves to be attacked purely due to the fact that it is privileged. It denies others privilege by virtue of its privilege existing at all.

And now the claim that tarring all men via selective reporting is incomparable to tarring all immigrants by selective reporting makes sense. Men have privilege. Immigrants don’t. Ergo, the two cases are not comparable, and trying to draw comparisons is abhorrent. The principle isn’t “Judge individuals fairly”, it’s “Judge groups by their privilege.”

V.

This does raise the question of “What Is To Be Done?” Just a few days ago I posted about the unfairness of not everyone having equal talent. It’s nobody’s fault. No one can be blamed for not having enough talent, and no one can claim that having lots of talent is due to some intrinsic deservingness. Some people just have it, and it’s damned unfair, but what can be done about it? All I can really do is feel sad and wish things were more fair. You can’t transfer talent from the more talented to the less talented. The most you could do is, like Vonnegut’s story Harrison Bergeron, cripple the talented in proportion to their talent, so everyone is equally bad off.

Oohhhhhh….

Now suddenly the Oppression Olympics makes much more sense. The more Oppressed you are, the less you will require crippling. Obviously everyone will want to portray themselves as maximally oppressed, to avoid those hammer blows.

And privilege isn’t something you can control via your actions. Individual merit and effort don’t matter. Being personally anti-racist or anti-sexist doesn’t matter, if you still have privilege. Remember that prejudice is bad because it “denies people privileges.” Having privilege denies it to others, so if you have it you are morally culpable for its denial to oppressed groups. Of course you want to play up every possible morally good/oppressed group you can lay claim to, and play down any morally bad/oppressor groups you might be associated with. One is morally good or morally bad not due to their own actions, but due to accident of birth.

And so we have come full circle.

VI.

To clarify, my friend is a kind and wonderful person, and wouldn’t endorse the conclusions I’ve drawn from that statement. They simply bought deeply into the standard privilege narrative without really digging into its implications and real-world results, IMHO.

May 312017
 

Reality frustrates the hell out of my sometimes, because it’s so damned unfair.

Take, for example, Deftones. A legit fantastic band. Compare to Chevelle, who are totally acceptable in a pinch, and who–significant for this post–sound like they were influenced by Deftones.

I am not a music geek, so I don’t have the vocabulary or understanding to describe why Deftones is outstanding and Chevelle is mediocre, even though they have a very similar style. All I have is deep emotional draw that gives me the shivers when I hear Deftones, and a lack of that draw that makes me think “Man, these guys must’ve really liked Deftones and tried to make similar music” when I hear Chevelle.

I find that heartbreaking, in large part because my intuition says that Chevelle also doesn’t know what that key spark of difference is either… and that no one really does. I could love Deftones with all my heart, and learn how to play, and practice, and write music. And when someone heard it they’d say there’s something missing.

In a just world that thing would be drive/dedication. It would something like “the members of Deftones spent years upon years learning their craft, and experimenting. And they would spend months slavishly working on each song until it was perfect.” While a lesser band wouldn’t have as much dedication or passion, and would put songs out quickly without too much introspection or work.

And maybe that’s part of the truth. I’m sure it’s a factor. But I’ve been in my local writing community for a while, and it seems that isn’t quite all of it. Some people just seem to Get It. They have something that comes through, and it’s magical. Others, who work just as much, never quite do. They produce passable work, but nothing that crackles with genius. And from an outside point of view, there doesn’t seem to be anything that separates them except some elusive, unquantifiable thing that most people call Talent. Some people have a lot of it, others don’t, and no one knows why.

It’s damned unfair that someone would be good at a thing they love just because. They were lucky and were born with it, or had it instilled in childhood, or whatever. And someone else who loves that thing just as much simply isn’t good at it. For no damn reason.

I know this is “wailing that not everyone is equally tall” territory, but it hurts me that people can be shut out of a passion, a driving force in their life, just because Bad Luck. What kind of a fucked up world is that?

There’s no good compensation. You can’t transfer talent from one person to another until things are equal. You could tax the more gifted and give the money to the lesser-so, but that only gives them money. It doesn’t address the problem of exclusion from what gives their life meaning. Nor can we just give admiration to everyone equally, because that devalues the art we love, and makes love a lie. All anyone can do is say “I’m sorry, that sucks,” and feel sympathy. And continue listening to the good stuff.

The distribution of talent is inequitable, and there is nothing that any person can do to fix that. The best we can hope is that maybe as a social project we can improve everyone’s chances via stimulating childhood environments, loving parents, plenty of resources, and genetic screening/modification. To make people, as a whole, better. That’s a frustratingly un-actionable hope though. It doesn’t let me, or anyone individually, address the “not all people who love producing music are equally talented at doing so, and it’s not their fault, and that’s unfair” problem. :(

May 252017
 

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Synopsis: A child factory-slave escapes from a slave planet. Also, an AI transfers from ship-embodiment to humanoid-robot embodiment, and tries to get used to that.

Book Review: The first few chapters of this are fantastic! We jump right into action, in which a ship’s AI thrust into a humanoid-robot body against her wishes. She experiences intense body dysphoria, which is something I have a lot of interest in reading about. And her mere existence is illegal, so there’s great set up for action.

Likewise, the child-slave’s POV is fascinating, with her having been completely sheltered from everything in the world that isn’t the factory. When there’s an accident and she sees the outside world for the first time she doesn’t have the words to describe a room that goes on forever without walls, and a ceiling that… isn’t? It’s awesome.

And then you get a few more chapters in and you realize this is a terrible book. It is a first draft. And half of it is a 14-year old’s diary. The AI gets a job, goes to parties to meet people, has picnics, fights with her guardians, etc. There is no conflict or stakes, and the “character growth” is of the superficial variety that you get when you’re a teen growing up in suburbia. I realize there’s an entire genre of fiction that focuses purely on examining character, called Literary Fiction. But writers of Lit Fic know that Lit Fic is inherently boring, so they do a lot of cool things to spice it up! They develop unique and quirky voices. They use lyrical prose and experiment with structure. There is a huge amount of flair and style to keep one’s interest. And they often bring in very emotionally-charged stakes. That is how one makes something like this interesting and fun to read. Becky Chambers didn’t do any of that. The AI chapters are basically what Lit Fic boils down to if you remove all the stylistic trappings: a 14  year old’s diary. It was so intensely boring I just started skipping all the AI chapters after a half dozen of them.

The child-slave’s chapters were neat in that they were written at a 4th-grade level or so, really bringing across her mental simplicity. I thought that was a nice touch, until I realized that the AIs chapters are written at the same level. I expected the AI to use fancy words and complicated concepts. I quickly came to suspect that’s just the native writing level of this book, rather than a stylistic choice. Sooo… there’s that.

But the child-slave chapters soon grew boring too. Any difficulties are solved quickly and with a minimum of tension. There is nothing to look forward to from one chapter to the next. I stopped reading the book 2/3rds of the way through because I just couldn’t find any reason to open it again.

Also of note – for how many non-humans are in this book, there aren’t actually ANY non-humans in this book. There are lots of humans with tentacles, or humans with scales, or jelly-fish humans that talk by changing color, but every single mind in this book is a recognizably human mind, with human thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Even the AI is basically just a young, slightly-autistic human. It’s the most cliched and underbaked style of space opera possible, a true embodiment of the “aliens are just humans with forehead prosthetics” trope.

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Another interesting mix (two meetings in a row!). Some of our readers really liked the simplicity of the story, and truly enjoyed the sincerity and earnestness of the writing. It is, in a way, the opposite of Red Rising. Where Red Rising is an obviously soulless product extruded to collect entertainment dollars, Closed and Common Orbit has a lot of heart. If there’s one good thing that you can say about all 14 year old’s diaries, it’s that they are always intensely earnest. So if that’s your jam, this’ll do ya good.

It was fun seeing the breakdown between people who require a compelling narrative and those who just want to hang out with a character they like for a while. Both sides acknowledged that the other was correct in their claims, but they simply didn’t find that that affected their enjoyment (or lack thereof). It’s impossible to hate this book. But it’s entirely possible to find it a tedious waste of time, and be surprised that there’s enough people out there who like it that it ended up a Hugo Finalist. The discussion of this was interesting in its own right.

If this was any other book I’d say Not Recommended, because there’s tons of books out there that are a tedious waste of time and nothing really sets this one apart… except that it’s a Hugo Finalist. So if your book club is interested in seeing what this sort of thing reads like, I guess Mildly Recommended?